“As if there aren’t enough horrors right here on earth to turn any man’s hair white without bringing in some unknowns from outer space.”  -Simon on UFOs,  Man & Other Natural Disasters

Nerys Parry’s debut novel, Man & Other Natural Disasters, published last fall by Enfield & Wizenty, was a finalist for the Colophon Prize for Fiction, and tied for seventh place in the Readers’ Choice contest (Scotiabank Giller Prize with CBC Books). Her work has aired on CBC radio and appeared in diverse publications. Her work has also been shortlisted for a Kenneth R. Wilson Award and shortlisted in the Event Non-Fiction Contest. Parry holds a Bachelor of Engineering from Queen’s University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She has lived in Calgary, Port Hope and Taupo, New Zealand. She has now settled in her hometown of Ottawa with her husband and two children.

In 1998 Parry went to Taupo, New Zealand, where she lived for three years before returning to Canada. Last December, she returned to Taupo to see old friends and to revisit the house where she completed the first draft of Man & Other Natural Disasters. There she found the landscape and the richness of the island’s Maori language still mesmerizing.

In the following, which is taken from Parry’s blog Remainders of January 4, 2012, Parry discusses the first words that returned to her on “coming home.” This leads in turn to the New Zealand author, Keri Hulme. Hulme’s first novel, The Bone People, won the Booker Prize in 1985. Hulme’s most recent collection is Stonefish (2004).

The first words I remember are the names of the trees. Pōhutukawa, a gorgeous tree, is in glorious, odiferous red flower when I arrive at the airport. Rimu and kauri, giant, shaggy conifers with scraggy silhouettes—I can see them from the highway—as well as the cabbage trees in the household gardens, and the ponga, or silver ferns, that line the pathways. And how could I have forgotten the crazy wheki, a giant prehistoric tree fern used to fabricate Gilligan Island-style ashtrays for sale in the local tourist shops?

I probably remembered names of the trees first because their Seuss-like shapes are so very distinctive from the Canadian maples and silver birches at home. Such impressive fauna demands to be known by its proper name. As my daughter explained, after she and her classmates spent hours mastering the multi-syllabic challenge of their teacher’s African surname, it is a matter of respect. To speak someone’s (or something’s) true name is a form of magic.

I’ve since picked up Keri Hulme’s collection, Stonefish. In the back is a glossary of Maori phrases used throughout the book, from (a digging tool) to whakatauki-waina(a wine proverb, i.e. one that doesn’t make too much sense when retold sober). Hulme is a master of diction, stretching and expanding the use of words: “you smile at my rocks /  but I murmur opals; you / say ancestors and I breathe, / Bones—”

Keri Hulme, photo from Encyclopedia of New Zealand

What I admire most about Hulme’s writing is the way she uses the most precise noun at her disposal whenever possible. The true name, be it Maori or English.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries website, there are almost 230,000 English words listed in the Oxford second edition, and over half of these are nouns. And still, every day we discover new species, new phenomena, new things, all of which demand to be known and named. This ever-growing repository of words is part of the reason that plain language is gaining ground.

For the most part, I agree with the principles of the movement toward plain language—we don’t want our readers running off to check the Oxford in the middle of an important scene just to find out that an extrapolation is a guess. But in our desire to simplify, it would be a shame to ignore the glorious richness of our languages, which have been built over centuries by people consumed with the desire and need to capture in words that which is unique in this world.

It is this precision, this myriad of meanings captured in syllables that makes language powerful, or (as Keri Hulme might prefer) gives it its mana. May we all use it wisely.

For 100 Maori words every New Zealander should know, click here.

Kia ora!

Posted by CWA

2 Comments

  1. Always wanted to visit New Zealand and this whets the appetite more. I agree with the paean to words.
    Didn’t know Man and Other Natural Disasters had come so high on the readers’ choice list. Bravo.

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    1. I love your point (or perhaps it’s your daughter’s point) that correctly naming something or someone if the respectful thing to do. That’s an important message, whether it’s a matter of remembering the name of someone you’ve just met, or the name of a tree with a Seuss-esque persona. Thank you.

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