Tag Archives: Mikaela Nyman

Poetry Shelf connections: Mikaela Nyman’s Sado

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Sado Mikaela Nyman, Victoria University Press, 2020

 

 

At the end of the day, poetry and fiction are just different languages in which to express what matters most to me.

 

Mikaela Nyman, VUP Q & A

 

 

During lockdown Poetry Shelf hosted a virtual launch for Mikaela Nyman’s debut novel Sado. To miss out on the celebration of your first novel with friends and family, with people buying your books and you signing them is a big thing, and it seems so many of the books that were due during lockdown have missed out in other ways. Bookshops were shut, print media was on life-raft rations. And we were all struggling with subterranean anxiety, surreal connections with a surreal world. What mattered became a key question. I was delighted to see Mikaela has recently celebrated the book at a launch event with Elizabeth Smither.

Books are getting less attention in print media at the moment, but thank heavens for the commitment of some editors (Canvas is still doing its utmost best to include NZ reviews).  And thank heavens for online review activity. But I do hear authors saying their recent books have disappeared into the ether.

I recently read a wonderful Q & A that Mikaela did for Victoria University Press; it has prompted me to post the link here and include a few personal reactions to the novel.

 

 

She doesn’t trust her memory to retain the sharp edges. One day this will appear no worse than a regular spring storm. People will try to convince her it wasn’t half as terrifying, that she’s made it up, that they watched movies and drank wine or cups of spice tea while the storm blew itself out. It would be unfair to anyone who was caught in this cyclone and in the storms to come. Because there are going to be more of them, increasing in frequency and intensity as the earth and the oceans warm up and create this atmospheric oscillation, this unpredictable lashing and swirling.

 

from Sado

 

 

Reading Sado during a time of world catastrophe – when some people are struggling to cope with the effect of Covid on their lives, when some people have greater access to what they need – is timely. Mikaela’s novel is set in 2015 in Vanuata at the time Tropical Cyclone Pam hit. The devastation is widespread – physical yes, but it also impacts on lives in myriad ways. Cathryn is an NGO worker from Aotearoa, with a local boyfriend and a teenage son. Faia is a radio journalist, a community organiser who works hard for women. There are various tensions between contemporary life and tradition. However the blazing-hot kernel of the story is a car accident where a young baby is killed, and kastom (custom) declares a child must be offered in compensation.

 

It grew out of the realisation that Vanuatu didn’t seem to feature on people’s radar in New Zealand – despite the fact that it is only a three-hour direct flight away, and we have thousands of Ni-Vanuatu come every year to work in our vineyards and orchards.

 

Mikaela, VUP Q & A

 

Patriarchy is a dominant force – women’s lives are regulated with scant access to power, individual choices, work opportunities. Justice is called into question by different actions of the Supreme Court and the Council of Chiefs. Yet Sado showcases the power of women to connect, to support, to communicate.

My nagging question: how did Mikaela get to write a novel outside her own culture and negotiate ideas of trespass? Mikaela was born in Finland, spent four years in Vanuatu and now lives in New Plymouth with her family. She writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction in both English and Swedish, and has published a collection of poetry in the latter. Her PhD in Creative Writing (IIML) involved a collaboration with Ni-Vanuatu writers. In her endnotes Mikaela describes Sado as a work of fiction shaped by her own experience of the cyclone, and her enduring friendships with writers and former colleagues in Vanuatu. Her expressed hope, having found only a few slender volumes by Ni-Vanuatu women, is that her novel will encourage ‘women writers from Vanuatu to tell their own stories’.

The questions mounted as I read – but have in fact been addressed by the Victoria University Press interview:

And so I chose to become an ally and supporter, and perhaps a conduit for New Zealanders to glean a different perspective of their Pacific neighbour. To help explain what it feels like to be at the receiving end of such a natural disaster in our Pacific neighbourhood and to have to deal with an unprecedented influx of responders and well-intended, but perhaps misplaced, relief efforts. In parallel, I’ve shared my writing, my knowledge and skills with emerging Ni-Vanuatu women writers, facilitating creative writing workshops and collaborative poetry events, in order to find my place in the world and enable Ni-Vanuatu writers to grow as writers and see their work published. ‘Nothing about us without us,’ one of my Māori colleagues said to me when we discussed the ethos informing my research and novel writing. It reinforced my decision that working in alliance and collaboration would be the best ethical choice. Taking heart from the fact that these Ni-Vanuatu women writers were among my first readers and encouraged me to keep writing this world that they recognised, while at the same time ensuring I left space for Ni-Vanuatu writers to tell their own stories. The kind of insider stories I couldn’t possibly tell.

