It’s not often you get to attend the launch of a book written both by a local debut author but also by someone barely into their twenties. Book publishing is a competitive business and the path to publication can be slow and dispiriting (for those that make it there at all), so it’s an impressive achievement at any age.
All the Other Days is a book for teens, first written when Hartley was still a teenager himself. He was encouraged in this by his Shirley Boys’ form (and English) teacher who spoke at the launch, as well as by his family. While there were many subsequent years of hard work on the manuscript, interrupted by a degree in Psychology and a foray into teaching, it’s a testament to the positive influence the right teacher at the right time can have for many people — and also how the work of one author is built with the support of the community around them. A glance at the acknowledgements at the back of a book can give an idea of just how big this community can be.
Hartley is clearly passionate about bringing an authentic voice to Young Adult literature, particularly an authentic male voice which he struggled to find in his youth. (Should’ve asked a librarian.)
Many teens struggle with mental health during adolescence, on top of the usual mix of first love, dealing with school, and potentially problems at home, so being able to connect with characters having a similar experience can be a lifesaver. I have yet to read All the Other Days so can’t speak to the validity of the comparison, but the themes remind me of Will Kostakis (by coincidence another author who broke into publishing very young). If you’re looking for an exciting new addition to YA fiction then put yourself on the waiting list, because it’s looking like All the Other Days is already shaping up to be a big hit.
It’s been a good year for science fiction, with some great series wrapping up. Don’t worry about cliffhangers or long waits between sequels with these recommendations, you can read the whole lot back-to-back if you feel like it!
You might think a book series about a being who call themselves “Murderbot” would make for grim reading, but you’d be wrong. An AI SecUnit (security consultant) for a research party on a newly discovered planet, Murderbot just wants to watch their favourite media show rather than having to interact with humans. But when they’re attacked by unregistered indigenous fauna it starts to look like their research mission has been sabotaged, and Murderbot finds themselves caring more about the humans than they’d like to admit.
The sequels all feature Murderbot trying and failing to stop protecting humans from themselves, as well as a sarcastic AI ship and some of Murderbot’s back story. The final novella in the series came out at the start of this month, so if you feel like some comforting, slightly snarky science fiction then I’d highly recommend giving the series a go, starting with All Systems Red.
If Murderbot is the literary equivalent of chocolate pudding then Ninefox Gambit and its sequels are like kimchi — delicious but not to everyone’s taste. It took me a while to get into but once I did they were compulsive reading. Ninefox Gambit begins with disgraced captain Kel Cheris being given a second chance in order to recapture the Fortress of Scattered Needles. The catch? To do so she must ally with undead tactician Shuos Jedao, a man who went mad before murdering his own troops as well as the enemy. Cheris must decide whether she can trust his tactical ability, or whether he’s leading her to her own grave.
The Planetfall series is technically not closed to future sequels, but there are now three books out and they all stand alone (although there are some common threads). I find each of them very odd — Newman doesn’t go in for satisfying conclusions, but at the same time there’s something compelling about them that keeps me reading. They all grapple with mental illness in different ways, from hoarding in Planetfall to postnatal depression in Before Mars. For that reason the experience of reading each book is very unsettling, Before Mars especially so as it begins with that classic trope of arriving in a new place (Mars) only to discover a note in your own handwriting warning you not to trust the others. My favourite of the three is probably After Atlas — detective (and indentured slave) Carlos Moreno is tasked with finding the murderer of the leader of the same religious cult Carlos escaped as a teenager.
Bonus:Semiosis by Sue Burke, an entertaining but odd book about coexisting with intelligent plantlife on an alien planet.
A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White: A treasure hunter and a racing driver framed for murder and trying to clear her name both meet on a smuggler’s ship in search of riches and justice. From the reviews it sounds fun and pacy!
During the chaos of dashing between WORD sessions, writer and co-editor Laurence Fearnley kindly agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about her new anthology To the Mountains and other works.
What brought you to writing about mountaineering?
