Women in foreign worlds

I’m still recovering, weeks later, from the season 2, final episode, final scene of The Handmaid’s Tale. It had both my husband and I screaming “NO!” at the television.

Cover of The Handmaid's TaleNot usually a great fan of movies or television made from great books, this depiction of The Handmaid’s Tale was produced with the author of the book being consulted and directing the story arcs and character development and it is one of the best adaptations of a book I’ve watched.

I read this stunning book by one of my all time favourite authors, Margaret Atwood, years ago. It set me on a path to dystopian books with women as the protagonists.  Women throughout history have borne the brunt of societal ignorance, discrimination and violence, either directly or indirectly. In dystopian fiction, there are several great books where women fight against the system, lead the change that is needed to free themselves and those around them or uncover the truths behind a  regime that is hell bent on holding onto power.

I wrote about Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed in an earlier blog. It’s a great example of putting women’s stories front and centre. It’s interesting when I put this list together, how much of the control and evil perpetrated on the heroes in these books is around contraception and rights over their own bodies. Here’s a quick list of others well worth checking out:

Cover of When she wokeWhen she woke by  Hillary Jordan: A fundamentalist right wing agenda is spreading through America, forcing those who commit crimes to be ‘Chromed’ their skin changing colour to fit a particular crime. Hannah finds her skin turned red to punish her for an abortion she had after an affair with a high ranking official. How she finds her way in the world and seeks refuge is at the core of this story.

The Power by Naomi Alderman: What if women suddenly became the stronger more deadly sex, able to inflict pain and even death by just a touch and there was a sudden shift in power? How does this change both society and the women and men in it?

Cover of The book of JoanThe Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch: In the near future, the earth has become a radioactive battleground and Humans live above the earth on a platform called the CIEL. The character Joan, is reminiscent of Joan of Arc and when she is turned into a martyr by the forces waging war – there are astonishing consequences.

Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall: This is a great story about a woman trying to escape a totalitarian state that enforces contraception and other restrictions on women. Sister has heard of a mythical commune of women who have fled and sets out to join them.

Cover of WoolWool by Hugh Howey: Another devastated world, and this time the few remaining people alive are in many leveled underground silos. Jules is one of the young women living in a silo, it’s all she’s ever known. But her curiosity leads her to discover the truth may be a lot different than what she has been told.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas: In a small Oregon town, several women are coping with the fallout of strict government rules around contraception, abortion and believing ‘every life is sacred’.  They find themselves thrust together in a modern day witch hunt and a struggle to survive.

I found it interesting how many of these books are American and how many of the new ones seem to be commenting on the present government policies and alluding to the rise of the right wing agenda around women’s rights and the states’ intervention into their lives.

I seem to come back to this topic in my fiction reading time and again. It may seem a little depressing, but the women are strong, determined and more than often triumph and this is why I like the genre.

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Interview with Laurence Fearnley – WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

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.

Laurence Fearnley. Image supplied.
Laurence Fearnley. Image supplied.

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.

To the Mountains. Image supplied.
To the Mountains. Image supplied.

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!

Mortification: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

There are few things I enjoy as much as a true tale of shame and embarrassment told by a gifted spinner of yarns. Even better if the story in question doesn’t have me as its protagonist, though this isn’t compulsory. In fact, many’s the time I’ve found myself in some ridiculous predicament only to think “ah well, at least this’ll make a good story”.

Such was the basis, I suspect, of Robin Robertson‘s 2003 anthology Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame, a book that grew out of his work in publishing that required him to travel the country talking with writers. He discovered both a rich vein of mortifying stories, and certain one-upmanship in storytelling (I have certainly experienced this myself, and the phrase “you think that’s bad…” is usually in the mix).

In this WORD Christchurch Festival session Robertson revived Mortification in a live format. It’s one thing writing an embarrassing anecdote down for publication – is it better or worse to have to read it in front of an audience? It’s hard to know if the writers involved are Robertson’s victims, or simply masochists but they all acquitted themselves with dignity… or at least as much as could reasonably be mustered. Which in the case of Jarrod Gilbert (whom we’ll get to later) wasn’t much.

Jarrod Gilbert, Megan Dunn, Steve Braunias, Paula Morris, and Robin Robertson, with Rachael King, Mortification
Jarrod Gilbert, Megan Dunn, Steve Braunias, Paula Morris, and Robin Robertson being introduced by Rachael King, Mortification, WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Saturday 1 September August 2018. File reference: 2018-09-01-IMG_1570

The session kicked off with a pre-recorded yarn from Irvine Welsh who, due to a family bereavement, was unable to attend in person. While I’m sure it would have been even more entertaining to hear Welsh tell his appalling tale of gastric misadventure and horrifying toilet facilities in person, I didn’t feel let down by his absence at all. Talking down the barrel of a cellphone camera, Welsh was devastatingly matter of fact in describing his attempts to “get away” with his unexpected befoulment, believing that he had done so… only to have his shame revealed by the unfortunate arrival of a group of pub-crawling Glaswegians. Welsh admitted that he is no stranger to public shame or the subsequent “crumbling down effect when your face collapses”, saying:

I’ve become really inured to the kind of embarrassment that really f***s up other people.

