Turning Back We Look Forward / To a Shimmering Space: On the Positive Nationalism of Dudley Benson
Self serving myths and nationalism, Dan Kelly considers Zealandia.
“In Dream City everything is doubled, everything is various. You have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues…It’s the kind of town where the wise man says ‘I’ cautiously, because ‘I’ feels like too straight and singular a phoneme to represent the true multiplicity of his experience. Instead, citizens of Dream City prefer to use the collective pronoun ‘we’…”
– Zadie Smith, Speaking in Tongues
“Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past…”
– Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
For this, we must imagine a future. Come February 6, 2040, where will our nation be? As birdsong greets the sun and another South Pacific day comes around, what state will it see us all in? What values will guide us? For what will our islands be known? As his latest album reveals, these are questions Dudley Benson would like us to ask. A self-identifying “queer independent artist,” Benson’s recently released Zealandia is an inspiring avant-pop epic, named after the submersed continent on which these islands lie. Described as “identity pop,” it’s an unashamedly nationalistic album, concerned with our past and who we could be.
Like many other Pākehā, Benson was raised on certain self-serving myths – not just the notion of New Zealand as environmentally ‘pure,’ but also the claim that we have, in the words of many a politician, ‘the best race relations in the world’ – a denial of uncomfortable truths. In this sense, Benson’s ‘we’ (and that used here) is directed squarely at Pākehā: what do we have to do, to properly feel at home? While the question predates him, it is Benson’s holistic, back-looking approach that sets him apart – tying notions of environmental connectedness to the social realm and the way our identities are both formed by, and inform, the people and places where we live. As the mātauranga Māori from which Benson draws has long expressed, everything is interconnected. We can’t face these ills on their own.
Zealandia opens to synths and a choir, their rising waves replaced by Benson’s vocals and the sing of a resonant harp. “Who are you?” he asks, “Where is my mountain?” These questions echo throughout, the album’s songs covering everything from feelings of environmental oneness to Cook’s imagined nerves, white defensiveness, laments for lost species and calls for Pākehā to “decolonise ourselves” – reflecting Benson’s contention that it is time to “educate ourselves properly about our history.” Such a task is no casual endeavour, but one requiring real skin and commitment. In this Benson is himself exemplary, not just for the time and money invested (Zealandia took eight years to make, half of which was dedicated to fundraising its eventual $90,000 bill), but for his humility and willingness to learn.
As Benson explains, the album forms an end to what has emerged as an “unintended” trilogy: from 2008’s Awakening – “very much a Pākehā looking for their place kind of an album” – to 2010’s Forest: Songs by Hirini Melbourne, “an expression of my love for te ao Māori, our birdlife, and Hirini Melbourne’s incredibly important music.” Zealandia sits at the junction between these two worlds, building on both his personal journey, and the political perspective that underscored his education in te ao Māori, offering a fluid, pluralistic take on nationhood.
Forest: Songs by Hirini Melbourne is largely sung in te reo Māori, reflecting the originals on which Benson’s compositions are based (and the language-elevating reasons that Hirini composed them for). As part of the process of making it, Benson enrolled in the University of Auckland’s Māori Studies department, the education providing him with a corrective to that of his early childhood: “My history was, basically, Cook arrived and fireworks went off.” Instead Benson now speaks of colonisation and the harm it casts, both in our past and with us today – noting that his understanding is just one of many, and “the most important of these to consider is that of the people who have been colonised.”
It’s a refreshing acknowledgement of agency, and a key step to facing the past. As postcolonial scholar Edward Said explains, colonisation turns on an assumption “of the difference between cultures, first, as creating a battlefront that separates them, and second, as inviting the West to control, contain and otherwise govern…” Central to this are notions of European superiority, and “a patronising determination to equate difference with inferiority.”
Such logic goes right to the heart of the nationalist project. As the recent surge in its right-wing, fascist form reveals, the racial hierarchies of old are alive and well. From Trump to Boris Johnson, Victor Orban and Putin, imperial nationalism operates as both shield and sword, protecting those with power, persecuting those without. It stands as response to fear, born of our changing times and the very capitalist system its adherents promote, promising return to a triumphant past, if only certain (elite-serving) orthodoxies can be restored. As always, this turns on erasure: certain ‘undesirables’ must be removed; ‘we’ must work together as one. But as political theorist Chantal Mouffe makes clear, such unanimity “is only conducive to the maintenance of existing hierarchies.” In the context of such exclusion, we might well ask, is there such thing as positive nationalism?