My parents used to do a lot of climbing in Scotland and Wales after the war [before moving to Christchurch]. We spent a lot of weekends tramping — dad went on a couple of expeditions to the Himalayas, my brother was a keen climber… When I was doing research for my novel The Hut Builder I read a lot of Alpine Club articles and ended up with boxes and boxes of material, so I thought it would be quite nice to do something with that. There hadn’t been an anthology of mountain writing since Ray Knox’s A Thousand Mountains Shining in the 80s, so it seemed a good time. I hadn’t really kept up to date with modern mountaineering writing but [co-editor] Paul Hersey edited the Alpine Journal and is a climber, so he had that sort of knowledge.
You researched a lot in the Hocken Collection. What was that like?
They have full archives from the Alpine Club, which was established in 1891. It’s interesting because they allowed women to join as members right from the start, compared to others like the Canterbury Mountaineering Club which didn’t allow women in until the 1980s. I got material from those archives and also from notebooks, journals, and letters that individuals have donated to the collection. It’s an amazing archival record, it’s incredible. It does taper off from the 1970s/80s onwards so it would be great if people continued to donate to the collection, if this could be our central repository of mountain writing.
A lot of voices chosen for this anthology aren’t those most people would associate with alpine writing — usually we only hear from those at the cutting edge of mountaineering.
That’s the sad thing because that’s how you get the same old voices coming through, if they’re not disrupted by allowing different voices. Mountains are a big part of our sporting identity, it would be nice if it was seen as something families do, not just rugged individuals. There are so many reasons why people go into the mountains — photography, art, for somewhere quiet and restful, to admire the beauty… The public perception of conquest [of the Alps] doesn’t really hold true, it’s not necessarily a motivation for most people.
At the same time a lot of the 1930s Canterbury Mountaineering Club articles are of trips in the Port Hills because it was difficult to get good transport to the Alps — they might only be able to get into the mountains once or twice a year but they were very fit. It was a class orientated sport, particularly in the early days. It’s interesting when the boundaries start breaking down between the upper middle class mountaineers and the working class mountain guides. Guides weren’t allowed in the Alpine Club because they were professionals.
Which doesn’t give credit to the fact that the guides were doing a lot of the work putting up tents, cutting steps, carrying the equipment…
Yes, you get someone like Dora De Beer on an expedition overseas in China, they walked 400 miles before they even got to the mountain, it was a real Victorian expedition. They would expect shelter from whatever was available, from monasteries to embassies, just take over their house. She was an amazing woman — during the 30s just before the war she would drive from London through Holland, Germany and Switzerland to get to Italy, on her own a lot of the time. Her diaries are from 1936-37, a lot of her entries are things like “Very inconvenienced getting across the border,” such a sense of imperious entitlement with no mention of the political climate. People like her were so curious and enthusiastic, in New Zealand they’d set off on horseback across Otira to the West Coast, just loving the absolute freedom of being out of that rigid society. They thought it was a great hoot.
Some of my favourite parts of the book are letters from the 1800s, there were some really funny excerpts. You must have had a lot of fun finding these in the Hocken collection. Do you have any favourites?
The ones I liked were the quieter, reflective pieces, people going back later in life and just enjoying being in the outdoors with their friends. I guess Jill Tremain had a big impact on me as a kid when she did the [1971 traverse of the Southern Alps] with Graeme Dingle — I can remember it being on the radio, there was a lot of controversy about them sharing a tent as she wasn’t married. From her letters she seemed to have such a generous outlook on life.
Voices I like least would be the 1970s slightly macho hard men stuff, that’s not a voice that appeals to me but quite a big part of the literature of the time. When you compare those writers with Aat Vervoorn, so reflective and spiritual, learning from the landscape… The ones who enjoy being in the space rather than needing to prove themselves or get a reputation, those would be the voices I like.
What are you currently working on?
I’m two-thirds of the way through a novel looking at landscape through scent and identity, under the umbrella narrative of a woman who loses her job when the university Humanities department is done away with. That one will be coming out next year. I’m also looking at doing an anthology of New Zealand women mountaineers. This will be more historical, it will be worthwhile to have a chronology of women mountaineers as there are so many of them.
What are you reading at the moment?
