The Writing Life: Twelve New Zealand Authors – a reading by Albert Wendt and a review

 

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The Writing Life: Twelve New Zealand Authors edited by Deborah Shephard

Massey University Press, 2018

 

 

 

Albert Wendt reads ‘Used-by Date’

 

 

Twelve authors talk to biographer and historian, Deborah Shephard, about writing and living. It is a captivating new book. Deborah has done an excellent job drawing out stories and raising issues; from what it means to write alongside domestic and money-earning demands to coping with both success and failure. She is familiar with the authors’ books and the context of the times in which they were written. The interviews often feel like a warm and stimulating conversation rather than a pre-prepared interview. John McDermott took stunning photographs to accompany the text.

Joy Cowley’s interview is essential reading. I didn’t realise how tough things were for her in her first marriage and how writing became increasingly important. The depth and range of her revelations moved me. I have been a big fan of Joy’s writing for decades. Along with Margaret Mahy she has also shown me that writers can be generous beyond the writing desk – in the way they listen and back younger or emerging writers (from the child to the adult). Joy was motivated to write New Zealand children’s books because it was really hard to find local examples.

Writing was something I just did. Wanting to be a writer, well, that’s like wanting to be a breather. I just lived stories.

Joy said she used to think people were like apples that fell from trees when they withered and dried but that she now thinks of people as onions – beautifully layered. This is an apt description for the interviews, for the writing life.

Deborah undertakes the interviews on the author’s turf, often over several days, and that makes a difference. We discover that Fiona Kidman has images of her writing mentors on the wall: Robyn Hyde, Katherine Mansfield, Margurite Duras. When they talk about Fiona’s mother and her knowledge of china, there is some Royal Doulton with pansies on the wall . That this is the china that featured as decorative end pieces in Fiona’s poetry collection This Change in the Light adds layers for me. I feel present in Fiona’s kitchen and I am reminded of her terrific poems about her mother.

 

My way of communicating with the world from when I was a very solitary child was through the written word.

 

Fiona’s interview covers family, friendship and feuds, love and terrible loss, along with the origins of her novels, the way she brings them to life and the way her writing process has changed over time. Her novels catch me immeasurably with their humaneness, their warmth and empathy; and the meticulous attention paid to details (think dialogue, setting, signs of the time). I have just read her latest, This Mortal Boy, and I recommend it highly.

In her interview Fiona returns to the 1970s, a time when women were reassessing their roles, finding their voice, standing together and speaking out. I was fascinated to read the back story to her debut novel, A Breed of Women – the way an early unpublished novel, ‘Club Litany’, was shelved because ‘it wasn’t a book I was quite ready to live with’. That novel formed the basis of A Breed of Women – the novel that affected so many women at the time. Fiona talks about entering ‘some new hall of knowledge’ and the women who gave her both the confidence to write and the tools to explore feminist issues.

I was particularly drawn to Fiona’s struggle to find a way to put Māori in her novels  – Fiona grew up close to Māori communities and married a man with both Māori and Pākehā ancestry and has a daughter with Māori and Pākehā ancestry.

Again I am riveted by the conversation; the way it takes me back to Fiona’s writing and the way I reconsider what it was like to write in a particular time in a particular place.

 

Owen Marshall’s interview begins with Deborah reading his poem, ‘Missing person file – Jane Ella’, aloud. The poem features his mother and his slender memories of her; she had died when he was young. She is also there because Marshall had adopted her maiden name as his writing surname. His father remarried and had six more children to add to the initial three. Owen wanted to stay at secondary school beyond 5th form so was allowed to if he paid for it and contributed a small sum towards the household. Fascinating – the commitment to learn when many of his friends were reluctant. Like his father he savoured books and academic learning along with outdoor activities.

I loved the way Owen described the relationship between experience and invention in a novel or short story:

Much of that is my own experience, but burnished and reformed by the process that is fiction writing.

And that Owen prefers the novel to autobiography when he is asked about his short memoir:

The memoir is based on two short pieces I did for Sport magazine and takes my life only to the beginning of the nineties when I left full-time teaching and became a professional writer. I did enjoy revisiting an earlier time and earlier self, but the experience hasn’t given me a desire to write my autobiography. I prefer to be seen through the prism of my work.

