As the movie proves, it isn’t just books that inhabit Sheila’s world. It’s also wonder and passion for the natural world — plants, animals and rocks. This translates into writing and beautiful illustrations. The documentary shows so much — her love for the sea and sailing, honeymoon spent in the hut under Mt. Aoraki, the fun of learning Icelandic and swimming with seals, her close and dear friendship with Janet Frame in their formative days as young writers. Got the feeling? Who needs a TV and a car if you can enjoy a night camping under the stars and a bicycle tour from Picton to Bluff?
Sheila Natusch greatly contributed to the understanding of nature by writing and illustrating Animals of New Zealand, the first comprehensive reference guide on this subject. She carried on writing all her life, on nature and history. Sheila has her artistic talent (inherited from her mother and grandmother) to accompany her words with convincing yet soft illustrations. In 2007 she was awarded New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to writing and illustration.
Watching the movie, it is not hard to see what compelled producer Christine Dann and filmmaker Hugh MacDonald (Sheila’s cousin) to capture Sheila on film. With premieres rolling out in cinemas from Auckland all the way to Gore, they are both fully occupied these days, but Christine still found some time to reveal the backstory of this inspiring project.
When did the idea to make a documentary about Sheila become obvious and where did it come from?
Director Hugh Macdonald has known Sheila all his life and always wanted to make a film about her, as she is such a fascinating character, as well as a woman of great achievements. I knew about her achievements before Hugh introduced me to Sheila, and as soon as I met her knew she’d be a great film subject.
Sheila is such a cinematic character, her enthusiasm and love for life in all its forms is beaming from the screen. Her story and persona are perfect for a form of a film storytelling. What was your intention in making this documentary, besides portraying Sheila and telling her story (because it also is a film about nature, New Zealand, wonder, curiosity and passion)?
Hugh and I share Sheila’s love of nature and the wild places of New Zealand. We agree with her that they are a source of much joy and inspiration. In making a film about her we wanted to share some of that joy and inspiration via someone who embodies it.
You produced the documentary but also contributed as a researcher and writer. How long did your research take, what were the main resources you used?
The research for the film took about nine months, but that was spread over 18 months in time as it involved going to Dunedin twice, down the West Coast, and to Southland and Stewart Island. My written sources included Sheila’s letters to her parents in the 1940s, and to Professor Ramsey in the 1950s and 60s, plus all her published work, both books and articles. Of course I talked to Sheila a lot to check things out as needed.
Is there a funny story from behind the scenes, something that happened during filming that you could share with our readers?
There always seemed to be lots of surprises happening, mostly good ones – such as the completely unexpected delivery of a box of chilled mutton birds to Sheila’s place when we just happened to be there with the camera for other reasons – and that enabled us to shoot the scene in the Bach Cafe where Sheila takes them to her friend Maraea to cook up for them all.
The visit of the Ecuadorian navy sailing ship the Guayas to Wellington in January 2016 was another such good surprise, even though we had to scramble hard to get the filming organised
Sheila made nature and science accessible to New Zealanders in a user-friendly and encouraging way, especially with the Animals of New Zealand. However, she was to an extent criticized by scientists due to a lack of scientific language in her works. Why do you think that happened?
She was writing at a time when the scientific community (especially the Royal Society) was trying to raise the status of science as a profession of experts who communicated largely with each other, rather than the general public. Sheila has always believed that knowledge about nature needs to be shared as widely as possible, and that means writing in non-technical, jargon-free and also lyrical ways.
Sheila is extraordinarily talented in so many different ways: she is an amazing self-taught illustrator as well as a writer, she has a great passion, understanding and an eye for the natural world, she is a researcher and an “outdoor pioneer-ess”. And she managed – it seems like all throughout her life – to nurture and develop all those talents, which must have been quite hard in those days.
Sheila is not only very intelligent, she’s also very determined, so although she was certainly knocked back and excluded from some things she wanted to do, or ways she wanted to do them, she just kept on pushing until she found a way around the obstacle.
Which is your favourite motto or a thought from Sheila’s wise yet witty repertoire of thoughts?
Too hard to choose! But in the film you’ll hear her say several times that you have to ‘keep on keeping on’ when challenges arise, and that’s a good advice.
I was very delighted, when I realised that Sheila quotes Walt Whitman in her introduction to Animals of New Zealand (his poem The beasts, which talks about the animals). I wonder if she ever in your conversations revealed her fondness for any other authors and who were they?
She has a big library of books on ships and sailing, and likes novels and poems about the sea and life on it. She can remember a lot of songs and poems from her early years with a sea theme, such as John Masefield’s Cargoes. She’s pretty good on Shakespeare as well.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers about Sheila and your movie?
It has been very rewarding for Hugh and me to share our enjoyment of Sheila, and her enjoyment of life, through this film, and find that is (as we hoped) resonating deeply with other people.
Sheila’s story told through the camera lens is full of curiosity and wonder for nature and great outdoors that surround us. It proves that those who observe and see, will be rewarded greatly – with life-long beauty and content. Make sure you see it!
I am standing next to the old Government Building in Christchurch. It’s early morning and the air is crisp and smells of expectations. In front of me is the cathedral in ruins. But from where I stand, I can also see a new building coming up. The new central library, with its promise of healing …
I am waiting here to meet Fiona Farrell to talk about her new book, which has been launched last week. Decline and fall on Savage Street, a fiction sister to non-fiction The villa at the edge of the empire, is yet another joyful gift with sophisticated form, lovable characters, relevant issues and healing properties that should not be underestimated.