Just read a couple of books that I reviewed for Landfall, one called Oxygen by [New Zealand freediver) William Trubridge — not a book I’d necessarily be drawn to but interesting to see just how determined and focussed he has to be. The other is a beautiful book about hunting called Dark Forest Deep Water by Richard Fall, which would normally be something that turns me off but hearing him reflecting on why he hunts and the emotional journeys of hunting… It’s a great book, I’d really recommend it.
Thanks Laurence for a lovely interview, and I look forward to reading your next books!
Broadcaster and writer Miriama Kamo introduced the lineup for WORD Christchurch’s final session by prefacing with a definition of the topic:
adventure (n.) a wild and exciting undertaking (not necessarily lawful)
All four women featured fully fit the description, from extreme endurance to joyous risk-taking while travelling. The only thing I have in common with these ladies and their incredible lives is our gender, but while I won’t be running off to the Greenland ice cap anytime soon, their talks have inspired me to be a little more adventurous in my own life.
Hollie Woodhouse began her adventures with an Outward Bound course in her late twenties. While alone in the bush she wrote down four goals she wanted to achieve:
Start her own business
Go to the UK and do her OE
Sign up for an event each year that would challenge her
Get a tattoo
For me a challenging event would be speaking in front of a crowded auditorium at The Piano, but for Hollie that meant signing up for the Coast to Coast with no prior experience, after which she headed to London and now publishes a magazine called Say Yes to Adventure, which combines her love of design, adventures and the written word. So that’s three checked off her list, but instead of resting on her laurels she decided to apply for an expedition to the Greenland ice cap — a natural next step, I’m sure you’ll agree.
This part of the talk had me putting multiple question marks and exclamation points next to my notes: for 29 days Hollie and three others would walk from 8-14 hours on the ice, pulling a 60kg sled behind them. The weather was unseasonably bad, causing at one point a hurricane that kept them shut up in their tents for so long that a necessary toilet break was made, and in the 20 seconds they were outside the frostbite already set in. The delay caused them to take longer than anticipated, resulting in a grueling 30+ hour trek on the last day to get to the helicopter. (Who does this to themselves?!) Really puts my holiday food poisoning in perspective.
Our next speaker, Lilia Tarawa, thankfully began her talk with something I could relate to: growing up on the idyllic West Coast, surrounded by rivers, trees, bush, and mountains. She was close with her friends and family, loved going camping, and excelled at learning musical instruments. At age six she was proud to receive a glowing first school report with excellent grades and the comment that “Lilia demonstrates leadership qualities which could be useful when she gets older.” Lilia’s grandfather read this out to their gathered community at the evening dinner, and as her heart swelled with pride he popped it by saying: “We don’t need women like you.”
Lilia grew up in the cult of Gloriavale, and this was her first inkling that her world was not as wonderful as it seemed. The use of shame and humiliation to control others made it difficult for her to see herself raising children in that environment, and after the mistreatment of her best friend as an older teen she resolved to leave. Luckily the rest of her family were already on board (her two elder brothers had already left) so they were able to escape together. Despite leaving the environment it hasn’t been easy to shrug off her upbringing:
They began by using shame and guilt to degrade my self worth. Every day I was told I was a worthless sinner so when people treated me badly I thought maybe I deserve this, maybe this is my fault. My love for others broke the chains that shackled me — why was I willing to stand up for them but not for myself?
Lilia now fulfills the prediction of that early report card, standing up for both herself and others as a strong leader. “I want to tell my six year old self that she can do anything she wants to do, and never let anyone tell her otherwise.”
From the sobering reality of escaping a cult to the wry humour of Margaret Austin, who prefaced her speech with two confessions. 1) She is not Margaret Austin the former Labour MP, and 2) She grew up in Palmerston North. I forgave her these defects when she continued on to detail her escape, first from her home town and later from a cottage in Port Chalmers, fleeing overseas for 14 years. After some good experiences (Amsterdam) and bad (Athens), she ended up on a street in Paris described by Henry Miller as full of pimps and prostitutes. Perhaps that explains why, when looking for a job as a dancer, she was directed to Les Folies Bergère. (If you’re not familiar, think Moulin Rouge.) It wasn’t until she saw the picture of topless dancers on the wall of the director’s office that she realised quite what she was auditioning for. Luckily Margaret is nothing if not game, and that is how an ex-Sunday School girl from Palmerston North became a Paris cabaret dancer.
