New Zealand’s bright young things are fans of each other, too. When both were in New York in early November, expatriate culture writer Gemma Gracewood orchestrated a get-together, having contacted Lorde’s mother, the poet Sonja Yelich, through mutual friends. A pair of photographs, one of Lorde and Catton sitting upright in bed, another with them grinning at their image on a mobile phone, featured on front pages in the next morning’s New Zealand newspapers.
“These cultural superstars were both in New York City at the same time, and wasn’t it just something that had to happen?” Gracewood would later write in a blog post.
The successes of New Zealanders are felt differently by the diaspora, says Gracewood over the phone from New York. “We’re a tiny country and it’s not until you live overseas that you realize just how very far away it is. Not just physically, but also in the minds of people. And so when New Zealanders do well on the world stage, suddenly New Zealand itself feels a whole lot louder and closer than it usually does.”
While Catton and Lorde are special talents, neither is an aberration: New Zealand’s music and books are both in rude health. Nevertheless, the young women’s accolades are a fillip to others. “The win is fabulous for Ellie but hopefully it will also feed interest in some of the other stellar writing that is coming out of New Zealand,” says the New Zealand Book Council’s Catriona Ferguson.
The “phenomenal successes” of Lorde mean that “New Zealand is suddenly being seen as a source of repertoire, a place where great songs come from,” says Cath Andersen of the New Zealand Music Commission. “It’s like the musical version of the spotlight that Sir Peter Jackson swung on to our film industry and the scenic locations.”
Even before Jackson, New Zealand had experience of that spotlight. It was 20 years ago that Jane Campion’s The Piano won at Cannes. Keri Hulme took the Booker Prize with The Bone People in 1985 (the year Catton was born). New Zealand pop music has long held its own globally.
So does this mark some sort of New Zealand cultural coming of age, or is the Lorde-Catton axis a coincidence?
Something has changed, says John Campbell, a vocal enthusiast for New Zealand culture and sport, and presenter of the country’s pre-eminent current affairs show, Campbell Live. He remembers attending, as a fresher, a class at Victoria University of Wellington. It was “one of those awful tutorials where you all introduce yourselves to each other [and] one of the questions we were asked to consider was: What is New Zealand culture?” he says.
“It was desultory. Remember, we were only 18 and all pretty unworldly, but other than rugby, farming and a vague sense of something to do with fencing wire, none of us could come up with anything. That was 30 years ago.
“Ask my children the same question, and you couldn’t shut them up. The difference is that no one told Lorde and Ellie we didn’t have a culture. They knew we did. And because of that, they were able to be themselves. Where once we could dream of being All Blacks, and great farmers, and perhaps even inventing an outboard motor, now our youngsters live in a chapel of possibility so broad that anything’s on the cards. And then it’s up to talent.”