Congratulations Fiona, for another beautiful gift that you have given to the city of Christchurch and also to the wider community.
I was really impressed by the form of this book. It’s a novel but at the same time, each chapter works on its own like a short story and it stands on its own like a delicately crafted jewel. I was wondering where did the idea for the form come from?
From the city itself, from the fact that everything seemed to be falling into little bits. When I started writing The Villa at the edge of the empire, the fact one, that’s a twin to this one, I wrote that in small chunks. I thought of them as bricks or little pieces of timber, salvageable, and then you put them all together to make a shape, so it was like a salvage operation.
I also felt that it’s wasn’t just the physical destruction of the city, but what I was feeling as an older woman who has lived here for nearly 70 years, was the demolition of a social structure that sustained people, and its replacement with lots of individualist policies and theories that are affecting the way people live in this country. It felt like it wasn’t just a physical demolition, but a social and political one. So I wanted to put all these little bits together and try and reconstruct a sort of history out of all these bits and pieces. A bit like a Kiwi crib, when you knock all your bits together, I think that’s very New Zealand style.
The whole story is a great portrait of the 20th century. The history is often happening in the background, but the reader is constantly aware of it. I had a feeling that all the way through the story, the terrifying events in history were somehow distant, they were happening far away and to others. Only with the earthquake it becomes real and is happening to characters of the story. People are suddenly part of this terrible history.
Yes, it becomes very intimate and personal with the quake. One of the challenges in writing the book was to find a little link between an event (like World War Two), a personal intimate link with here and something that would leave its mark on a house, particularly this individual house in this imagined street.
Sometimes it would be because someone remembered the house. The man in World War Two, who is wounded, has a photograph of the corner of the house. Later on in the story, there’s a painting of him by a woman that he wanted to marry, who lives in a house. This painting has a shadow under a tree, which is a reference to him. So it would be a link like that, or someone might be directly involved in a major event, like WWII, or there might be a kind of echo of it. Like with Eric, the agent, who behaves like the McCarthy-ist spies in America, but does it in this little house.
Sometimes it’s a sort of an echo, and sometimes it’s a metaphor. So when the Berlin Wall falls down and all the barriers collapse in other parts of the world, it’s the kitchen wall that’s been taken down in the house, and two families are blended together. So sometimes it’s a metaphor, sometimes it’s an actual link.
Eric is one of the characters that I really didn’t grasp. He was the most mysterious figure in the whole story for me, but I did get a feeling that he might be a spy.
Yes, well, he’s an agent. He’s an agent of the government survey of the people who were suspected to be communists in the late 40s and 50s. There was this kind of anti-communist agitation here, as it was all over the world, in places like America and Britain. People were singled out if they were suspected of having communist sympathies. So he’s just an echo of that over here in Christchurch.
The other thing I was very impressed by was the form of each chapter, the way you form the beginning and the end. It seems very simple, but it’s extremely powerful because it gives you a feeling of a flow that’s beyond human control, that life is so much bigger and complex and stretches beyond the single events that are portrayed in the book.
I like leaving the beginning and the end of the chapter ragged, so you come in with a few dots in the middle of the sentence. Again it’s a part of that salvaging, it’s that the story is just a little piece that’s been salvaged and there’s a whole lot of other stories. So I’ve just got this one which has got torn edges and it doesn’t properly end either, it’s got a torn ending. So that story can continue out of sight.
I always think fiction is what you read, the story on the page, but then there are all the other stories that are implied within that book. That’s a sort of thing that’s been rather fashionable I suppose in the last 20 years or so, to make books out of minor characters for example or to say what would happen if something else had eventuated, to reframe the known story. That’s a sort of thing I’m working on as well, that idea that there’s a whole other narrative, a great big narrative, and you just choose this little bit. That’s the bit that you pick up from a ground, it’s just that little brick and you pick it up and you hold that one up. It’s kind of salvaging operation.
At the same time, that little brick tells the wider story as well, it’s so entwined in its context, which can have social, political, economic, environmental weight … so you can actually see a whole house in that little brick. I think that’s very hard to achieve and is at the same time the beauty of fiction.
Yes, that’s exactly right. In this particular fiction, it’s always a problem how you’re going to shape the material and tell a story. For me, it always has to start with structure. I always have to have a shape in my head. Other people might start with a character, or an event, or something like that, but for me, it’s a shape
I often find, when I’m talking about my books, I do this – an arch (Fiona draws an arch with her hand in the mid air) or a span. In this one, the shape is one hundred little pieces and once I have that in my head, once I have a shape clear, and the way I’m going to present it, everything falls into place. That dictates what I can tell, how long the book can be. It dictates how much you can actually pack into a short chapter, it gives you a very precise formula in which you can work.
It sounds a bit dry, but for me, it’s very reassuring, because it’s such a massive material and you could just tell a great sweeping saga that went straight through from A to B, but for me, it feels more comfortable. I feel at ease, writing this small precise pieces and it makes me very, very particular and very concentrated. It’s like writing a poem or a short piece of fiction. So I have to be economical, but I have to pack into that something about the character, I have to move the narrative forward, I have to put the reference to the house, there are particular things that I have to do within that tiny shape and it disciplines me.
I have noticed the voices of characters came through very well in each chapter. You can tell straight away which character is telling the story. I think you captured those voices really well.
