Jack Ross & Grant Duncan, ed.: 11 Views of Auckland (2010)
Syncopation literally means that an accent or stress is placed on the weak beat between the usually dominant beats. ... I've always thought this was also a good way to describe narrative nonfiction. The contributors in this book are each providing his or her unique perspective on a true story or experience that warranted retelling from a new viewpoint, or with an emphasis on an aspect of the story that may have otherwise gone unnoticed ... Each writer is stressing a weak or unaccented beat with their piece. (Burford, 2009, p.v)
My favourite part of the Auckland Public Library is, I must admit, the set of shelves on the ground floor devoted to comics and graphic novels. There must be some real comics enthusiasts on the staff, because they have the most impressive collection of obscure Indie publications I’ve ever encountered. It was there I ran across Brendan Burford’s Syncopated, an anthology of “nonfiction picto-essays” grouped loosely around the theme of different experiences of New York.
There was a lot to like in the book: interesting pieces on subway graffiti and Jazz obsessives, coupled with nostalgic autobiographical vignettes, but I think what struck me about it most was Burford’s introduction. Grant Duncan and I were already deep into the preparations for this book of essays about our own home town, Auckland, and it was the set of questions that Burford set himself that really hit a nerve: I’ve already quoted his answer to “why Syncopated?” above, but he also asked “why essays?”:
I was drawn to the economy of the essay – you can walk away from having read a good essay with a solid understanding of the author's subject without the experience being an exhaustive one.
My first reaction was that that second-to-last word should have been “exhausting” rather than “exhaustive,” but then, when I thought about it some more, I realised he meant exactly what he said. The virtue of the essay form is that it can give you a quick fix rather than a complete immersion in its subject. Essay-writers have the luxury of being able to leave things out – to accent and colour their perspective on the subject at hand without being accused of distorting it with false emphases.
I'm particularly drawn to essays that maintain some level of objectivity without forsaking subjectivity – I believe strongly in authors investing themselves in what they're writing about in order to find greater understanding.
That, too, seems very true to me. Often it’s the passionate intensity authors bring to their subject matter that communicates, rather than the bare facts themselves. Of course one needs both, but the advantage of the essay form (now – mainly for institutional reasons – claimed as part of a larger genre called “creative nonfiction:” nonfictional writing which borrows its crafting techniques from fiction or poetry) is that the emphasis and balance between them can be submitted to continual recalibration and experiment.
And comics, why comics? Why not comics – I love comics. ... What we've come to call “comics” is a unique and viable medium for storytelling that is inviting on many levels. Comics offer a synesthetic experience though words and pictures that no other medium can. (Burford, 2009, p.v.)
Well, there of course we part company. There are no comics in this particular anthology (more’s the pity). There are some “picto-essays” of other kinds, though. A number of our contributors (including myself) have felt moved to pick up a camera while stressing the “weak or unaccented beats” in how we see our city.
As with any other space, urban or otherwise, there are of course as many Aucklands as there are inhabitants of the city. The point of difference in this particular book, however, is that each of them is described from the point of view of a particular Academic discipline, by one of the Auckland-based members of Massey’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences (until recently grouped in the School of Social and Cultural Studies, which continues to lend its name to this monograph series).
We begin, then, at as near as possible to the beginning, with Sociologist Cluny Macpherson’s survey – and critique – of received wisdom about the Pacific history of Auckland.
Settlement is our next major topic. Anthropologist Graeme MacRae’s own personal account of his experience of living in one of Auckland’s oldest suburbs, Freemans Bay, is followed by Sociologist Ann Dupuis’s analysis of the latest trend in city living: gated communities; and then by fellow-Sociologist Warwick Tie’s dazzling photo-essay on that most troubled of Auckland’s mirrorglass skyscrapers, the Metropolis building.
The theory and practice of city living moves to the forefront in the next set of essays. Anthropologist Eleanor Rimoldi, from the somewhat detached perspective of a citizen of the People’s Republic of Waiheke, records some of Auckland city’s efforts to date to create a “civil society.” Literary and Art Critic Isabel Michell comments on our urban spaces from the dual viewpoints of a mother and a pedestrian. English lecturer Jennifer Lawn prefers to quiz us through the distorting lens of Auckland’s burgeoning population of crime writers.
The North Shore, home of Masseys’s Albany campus, comes next in our list of topics. Historian Peter Lineham chronicles its long history of religious controversy and debate, while I talk about an abortive project to memorialise the Shore’s long literary history on the pillars of the Harbour Bridge from my own perspective as a writer and a lecturer in Creative Writing.
Sociolinguist David Ishii’s essay on the difficulties encountered by Auckland’s growing population of new immigrants leads us to the final piece in the book, Political Scientist Grant Duncan’s analysis of the progress of local government in Auckland, from colonial settlement to Super City – that unwieldy fusion of the region’s numerous city and regional councils which has now been legislated into becoming our civic reality.
11 Views of Auckland, then – as I hope I have made clear – stresses a multidisciplinary approach to this most multicultural of New Zealand cities. The serendipitous – complementary rather than contradictory – way the various essays have grouped themselves according to themes during the editing process accents another virtue we’ve come to value highly during all our years of working together on this clean green suburban campus: collegiality.
It’s also important to underline that Grant and my instructions to the contributors to this collection of essays were not so much to attempt to talk about Auckland as a whole, as to present us with views of particular aspects of the city, windows on the Way We Live Now – to borrow a title from one of the most dedicated of Victorian social chroniclers, Anthony Trollope.
Essays which stress the here and now have a tendency to go out of date quite quickly, of course, and a lack of sweeping overviews might be seen as some readers as a deficiency – but today’s news is (after all) tomorrow’s history. A truthful depiction of how the city seems to each of us right now can, I firmly believe, hardly fail to grow in value as Auckland’s various futures unfold and interlock.
A great many thanks and acknowledgements are really required here. Thanks, first of all, to my assiduous co-editor Grant Duncan, for his salutary perfectionism and careful line-editing. Thanks to Associate Professor Peter Lineham and the Publications Committee of the School of Social and Cultural Studies for supporting this publication both practically and financially. Thanks to Marian Reeves and the team at the Massey Printery for their usual exemplary job of printing and production. Thanks, above all, to my teaching colleagues at Albany – past and present – for a decade and a half of lively debate and valued instruction.
Burford, B., ed. (2009) Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays. Villard Books Trade Paperback Original. New York: Random House.
11 Views of Auckland. Edited by Jack Ross & Grant Duncan. Social and Cultural Studies, 10. ISSN 1175-7132 (Auckland: Massey University, 2010): 5-8.
11 Views of Auckland (2010)