An Interview With Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson is best known in his native New Zealand for his poetry (his seventh collection, Being of Two Minds, has recently been published by Steele Roberts, Wellington), though he is internationally renowned as an ethnographer, having done fieldwork in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and in Aboriginal Australia (among the Warlpiri of the Tanami Desert and Kuku-Yalanji speaking people on Cape York) over a forty year period.

He has taught anthropology at Massey University, Victoria University of Wellington, the University of Sydney, the Australian National University, Indiana University, the University of Copenhagen, and is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of 27 books of poetry, fiction, memoir, and ethnography.

Michael’s poem Hit and Run was my Tuesday Poem this week.

Michael, would it be fair to call Road Markings an anthropological memoir?

There are elements of memoir in it, but I think of it more as a road book – a journey in present time, focused on conversations with people in the here and now, but with inevitable digressions into the past.

Can you explain the concept of ‘firstness’ as it refers in Road Markings, and why is it so important both to the book and to you?

The book’s perspective is that of an expatriate who, despite having remained faithful to his natal country and returned home every year like a migratory bird, has never ceased wondering what kind of life he might have led had he stayed put. Inevitably, this leads to the question of whether the way New Zealand shaped me as a child still determines the way I think and the way I see the world. In my case, New Zealand has never ceased to haunt me. Much as I have needed radically different places to enlarge my horizons, to challenge me as a person and as a writer, I have needed to sustain a relationship with the place that first nurtured me.

Yet every expatriate knows the dilemma of trying 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. In 2008 I decided that the time had come for me to explore this quandary in more depth, so I hired a car, and hit the road, determined to engage these issues 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 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 explores 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.

Road Markings is structured around a series of meetings with old friends, meaning that their narratives are intertwined with yours in the book. Did you encounter any resistance, or feel any constraint, in including their stories and experiences in this book?

Most people I spoke to agreed to have our conversations included in the book, though there were several instances when sensitive or potentially compromising material was edited out. In a couple of cases, names were changed to protect the identity of my interlocutors.

I don’t think I’d call Road Markings a particularly happy book. Many of the life stories you recount are filled with sadness and loss. Would you describe your return to New Zealand, as described in the book, as a happy one on the whole? Are you glad you made the journey?

All my returns home have been happy. But no human life is without its moments of sadness and loss. What struck me constantly as I made this particular journey was the resilience of the people I spoke to, the creative ways in which they had responded to adversity, and the good humour with which they embraced twists of fate and reverses of fortune. True happiness comes not from avoiding the hardships of life but knowing how to affirm life in even the hardest times. This has been borne home to me in every place I have done ethnographic fieldwork, whether in Africa, Aboriginal Australia or Aotearoa New Zealand.

A question that may be related: Do you regret spending so many years of your life away from New Zealand?

I regret nothing. But as I said before, there are dilemmas in life one cannot really resolve – such as maintaining relationships with all the places and people one has met in the course of an itinerant life. The question is how to accept, rather than regret.

One of your chapters, “Distance looks our way”, takes its title from Charles Brasch’s 1948 poem “The Islands”:

Everywhere in light and calm murmuring
Shadow of departure; distance looks our way
And none knows where he will lie down at night.

Brasch was writing during the period in which some New Zealand writers – opposed to a greater or lesser degree by others – developed a (predominantly white, predominantly masculine) New Zealand literary nationalism, and Road Markings revisits both these debates over national identity and the challenging of that constructed identity by Maori and feminists from the 1970s onwards. How important do you think this debate over national identity continues to be in the New Zealand of the 2010s?

Questions of identity – personal, ethnic, national, literary, gendered – have never been of much concern to me. My anthropological work has been far more oriented toward the ways in which identities can be negotiated, blurred, disregarded or transcended, and how it is possible, as a person or an ethnographer, to cross boundaries and develop meaningful relationships with people who, on the face of it, have nothing in common with oneself. I have always striven to realise the truth of Terence’s famous dictum: nothing human is alien to me.

Road Markings is an ebook. Is this your first venture into being published in this format, and how have you found it?