I really enjoyed writing them all, I loved writing Poppy, she was my favourite. I liked all of them, even Eric in his funny, disturbing way.
I was really fascinated by the power of your imagination, I think it shines in the scope of various people who lived in the house and their stories. Where do you get the ideas from? There is such an abundance of them in this book.
The problem I have is too many ideas. The problem is limiting them. That’s really the problem I have, it’s the selecting.
Wow. It must be nice to have that problem, as a writer, I guess?
I don’t think it’s necessarily an advantage. It’s not an advantage to have loads of ideas because you still have to select and still have to discipline yourself, you have to restrain, what can happen, and make choices. It doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.
I guess that’s when your form helps.
It does, because it let me write lots of different little stories, which I enjoyed. And I also liked discovering history, things that I found by coming to the library and looking through the microfilm. I still like sitting in the library and finding all material that’s there.
If we return back to the characters, and I might be a bit biased here, but I got a feeling that women characters are really holding up the households in the house all the way through the book until the earthquake hits. That’s when female character Janey intuitively gives up and her husband Rob is trying to save the situation and is trying to hold it all together.
Yes, that’s true particularly for the first part, when Violet is there for a long long time. And I suppose Min and the hippy commune as well. I wanted to try to keep the balance, because history is often told from a male point of view and particularly in this country, or anywhere really. It can very often be a history of great male figures. I’m an old 70s feminist and we’ve been fighting that one for a very very long time. All my life really. It’s also that I do know how female characters work. I’m less secure when I’m writing male characters. I can understand the complexities of a female thinking. I wanted to try to keep the balance.
I think it is a good balance, especially with Rob, he balances it out. And Paul as well.
I loved Rob. He keeps on trying to make his pizza oven, I thought he was gorgeous.
It was very interesting to observe different timelines, which exist in the novel. One is the human-scale time. The other two are much slower and they belong to the natural world, have their own rhythm. Again, these two timelines, one of the river and the other of the earth, they create a different perspective of events. They give the perspective of human insignificance compared to the natural world, a reality that just passes by in its own slow rhythm.
Yes, and very magical and wonderful one. I find eels, the journey of those big female eels when they’re eighty, ninety, hundred years old, back up to spawn, amazing. How that’s imprinted in a thing that’s a size of a whitebait on arrival! I’m just in awe of the natural world, and I’ve become more so as I get older. It just seems more and more extraordinary. And valuable and a real corrective to human self-importance. We just have to do the best we can here, and live as well as we can, but make it possible for everything else to live as well. We really have been on a crazy path.
I think out of your characters Sybil is the one most connected to the natural world.
She is, though she never moves outside of the house and garden, she stays there all her life, so she’s the one who lives the most restricted life in some ways. I wanted to show that idea that you can have this tiny, little, precise, fixed environment, but it’s got everything in it. If you just want to look at it. She looks, she’s the one who sees things. Partly because she’s been damaged slightly by almost drowning, after falling off the raft. But she sees the world very clearly and understands the beauty of animals and plants. She never moves much beyond the gate, very rarely.
Though she lives very rich life, she’s mostly turned inwards. And outwards to the beauty around her. I really liked her.
I did too. Solid little lady in her little grubby old dungarees. She’s great, little witch lady.
But also very strong at the same time.
Yes, she’s very determined, very strong, sure about who she is and what she’s doing. Yes, I liked her.
There are also many metaphorical layers in your novel. A lot of metaphors are kept in the frame of each chapter, but many flow all the way through the book. The most compelling one for me was the image of the architect at the beginning of the narrative. I saw it as a metaphor for a writer, who’s crafting lives of characters. Throughout the book it gains even greater importance, it’s almost a god-like figure. I imagined you in this figure of an architect.
It’s the story of creation. The Biblical story is the creation of the chaos and there’s the world, the natural world, and the God creating everything. But that’s the story of creation as an over-reaching western myth, or for some people it’s belief. But it’s also what actually happens, this idea of random existence and the way we create structures out of random events, whether they’re the way we interpret something that’s happened and make narratives out of it, or, whether we decide we need a shelter and we assemble lots of random pieces together from all over the place and we make a shelter for ourselves.
Because we need shelter, we’re a naked little animal without a shelter. It’s a necessity for us as a creature. What I liked about the architect is partly that he adds a little tower. He’s doing something very practical and right at the end, just before he goes off for his lunch, he adds a little detail, which is just a silly little tower, little turret with a room in it. And because of that tower, because he added that to the house, certain kinds of people keep getting attracted to the building, because it’s got a kind of romantic playfulness. There’s sort of joy in it. And each of them brings their own imagery to the idea of the tower or the turret.
What interests me is that the house never really grows into a character. It stays in the centre of the novel, it works as a setting, becomes a home and a sanctuary for so many generations, until the end, when it gets demolished and I think that’s when it becomes the most alive. It explodes into life.
Yes, just like the eel, living its 100 years and then it explodes. I love that. It wasn’t something I planned, but I love it. Thank you. I’m glad that’s how it seems.
This book is a perfect read for someone who hasn’t experienced the Christchurch earthquake and post-earthquake situation but is intrigued in how it must have felt, how it must have been on a personal level. I think you captured the aftermath, all the emotions, frustrations and everyday struggle extremely well. Only art allows us to capture life in such ways.
Yes, exactly, I think so too. I think there’s a certain amount you gain from reading facts, of course there is. You can read books about places or events, which are factual and have enormous power. But to really find out, to get in the intimate part of it, how it affects things like, how you are in bed with someone, or how a child feels, you do it through fiction. Often children’s feelings about war or big national or international events are at a distance or very limited. That’s what fiction can do, it’s investigative and curious.