I’ve taken a lot of risks, and most of them have worked out well. If you’re going to take a risk, why take a calculated risk?
Her parting shot to the audience was the advice that if someone tells you that you shouldn’t do this or can’t do that, do it. An appealingly contrary attitude that describes Margaret perfectly.
After three incredible speakers you might be thinking that the fourth couldn’t possibly live up to the others, but Dr Michelle Dickinson put that thought to bed with the revelation that not only is she a competitive kitesurfer, she also does snow-kiting, mountain biking, runs ultra marathons, swims with sharks, goes rock climbing, and used to do competitive martial arts and cagefighting for money(!!). This is all in addition to her work as an engineer, nanotechnologist, lecturer, and now founder and Director of Nanogirl Labs Ltd. Whew! Despite being intimidatingly smart, Michelle didn’t come from a home of academic excellence — both parents dropped out of school early and Michelle herself failed the exams needed to get into nursing college, the only career option the school advisor recommended for girls. No one recognised her skills with a soldering iron and electronics at home as being valuable, or that being bad at tests didn’t mean you weren’t smart. Luckily she got into university a couple of years later and studied “the art of breaking shit and never having to put it back together!”.
Despite her many challenging hobbies, Michelle says one of the hardest things she’s done is be a woman engineer. It’s a lonely position to be in, with only 11% of engineers in Aotearoa being female. Often she has literally been the only woman in the room. As a lecturer in Auckland she struggled with letting her female engineering graduates out into the workplace, as she recognised that many won’t be safe in their jobs. The audience was treated to a range of sexist adverts and logos from engineering firms across New Zealand to illustrate her point. This situation is unlikely to change while we continue to reinforce job stereotypes, confirmed by a survey done on age 5-8 year olds where they were asked to draw a picture of an engineer. 100% were of a man. Since Michelle has started Nanogirl Labs Ltd and has brought female engineers into schools to talk about their jobs, the survey results have changed drastically. “Every one of you is a role model,” she told us (no pressure), “Every one of us can do a tiny thing that shifts New Zealand into a brand new space.”
We’re so afraid of failure in New Zealand. Take a risk! If it works, you’ll be happy. If you fail, you’ll be wise.
The perfect conclusion to a literary festival celebrating adventure and the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage, recognised by a standing ovation by the audience. I’m already looking forward to the next one.
Jeanette King, Hana O’Regan (head manager of Oranga at Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu), lecturer Hēmi Kelly and writer/broadcaster Miriama Kamo gathered early on Sunday morning to kōrero about one of our official languages, te reo Māori.
All agreed that there has been a positive shift in the last few years towards te reo, a gathering of momentum or fruition from the hard work from the past decades. There has been a nationwide increase in enrolments of those learning te reo Māori, and presence in the media has been increasing, with reporters all the way up to our Prime Minister using te reo on TV and radio. Exciting times!
Miriama was keen to capitalise on this goodwill by starting to teach our history properly in schools to understand what we as a country have gotten wrong or right, to understand who we are and where we come from through an historical perspective. For her pronunciation is a key place to start: “For me I love to hear people trying, even if you get it wrong your heart’s in the right place. This is our official language! We should be owning it, wanting to speak it.” This is especially important for those with a Māori name: “If you don’t pronounce my name properly it’s not really my name, is it?” Something close to my heart as someone whose name is also frequently mispronounced.
Hana thought promoting te reo as a normal part of our community is an important step in getting over our fear of bilingualism or multilingualism. We’re all still caught up in the historical narrative that learning more than one language compromises our ability to use our first tongue, or that te reo isn’t useful, which isn’t supported by the evidence at all: we’re actually doing our children a disservice by raising them monolingual. “Bilingualism is a benefit to everyone — it doesn’t matter what language it is, but the positive impact is compounded [with te reo] because it’s connected with our history and the land.” Hēmi agreed, pointing out that as New Zealanders none of us are that far removed from te reo Māori as we are surrounded by Māori place names and kupu that are in common usage.
