John O'Leary


Describing European writing about the orient, the critic Edward Said once noted that literary accounts of its peoples tended to be organised round ‘tableaux of queerness' (Said 103). The phrase, though dated now and open to misunderstanding, is a striking one, encapsulating as it does the tendency of these accounts to dwell on episodes characterised by the bizarre and (frequently) the cruel. Said, who had in mind writers such as Flaubert, was writing about European representations of the near/middle Eastern cultures, but his phrase can be usefully applied to European representations of peoples far from Algiers or Baghdad. In this article I'll be looking at one particular ‘tableau of queemess', or rather at a sequence of them: the little-known ethnographic novels of the nineteenth-century New Zealand ethnographer John White. Their existence reminds us that the project of representing Indigenous peoples in order to construct an opposing ‘European' or ‘Western' identity was by no means confined to the familiar territories of Africa and Asia. It was going on, in one form or another, all around the globe. White's ethnographic novels are fascinating, in particular, because they show an early attempt at fictionalising an Indigenous people — Maori — who have since been the subject of much colonial and post-colonial writing.



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