FROM THE oxford companion TO new zealand literature
Jackson, Michael (1940– ), has parallel careers—as an anthropologist and academic, and as a poet and fiction writer. Born in Nelson, he studied at Victoria, Auckland and Cambridge universities, before lecturing in anthropology at Massey University. Extended periods of fieldwork—living with the Kuranko people in Sierra Leone through the 1970s and in 1985, with the Warlpiri of Australia’s Northern Territory 1989–91, and with the Kuku Yalangi of Cape York, Queensland, 1993–94—have been interspersed with academic terms at the Australian National University in the mid-1980s and at Indiana University, USA, 1989–96. Academic and ethnographical awards are balanced with literary distinctions including the 1981 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, the 1983 Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship and third placing in the 1995 Montana Book Awards.
Jackson’s publications include articles on a wide diversity of issues, such as the impacts of literacy on early nineteenth-century Mäori society, or divination, shape-shifting and myth in Kuranko society. Anthropological books include Allegories of the Wilderness: Ethics and Ambiguity in Kuranko Narratives (1982), Barawa, and The Ways Birds Fly in the Sky (1986), Paths Toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Inquiry (1989) and At Home in the World (1995). His poetry has all been published in New Zealand—Latitudes of Exile (1976), Wall (1980), Going On (1985), Duty Free: Selected Poems 1965–1988 (1989) and Antipodes (1996). Two publications of prose fiction are Rainshadow (1988) and Pieces of Music (1994).
Jackson’s poetry is characteristically low-key and unpretentious—lean, tightly crafted lyrics or longer sequences. He works often with suggestion or implication, in sharply empathetic observations of Kuranko communities and traditions, in landscape pieces such as ‘Australia’ or ‘Macrocarpas’ from Wall, and in powerful personal poems of love, loss and family. Reviewer John Newton noted a consistency of approach through Jackson’s poetry over the years, a freedom from the theoretical fashions of the 1980s and 90s, and a general concern with alienness, ‘the opposite, the other division or separation’.
Jackson’s prose is equally lyrical, blurring the distinctions between formal academic study and more creative and philosophical writing. Barawa explores the history of Northern Sierra Leone, focusing on particular families or dynasties, and drily assessing the expectations and exploits of earlier European ‘discoverers’, before relating his own experience as an anthropologist, the slow processes of building trust and understanding, the recognition that some things are beyond his comprehension. In At Home in the World Jackson addresses questions of belonging and being ‘at home’, both in a landscape—the Tanami Desert of the Australian outback—and in a community. Tracing the significance of place, his ethnographical research follows back into the sacred Dreamings, the stories of archetypal ancestors that define both the natural landscape and the contemporary relations among the Warlpiri community. This work leads increasingly to considerations of the practice and purposes of anthropological study, and to personal issues of knowledge and identity.
The prose sequence Pieces of Music is similarly contemplative and difficult to categorise—a mix of fiction, anecdote, history and notebook references, a glorious assemblage of interlinking details and fragments. Restlessly international, it skips from Africa to Singapore, Cairo, France, Taranaki and a farmhouse on the Whangaparaoa. Jackson’s concerns include ‘the interplay between real and invented lives’—the ways in which story can take on an irresistible momentum of its own, quite regardless of the ostensible facts—and the eccentric connections and echoes between fundamentally disparate experiences. Jackson’s achievement is to challenge our assumptions about knowledge itself, with warmth, intelligence and compassion.
Author entry from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature,
edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998).