When Jeanette asked about those who feel hesitant to learn and speak te reo due to worrying about appropriating yet another aspect of Māori culture, Hana shook her head. “I can’t even comprehend a negative reaction to someone learning to speak Māori. Every person who uses te reo is actually showing not just respect but is doing their bit to make sure this important part of our heritage is still around.” In fact as more people learn te reo and we hear more around us, the easier and quicker it will be to learn, and the easier it will be to find teachers who can teach te reo. The struggle to find qualified teachers is one major obstacle for immediately making te reo Māori compulsory in schools, so a graduated approach is recommended. Making sure all graduating teachers have a certain proficiency would be a good first step.
It takes a short time to demolish a house but it takes a lot longer to built it — Christchurch knows this! It takes longer to reconstruct something that has been destroyed. Don’t get disappointed by the first hurdle, or pot hole or road block. Good things take time and Aotearoa is worth it. — Hana O’Regan
This goes also for those struggling to learn te reo — just because you’re not amazingly fluent straight away doesn’t mean you should give up! Every bit you learn is helping those around you as well as yourself. Hēmi: “Everybody in this room is a change agent.”
Nic Low (writer of an upcoming book described as “a bicultural response to the Southern Alps”) opened the session by asking author Laurence Fearnley to read a passage from To the Mountains, her recent anthology of alpine writing co-edited with Paul Hersey. She chose Young, short, and loving it by Rebecca Smith, a short account of the mad rush of preparing for a weekend in the mountains while she was still at high school.
Laurence explained that the anthology was consciously structured in the shape of a mountain, beginning at sea level, rising towards the bush, glaciers and saddles, up to the peaks and the epics, and then coming down and reflecting. There was also an interesting shift in the style of writing used from generation to generation, with earlier (mostly British) climbers in Aotearoa using very romantic language to talk up the scale of their climbs, compared to the more laconic writing of Kiwi climbers later on:
“The more deadpan the description the harder the climb,” joked Nic.
Most writing was also limited to those of a certain wealth and class until access to the mountains became easier and mountaineering became more democratic in the 40s and 50s. After that came the 70s hard-man stories, full of machismo, before getting into more reflective and gentle narratives like Aat Vervoorn.
Laurence warned that this book is definitely not of the most extreme mountaineering experiences, so don’t look to it for the top 100 climbs. When selecting material they consciously expanded the boundaries from those first ascents and difficult routes (which tends to favour one particular voice), and looked at the experiences of family groups, women who used guides early on, the guides themselves, and Māori experiences in the mountains.
When you include these people, those who enjoy going into the mountains to connect with the beautiful landscape or as an escape from the city with friends, then you realise how many people participate — people who would be overlooked if only looking for those at the peak of New Zealand mountaineering.
Some of these experiences make difficult reading. Anyone even tangentially involved in mountain climbing will know of someone who has perished in the hills, and some of the extracts address that loss along with other miserable experiences on the mountains. “Why do we love suffering so much?” wondered Nic, but of course the flip side is the emotional connection that being in the outdoors can provide, the joy of a successfully completed challenge.
Some pieces in the anthology had me laughing out loud: a group of climbers lugging a bunch of tins of various luxury food items along on their trip, only to open each one to find the same disappointing can of kidneys; Jill Tremain’s ‘Letter to Mavis Davidson’ about being caught out by bad weather for several days and finding her decades-old food stash, getting drunk on the tin of apricots and trying everything to make the stale biscuits more palatable.
These highs and lows are all documented in To the Mountains, the latest in our whakapapa of alpine climbing and literature, so if you’re an avid mountaineer, tramper, climber, or simply interested in some gripping stories of the New Zealand outdoors, I’d recommend having a look. No crampons required.
Ant Sang has worked on a diverse range of projects, ranging from solo novels such as Dharma Punks and Shaolin Burning to collaborative projects such as working on bro’Town, or their most recent collaboration with screenwriter Michael Bennett on graphic novel Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas. Writer and comics fan Tracy Farr questioned Ant on his artistic process, the ideas behind his works, and his progression as a cartoonist.