 

Albert Wendt, like Joy Cowley, has gifted us literature across diverse genres and has offered  extraordinary  support towards other writers, both emerging and established. In the interview he keeps some things private out of respect to the living but he draws us close to his lineage, to parents and grandparents, to the way writing both takes flight and becomes grounded. In a talk to students at his old school, New Plymouth Boys’ High he said:

 

Our lives are made up of great joy and love and also great pain and suffering and change. At times we feel like giving up. But this is the only life we have so we have to try and survive it, and enjoy it. Live it with integrity and honesty and to the best of your gifts.

 

I want to pin this to my wall. Like many of the authors I have read so far, the writing life is a life of both challenge and joy. It is also a life of reading, and in most cases from an early age. Albert is no exception. He read the Bible and then the School Journal before hiding himself away in the secondary -school library. Then his sixth-form English teacher gave handouts of The Waste Land.

 

I’d never heard of The Waste Land but when he began reading, shit, it was like listening to music and the way my grandmother chanted. We studied the whole poem for the next two weeks and my attention was held right from the beginning.

 

Albert talks about the way he has always been political; and of his willingness to write about and challenge racism. He talks about the way politics infused Sons for the Return Home. I remember reading this book the year after I had left school – and thinking, as it settled inside me, this is what writing can do. Albert said:

 

When I write it’s mainly for myself. I’m writing a book that I would like to read. It has to mean something to me and if it has some impact on the public then good, but that is not my aim.  At the time I wrote Sons for the Return Home I had become politicised, and I still am, but I was interested in exploring colonisation, what it does to people, both the colonised and the coloniser.

 

I am also fascinated by the process of  writing and the way it differs from writer to writer. Albert speaks of writing poems:

 

I deliberately set out to make them feel effortless, but to achieve that sometimes I had to rewrite and rewrite, or leave it for a few days and then go back to it. With my new collection From Mānoa to a Ponsonby Garden I decided to write a set of poems fourteen lines long each, and centre each one on this garden and this house and Reina, our cat, me, and any other creature that entered the garden, and see what happened. I was doing what I do with my paintings, deliberately limiting the colours, and the bloody poems began to take off. And instead of having short lines I decided to have fourteen fairly lengthy lines and make them appear just casual, and closer to prose.

 

I love this book. I love the way it returns me to writing I am familiar  with and lives that I am not. It reminds me that the writing process is addictive, sustaining and for many a necessary joy. It is not a criticism – because I found the interviews I have read immensely satisfying – but at the end of each one I wanted to enter the room and carry on the conversation myself.

I shall read the other interviewed authors over summer: Marilyn Duckworth, Tessa Duder, Marilyn Duckworth, Chris Else, Patricia Grace, David Hill, Witi Ihimaera, Vincent O’Sullivan and Philip Temple.

 

Massey University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A poem from Jo Thorpe’s new collection: This Thin Now

 

This lovely hand of yours

 

The fine warmth and pulse of it – beauty gets

a sounding in the oldest skin, it takes

the flutterings of veins and chimes them through.

The mind slows and alters – as in the grove

of midnight you place a hand on top of mine

then sleep, full-upright in your blue-winged chair,

TV on, the weekend’s busy-ness – a grand-

daughter’s wedding – now over.  Dark clocks round,

intimate and mute.  Inside the space that

two hands make, I have you travelling with the stars,

your palm – enclosure of will and deed – lit

with the scripts of all your being and becoming,

the long, long story of your time.

In this gift of moment, I find myself

humming and whole, stopped at the centre

of whatever your hand has held,

between the moon’s abundance and the sun’s.

 

©Jo Thorpe This Thin Now, HoopLa Series, Mākaro Press 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Jo Thorpe was born in Wellington in 1948. She grew up in Gisborne, and graduated from Auckland University before settling in Wellington. Jo is the author of two previous poetry collections: Len & Other Poems (Steele Roberts Aotearoa, 2003, written in part as a response to the work of Len Lye and Roger Horrocks’ biography of the visionary kinetic artist); in/let Steele Roberts, 2010.

Jo has a masters in creative writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University. She taught Dance History at the NZ School of Dance in Wellington (2003-15), danced with the Crows Feet Dance Collective (2002-15) and has written dance criticism for a variety of publications.

Jo has three daughters, five grandchildren and now lives in Turanganui-a-Kiwa/Gisborne.

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Nina Mingya Powles’s I am a forest/ fire

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Nina Mingya Powles has produced a terrific new zine: I am a forest/fire – notes on Mitski & being mixed race.

 

Nina listens to Mitski, the Japanese/American songwriter, at her desk in Shanghai.

I noticed a swelling in my chest and in my stomach like something about to burst. I noticed how her voice lingers on every word. Something sweet / a peach tree.

