American Dan: the Yankee who fell in love with NZ books

Dan Kois, an editor at US site Slate, writes of his love affair with New Zealand writing.

I landed in New Zealand on the fifth day of 2017 with my family and a deadline: I had three months to learn everything I could and make as many friends as possible. New Zealand was the first of the four countries our family was to settle in over the course of 2017; the first leg of a foolhardy adventure around the world, an attempt to break ourselves out of our east-coast American bubble. I was writing a book about the trip and about what we could discover about family life in each of the four places we would live, and so it was incumbent upon me to spend my time in New Zealand not only drinking white wine and working on my sunburn but interviewing, researching, and—of course—reading.

For what more enjoyable way could there be for a book critic to learn about his new home than to read novels about it? We were beginning our trip with a week in the Coromandel before driving the length of the North Island to Wellington, where a rental house awaited us. And so on the first brilliant, sunny morning, I graciously acceded to our older daughter’s demand for wi-fi and drove her to the Tairua public library. While she huddled over her iPod, greedily inhaling the internet, I browsed the fiction section, noting with pleasure the familiar authors rendered unfamiliar in Antipodean paperback. What New Zealand authors did I, a typically blinkered American reader, actually know? Well, I knew Janet Frame, but seeing as she died in 2004 she might not be the best place to start to learn about contemporary Kiwi family life. And I knew Eleanor Catton, because she won the Booker prize, but her novel was about, like, the 1800s, right? Yes, there it was, with its lovely phases-of-the-moon cover—but then, next to that book, I noticed another, her first novel, The Rehearsal.

I talked the lady at the desk into giving my daughter a library card for a week (“we’ve just rented a bach up the hill over there, and she’s such an avid reader, and without this she’ll have no books at all”), got my daughter to check out The Rehearsal  along with a bunch of David Walliams' books, and dragged her out the door. As we walked away from the library she desperately held her iPod in the air, as if to catch the last of the signal. That week on the beach I read The Rehearsal , soaking in its hothouse atmosphere, taking it not as a lesson about New Zealand teens in general—its drama school milieu was far too specific for that—but as a portrait of an ever-whispering, ever-watching community, and an introduction to the kinds of risks a novelist might take here on the other side of the world.

A week later we arrived in Wellington, where we settled into a beautiful house perched on a hill in Island Bay. The weather was so horrible that January that the Dominion-Post’s front page read “Our Bummer Summer.” But that gave me plenty of incentive to hunker down in the living room, wearing a summer outfit of flannel and sweatpants, bundled up in a summer blanket, lighting the summer fire in the wood-burning stove, and read books recommended to me by librarians and booksellers. I still remember the afternoon I spent with Emma Neale’s lovely novel Billy Bird, closing it at the end feeling both sad and satisfied, then tweeting something about how much I’d liked it. Within a day that tweet had bounced around an online ecosystem I didn’t know about at all.

That Twitter community was a microcosm of what I soon began to perceive all around me in Wellington, a community of writers that seemed to support each other—a community I crept my way into like the interloper I was. The quiet, friendly mom a few doors down, Frankie Samuel, was a brilliant poet whose first book had been published by Victoria University Press. Another well-known poet, James Brown, lived the next street over; I saw him cycling all over town. I was introduced to a very nice writer, Pip Adam, who took me under her wing and invited our family out with hers, her kid and our kids sitting together for several semi-awkward yet lovely afternoons at cafes. When I read her novel I’m Working on a Building I thought, Oh, crap, this lady who listens to my podcast is actually a straight-up mad genius.

I’ve never been part of a writing community in which so many people were so eager to connect and to build friendships. Each writer I met was kind and friendly and helpful to my project; then I would read their books and be freshly amazed. The summer of 2017 seems to have been a particularly lively time in New Zealand writing; Ashleigh Young won the Windham-Campbell prize in March, and all the bookstores sold out of Can You Tolerate This?, just as they were also sold out of Hera Lindsay Bird and—in a different register but similarly potent—Emily Writes’ Rants in the Dark. To be tossed into the middle of this, to see all three of those authors read to enthusiastic audiences, to chat with them and with Bill Manhire and Kirsten McDougall and Rachael King and Eleanor Catton, to speak to a class full of ambitious writers at the International Institute of Modern Letters, and to have everyone enthusiastically point me in new directions and give me delicious quotes for my odd book, was to feel instantly embraced by a country in a way I hadn’t expected at all.

But of course that embrace was representative of what we experienced in New Zealand at large. On our second day in Wellington I was invited onto Radio NZ—the walk to the studio on The Terrace remains, to this day, the only time I’ve ever actually been blown off my feet by a gust of wind—and said, on the air, “We need friends, please email me,” and within 24 hours I had a dozen messages from strangers offering to hang out. Our neighbours in Island Bay threw us parties, invited us to concerts, drank beer in our driveway, brought us paua, opened their lives up to my notebook. More than two years later, we remain connected to many of those friends; recently we met our Island Bay next-door neighbours for champagne and pain au chocolat at the Tuileries in Paris. The book, in addition to drawing my family close during the adventure of a lifetime, has given me what I’d always wanted: a web of loved ones spanning the globe, the confidence that we might anywhere in the world come across an old friend or make a new one.

I’ve done my best to stay connected to the Wellington writing community from afar. VUP sent me Pip’s The New Animals while I was in Costa Rica with nothing to read; I devoured it and cheered from afar as it won the top prize at the NZ Book Awards the next year. In 2019 I’ve loved Carl Shuker’s A Mistake and Chessie Henry’s We Can Make a Life and Tina Makereti’s The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke. Twitter helps me keep up; it’s because of following New Zealand writers on Twitter that I’m dying to read The Absolute Book and The Boyfriend and Let Me Be Frank and will eventually drop a bunch of money at the Unity website. (A mixed blessing, that.)

Twitter’s also how I came across Steve Braunias, read and loved his book Civilisation, and then—as my book, How to Be a Family, neared its New Zealand publication —DMed him out of the blue to convince him to let me write the essay you’re reading now. “Oh right! American Dan!” he wrote. I know I never won’t be American Dan, but I’m grateful to the writers of Aotearoa who, through their kindness in person and their brilliance on the page, help me feel, just a bit, like New Zealand Dan. Ngā mihi.

How To Be a Family: The year I dragged my kids around the world to find a new way to be together by Dan Kois (Little, Brown, $22)

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