Eleanor Catton has hit back at figures in New Zealand who reacted with anger to her criticisms of the country’s “neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians”, describing the vicious attacks she has suffered as a “jingoistic national tantrum”.

Interviewed at the Jaipur literary festival last week, Catton said that she feels “uncomfortable being an ambassador for my country when my country is not doing as much as it could, especially for the intellectual world”. In a conversation reported by Livemint, she went on to describe how New Zealand is dominated by “these neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture. They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my government.”

Describing the “strange cultural phenomenon” of tall-poppy syndrome, Catton said that after her novel The Luminaries won the UK’s Man Booker prize there was a feeling in New Zealand that “we’re not going to celebrate it here … If you get success overseas then very often the local population can suddenly be very hard on you. Or the other problem is that the local population can take ownership of that success in a way that is strangely proprietorial.”

Her comments were followed by what Catton called a “storm of hysteria” in New Zealand, with a host of attacks from the right. One radio presenter called her a “traitor” and a “ungrateful hua” – the word is Maori slang for an unpleasant woman, but was widely misheard as “whore” – with the criticism going as high as prime minister John Key, leader of the country’s National party. An activist group, meanwhile, went so far as to publish the amount Catton has received in public funding, suggesting she should pay it back if unhappy with the support she has been given.

Key attributed Catton’s views to her association with the Green party, saying that while she is “a great writer … it’s just a bit sad really that she’s mixing politics with some of the other things that she’s better-known for”.

After her father, Dr Philip Catton, appeared on Sean Plunket’s radio show to defend his daughter, telling the presenter that she is “neither ungrateful, nor a traitor, for being critical, at a time when criticism really should be out there and much discussed”, Catton posted a statement on her blog. The novelist wrote that “in most modern democracies a writer expressing an opinion is not considered, in itself, shocking”, adding that “in future interviews with foreign media, I will of course discuss the inflammatory, vicious, and patronising things that have been broadcast and published in New Zealand this week. I will of course discuss the frightening swiftness with which the powerful right move to discredit and silence those who question them, and the culture of fear and hysteria that prevails. But I will hope for better, and demand it.”

She told the Guardian that her interview had been formatted to edit out the questions, “presenting my views in a list ordered by subject, rather like a disgruntled ranting person to whom a new thought keeps occurring”.

“The distortion that this formatting might cause was never once addressed by the New Zealand media, who reacted to the interview on face value and at fever pitch,” she said. “My remarks about tall-poppy syndrome, for example, were treated as if I had answered the question ‘How has your work been received, and how have you been supported, by the New Zealand government and people?’ In fact a journalist had simply asked me to define tall-poppy syndrome, as she was not familiar with the term; I did so using an example from my own recent experience. It is baffling to me that any respectable journalist would question my motivation without investigating the context in which I spoke, including to whom, and when, and where, and at what provocation.”

Catton condemned “the scale and shabbiness of this jingoistic national tantrum”, which she said “ashames me deeply as a New Zealander”. “I believe it can be countered only with eloquence, imagination, and reasoned debate – qualities that might seem to have disappeared from our national conversation, but that persist, and will continue to persist, despite efforts to humiliate and silence those who speak out,” she said.

Read more from The Guardian

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2 Responses

  1. Brent

    A truly excellent reply from someone we should be listening to.

    The last paragraph is something that everyone who is concerned about NZ should read. Unfortunately most people won’t understand it because it isn’t expressed in an easily digestible sound bite.

    She is someone we should listen to an reflect on ourselves.

    Reply
  2. Ahmed Asgher

    Good on ya girl. Go get em. How about you leading the education ministry. Am sure you prefer to be a writer. At least teach those kids to read and write without polluting their minds.

    Reply

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