How does he translate someone else’s words into pictures (as in Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas)? Through reading the script, trying to get a feel for the characters and the world and what that looks like, and doing a lot of sketches. This can take time because they aren’t his creations, having to figure out what his connections are to the characters. This is often an evolving process — for example, Helen at one point had a shaved head, but Ant joked that she looked a bit too Charlize Theron in Mad Max and so her hairstyle changed.
When asked about his decision to include strong female characters in his work, Ant seemed understandably baffled.
I didn’t set out consciously to do it… I write a lot of Asian characters because I am Chinese, but I didn’t set out to represent them, it just felt natural. I’m very interested in where you fit in the world, what makes you comfortable in your skin, as I always feel like an outsider. In pākeha culture I’m conservative, coming from a Chinese background, but I’m a weirdo in the Chinese community. I’m looking at how we find ways to fit in.
This comes through in his exploration of martial arts and training in his novels, as a transformation physically, emotionally and mentally — “How you get from one state of mind to another is really interesting to me.”
Regarding his use of colour, it all comes down to practicality. The Dharma Punks was in black and white because in the 90s most cartoonists were photocopying their comics — “We’d exchange tips on which photocopiers in Auckland produced the purest black with no smudge lines” — whereas Shaolin Burning was intended to be sold in bookshops and therefore required a more subtle shades of grey approach. Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas is in colour due to the go-ahead from the publisher, which suited the vibrant and hopeful Helen. Similarly the decision to tailor the story to young adults came from the publishers, who thought it suited a teen audience. Ant and Michael bounced some ideas off each other and Helen became an environmental activist rather than an unhappy wife.
Ant’s next project will be smaller scale, a futuristic dystopia featuring a young character on the run being hunted down by a sinister group. Something to look out for!
Much like Juno Dawson’s fiction, this talk covered a wide range of topics, from her latest novel Clean — a realistic look at heroin addiction and withdrawal through the lens of its socialite heroine, Lexi Volkov — to her shared love of the Spice Girls with interviewer and fellow Young Adult author Karen Healey, to Doctor Who and Juno’s upcoming tie-in novel featuring the new reincarnation of the Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker.
Asked about the genesis of Clean, Juno talked about her own experience with drug education as a teen (similar to the sex education talk in Mean Girls), her stint travelling around teaching teachers how to deliver sex and drugs education, and her research into what leads people into addiction. From speaking to a range of participants in the 12 steps programme she found that what they all had in common was that they could trace the seeds of their addiction back to when they were in their early teens.
When I was a teenager people we knew were starting to experiment with drugs, and we couldn’t help but notice that they didn’t die. You take drugs and nothing happens, you don’t take them and immediately end up on the streets. That’s how you become addicted: it’s a slow process, addiction creeps up on you and you have this constant sense of unrealistic optimism, that you’re in control. You’ll think it’s fine until three or four years down the line when it’s not.
From drugs to girl power: What made the Spice Girls such a revelation for so many young people? “They were five ordinary girls who got out.” Rather than the refined, polished pop stars of today, the Spice Girls looked like the local girl gang scrounging for cigarettes outside the fish and chip shop. Aspirational but in a relatable way. Identifying as a presenting male fan of the Spice Girls wasn’t easy, however, and it was then that Juno began to opt out of the mainstream and gave up on the notion of being a boy.
What about the phenomenon of male authors being praised for writing about teen girls while female authors get sidelined? Juno had two responses, one being support for more platforms and publishing deals for authors from minority groups – “we need those voices, those are the people who’ll do it the best, who’ll have that authenticity” — but also as a writer the job is literally to imagine what it’s like to be other people. “Otherwise we’ll all be writing memoirs until the end of time.” A lot of the praise for male authors writing female protagonists also stems from the idea that those experiences are difficult for someone else to imagine, as opposed to the default of straight boyhood which anyone could identify with. “It’s frustrating when male authors are disproportionately praised… That said, a lot of the big names in YA are people like Judy Blume. I feel very privileged to write under the legacy of women like her.”
Speaking of identifying with the other, what’s it like writing about the alien, two-hearted traveller in a magic police box?