According to Dale Spender and his work The mothers of the novel, the novel developed as a female form.It developed at the same time as men were going off on voyages of exploration and scientific enquiry, coming to New Zealand, apart from anywhere else. But women were not able to do that, and so stuck at home, within those four walls, they started speculating and investigating through fiction. And that’s how the novel started, at least in the English language, I don’t know if it’s the same across Europe. It was disregarded as something trivial, frivolous, something that was not important. That’s a sort of thing that you have all the time in Jane Austen: reading novels is a waste of time, it’s not important. She’s writing out of that kind of environment, but there were hundreds and hundreds of novels being written.
It’s always been investigative, a kind of scientific experiment. You are working on an experimental level, you’re saying, if I put these things together, what might happen. It’s a really profound art form. I really love fiction. That’s why I wanted to try to write about this. It was difficult, but I did want to try to write about this big event.
It’s interesting what you refer to in your note at the end of the book – that the first novel about WWII, Elizabeth Bowen’s The heat of the day, was written three years after the war finished.
Yes, the first that I could find anyway, yes. I think the difficulty is to get the mind calm enough to be able to write about such big events. And it is a kind of individualist expression and you do need a degree of calm to be able to do it. Just to be able to put the words on the page really.
You also need enough distance, a perspective, which takes time, I guess.
Yes, and the Heat of the day is a very peculiar book. It’s very sexual, that’s the thing that’s the most dominant about it. It’s about these fleeting sexual encounters in London after the Blitz. That’s possibly the expression of her personality, but also part of that confusion. It’s very primal. I think it does require distance, it’s quite confused book. I was trying to avoid that, keeping it very precise and very clear.
If we touch on political issues in the book, first of all, I really like the nickname – Big Buffoon. It’s very clear who that refers to.
Well, Rob can’t stand him. It’s a character, it’s not me.
Rob is very very angry and frustrated. I think a lot of people will easily relate to him.
That’s the other thing you can do in fiction, you can express multiple points of view of any given event. It’s not just one monolithic variation of how things are.
I think a lot of political issues that are expressed through characters in this book are done so in a very powerful way. When I was reading Liz’s story, I got so angry.
Yes, about women, not being able to access abortion. Absolutely. That’s based to some extent on a book by Margaret Sparrow, who was a doctor in Wellington, who fought to have abortion made legal. She, like a lot of people, who fought that particular battle, assembled a book of oral histories called Abortion then and now, which includes first person accounts of what it was like to get an abortion in an illegal way, in someone’s front room or back room. And the fear of it and sordid things that happened as a result of that. These women were often very young, very vulnerable and desperate, so people were able to exploit that. Not just financially, but also in other ways.
What happens in the novel is actually what people have reported. Not just once, that’s been the experience of loads of women. This issues had been raised again in this election. The prime minister has already flagged that he’s opposed to abortion. It may be something that comes up in the next term, who knows.
I think a lot of issues that are present throughout the story are extremely relevant to what’s happening today: war, conscientious objection, immigration issues, gender inequality, environmental problems …
Possibly that’s because whenever you write a historical novel, you’re actually writing about now. You’re writing about the past, but you’re really writing about now. It doesn’t matter what it is. The novels about Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I, they are to some extent reflections of our curiosity about celebrity. We are interested in clothes, in the machinations, just as we are in people like Trump.
The 20th century is a long period, but on some level, it’s also very short period and we are still engaged in it. We are still dealing with political things that were founded at the beginning of the 20th century, we’re still in those political parties, we’re still dealing with the same sorts of issues and they are not going to go away. It’s an ongoing flood. Like the river. And we are caught in it.
Thank you very much, Fiona. Would you like to share anything else about the book?
I hope that people find it a rich book. That’s what I really hope. That they’ll find things they’re interested in, or they share some of the feelings of the characters, that they can see them and that it’s vivid enough. I just hope it’s a rich book, with lots of pleasures for a reader. That’s what I’m hoping.
These were the words Fiona Farrell used on Tuesday night at the launch of her new book Decline and fall on Savage Street in order to describe her challenge of writing something big. This “big” is here now. It is complete. And it is a rich and endlessly rewarding read.
It consists of two parts: the nonfiction masterpiece, Villa at the edge of the empire, which explores Christchurch’s initial build and after earthquake rebuild in a factual way and its twin fiction sister Decline and fall on Savage Street – the latter one just freshly released, still hot from the press, its cover beautifully alluring.
Even more alluring that evening were words: Fiona in an electrifying conversation with Liz Grant, reading abstracts from both books, convincing, charged, punchy slices of masterly crafted writing, seasoned with a refined sprinkle of wit. Organised by Word Christchurch, the launch of the book was hosted in Christchurch Art Gallery and offered first glimpses in the imagined yet the entirely credible world, characters and events of a house on Savage Street.
But the house is more than just a setting, it grows into a structural device, it becomes the anchor of the novel – on narrative and formal level. It is the connecting point, a node, where stories of characters, who lived in the house, intersect. The idea for the form stems from the city and its shattering. The chapters work as separate stories and are like “little pieces of timber”, shattered disconnected pieces, “100 fragments of human condition”, as Liz described it. It is a salvage book.
It’s not the house alone which connects and binds all these pieces, all these different voices. It is the river, with its own time, rhythm and a creature, that runs through the novel and weaves in more balanced and assuring antipode, which belongs to the natural realm.
