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Les Yeux on France: Top New Zealand Writers Tour

Les Yeux on France: 12 Top New Zealand Writers Tour France

French translations of New Zealand literature on display.

Photos and Column by Yasmine Ryan

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Organised annually in France by the National Centre of Books on behalf of the Ministry of Culture and Communication since 1987, the Belles Etrangères (Beautiful Strangers) festival seeks to introduce the contemporary literature of a particular country or linguistical group to the French public. This year, New Zealand has been selected, and thus 12 of our top writers have been chosen to travel the length and width of France for a series of public appearances in libraries, bookstores, cultural centres and universities until 25 November.

(AIX-EN-PROVENCE – 17 November 2006) – The link between New Zealand literature and France is not new. Katherine Mansfield, our most internationally renowned writer, spent most of her last days in the south of France, suffering from tuberculosis. Last Saturday, some of the writers made a pilgrimage to the Gurdjieff Institute, near Fontainebleau. They planted a tree to commemorate the spot where Mansfield died on January 9, 1923.

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Their visit is accompanied by an anthology of texts translated into French, titled Douze écrivains néo-zélandais – Les Belles Etrangères (Twelve New Zealand Writers – Beautiful Strangers), edited by Sabine Wespieser. The book comes with a DVD of a film of interviews with the same group, directed by Michael Smith.

Les Belles Etrangères : Nouvelle-Zélande was launched on Monday, at the National Opera House in Paris. Anne Miller, Secretary General of the National Centre of Books, described New Zealand literature as varied and ‘very distinctive’. She discussed the fusion of a culture of vibrant oral storytelling in Maori and Polynesian societies with European literary traditions.

New Zealand writers Elizabeth Knox, James George and Vincent O’Sullivan in Aix-en-Provence.

Aix-en-Provence was the first town to host a public meeting with the New Zealanders. On Tuesday 14 November, James George, Elizabeth Knox and Vincent O’Sullivan appeared at La Cité du Livrebefore an audience of around 200. With a few technical difficulties, the event opened with extracts from Michael Smith’s Ecrire au pays du long nuage blanc (Writing in the Land of the Long White Cloud).

Pierre Furlan, literary counsellor for Les Belles Etrangères, presented the diverse trio. Resident in Randell Cottage, Wellington, in October 2004 until March 2005, Furlan said that he found Wellington to as stimulating for a writer as Paris is. In his view, ‘in Wellington you can get in touch with a lot of writers’ and people are generally ‘more open to the world’.

Responding to a question on how his Maori heritage affects his writing, James George stated that ‘It’s important not to get too hung up about whether there’s a school of Maori writing.’ The author of Wooden Horses Hummingbird and most recently, Ocean Roads, stressed that he seeks to create universal characters and that he prefers to ‘just be [him]self’. Acclaimed by critics as having an ‘authentic’ voice, George said that he considered the ‘superimposition’ of those who try to impose a model on writers like himself as being ‘anti-art’.

Internationally renowned author Elizabeth Knox explained that her 1998 novel, The Vintner’s Luck, which is about a love affair between a vintner and an angel, passed with relatively little controversy in New Zealand because ‘it’s a very secular and tolerant country’ and that ‘people understood it was a fable’. Her book is not currently available in French language as all of the existing stock was destroyed by a fire. She told Scoop this is her fourth visit to France.

Jenny Bornholdt, Geoff Cush, Alan Duff, Sia Figiel, James George, Dylan Horrocks, Fiona Kidman, Elizabeth Knox, Owen Marshall, Vincent O’Sullivan, Chad Taylor and Albert Wendt are the 12 New Zealand authors touring France for Les Belles Etrangères : Nouvelle-Zélande. For more information on the festival, see:


Yasmine Ryan is a graduate of the University of Auckland, in Political Studies and French language. She is currently completing a Masters degree in International Journalism at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Aix-en-Provence.


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