Notes Reading Notes

Sodden Downstream

By Brannavan Gnanalingam, 2017

It opens with a missive about shit. Literal shit, as the protagonist Sita’s job requires cleaning toilets in Wellington office blocks. And metaphorical shit, hinting at dark memories of trauma during the last days of the Sri Lankan Civil War, as well as the ‘mighty bog of social shit’ as James K. Baxter once termed New Zealand social reality. Shit then gives way immediately to food. What comes out has to go in.

When you didn’t grow up with them and had them incoherently explained to you, toilet paper and tinned spaghetti are both perplexing objects that force self-conscious examination. Things like this are sources of confusion for Sita and her family who came to New Zealand as refugees and are now surviving on a low income in a Hutt Valley state house. Thiru, the unemployed husband who Sita cares for, exasperatedly manages and detachedly analyses, understanding precisely why employers refuse to give him work, but struggling to know how to help him push back and explain it. Satish, the son with his talent for cricket and accentuated Kiwi accent that his parents have difficulty understanding, his early years a horror story which we never really get a window into—his long-term trauma now transmuted into silence and walled-off emotion from Sita’s perspective.

Sita’s boss, Mr Poleman is a typical Brannavan character (or caricature, depending on your viewpoint on style). Another example of Kiwi managerialist mediocrity, Poleman is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, the epitome of the self-described nice guy who likes to spin yarns and crack jokes—he couldn’t possibly imagine himself as a callous, exploitative and inflexible figure, and yet here we are. It’s his behaviour that sets off the events of the story, demanding that Sita travel into the city to work during a wild storm, despite roads and train lines being closed, and threatening to end her contract with the cleaning company if she doesn’t show up.

So Sita has to find a way to get to work, which leads to a chaotic journey all over the lower Hutt Valley, helped by various people who are stuck out in the storm for various reasons. Sense of time and pacing is driven by the chapter headings denoting minutes on the clock, because Sita has to be at work by 8pm. Optimistic at first, she eventually realises that it’s going to be a long night. With the main road closed and the car which might have taken her over the Haywards breaking down, the only way in is to walk, culminating in a miserable and painful slog on foot along the harbour path from Petone to Ngauranga and into the city. In her emotionally fragile state beside the dark water, she cannot avoid her most traumatic memories coming to the surface.

How many Hutt Valley novels are there? Being so familiar with the geography of Wellington and the Hutt, the zig-zag journey back and forth in cars and on foot came vividly to life in my head, and the rotating cast of randos and rejects—the supposed ‘dregs of society’ from a middle class perspective—seemed like an echo of the craziest nights I’ve experienced in the Wellington region, crossing boundaries of social class, hearing monologues, rants and anecdotes from people from all walks of life in all kinds of social situations. In Brannavan’s fictional world, the vicious normative framing of class in New Zealand media and society is turned upside down. Homeless people, ex-criminals, shift-workers and tradies are treated on their own terms with dignity and respect without hiding their flaws, while politicians, corporate managerial chumps and image-conscious bourgeois leftists are parodied and ridiculed.

Sita is a good character for noticing these things. She’s not a naturally withdrawn person, but her shyness around speaking to Kiwis and understanding the ebb and flow of conversation means she falls into situations of active listening by accident and draws people’s character out as they talk. Many sections of dialogue effectively convey the sing-song snarl and nasal syncopation of the New Zealand dialect using a more parodic and associative approach which avoids falling into the trap of trying to render it literally on the page.

There’s some incongruent stuff too. Sometimes, the authorial voice peels away from the viewpoint character and drifts off into long chains of detailed social observations and banter before we find that Sita was actually struggling to understand what was said. And sometimes stuff that feels like intergenerational Hutt Valley lore and critiques of contemporary NZ issues are reconstituted in the voice of Sita who seems unlikely to have come across such ideas and perspectives.

That said, I do feel like Sita’s struggle to become Kiwi is extremely relatable. Even Pakeha and Māori people experience the same feelings of awkwardness and sense of being out of place, confused by the confidence of those who strongly project what feels like a fragile New Zealand identity. It’s sped up and probably mostly unconscious for those of us who grew up here—the contrast between the experiences of Sita and Satish highlights what is for them more consciously awkward. New Zealand culture sometimes feels like a facade or artifice rather than anything deeper, or as Bruce Jesson put, a ‘hollow society’ with transplanted settler institutions lacking homegrown essence, but this is very much a Pakeha lament, and the deeper potential of Te Ao Māori suggests a completely different path to identity that’s more closely adapted to life on these islands.

There were refugee kids in my primary school class during the 1980s, along with many other schools in Porirua and the Hutt Valley. In our neighbourhood they became loved and respected by the community even if there sometimes seemed to be a line drawn by the Pakeha parents in terms of treating them as equals—though this was hardly different to the attitudes shown to most new immigrants. Even through most places in Wellington never had the same level of multiculturalism and diversity of somewhere like Manakau City, the idea of resettling refugees always seemed like a social justice norm. This was framed for me by the compassion and kindness of articles in the school journals and becoming friends with the kids who arrived in our suburb after escaping war and famine. I can’t help but feel let down by the lack of vision and direction on developing these social programmes in recent years by recent governments—not to mention the apalling propaganda and hate speech from the Dirty Politics faction, dismissing as terrorists these ordinary people who have experienced excruciating trauma and separation and have legitimately been granted assylum seeker status. It’s shameful, and New Zealand is definitely not living up to its values on this. Doubling the quota is not even a radical proposal, it’s modest.

Unlike various other New Zealand novels I’m into—Brannavan’s previous works come to mind, along with Chad Taylor’s languid Auckland drugscapes or even Pip Adam’s recent masterpiece where I loved the characters but didn’t really miss them when the narrative turned towards inner space—I really want to read more about these characters, the ups and downs of their family interactions, the suburban drama of the local Tamil community, their collisions with Kiwi culture and their experience of growing roots here. Maybe this reflects my desire to see them have a happy ending, beyond barely scraping by. And maybe there won’t be a happy ending until New Zealand society moves away from the social attitudes of rentier capitalism and the policies and corporate structures forcing service workers into a precariat existence.