It takes a lot of discipline and masterful, intelligent mind to shape each single piece in such a concentrated and sublime way Fiona did – every single word has its own place and the magnificent is revealed in delicate nuances. Material for rich and powerful stories was sourced from real life stories, talks with friends and random strangers at the petrol stations, newspapers, books. “There was an amazing openness, everyone was ready to talk,” Fiona describes the post earthquake era, filled with stories.
Most often, the challenge of research and writing is rewarded with surprises: “Writing is constant discovery, it’s a constancy of surprises. One of the pleasures of writing is finding connections, where you don’t expect them.”
And such is the reading of this book as well – full of surprises and pleasure.
“I wanted to write something big. I wanted to make it the best I could,” concluded Fiona on Tuesday night. This book certainly is BIG and its greatness will grow with each single reading. Its sharp structure, complex characters, refined language and relevant political, social and environmental themes guarantee this work is destined to be a prize winner, but most of all, it deserves to be read over and over again by its readers.
Why would one read a literary magazine in the time when novels are still the hottest form on the scene? Because reading a literary magazine is like being young and ready to fall in love every day fresh. You can pick up the read you fancy, and if you realize you made a wrong judgement, you can very easily let it go, because – guess what? There is another one waiting for you when you turn the page. No hard feelings, no strings attached!
Takahē is a New Zealand literary magazine published in Christchurch and has been on the scene since 1989. Its core repertoire consists of short stories, poetry and art by New Zealand writers and artists, and often extends to essays, interviews and book reviews. The magazine is a good starting point for emerging literary talents and offers a place for their first public appearance along with established writers.
Takahē is published twice a year in a print form (in April and December) and as an online issue in August.
One of the prevailing themes of April 2016’s issue is motherhood, or the biological and relational obstacles preventing motherhood. Lucy-Jane Walsh (These Things Happen) brings a fresh insight into a life of a young woman who cannot have a child but forms an unusual friendship with someone else’s (at the same time it cleverly captures the nuances of the craziness and obsessiveness of modern parenthood). Suvi Mahonen in Little White Crescent dives into details of medical checks and scans of a pregnant future mother, while much more darker side of deficient pregnancy comes to life in Meagan France’s Grace.
The other topic that floats up to the surface is – of course – love, or various forms of love and its cousins (David Hill’s On Special, Melanie Dixon’s The Cottage, Sarah Penwarden’s Mirror Ball, Rupa Maitra’s Eve).
The second topic that recurs is writing (The Celtic Gift by Juliana Feaver and Kate Mahoney’s Flight from New York).
As far as the dating goes, I would definitely revisit Nathan Bennett’s Washed Up (only Birdling’s Flat can inspire such weird yet beautiful story about the relationship you don’t come across very often), Melanie Dixon’s The Cottage (with a witty perspective on a rather sad ending of a romantic weekend), Michael Botur’s This is God’s House (complex and unusual relationship narrated in dynamic slang and persvasive style) and Bev Wood’s Ode to Gallipoli (lyrical meditation on peace with an elusive narrator).
What can offer a better shelter to love than poetry? In this issue it comes hand in hand with its ancient partner – death. Under the mindful study of surrounding the pain of passing reveals itself (The Hospice Room by Robert McLean, Rachel Smith’s Light and Shade) and so does singularity of existence through proximity of death (Sarah Penwarden’s poems). How presence and absence are both immanent to love is evoked by Julie Barry in You are now not. Iain Britton’s verses from Calling go further and transcend into cyclical time: binding with ancestors in order to stand, singing in order to weave people together, emerge past and present.
Love can be destructive as well. Venus fails to pursue her artistic calling because she makes the same mistake again – i.e. falls in love (Jenny Powell’s Marlene Dietrich in Gore for the Gold Guitar Awards). The answer to her problem is hiding in sea snails – as Kirstie McKinnon points out they will teach us about letting go.
More existential orientated poems will explain why it is always good to keep your passport on you – or begin at the end (Frieda Paz in Road, map, direction, begin), otherwise you might end up stuck on the bridge – like a subject in Julie Barry’s Preposition of place. Liang Yujing offers a new metaphor for life – heavy school bags on young pupils and big black mouth of a primary school devouring them. Can we escape? No, as Mary Cresswell proves in her poems, adequately pairing themes of artistic and existential crisis (or blocks) with old troubadour’s poetry forms. But as Julie Barry points out in her Grapefruit, the weight of humanity is too much for one and only branch we live on anyway. And this is not all, I am leaving other joyful jewels for yourself to discover!
Takahē regularly offers essays on art and latest book reviews. April’s issue will be of a special interest to Christchurch readers, as it brings to focus Lisa Walker’s revolutionary jewellery (written by curator Felicity Milburn), which can also be seen as an exhibition in Christchurch Art Gallery – Te Puna o Waiwhetu until the 2nd April 2017.
Being a wonderful relic means I still thrive every Saturday morning when I browse through the good old printed paper while sipping the first morning coffee. These days, I am paring this ritual with an early evening one which includes wine and Takahē. Both combinations are perfect and correspond well to each other. I urge you to try them both.
There is no greater gift a writer could give to their own people than a story. Fiona Farrell’s book The villa at the edge of the empire was nominated as one of the best non-fiction books of the year (NZ Book Awards) – a nomination which is entirely and unquestionably deserved. But The Villa is much more than magnificently and subtly narrated story about the Christchurch earthquakes. It is a precious tribute to the Christchurch community, its individuals and every human being ever affected by an earthquake.