As Kiwi sociologist Scott Hamilton likes to argue, history rhymes. Benson, too, sees echoes of the past, and Zealandia makes explicit reference to two earlier nationalist figures. One song, ‘Rutu,’ is named after a painting from Rita Angus’s goddess series, imaging a symbolic, “pacifist, multicultural future”; another, ‘It’s Ōtepoti’s Fault,’ builds on one of composer Douglas Lilburn’s ‘Preludes 1942-1944,’ and responds to an earlier track of Benson’s own. Here, as elsewhere, Benson’s influences are diverse, the use of beats made from sampled rocks hit with seal bone, the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Youth Choir, harps, bagpipes, slide guitar and taonga pūoro coalescing and combining in novel, resonant ways, a model for the multiplicity he would promote.
Benson is an unashamed environmentalist – he describes Zealandia as “a love album to the land” – but it the connection he makes between our environmental destruction and the impacts of ongoing racism that is most pertinent, providing a link absent in earlier Pākehā nationalism. Much was made of our natural landscape in the work of artists and poets such as Rita Angus and Allen Curnow – reflecting historian John Beaglehole’s 1936 assertions that while New Zealand “pastures its soul in fields classically English,” its identity lies where “the bush perpetually and in silence renews its green, inviolate life.” However, issues of colonisation rarely surfaced, present instead as a sense of unease, the idea, repeated so often as to seem trite, that “Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year / Will learn the trick of standing upright here.”
Irony, it seems, has many faces. In 1940, the government’s centennial celebrations turned on notions of pride and unity, but the continuing impact of the New Zealand wars saw many Māori avoid the ceremony at Waitangi. As Sir Āpirana Ngata noted, not everyone had something to celebrate. The government sponsored a short-story competition, but Frank Sargeson’s winning entry, ‘The Making of a New Zealander,’ criticised the country’s materialism and division. It was, his protagonist said, “all wrong.”
Two years later, in a similar vein, Curnow was commissioned to write a poem celebrating the 300-year anniversary of Abel Tasman’s voyage. While praised for its quality, his widely shared collaboration with Douglas Lilburn – then recently separated from Rita Angus – is no triumphant hymn, but one grappling with previous ills, however obliquely felt. Having begun with expansion (“Simply by sailing in a new direction / You could enlarge the world”), it ends: “The Sailor lives, and stands beside us, paying / Out into our time’s wave / The stain of blood that writes an island story.”
In a later interview, Curnow explained that nationalism inherent in “standing upright” was his response to “the colonial cringe…confronting the world where [the colonialist] feels a disadvantaged and inferior person.” The irony is palpable. In a country where Curnow’s Pākehā majority explicitly discriminates against Māori and other minorities, it seems outrageous that he could feel so and not join the dots – but such is the blindness that privilege holds. The hierarchical space that Curnow felt so keenly is the basis for all discrimination, not just the imperial centre over its periphery, but male-female, white-black, rich-poor and so on: the first ‘right’ and the other less true.
For oppressed peoples around the globe, the assertion of their own, self-defined nationalism has been a crucial tool in responding to colonial powers, rejecting their assimilationist line
This sense of exclusion, and the externally-imposed definitions used to create it, is one that has seen countless responses. For oppressed peoples around the globe, the assertion of their own, self-defined nationalism has been a crucial tool in responding to colonial powers, rejecting their assimilationist line. In Aotearoa New Zealand, this took place on two levels: first, with the Māori nationalism of Sir Āpirana Ngata and Ti Rangi Hīroa/Sir Peter Buck, reconnecting with and elevating what had been repressed; and secondly with the Pākehā nationalism inspired by their claims, seeking to assert a different identity for white immigrants who had come to this place, valid for who they’d become.
However, while these nationalisms stand apart from the nationalism of empire, in explicit defiance of its erasing tendency, they too suffer from its fixed framing. As Said writes of the post-colonial nationalisms established around the world, in reacting against the essences imposed, new orthodoxies were raised, and those outside were again left behind. For true liberation, he writes, one must move beyond “the hierarchies inherited from imperialism” to a “new system of mobile relationships” – celebrating our hybrid plurality, acknowledging history and tradition within a fluid, non-coercive space – in the words of political philosopher Frantz Fanon, “a transformation of social consciousness beyond national consciousness.”
As Benson’s album makes clear, “standing upright” requires more than just looking at the natural landscape; one must also consider the social sphere, the ways we exist on this earth. In his discovery of a geological basis for our difference (the largely submerged continent of Zealandia) Benson locates the bedrock for an ideological shift, away from the binary of empire and its stodgy denial of the past, to a celebration of multiplicity and all it implies about change, encounter and ethics. That is, for a nationalism to be truly positive (something we collectively want), it must be negative (content-neutral): setting boundaries for action, but not their form – an accepting, diversely lived-in space.