Mikaela, VUP Q & A

 

So for me the novel has two vital impacts. The way I muse on the context in which the book was written. The slow surfacing of women’s voices, women writers, in Vanuatu. Poet and academic, Selina Tusitala Marsh has spent a number of years researching women writers across Pacific regions, working hard at finding ways to make their voices visible, and importantly, to find an apt expression of her own reading engagements. Selina’s book is still in the making but will be a significant arrival. If Vanuatu women’s books can springboard from Mikaela’s projects and engagements, along with the efforts of local women, then that is a blessing.

The second impact is the narrative itself: gripping, character driven, building complexity in its representation of place, people, culture. That Mikaela is a poet is made clear in the sentences and rhythmical fluency, at times lyrical, at times economical. I have no difficulty with the interplay of different registers. In a sense it mirrors the entanglement of culture, relationships and experience that is paramount. At the moment, in a world struggling with clashing perspectives, needs and outcomes, everything is complicated, so many challenges.

The novel’s complexity is also placed in sharp relief by the focus on various characters. Even in the aftermath of catastrophe, life carries on. Relationships might change, circumstances are affected, and what is normal shifts. So many entangled threads: Carolyn’s teenage son, her Ni-Vanuatu boyfriend, her mother, her attachment to Aotearoa, her friendships, her reaction to cultural difference, and of course the impact of climate change. All manner of storms – minor and major – that affect individuals, partnerships, families in all manner of ways.

 

As a reader I need multiple views and multiple engagements. Sado does open Vanuatu for me, I feel like I have visited somewhere I have never been before, and encountered versions of it through the eyes and thoughts and feelings of a visitor, a visitor who has lived there. I am grateful for this book that has moved me on many levels, but like Mikaela, I hunger for space to make as many voices and stories and concerns visible and viable.

 

 

Listen to Mikaela read an extract at her Poetry Shelf online launch

VUP Q & A

VUP author page

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Lounge: VUP launches Mikaela Nyman’s Sado

 

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Welcome to the online book launch of Mikaela Nyman’s novel Sado (Victoria University Press). Settle back with a glass of wine before dinner and let’s raise our glasses!

 

Publisher Fergus Barrowman welcomes us and the book:

 

 

 

Mikaela Nyman introduces us to Sado with a reading:

 

 

 

From Kirsten McDougall, VUP publicist:

This launch was to be held in person with wine and food at Vic Books, Kelburn. We are sorry we don’t get to celebrate the launch of the book by supporting Vic Books and we ask that when business resumes, readers support them.

Here’s a link to our webpage – where people can buy the reader through Mebooks for kindle or any other ereader. People can also read the first chapter of Sado on PDF from a link on that page too.

 

MIKAELA NYMAN WEB RES finals VUP - EBONY LAMB PHOTOGRAPHER-1

 

Four  questions for Mikaela (VUP Blog, March 2020)

 

Your debut novel, Sado, is set in Port Vila, Vanuatu, just after Cyclone Pam caused massive destruction in the islands. Can you tell us about the genesis for your story?

It grew out of the realisation that Vanuatu didn’t seem to feature on people’s radar in New Zealand – despite the fact that it is only a three-hour direct flight away, and we have thousands of Ni-Vanuatu come every year to work in our vineyards and orchards. The majority of New Zealanders I encountered who had visited Vanuatu, had only been there for a day, on a cruise ship holiday. They ‘had done Vanuatu,’ or so they kept telling me. The absoluteness of this statement threw me. I was privileged to spend four years in Vanuatu and feel I’ve barely dipped below the surface – thanks to the generosity of friends, colleagues, villagers, public officials and artists who have shared the richness of their respective cultures, experiences and languages with me over time. Vanuatu stretches over 80 islands and has more than 100 languages. There’s a lot more to it than Port Vila. Yet the exotic island holiday paradise narrative prevails.

Across the Pacific, entire populations brace themselves every year for the cyclone season. But for Vanuatu it wasn’t until Cyclone Pam radically transformed the landscape in 2015 that the outside world took notice. And even then it only lasted for a moment, until a greater natural disaster in another part of the world superseded Pam. And in a heartbeat the world’s attention on a suffering small Pacific island nation was gone. It could make you cynical. Or you could start writing about it … I guess as an islander (albeit from the Northern hemisphere), and as someone who has always tried to make sense of the world by writing about it, I wanted to share a more nuanced and complex reality that included the everyday desires, tragedies, joys, limitations and absurdities that tend to make up island life.

 

You have two main protagonists, Cathryn, a New Zealand national working in Port Vila, and Faia, a Ni-Vanuatu woman, and colleague of Cathryn. Can you talk about the relationship between these two characters and how you went about the creation of these two very different people?

Cathryn and Faia are amalgams of many people I’ve encountered. There are aspects of their personalities that are made up, because the story demanded it. They are both devoted mothers and have worked together for several years in a fictional non-governmental organisation, yet Cathryn remains more reliant on Faia than vice versa.