I always imagined myself (and still imagine myself) as the companion. The companions are the audience discovering the universe, the Doctor is actually the sidekick. The Doctor should always be a slightly unknown quantity. Fans [reading my book] will quickly recognise that Jodie Whittaker is still the Doctor, there’s no difference — it’s the same character as the thirteen men who have played this alien. If you can’t handle her being the Doctor then you’re going to struggle with the notion of fantasy as a genre.
Is it a Young Adult author’s responsibility to provide hope in their books?
Sometimes we react to triggers, but is it fear of tackling something, fear you might need to change something in your life? Or is it putting you in danger? Is reading this book going to damage you? You need to decide for yourself whether you’re just scared (in which case the book might help) or you’re in trouble and aren’t in a place to read it.
That said, Karen posited that addressing difficult topics in fiction can make it easier to discuss, Juno agreeing:
It provides just two of three degrees of separation so you can deal with real things in a safe space.
Five eminent queer writers and artists gathered on Friday evening to speak on the topic of feeling comfortable in their skin, with personal responses to a personal topic.
Georgina Beyer (former politician, agitator for trans rights)
I felt wrong in my skin from the get go. It manifested itself at four years of age with my play behaviour tending towards the more feminine – which was seen as cute and funny for a while, until I grew older and I was disciplined out of it because it had become embarrassing (for them). It didn’t make the behaviour go away, I just became more secretive. It’s very damaging to make someone suppress that, very cruel… Later, I met friends who could sense that there was more to me than just George.
Unfortunately being liberated as Georgina didn’t go down well with her bosses at the time, who felt being seen in women’s clothing undermined the character they were portraying on a popular TV soap opera. The feeling of being comfortable in her own skin was too good to pass up for the sake of a TV show so that fell by the wayside with no regrets.
When asked who would play her in the movie of her life, Georgina caused amusement with her reply: “Well, it has to be a transsexual actor. Hopefully of Māori descent, as I am. JLo?”
Sonya Renee Taylor (poet, writer, activist)
What is radical self love? Radical self love is who you already are. You came here that way. No one sees a self-loathing three year old saying “I hate my thighs!” because toddlers think they’re awesome. Radical self love is the inherent uncompromising idea that you are worthy just as you are, with no external factor that can lessen your inherent worthiness. Self confidence is nice, but the reality is it’s fleeting. Radical self love proposes that regardless of how I feel I am still enough, even when I feel like shit.
Her thoughts on self deprecation: “A lot of comedians use this. It still relies on a hierarchy of bodies, even if you decide you’re okay at the bottom it still leaves the hierarchy in place. Self deprecation is: Let me hit me first. It’s a response to an oppressive world, if I slap me first then you won’t slap me. Let’s make this a world where no one has to be slapped!”
How did she get to where she is now? The Body is Not an Apology started out of a conversation with a friend where they opened up about feeling they couldn’t demand safety as a sexual partner due to their cerebral palsy, whereupon Sonya replied: “Your body is not an apology. It’s not something to offer up to say sorry for your disability. What would the world look like if we both stopped apologising for our bodies?”
How to stop being apologetic about your body? “Think about your daily intake of media. It’s trash! Intentionally or unintentionally we are taking in tremendous amounts of body shame messages from morning to bed: Are your teeth white enough? Is your hair turning grey? What’s that cellulite? Practice some intentionality and notice what you’re taking in, then be intentional about removing it.”
Part of the work of radical self love is recognising whose agenda is your self hate? Who profits from you hating yourself and the bodies of others? We are operating in a system that makes a lot of money keeping us invested in being lesser or greater than other bodies. There is no peace if peace is hinged on the erosion of someone else’s spirit. When we divest from that system it becomes less powerful, and then we get the power back. And then we change the world.
Pati Solomona Tyrell (interdisciplinary visual artist)
When asked about the creation of FAFSWAG he spoke about how he was lucky to have a great foundation and support in his family, but they could never truly understand the experience of being queer and what that meant. It was important to find a group of friends and have somewhere outside of the church to share those experiences as queer Pacifica are not afforded space in society — nights at FAFWAG are a safe, free space just for them, where they can reclaim mana and power.
I’m the only non-Christian person in my family now. Colonisation destroyed a lot of spirituality practices in the Pacific, so I’m trying to find spirituality through nature and a connection to land in my artwork.