Talking to Fiona is as much a pleasure as reading her books. I was very lucky to spend a rainy afternoon with her, talking about earthquakes, writing and other things that make us human.
It will be 6 years on Sunday since the 2010 earthquake. The rebuilding of the city is still going on and it’s proving to be much longer process than anyone imagined. It is almost impossible to describe how long it takes to rebuild a city to anyone, who has not experienced the aftermath.
It wasn’t just one quake. It has been ongoing. We are about to 15,000 aftershocks, each one a minor earthquake. It is such a long drawn out process. It’s not like a war, which has an ending. It has its own timetable, its own agenda and that’s a very, very, long time, beyond human comprehension.
That reminds me of the ending of The Villa, which I find very beautiful. You end it from an assuring, wider, almost cosmic perspective, which works really calmingly after a read, that can possibly be unsettling for many.
Getting that angle on human behaviour is essential. At any one time, when you’re a human being, you have to believe that everything that you do, think and say is quite important, while on the other hand living with the certainty that everything you do, think and say in the great scheme of things is completely irrelevant. You have to hold both realities in your head. For me, this was a habit of thinking that I got into as a child. I had quite an unhappy family and one of the ways I used to cope with it when I was little, was to lie in my bed and think of myself just going up, through the ceiling, until it was all really really tiny. That’s how I handled it as a child. So it’s not some kind of adult philosophy, but an instinctive way. I think everyone has ways of handling unhappiness and finding techniques for survival.
The narrative in The Villa starts very wide, dives deep into the history, with comparisons between Berlin and Christchurch. After that, it nicely narrows and focuses on Christchurch and later on to Avon Loop. I really like the way narration flows from a wide perspective into something smaller.
When I’m writing I often think it’s like making a film, where you use close up and wide angle, and move between the two.
I think it also works very well for people who have experienced the earthquake in Christchurch and everything that followed, but also for people who haven’t had this experience because it gives a reader space to move. I was wondering when you realized while writing that you need to take an outside perspective of what’s happening in Christchurch and visit L’Aquila in Italy. Was that a conscious decision?Continue reading →
Alok Jha // Science writer // on how the world could end.
I caught up with Netta Egoz, a PechaKucha Night (PKN) organizer, and no ordinary woman. On the contrary. She IS a supergirl. One can not believe all the things she fits in her day. Besides being a full-time lawyer, she’s involved in many other projects, like Te Pūtahi – Christchurch Centre for Architecture and City-Making, Project Lyttelton and Social Enterprise Network Ōtautahi. Her legal background, coupled with her passion for creative industries, the Christchurch rebuild, social initiatives, and genuine wish for better and fairer world makes her a rare and precious find. Her skills are well sought after in the city like Christchurch.
We talked about PechaKucha, city-making, law, libraries and the essential components of a successful morning.
You are a solicitor in the day and you are involved in many community projects in your spare time. Your professional and private interests seem very diverse. How do they relate to each other?
They still belong to two separate worlds. A lot of people that I meet outside my work ask me if I am an artist. It is a well-kept secret that I am actually a commercial lawyer. For a long time I felt like I was leading a double life, but pretty quickly I realized I wanted to bring those two worlds together. So that’s why I moved to a private sector in my professional career.
I previously worked at community law, which I thought would be a good way of having a middle ground. But the reality is that community law doesn’t interact with creative sector, it interacts with people with very high unmet legal needs and often the creativity or arts are luxury for these people. But by being a commercial lawyer I am able to do a lot more work with creative industries. From a business perspective, it is quite smart. There are not many lawyers, who work in this area, so I have a great client base. My work is more interesting because I am helping people, who are doing creative things.
My special area is social enterprise so I work a lot with charities, non-profit organizations and creative industries. I am helping them find the ways to become self-sufficient and be commercial entities as well as creating a common social good. On the other end I do a lot of board governance work, which allows me to be a lawyer for creatives.
I imagine your skills,knowledge and interests are highly valuable, there arenot many people like you in Christchurch.
I am not aware of many lawyers who are involved in creative industries. There are a few, who will work pro bono for various creative entities and there are a few who will sit on boards, but I am not aware of any, who runs creative projects like I do, or yet still keep a full-time commercial legal job.
These are two very different worlds. Creative people often do not have time, energy or knowledge to dive into legal issues.
Yes, even more so with commercial law. It’s often seen as very dry. I have resisted commercial law for a long time because it didn’t seem like the type of law a creative person would do. But increasingly I realized that’s where my strength is and that’s actually where a lot of creative entities need help. Right through the university I never thought I would be a lawyer, let alone a commercial lawyer. I was always interested in grassroots community, creative movements. I have been running creative events for 10 years now and practicing as a lawyer for 3 years, so my initial engagement was in arts. It’s something that has carried through with me and I’ve managed to still retain it.
Let’s talk about one of your creative projects now, PechaKucha. When did you first come across it and how come you decided to organize it here in Christchurch?
PKN has been running in Christchurch for almost nine years and I have been organizing it for three, maybe three and a half years. So PKN transcends me. I first heard about it just before the earthquake – it has an unusual name that sticks in your mind. The first one I went to was the one directly after the quakes and it was one of the few creative events of this type. There was definitely a hole in our city as far as events go. We have lost a lot of them after the quakes. PKN has grown a lot in Christchurch since then as there was a real need for it and it became a real cornerstone of what the Christchurch creative community does.
