To Americanize or Americanise: Writing a New Zealand Novel in the America-Dominant Publishing World
Rebecca K Reilly on the Editors Who Told Her to Change Her Novel for an American Audience
Ten years ago now, when I was teaching English in a German high school, I was checking an eighth grade student’s work and underlined an error. The assignment was to write a profile introducing yourself to an exchange student, and this student has described himself as being “very sportive.” I told him that the profile was great overall, but to correct “sportive” to “sporty” or “athletic” or even “a sports lover,” and this thirteen-year-old turned around and said to me that I probably didn’t know that the correct English was to say “I am very sportive,” because I’m from New Zealand.
The same thing happened when I told my class that it’s “the homework is due by Friday,” not “due until Friday,” which would imply a bizarre continuous action of homework being handed in on a loop. The children shook their heads at me and said that maybe that’s how things where I was from, but not in proper countries like England and America. Some of them had even been on an exchange to Minnesota and visited the Mall of America, so they knew.
This is the sort of respect you can command as a native speaker of English but not the main character version of English that they train Australian and Irish actors to perform in blockbuster Oscar-snubbed movies. Lorde said, “we live in cities you never see on screen”—which isn’t true because we both live in Auckland and things get filmed here all the time due to the questionable laws around actors’ unions and large government subsidies for foreign film projects—but maybe it would be accurate to say we speak in accents you never hear in Dolby surround sound.
Our landscapes are used to provide backdrops like, very famously, the mountains of Lord of the Rings, and, less famously, the university where they built the killer robot M3GAN, but our voices and our slightly different ways of saying things that are still grammatically correct are nowhere to be seen.
When Siri for iPhone first came to New Zealand we had to put on American accents to get it to work, and even now she can only read directions in an Australian accent with no ability to pronounce any place names in te reo Māori.
Films need to sell hundreds of thousands of tickets to make back their enormous budgets, but one might think that novels, especially literary fiction, would be a place where language would be welcome to be used freely and experimentally without hard limits. However, when I published my first book in 2021, I discovered this was not the case, at least in the public’s perception.I kept receiving the same feedback: that the novel was good, but it was such a shame that I had written it in a way that was so specific to New Zealand because I would never be able to sell it overseas.
I kept receiving the same feedback: that the novel was good, but it was such a shame that I had written it in a way that was so specific to New Zealand because I would never be able to sell it overseas. No one would understand it, it would have no appeal. It referenced places no one knew or cared about like Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, and Queenstown, one of the world’s top-rated tourist destinations. The reviewers felt sorry for me: I could have made money if I’d written about New Zealand in a way that explained our lives and the way we talk to a foreign audience.
But instead of writing a sort of fictional Lonely Planet guide, I had glibly made reference to things like the 1990s variety show McDonald’s Young Entertainers, where a group of children would perform different pop songs at famous local tourist attractions around the country and then eat McDonald’s. Which wasn’t, financially speaking, a sensible thing to do.
I didn’t know what to think about this. I didn’t want the reaction to my book to be readers feeling sorry for me because I wasn’t making the big bucks by using “rubbish bin” instead of “trash can.” At the same time, I didn’t think it made sense to write your first-ever manuscript not by the adage “write what you know,” but rather write what you think people in Provincetown might want to know.
As well as this, and perhaps more frustratingly, the ubiquitousness of Americanisms in media is something all the rest of us just deal with every day. I was six years old watching VHS tapes wondering what “making a couple Xeroxes at Kinko’s” meant. The people who write the New York Times Connections puzzle are not thinking hang on a minute, people in New Zealand might not know that STARZ is a cable TV network and DEWY and BUOY aren’t even remotely homophones in many accents.
No one is tweeting “it’s a hundred degrees in the shade out (which is 37.8ºC and not typical this far north at this time of year).” But New Zealanders are posting “made a quick roast kūmara (sweet potato) salad, came out to less than $5 per serving (3USD).”
At some level we do seem to believe we need to be translated in order to be a part of the wider Anglosphere, and that’s something we should offer up ourselves in any type of international forum. I don’t know how helpful it is to our national identity to constantly view ourselves as anomalies who aren’t able to be understood, or to consider ourselves always from the perspective of outsiders first. Sometimes it can feel sinister when you live in a rich, Western country that minimizes itself and views itself as politically insignificant and without influence, when this is not really the case.
When I did sell the rights for my novel to be republished internationally, I fielded a lot of questions about the extent of the edits I was being asked to make. These ranged from the dullest of punctuation queries (will they make you change “Dr” to “Dr.?”) to fantastical suggestions like rewriting the whole book twice to make a US edition where the protagonists’ mother, who is originally from Aotea Great Barrier Island, was now from Rhode Island and a UK edition where she was from the Isle of Man and “maybe change the marriage plot to be about tax evasion.”I hope that if this next wave of the internet can bring one positive thing, it could be a shift away from having super-dominant cultures that everyone else feels obliged to anthropologically explain themselves to as people become more connected with more distant parts of the world.
In practice, most of the edits were restructuring sentences so that it was more obvious what they were referring to and avoiding punchlines that relied on niche references, although there were some confronting moments for me—realizing black sand beaches aren’t that common, other governments don’t list things as being on or off the cards at every media stand up, and around the world most of the birds can, in fact, fly.
It would be ludicrous to conclude that we aren’t so different after all—and I don’t currently think that as someone constantly exposed to discourse about an app where someone goes grocery shopping for you unsatisfactorily—but I hope that if this next wave of the internet can bring one positive thing, it could be a shift away from having super-dominant cultures that everyone else feels obliged to anthropologically explain themselves to as people become more connected with more distant parts of the world. Then my real pie-in-the-sky dream: global acceptance of Summer Christmas.
Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly is available via Avid Reader Press.