Damien Wilkins Biography
Nationality: New Zealander. Born: 1963. Awards: Heinemann Reed fiction award, 1989; New Zealand book award for fiction, 1993.
The Miserables. Wellington, New Zealand, Victoria University Press, and New York, Harcourt Brace, 1993.
Little Masters. Wellington, New Zealand, Victoria University Press, 1996; New York, Holt, 1997.
The Veteran Perils. Auckland, New Zealand, Heinemann Reed, 1990.
The Idles. Wellington, New Zealand, Victoria University Press, 1993.
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Damien Wilkins is part of a new generation of New Zealand writers who came of age in the midst of a surge of literary production in their home country, just as New Zealand literature was beginning to gain significant recognition internationally. With the 1990 publication of his collection of short stories, The Veteran Perils, Wilkins himself emerged as a writer of the late "post-Provincial" period, loosely characterized by its acknowledgement of international exchanges and its engagement with post-modernism and post-colonialism. He certainly meets these informal criteria in his creative work.
Wilkins's first novel, The Miserables, was published in 1993 to critical acclaim, winning the New Zealand book award for fiction. A classic bildungsroman, the novel traces the return of its protagonist, Healey, to Wellington, New Zealand, for the funeral of his grandfather. The return to his birthplace is accompanied by the return of memories, emotions, and the revelation of a self suppressed. But the self is more than suppressed, it is also dislocated, and as Healey revisits his memories of previous journeys undertaken, his dislocation is gradually displaced by a sense of place and a grounding that previously eluded him. In a creative triumph, Wilkins's imagining of Healey gains coherence precisely by abandoning all linear pretenses at coherence, as Healey slides in and out of memories and recognitions triggered by the encountering of places, or interactions with family members gathered for the funeral. However, in The Miserables there are no strategically placed epiphanies, denouements, or climaxes that will satisfy the lazy reader. Instead, Wilkins has engaged in a project of cartography that demands thoughtful contemplation on the part of the reader.
In his second novel, Little Masters, published in 1996, Wilkins makes his expectations of the reader more apparent. The novel opens with a scene of a therapy session, which we learn is taped and shared with the parents of the analyzed, forcing them to witness and consider the details of her life. This analyzed subject, who does not recur in the novel as a character, nevertheless sets the tone of the novel, and continues to signify on the story throughout in ways that are not immediately apparent. Wilkins, ever playful, further extends this metaphor of analysis by embedding other literary texts—a short story and a radio play—in the novel and creating dialogue in which his characters analyze their significance and meaning.
Thematic and stylistic similarities abound between the two novels. Both are fragmentary and episodic, spanning continents and history in their non-linear narratives. However, Little Masters is more ambitious, weaving together the narratives of several characters, all suffering a kind of spiritual dislocation. At the center of the novel are two New Zealanders in England, dissatisfied with the transnational lives they lead. One, Adrian, is the child of refugees liberated from a Polish camp at the end of World War II and relocated to New Zealand. As such, Adrian embodies several key themes that permeate that novel, including the residual effects of the trauma of war as manifested in the children of those who survive. As the dislocated son of dislocated parents who has a dislocated child himself, Adrian also draws attention to how the meaning of one's life is shifted by the experience of being a transnational subject. In order to achieve any grounding in the midst of this chaos of the unfamiliar and foreign, Wilkins's characters reconsider their primary relationships—fami-lies, lovers—as a means of staying their current sense of disorientation in their relationships with others. However, while his first novel closed with an invocation of tenderness, these notes in Wilkins are not uncomplicated: Little Masters also closes with an act of tenderness, but it is coupled with acts of innocent destruction and the presence of death.
As a graduate of the Victoria University of Wellington's creative writing course, and a former writing student at Washington University who also worked in London's publishing industry before returning to Wellington, Wilkins is widely recognized as a force to be reckoned with in the future of New Zealand literature. Not only a novelist, Wilkins has also published a book of poetry, The Idles, and written for television.