The first time I got involved was in 2011, when I presented at PKN, volume 12. It was about a project I was doing with my employer at the time, the White Elephant Trust. I was working with Architecture for Humanity on a city youth venue and I was asked to present. I loved it so much, that I decided to volunteer and I stayed with them right through the university. After living overseas, I came back to Christchurch for the job interview and the day I arrived back someone offered me to be PKN city organizer. I thought wow, you just don’t get handed a torch like that! Everything fell into place that day, I was given a key to my passion and also to my home in Lyttelton. For so long I was feeling very lost and I felt I needed to move on from Christchurch. But the reality is Christchurch has so much to offer to young creatives. Because we can be so much more important in the city like Christchurch.
It seems to me that PKN in Christchurch is in some way at the core of the rebuild activity. It follows what is happening and reopening in the central city.
I am definitely biased here, but I think we are very important for the social rebuild. Firstly, there’s continuity – we existed before the quakes, right through the earthquakes and onwards. There’s reliability – it happens four times a year, and the format is the same: 20 seconds for 20 slides. So you know what you’re getting. It’s eclectic, the speakers are always different, they provide surprises and new information, the venues and themes are always different. We mix people, we had people from Earthquake Recovery talking what they are doing, ordinary residents of Christchurch talking about a small idea they had, artists announcing big projects … It’s a great mix, everyone is on the same stage at the same level, what they have to share is just as important whether it is coming from the government, established creative institutions or just residents of Christchurch who have an idea or a story. It’s a mix of introducing new projects, providing information, telling a fictional story, performances …
So it’s got quite an egalitarian nature.
I hope so. I know PKN as a global institution gets compared to TEDx, I think one of the big points of difference is that PKN is more from the bottom up. As organizers, we have some curation, but very limited. It’s about people approaching us to perform. No matter who you are, you are given the exact same time on stage, exact same introduction, and exact same treatment. I think it is quite egalitarian in that sense.
So everyone gets the same format, but this format seems very hard. It sounds very simple: 20 seconds for each of the 20 images, but that demands almost special skills. Do you have any tips on how to perform as best as possible?Continue reading →
This Zimbabwean born author has, until recently, had an impressive career in international law in Geneva, while being an award winning writer and a single mother at the same time. She says she hasn’t slept since she had her son, which was 12 years ago. “But I am not as efficient as Margaret Thatcher,” she adds.
Looking at her work, that’s hard to believe. Her first published book, An Elegy for Easterly, is a collection of short stories and has won, among other awards, the Guardian First Book award in 2009. Even though it was labelled by her publisher as “the voice of Zimbabwe”, Petina does not feel comfortable talking on behalf of a whole Zimbabwe, never mind the whole of Africa. She feels that labelling writers as “coloured” comes with expectations of what they should write about.
And what does Petina write about? Corruption, hypocrisy, abuse of power, exploitation, memory, love, loss and – superstition. While her collections of short stories bring a multitude of voices of modern Zimbabwe, the story in her first novel, The Book of Memory, is a monologue narrated by an albino woman, who was sold off as a child by her parents and ended up in a maximum security prison in Harare for murdering her adoptive father. She is prompted by her lawyer to write down her memories, her story as she remembers it – so Memory finds herself writing for her life – both literally and metaphorically.
Even though Petina has been writing since she was 11, it took her 6 years to finish the story of Memory. As it was her second published work, it put her under a lot of pressure. As usual expectations were huge. When asked about how she overcame this “second novelitis” crisis (term coined by Bianca Zander), Petina laughs: “Who says I got over it?” But she manages to see the crisis of confidence in a more complex way: “The beauty of being a writer is the elusive nature of satisfaction. I always want to develop as a writer, to always be in battle with myself.”
After the great success of The Book of Memory and after her son “took himself to boarding school” she decided to hand in her notice at work so she could dedicate more time to writing and exploring. “I want to take a gap year. That thing kids do before the university.”
I am with you, Petina! Let that gap year roll into another and another and another …
Quotes are one of those serendipitous things, that infest every festival session. You forget to expect them, until they poke out of the conversation, like fireworks, showing off their intelligence, wit and subtlety with a style and a good measure of flamboyance.
Here are some of the top quotes of this year’s Auckland Writers Festival – hand picked by festival angels Moata, Roberta and myself:
Laughter is crucial – it’s like an orgasm of the mind. // Gloria Steinem
Even if love is not going to save anyone, we keep on doing it. It has no result in culture that is so result orientated. // Hanya Yanagihara
If one dream dies, I’m going to dream another dream and I’m going to dream it bigger. // Pettina Gappah
The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late. // Jeanette Winterson quoting her mother
My endings might be sad, but I like to think of them as authentic endings. // John Boyne
I’ve had the kind of happy childhood that’s so damaging to a writer. // Thomas Mallon
In the story “The Princess and the Pea”, I never wanted to be the princess. I wanted to be the pea – writing helped me do that. // Vivian Gornick
Characters of children’s books need to be rebels. // Edward Carey
If you don’t understand the book, read it again. If you still don’t understand it, read again. If you still don’t understand it, throw it away. // David Eggleton on importance of understanding a book when writing a book review
Most opinions are just emotions in fancy dress. // Joe Bennett
Assumptions are the mother of all stuff-ups. // Helene Wong
I have a brain tumour. I experience many unfamiliar and unreal moments. I am frequently unfamiliar even to myself. // Tusiata Avia
I could never see the distinction between Science and Art. Medicine is art to me. // Jean-Christophe Rufin
Creativity is a kind of anchoring. It is a lie detector which prevents us from living life in a blur. // Jeanette Winterson
Do you remember the excitement of finding a true friend in high school days? When you were lost but then found yourself by finding a friend? When you realized there is someone else out there, who likes the same weird books as you do, listens to the same music and shares the same humour and passion for so many other exciting things? The one you could talk to late into the night and (nearly) never run out of things to say? And when you did, it was nice and comfortable to just be quiet. Together.
