Our place : reimagining local history as life writing : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (English) at Massey University, Albany, New Zealand
The field of life writing scholarship encourages a variety of accounts of lived experience to be reframed and restudied as life writing. The thesis draws on this body of life writing theory to argue for local history books to be read as lived accounts of a geographical community, applying a life writing lens to the reading and analysis of local history books in Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific. The thesis shows that expectations and significance (and even practice) of local history change when it is viewed as collaborative life writing. A multiple method research design integrates case studies of three texts—Matagi Tokelau, Moturoa, and Patumahoe: History & Memories—with analysis of the project experiences of a selection of local history book producers to provide further critical insight into the advantages of framing their work as life writing.
The thesis reveals a literary complexity underpinning the history of local place as a window into social worlds and assumptions—particularly the postcolonial. It examines questions of authority and authorship in group life narratives to explore the ethical dimensions of writing about “self” and “other” in these complex, culturally diverse social and political spaces in local history book projects. Through questioning the producers of texts about these issues, and the tensions and nuances they raise, the thesis seeks to stimulate debate and influence changes in the way local history texts are written in future. The study of local history as life writing allows for context, process and reception in the “making” of local history to be appreciated as as important as the actual text that is produced. Similarly, life writing critique reveals the way in which communities assert themselves and their perceived community identities by making and remaking boundaries or controlling the significance of memories. Local history, my research posits, is always unfinished, waiting to be reimagined.
The conclusion emphasises the importance of a duty of care expected of writers of local history books as an ethical responsibility to reflect critically and reflexively on their subjects and practices. The thesis enriches an understanding of the production processes of local history books in Aotearoa New Zealand and encourages a step towards more deliberate collaborative practices, posing questions of authorship and representation in the writing and publishing of future texts.