In what is perhaps one of the album’s more compelling tunes, the provocatively titled ‘Birth of a Nation’ – named after the racist (but hugely successful) 1930s flick by D.W. Griffith – Benson asks, “If we forget what we learnt / And we know what we lost / Can we decolonise ourselves?” Such a framing is crucial, seeking to undo the singular truth of our colonial past, and making way for what historian Wendy Doniger calls “eclectic pluralism…a kind of [comfortable] cognitive dissonance, in which one person holds a toolbox of different beliefs more or less simultaneously, drawing upon one on one occasion, another on another. Multiple narratives coexist peacefully, sometimes in one open mind and sometimes in a group of people whose minds may be, individually, relatively closed” – with the key point being, we each give (and expect) our own space to grow.
To belong here, Benson seems to be saying, you have to be known, to be counted, and in doing so be accountable: to each other and the land that sustains
It is here that ethics become most important, the hierarchies of old replaced with equality and in it a relational mode, turning on respect and reciprocity – the very principles captured in Te Tiriti/The Treaty of Waitangi. As Tze Ming Mok writes, for all immigrant peoples (Pākehā included), “The principles of the Treaty give us rules of engagement; if we accede to them, we will access our right to be different.” In dual senses, then, notions of a positive nationalism tie us concretely to place. Where you are matters; the requirement for presence – similar to Māori notions of ahi kā, the fires you kindle and keep – is one that places skin in the game, and all the crucial accountability that this provides. To belong here, Benson seems to be saying, you have to be known, to be counted, and in doing so be accountable: to each other and the land that sustains.
In order to reach such a space, we must first come to terms with our past. While Pākehā kneejerk has sought to reject colonisation as finished – denying responsibility for the ‘sins of the father’ – Benson’s emphasis, inspired by all Māori have done to resist and uphold their own traditions, is addressing these wrongs: the failure of Pākehā to even acknowledge them, and the persistent denial of Māori agency. As revolutionary educator Paulo Freire writes,
“Discovering [oneself] to be an oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed. Rationalizing [one’s] guilt through paternalistic treatment of the oppressed, all the while holding them fast in a position of dependence, will not do. Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture…fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these ‘beings for another’.”
As Benson’s devotion shows, there is nothing wrong with loving your people and place – indeed, such care has long been central to humanity’s survival. While tongue in cheek, choosing to frame the album as “twelve alternatives to the New Zealand national anthem,” reveals a preference for multiplicity that sits alongside Benson’s more explicit subversion, using the nationalist trope of orchestral grandeur to open us up. As the sea makes so clear, we all must share this land – Benson’s contention, evident in both his lyrics, and the layered, shimmering way in which he has chosen to share them, is that our nationalism must be one that turns on diversity and celebration of difference – starting with that denied by our past, looking back that we might forge ahead.
In 1954, in a similarly reflective mood, the New Zealand author and academic Bill Pearson penned his famous essay, ‘Fretful Sleepers,’ in which he argued for “two facts we can’t escape: first, that we are a cultural colony of Europe, and second, that the culture of the West is dying.” For Pākehā like Benson (and myself), this first emerges as environmental destruction, our privilege hiding its other, human cost – as it did for those Pākehā artists who stood before us. Through their work we have come to see value in ourselves, in this land and the ideals that it holds. Through them, too, their sense of unease and the efforts of Māori and all other minorities who have rejected erasure, we come to see their link and in it the task of our times, the true end to which our nationhood might be put. Power must be ceded, our society transformed – for as Freire makes so clear, as our suicide rates, depression and all that hides beneath our myths make clear, in oppressing the oppressors are themselves oppressed. Denying the humanity of others negates our own; so framed we’re much less than we are.
At this stage, it is perhaps useful to evoke the etymological overlap between whenua in its dual (lived, metaphorical) sense of both land and placenta – noting that, for all our forgetting, English too holds such ties. The origins of ‘nation’ lie in Middle English, from its Latin root natio, from the verb nāsci: to be born, begotten; arise, proceed; grow, spring forth. I return to the quotes from our start, that still morning in February, 22 years hence, imagined but not yet born. Must we speak just of dreams? As Moana Jackson writes on behalf of a wide group of hapū and iwi, reflecting on their own journey towards autonomy, 2040 stands as a goal for transformation. With the humility of Benson and the courage to learn, who knows what might yet spring forth…