New Zealand non-fiction reveals much about the experiences, beliefs and values of successive generations of New Zealanders.
Studies of early contact between Māori and Pākehā are an important thread in New Zealand’s non-fiction tradition.
The first Europeans to set foot in New Zealand wrote about meetings between Māori and Europeans. These writers included missionaries, emigration organisers and early colonists. Their works ranged from collections of anecdotes to fascinated descriptions of Māori culture.
Non-fiction writers documented the colonisation of both the environment and of Māori. Many early accounts revealed a sense of regret about what was being lost, but also a belief that it was inevitable.
By the mid-1880s most of the European population were New Zealand-born. Non-fiction writing reflected a growing feeling amongst Pākehā that they had become a distinct group of people, separate from the British.
Feeling at home
The earliest settlers had imagined a bright, bustling colonial future. However, some of those who were eventually born into that future loathed it. The commonest storyline in New Zealand life-writing involved a gifted young person growing up in a small-minded province where art and intellect were not appreciated.
From the 1930s to the 1950s New Zealand non-fiction often looked back over the previous century, and took stock.
Men in non-fiction
Many books were written by or about ‘good kiwi blokes’. A strong feature of this writing was a nonchalant, self-deprecating humour.
From the Second World War onwards, the voices of women and Māori were increasingly heard in non-fiction.
In the 21st century, much of New Zealand’s most significant non-fiction continues to be historical. Recurring themes include childhood and identity; and feelings for the land and sea.