Was he comfortable in his skin growing up? Uh, no.
I grew up in a conservative family, took 18 years to come out. Having to hold something back from them wrecked me, I found it hard to keep that big part of my identity away from my family. I needed to let go of my fear and be comfortable in myself. I was fortunate that they said everything I wanted to hear… Imagine what a world without family would be. I think [support from families] is slowly becoming more the norm, the more I meet other queer Pacifica kids and hear their stories, it seems to be a slowly growing positive experience.
Manuha’apai Vaeatangitau (artist)
Manuha’apai had a more negative experience, shifting between different islands growing up and having to align himself within those spaces every time. Going to a Catholic boys’ school in South Auckland made things worse, with violence and confrontation a constant from his peers. At home things weren’t much better — coming out at age 15 wasn’t met with a positive reception. He spoke about the impact of colonisation on Polynesian culture and especially the insecurity Polynesian men can have about their masculinity, policing anyone for displaying femininity. The introduction of the church has a lot to answer for. “We bear the burden of that in our communities, we carry their shame as well as our own.”
It’s made me very resilient. My search for comfortability came with a burning fiery anger: You’re going to be comfortable now, here, or you’re gonna die trying.
When asked if he felt his generation had it worse or better than those previous, Manu shrugged off the question.
I think it’s plurality… We’ll all still be drowning in the ocean no matter how deep we are. It’s pointless comparing because we all have colonisation in common. It’s a waste of energy.
…Which dovetails nicely with Sonya’s point about being supportive of each other rather than putting ourselves and others in a hierarchy.
Dame Anne Salmond: anthropologist, professor, environmentalist, writer, eloquent speaker, and still frequently asked to refute the opinions of the same old ex-politicans giving their ill-informed reckons about te ao Māori and its place in New Zealand. A tiresome task for someone who has spent their lifetime learning as much as possible about tikanga Māori and has literally written several books on the subject, so it was a treat to listen to Eruera Tarena engage Dame Anne in conversation.
Eruera Tarena started off the session by asking Dame Anne to expand on their shared connections to his namesake, ancestors and prominent elders Eruera and Amiria Manutahi Stirling, inspiration for several books. While on a scholarship in the States she was often asked to speak about New Zealand and realised she didn’t know an awful lot about some aspects of our country, and therefore resolved to learn te reo Māori on her return. This she did, and it was while studying the subject at university that she met the Stirlings, hitting it off immediately with Amiria. A strong friendship ensued, involving a lot of storytelling and singing on Amiria’s part, and a gradual mentorship in te reo and tikanga Māori from Eruera Stirling. Upon the completion of Dame Anne’s masters, Eruera declared that “the marae is the university for you now.” This involved what sounds like two years of fun road trips in their little blue VW to different marae, soaking up the knowledge of kaumātua around the country and hearing about Amiria’s life as they drove.
I learnt as much through the skin as through reading or recording. When you talk to someone for a year about their life, marvelling at the stories you’re hearing, your lives become mingled. It’s a very intimate thing to do, and a huge gesture of trust to let your life be filtered through someone else’s pen.
Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds, Dame Anne Salmond’s most recent book, focusses more on the meeting of two cultures in early New Zealand history, bringing a more nuanced view to a time often written about solely as one of conflict. Dame Anne said in response to those that see European arrival as an enlightening influence on “savage” Māori that “they obviously don’t know much about European history”, referring to the frequent conflict in Europe at the time.
Regarding climate change and how we can come together to preserve our waterways and environment for future generations, Dame Anne spoke about the exploration in her book of how we can expand our ways of thinking of living with waterways — especially understanding that these are living system on which we rely, and therefore the necessity of restoring our rivers and springs. Some of this thinking emerged from work on a local eco-sanctuary and seeing the positive growth from that effort, seeing birds and native plant species return.
Tears of Rangi is about first encounters, asking deep questions about what’s the potential for us and our future. It’s an attempt to round off what I’ve been thinking about for a lifetime, to indicate some possibilities of what we can do together. I think we can do a lot. We’re trying, but we could do more.
The session closed with a tauparapara beloved of Eruera Stirling, speaking of what binds us and the coming together of spirits.