Both Mitski and Nina are using the forward dash in lyrics/ poetry and prose as ‘A breath, a pause, a sharp shift.’ The forward dash is like the space on a line that allows room for pause, for new furnishings. There is much space in the zine. I like that.

Nina traces herself – her poetic lineage ‘made up of multiple languages and art forms, containing several oceans’.

She pulls herself into view. She doesn’t want to speak of herself in fractions with the pieces getting smaller and smaller as white people do ( I am a quarter Scottish, I might say).

I think of my own writing and how sometimes making a poem means making something exist outside of my own brain, my own skin. The poem contains parts of me and I still contain parts of it, but it’s also separate from myself, distinct, new.

I agree. We carry bits of things that we have read inside ourselves, the things that stick and prod and soothe. The things that change us forever.

Nina’s zine is like an album of pieces (the images, the Chinese characters, the hand scrawlings).

What do I know but pieces? All at once. Half sun, half moon. Half tooth, half bird. A blue lantern, a jade heart, a peach-pink melamine bowl.

The zine is beautiful. It is beautiful in the way it slows right down to a state of meditation, of facing the inner space, the diverse fragments:

The shadowy space in me shimmers like glitter.

Where there is a forest there is growth. Where there is fire there is heat. This gorgeous zine with its sharp edges is the growth and burn of  the shadowy space. It heats up inside you as you read.

And

this is writing that illuminates. The subject matter is tough – that insistent consideration of who you are. Outside a storm is close. I can see it in the dark clouds coming in from the coast and the way the manuka keep bending back. All I can think about is this zine. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

The shadowy space in me shimmers like glitter. I feel its burn and glow. It is a kowhai forest in a southern-hemisphere summer. It is bloodlines, it is threads, it is pieces of cotton hanging up to dry under a coconut palm, sheets of white and pink and blue.

 

Nina’s web site

BONUS: You can see Nina’s response to the Oceania exhibition currently on at the Royal Academy in London (essay + poems + collages/embroideries) here

 

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Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: from Gregory Kan

 

 

 

 

Moving from one world to another

is like dying in a dream

of hands and water.

Nothing is forgiven because

nothing is remembered

but the desires remain the same:

to be in a room with others

satisfied

tired of wonder

holding each other

with the good secret

of no longer having to insist on going

where we think we have to go.

 

 

 

©Gregory Kan

Gregory Kan’s work has featured in literary journals including Atlanta Review, Cordite, Jacket, Landfall, The Listener, SPORT and Best New Zealand Poems, as well as art exhibitions, journals and catalogues. His first book of poetry, This Paper Boat, was shortlisted for the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. His second book of poetry, Under Glass, is forthcoming with Auckland University Press in 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Eileen Merriman’s YA Novel Pieces of You

 

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Pieces of You Eileen Merriman, Penguin Random House, 2017

 

Eileen Merriman’s debut YA novel Pieces of You is the kind of book you want to read in one sitting because it is so breathtakingly good. It is like a globe artichoke: sweet, layered, bitter. Fifteen-year-old Rebecca moves from Dunedin to Auckland, feels like a complete outsider, misses her friends, goes to a party and something awful happens that she can’t speak of, so cuts herself in order to get relief from pain. She meets her neighbour Corey and they fall in love. His dark secrets hide alongside her dark secrets. They write poetry together. They share their love of literature.  They are good for each other but they don’t tell each other everything and that keeps the dark dark.

The chapter titles are titles of outstanding books (The Outsiders, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Book Thief, Great Expectations, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Catcher in the Rye and so on). Rebecca and Corey talk about books a lot and books become little anchors, bridges between each other, vital keyholes upon a wider world. Books are part of the fabric of their daily life and that matters. They write a poem, Rebecca writing a line and then Corey the next. I adored this book/poetry/love of words presence.

I am not going to spoil the story by telling you what happens. Read it for yourself. Just know that this is an acute reading experience. It feels utterly real. It does not smudge the tough stuff. It is kaleidoscopic in both emotion and everyday detail. Detail that animates that lives of two teens. There are countless examples of excellent books on the tough experiences that some teenagers face (drugs, alcohol, abuse, rape, cancer, suicide, the death of a friend or family member) but that is not to say such subject matter is now done and dusted. Far from it.

Eileen writes with such a flair for dialogue, for family circumstances, for teenage struggles and joys. This is the kind of book that will stay at the front of my mind all week and longer  – I recommend it highly.

Eileen has also written Catch me When You Fall (2018). Invisible Breathing is out in 2019.

Eileen’s web site