I came across such friendship at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. Though it revealed to me on the stage, it was clearly not staged. Christchurch born poet Tusiata Avia and Maxine Beneba Clarke, Australian poet and writer, were like two shy girls, who have gathered in their hideaway, somewhere far from the adult’s world, to share their most precious and beloved sweets with each other. Sitting behind the coffee table on the stage, they were begging each other to read another poem. And another. And another – almost forgetting about the presence of the audience.
There was something truthful and playful in their relationship, in this game of exchanging tiny little gems. In the era of authorship and general egocentrism, it is very rare to see such genuine friendship amongst authors. Most of the time, we read about one single author, we listen to her or him speak on the stage about their work. So having two minds and hearts tripping on each other with such sincerity was really refreshing.
Maxine and Tusiata read poems from their award-winning books. There was a big stack of them on the table, with stationery stickers in various places, marking pages populated by voices that wanted to be heard. Gifts that Maxine laid on the table included her newly released poetry collection Carrying the World, a collection of short storiesForeign soiland three other collections of poetry. Tusiata brought along her Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, Bloodclotand freshly launched Fale Aitu | Spirit House, all poetry collections as well.
Voices captured in their work are voices of diaspora. Many different voices, who speak many different Englishes. But for Maxine as well as Tusiata the main reason why these voices need to be heard and their stories told lays in the human experience and not in the cultural aspects these voices bring with them. So they are both getting a bit tired of culturally and racially focused receptions of their work, when their intention is to show something universal, something human. “It is not a great position to be in,” says Tusiata. “If you are a ‘writer of colour’ you are pigeonholed at the beginning of every presentation. People need to identify you before they engage with your work.”But at the same time, she confesses, that identification is unavoidable, as “poetry is so personal and our personal paths are about where we are from.”
They are not the only ones raising their concern about the biased reception of work from ‘writers of colour’. During the Sunday session titled The Diversity debate, Marlon James declared, half jokingly, half serious, that he will not be attending any sessions about diversity any more. Pettina Gappah earlier that afternoon talked about the burden that sort of labelling gives to ‘coloured writers’: “This label comes with expectations of what you talk about in your work.”
I could feel myself being challenged after each of the sessions. They made me think of myself as a reader and my own reception of work written by ‘writers of colour’. And they also made me wonder, if true friendship happens, when we look at the world above and beyond pigeonholes of colour, sex, race, ability, language, culture, age and socio-economic status. According to Maxine’s inscription in my copy of her book, that may as well be true. “From my heart to yours”, it says.
Which, when read again, it could also sound like a tutorial on how to read.
When asked about how does it feel writing a new book, Marlon James does not hide the dread of writing vocation: “It’s like a childbirth. You think, how the hell did I end up here again! Was it not bad enough the last time?”
Last years Man Booker Prize winner is a guest of this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. His book, A brief history of seven killings, stretches not-so-briefly over 600 pages, opening questions of power, class and race with diversity. It features a plethora of voices: deceased, witnesses, killers, drug dealers, journalists and reporters, detectives, FBI and CIA agents, beauty queens, members of parliament and also Keith Richard’s drug dealer. It is an exploration of Jamaica before and after the attempted murder of Bob Marley.
Why the shooting of Bob Marley? Because the year 1976 was an exclamation point of social and political instability and general fear in Jamaica. The shooting, Marlon explains, was highly relational not just to Marley’s life, but to life of all Jamaicans – if they can shoot Marley, they can shoot anybody. Marlon turned this moment into a storytelling device, that navigated him through the exploration of “10 different Jamaicas”.
He finds writing hard work and it demands a lot of discipline, but there is nothing else he could do. During the process of writing, his characters surprise him but also disappoint him. They become human and he often finds himself saying: “I didn’t see that coming!” The only voice he was not interested in, while writing A brief history of seven killings, was his own. It soon became clear that only one voice won’t do either. There had to be more of them, they had to be three-dimensional and authentic. Like the journalist. “He’s such a bad writer, he writes like I did in high school,” Marlon adds, keeping the amount of humour nicely balanced through out the session.
But how do characters arise? Where do they come from? Some of them support different points of view, others come to existence because of demands of the plot, or emotional credibility of the story. “But some of them just have to come in and be cool,”
That’s where beauty and creative power lies in the novel, in the polyphony of voices. It is this that makes the novel Marlon’s favourite literary form. The novel has also been a place of escape. As a fiction it offers the possibility to explore forbidden things – and there is quite a few of them in his novel: “You have to risk going too far. Discomfort happens all the time.” Rather than talking about love, he risks pornography.”I don’t do love, I am a literary fiction author” he sums up, grinning.
If you tried reading Marlon’s book and didn’t like it, there is a great chance you would like Marlon himself. No matter the size of the stage he finds himself on, he is relaxed, communicative with the crowd, witty and amazingly well read. He just … comes in and is cool.