Had I not placed my manuscript in the capable hands of Penelope Todd, who also edited the manuscript of my memoir (The Accidental Anthropologist), I might have found e-publishing less satisfying than traditional publication. And though this is my first e-book, I’m gratified to say that word is getting around, and my fears that the book would disappear like a stone dropped into the sea have been allayed.

Road Markings has received good reviews in New Zealand. Have your friends and colleagues overseas read the book, and if so, how have they reacted?

A lot of my students have read the book, and like it. It helps them see where I am coming from. It helps them understand some of my un-American traits, for which I have my New Zealand upbringing to thank – my aversion to hierarchy and formality, my insistence on being called by my first name, my egalitarianism, my naïve curiosity, and a veneer of rustic innocence that, I am happy to say, has never worn off.

How To Buy Road Markings

Road Markings can be purchased from It is available in epub, PDF and Kindle formats, meaning that it can be read on most mobile devices, on a PC or Mac, and on a Kindle.

Buy One Or The Rat Gets It!

And no, I am not talking about Men Briefly Explained. (A rat did take up residence at our house a while back – the cat brought it in, let it go, and proved completely inadequate to remove it. In the end, I played “St. Anger” at it until it ran away.)

I am talking about this rat, here:

Rattie has moved on from occupying Slightly Peculiar Love Stories to occupying Rosa Mira Books as a whole, and he has begun to make marketing decisions – like halving the price of both Slightly Peculiar Love Stories and The Glass Harmonica for this week and next week.

But that’s not all. The rat has let power go to his head, and he’s making publisher Penelope Todd draw a cute little picture of him each time you buy one of these ebooks. But, like a rodent Scheherazade who has had a gender change and isn’t married to the sultan and er I think I’ll stop now, his continued portayal depends on you, gentle reader, buying ebooks from Rosa Mira Books.

You don’t need an ebook reader to read them – you just need a computer. They are amazingly easy to read on the screen. And they are bloody good.

So go to it. Take the plunge. Buy an ebook from Rosa Mira Books, and keep the rat in cute little outfits.

Book Review: Slightly Peculiar Love Stories

(Disclaimer: Slightly Peculiar Love Stories includes my story “Said Sheree”, which I have not attempted to review!)

Slightly Peculiar Love Stories is the second book, and first short story collection, published by Rosa Mira Books, the new New Zealand publishing house set up by Dunedin author Penelope Todd earlier this year. I was honoured to have a story included in the collection, and have blogged about that previously.

There are a couple of things that should attract any reader to Slightly Peculiar Love Stories. One is that really cool cover. Another is the really rather extraordinary range of New Zealand and international authors who have contributed new or reprinted stories to this anthology:

  • From New Zealand, we have Craig Cliff, Sue Wootton, Janis Freegard, Tina Makereti, Bryan Walpert, Coral Atkinson, Claire Beynon, Latika Vasil, Linda Niccol, Maxine Alterio, Susannah Poole, and Tim Jones.
  • International authors include Alex Epstein (Israel), Angelo R. Lacuesta (Philippines), Brenda Sue Cowley (USA), Christos Chrissopoulos (Greece), Elena Bossi (Argentina), Lawrence K. L. Pun (Hong Kong), Salman Masalha (Israel), and Tania Hershman (UK).

That’s quite the lineup, but the proof of any short story collection is in the reading. The good news is that there is a lot of good reading here, and a lot of different takes on love. My favourites at the moment include:

  • The sets of short-short stories by Alex Epstein and by Tania Hershman (four apiece)
  • Janis Freegard’s ingenious and moving “Mill”, which won the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award in 2001
  • Elena Bossi’s lovely and poignant “The Ache”
  • Claire Beynon’s magical “Trapeze Artist”
  • Angelo R. Lacuesta’s “Space Oddity”

– but there are so many other good stories here that I imagine your favourites will differ from mine.

