|Michael Jackson photographed by Freya Jackson|
Yes, in At Home in the World (1995), I wrote of the paradoxical experience of returning to my natal New Zealand every year, like a migratory bird, and finding the place both changed and unchanged, strange and familiar. Every expatriate knows the dilemma that is born of this experience – attempting to keep the home fires burning, yet watching them gutter and gradually go out. There is a Maori saying that for as long as you live on the land, a fire burns there (ahi ka), signaling that you have the right to be there. But if you abandon the land, the fires die (ahi mataotao) and you forfeit that right. As we say, occupation is nine tenths of the law.
You've lived away for many years now, but when you came back to New Zealand in late 2008 to warm the coals again, you were working over this dilemma?
I hired a car, and hit the road, determined to see if these questions could be resolved through conversations with old friends and visits to old haunts. Road Markings emerged as a series of meditations on the power of first experiences in shaping our lives – first love, first landfall, first home, first loss. It touches on the ways that personal stories are interwoven with social and historical events, and shows how ‘the enigma of anteriority’ pertains equally to Maori invocations of toi whenua in making claims for recognition and social justice, the search of adopted children for their birth parents, the notion of childhood as ‘the formative years,’ our current preoccupation with genealogical, geographical or genetic backgrounds, and the allure of myths and models of cause and effect.
This lovely passage from Road Markings expresses it further:
“I sat down on the tideline and slipped the rucksack from my shoulders. I felt the sun on my face, heard the slipshod sound of the sea and the distracted cry of a nesting dotterel. My mind drifted. I was thinking of the gap between the inspiration I drew from places like Waikawau Bay and the satisfaction I had found in America, Europe and West Africa. With every return home, the expatriate is reborn. It is not simply because you are returned to the landscapes of your early life; it is because the quotidian, momentarily bathed in a new light, appears exotic. And so you marvel that this place you could not live in because of its emptiness and insularity still has the power to remind you of who you really are.”
Road Markings: An Anthropologist in the Antipodes appears here tomorrow. Michael, thank you for the privilege of seeing it into the world.