Faia is part of a larger and more complicated local scene, with more obligations and reciprocal relationships than Cathryn will ever have. Their relationship traverses that awkward territory where they are no longer merely work colleagues, but neither are they very close friends. I wanted to explore that tension – how far you can push friendship, what may break it; what you are able to forgive, and how.

From a young age, I was hooked on Toni Morrison’s novels. Decades later, I found her insightful lectures, published as Playing in the dark: whiteness and the literary imagination, where Toni Morrison speaks about the perils of writing ‘blackness’ (specifically African-American), and equally the perils of not writing about it enough, and thereby contributing to erasing part of the world’s population from historical records and literature. I did not wish to contribute to that erasure. And I did not want a single narrative that in its incompleteness reinforces stereotype, to paraphrase Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I explored ways to include other voices and came across a helpful essay on Toni Morrison’s paired characters in her novels. It discusses how time and again Morrison’s perceived protagonist serves as an ironic anti-hero, while a secondary character, with a seemingly lesser role, demonstrates courage and overcomes immense personal and cultural obstacles. The ‘seemingly lesser role’ and the common assumption that there is only one protagonist, usually the one who takes up most space, resonated with me as an apt description of what I was trying to achieve. It confirmed to me that Cathryn, albeit the perceived protagonist, could indeed be the anti-hero. What I needed was a radical and tangible shift to physically wrestle authority from Cathryn and pass it to Faia.

 

There is a lot of discussion presently around the ethics of what stories a writer can write – can you talk about what it was like for you to write Sado? What considerations played into your writing and research of writing a novel set in Vanuatu? 

I don’t think I would ever have written a story set in Vanuatu without actually having lived there. The experience of being hammered by Cyclone Pam, a devastating Category 5+ super cyclone, is part of my own lived experience, it is my story to tell (although I hasten to add that my personal circumstances were not the same as Cathryn’s). Apart from the cyclone, there was a lot to consider. Vanuatu was never going to be reduced to mere setting, for a start.

The discovery that Vanuatu doesn’t really feature in New Zealander’s imagination was followed by a realisation that Ni-Vanuatu women’s voices and creative expressions are underrepresented, particularly in literature. I was fortunate to have Teresia Teaiwa read some of my early draft chapters and give me positive feedback before she unexpectedly passed away. It gave me the confidence to continue on this track. ‘We are tired of having to constantly explain ourselves to the outside world,’ Teresia said several times, talking about the Pasifika community in New Zealand, and more broadly about the experience of women of colour in various parts of the world. She handed me a copy of ‘Identity, Skin, Blood, Heart’ by Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Lisa King’s writing on rhetorical sovereignty and rhetorical alliance in the writing classroom.

And so I chose to become an ally and supporter, and perhaps a conduit for New Zealanders to glean a different perspective of their Pacific neighbour. To help explain what it feels like to be at the receiving end of such a natural disaster in our Pacific neighbourhood and to have to deal with an unprecedented influx of responders and well-intended, but perhaps misplaced, relief efforts.

In parallel, I’ve shared my writing, my knowledge and skills with emerging Ni-Vanuatu women writers, facilitating creative writing workshops and collaborative poetry events, in order to find my place in the world and enable Ni-Vanuatu writers to grow as writers and see their work published. ‘Nothing about us without us,’ one of my Māori colleagues said to me when we discussed the ethos informing my research and novel writing. It reinforced my decision that working in alliance and collaboration would be the best ethical choice. Taking heart from the fact that these Ni-Vanuatu women writers were among my first readers and encouraged me to keep writing this world that they recognised, while at the same time ensuring I left space for Ni-Vanuatu writers to tell their own stories. The kind of insider stories I couldn’t possibly tell.

 

You are also a published poet in your native language. How does your writing in different tongues as well as in different modes – poetry and prose – influence how you write?

I was told my alternative novel titles were too poetic, for a start! Writing in my own mother tongue was a project of writing myself out of personal grief and back to my own language universe. Through language I can belong to different worlds. I actually dream in different languages. I thought I had lost my Swedish and Finnish vocabulary, that they’d been erased by English. It doesn’t seem to be the case, although I know I haven’t been able to keep up with the slang and ever evolving obscene language.

I’ve found it’s more difficult to translate my own poetry than my prose. Language evolves according to its own logic and grammatical rules, complete with specific metaphors and implied subtexts. When I write I have to stay focused on the language I’m using in that moment to make it full justice. It can be quite tiring and takes time, with lots of cross-checking if my family keeps interrupting. Some scenes in the novel started as poems, other bits were cut from the novel but morphed into poems. At the end of the day, poetry and fiction are just different languages in which to express what matters most to me.

 

 

Thank you for coming. Please refresh your glass, make a note of the book, and enjoy the rest of your evening.

 

Next Poetry Shelf Lounge book launch will be Anna Jackson launching AUP New Poets 6 on Saturday around 5 pm.