There’s something I haven’t mentioned about Slightly Peculiar Love Stories: it’s an ebook. The good news is, you don’t need an ebook reader to read it. I read it on my computer in PDF format, and (as a person who doesn’t generally like to read large amounts of text on-screen) I found it easy and enjoyable to read. The fonts are crisp and the layout clear.

So, if you don’t have an ebook reader, don’t let that put you off. Slightly Peculiar Love Stories is easy to read on a computer screen, and more to the point, it is well worth reading, because there is a lot of good fiction in here.

News You Can Use: IP Inside Track Consultations, Momaya Press Competition, Rosa Mira Books Interview, Book Tour, And At Last Romance!

In the leadup to the Men Briefly Explained/Tongues of Ash book tour, which starts in Dunedin next Tuesday, here is some other news you can use.

IP Inside Track Consultations

While Dr David Reiter of Interactive Press is in NZ for the book tour, he is offering Inside Track Consultations with authors who want to get a publisher’s view on the state of their manuscript (without any commitment to submit it to IP). David tells me that he has plenty of consultations lined up in Auckland, but could fit in some more in the Wellington region. If you would value this opportunity, check out Inside Track Consultations on the IP website.

Momaya Press Short Story Competition

UK-based Momaya Press contacted me asking me to publicise their short story competition, which is open to authors from all around the world, and I’m happy to do so. Entries don’t close until 30 April 2012, so you have plenty of time to enter. Check out the details on the Momaya Press website, or see the announcement below. They have an Awards Ceremony too!

Momaya Short Story Competition 2012 – Now Open: Momaya Press sponsors the 9th Annual Momaya Short Story Competition to bring fresh writing to the attention of qualified judges. Submit your short story (3,000 word limit) on the theme “Heat” by 30 April 2012 in order to compete for prize money and publication in the Momaya Annual Review 2012. The judging panel includes members from Random House, Penguin, Reuters and a novelist who has published six books.

Submission details at:

NZ Book Council Interviews Penelope Todd of Rosa Mira Books

The New Zealand Book Council has recently published an interview with author and publisher Penelope Todd – in this interview, Penelope is wearing her e-publisher hat, as she tells the Book Council all about Rosa Mira Books.

I am working on a review of RMB’s Slightly Peculiar Love Stories anthology which I am determined – determined, I say! – to post before my book tour starts next week. In other news, I just mis-typed the title as “Slightly Peculiar Love Tories”. Which would be a different book, albeit one with a good market in the UK.

Book Tour Dates

You didn’t think you were going to get off scot-free, did you? Well, you aren’t. Be here or be rectangular:

  • Dunedin: Tuesday, 25 October, Circadian Rhythm Café, 72 St Andrew Street, 8pm
  • Christchurch: Wednesday, 26 October, CPIT, Madras Street, 5:30pm
  • Wellington: Thursday, 27 October, Wellington Central Library, 5:30 for 6pm
  • Lower Hutt: Friday, 28 October, Rona Gallery/Bookshop, Eastbourne, 6pm
  • Auckland: Tuesday 1 November, Poetry Live, Thirsty Dog, 469 Karangahape Road, 8pm


Tell yourself it’s 1pm, or wait until 1pm. Then watch this:

Slightly Peculiar Love Stories Is Launched


At 5.30pm Wednesday, New Zealand time, Rosa Mira Books launched Slightly Peculiar Love Stories, an anthology of 26 love stories by New Zealand and international authors, edited by Penelope Todd, and including my tale of love and literary funding, “Said Sheree”*

What a range of authors! They come from Israel, the Philippines, the UK, the USA, Greece, Argentina, and Hong Kong, as well as Aotearoa. Some are internationally well-known; some are well known within their own countries; some are near the start of their literary careers, and some well along in those careers. One is pseudonymous.

I haven’t read the anthology yet, but from what I’ve read about the contributors and their stories on the excellent Rosa Mira Books blog, I expect some of these stories to be slightly peculiar, and some deeply peculiar. Which is appropriate, because that’s the way love is.

I’m delighted to be in the company of so many writers I greatly admire. Please raise a glass to Slightly Peculiar Love Stories. Please help it make its way into the world.

*First published in Transported.