Wednesday, 8 February 2012

An anthropologist in Taranaki

Today an article appeared in the Taranaki Daily News, which I'm told has piqued the interest of many readers. Journalist Hannah Fleming was interviewing author Michael Jackson:

A man who won a Taranaki Herald essay competition in 1952 has recently returned to the region to research his latest book. Anthropologist Michael Jackson, 71, spent his youth in Inglewood and at age 12 won the accolade for his essay, "A Day in the Life of a Taranaki Schoolboy in 1875". His new book Road Markings: An Anthropologist in the Antipodes, released last month, saw him pass through Taranaki while he travelled New Zealand, researching the idea of origins and the value of staying in touch with your roots. 

Dr Jackson said he was surprised at how Taranaki landscapes and industries had changed, in particular the way Inglewood had become a dormitory suburb of New Plymouth. "What used to be a half-hour journey by bus on winding roads, is now a 10-minute car ride," he said. "When I was a child, Taranaki towns like Inglewood were dominated by the dairy industry. Not only has dairying become industrialised, but natural gas, oil and petrochemicals have transformed the landscape." 
 Now a professor of world religions at Harvard Divinity School in the United States, Dr Jackson said his book touched on how personal stories interwove with social and historical events. Those stories explored the search of adopted children for their birth parents, calls from Maori for recognition and social justice, and our preoccupation with geographical and genetic backgrounds. 

Dr Jackson said his journey through New Zealand outlined the improvement of Maori-Pakeha relations and how Kiwis had become more worldly. "New Zealanders are less bothered by their geographical remoteness from Europe, Asia and the USA, compared with 50 years ago," he said. 

Dr Jackson has worked in welfare and community development in London among the homeless, and in the Congo with the United Nations. He returned to New Zealand to resume his studies in anthropology and gained a Taranaki scholarship for doctoral studies at Cambridge University. He then did fieldwork in Sierra Leone, and in Aboriginal Australia when Sierra Leone was plunged into civil war. 

In New Zealand, Dr Jackson is best known as a poet. He won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1976, and the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 1981.
Dr Jackson said Road Markings would appeal to any New Zealander who had lived overseas and faced the dilemma of keeping the home fires burning."For those less travelled, it may offer a perspective on the country from outside, but without the distortions you often find in books written by foreign visitors.

This article uses excerpts from a fascinating Q and A between Hannah and Michael that you can read in full  here.

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