Apparently if you’re mortified often enough it sort of stops bothering you.

Paula Morris, respected writer and mainstay of the New Zealand literary scene, might beg to differ. She offered up, not a single, horrifying tale, but a thousand small humiliations instead, ranging from critical underwear failure at an operatic recital to childhood trauma via angry goat. Shorts that inexplicably opened during a speech. The shame of being at a signing table where noone wants your signature. Repeatedly being mistaken for poet Paula Green. And most significantly, her failed attempt at guiding a blind woman and her dog between London tube stations. It was a hard act to follow Welsh, but Morris can hold her head up high… in shame.

Steve Braunias told a clever and complex tale set during a period of unemployment, when his lodgings were less than salubrious. Braunias is a great storyteller – you don’t quite see the punchline coming, even as the clues of it are laid out carefully as he goes along, the slightly dopey loser persona he adopts adding to the comedic effect. The audience were in stitches. And yet… to me it felt very much like carefully crafted humorous story… that didn’t really happen. Which is fine as far as humorous stories go, but there’s something about the vulnerability of a true story, told by the person it happened to that is far more affecting. Being clever isn’t the point. Being shamefacedly honest is. Call me cynical, if you will, but I struggle to believe that Steve Braunias did, in fact, give Helen Clark fleas at a classical guitar concert.

On the other hand, I didn’t have any trouble believing that Megan Dunn (author of Tinderbox) attended a mermaid class in Florida, nor that she was not particularly gifted in the art of mermaiding. Synchronised swimmers aside, who would be? One of the reasons I believe this story is that Megan Dunn is currently writing a nonfiction book about mermaids (the pretend adult woman kind, not the mythical creature kind – no, I didn’t know there were different kinds either) and because if you’re going to invent a story that involves shimmying into a lycra mermaid “tail” it’s not going to be orange. Still, I felt like the actual mortification levels in this story were comparatively low because “failing to be sufficiently mermaidy” just isn’t that embarrassing. Fascinating, yes. A topic you’d rather didn’t come up round the Christmas dinner table? Not so much.

Finally, Dr. Jarrod Gilbert, award-winning author, University of Canterbury lecturer and, according to Braunias, “the thinking man’s drinking man” shared an inspiring* tale of bloody-minded determination vs good sense, reason and dignity (but who needs them anyway?). As is often the case with tales of humiliation it began with guys egging each other on – a friend simply said that Gilbert couldn’t run a marathon in 3.5 hours. So rather than let his friend be right about something, Gilbert endeavoured to do just that. What resulted was hallucinatory levels of physical and mental pain, and a impromptu bowel movement – Gilbert walking to the centre of the stage and adopting a crouching posture so as to paint a more vivid image in our minds (that wasn’t really necessary). This took place on the Sumner Causeway, or as Gilbert described it, “possibly the most exposed piece of geography on Earth”.

But there’s a happy ending! Gilbert achieved his marathon goal (thereby disproving his friend’s assertion) with less than 2 minutes to spare… admitting “it’s very difficult for me to describe just how little satisfaction that gave me”. It’s almost as if a person shouldn’t undertake a massively time-consuming and difficult task just to prove a point wasn’t in great need of being made.

Though saying that, it’s probably not in the spirit of the evening to try and extract a moral from any of these stories. Then again, “beware inopportune Glaswegians” does have a certain ring to it.

*Nope.

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Melting the canon – Explosive Archaeology: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

This fantastic session included no stripey jumpers or whips or trowels – the archaeology was metaphorical, asking us to look back, elevate, uncover and dig up those who have been excluded from the literary canon. Poet Tayi Tibble, academic Erin Harrington, novelist Brannavan Gnanalingam and curator Jennifer Shields were asked by session chair Pantograph Punch editor Lana Lopesi to wrestle with the canon and to share their favourite underappreciated artists and genres.

Jennifer Shields. Image supplied.
Jennifer Shields. Image supplied.

Jennifer told us about Wellington-based emerging musical talent Hybrid Rose and Christchurch contemporary art collective The Social, who specialise in making cheap, accessible and engaging public art in a post-quake environment.

Brannavan Gnanaglingam. Photo credit: Lucy Li
Brannavan Gnanaglingam. Photo credit: Lucy Li

Brannavan talked about Merata Mita, also the subject of a recent documentary, who made protest documentaries like Bastion Point: Day 507 and Patu! which do not fit with the ‘man alone’ narrative of the emerging New Zealand film industry. Someone else who doesn’t fit into an established narrative is political journalist and social realist Robin Hyde. Unlike the ‘Mansfield narrative’ she didn’t need to leave New Zealand in order to find her purpose. Let’s widen out the canon so people don’t have to ‘fit’ and can be as they are.

Dr Erin Harrington. Image supplied.
Dr Erin Harrington. Image supplied.

Erin spoke about children’s material, and how formative influences can be left out of the canon, referencing Karen Healey‘s article about absences in the New Zealand Book Awards. She talked about Aotearoa’s special relationship with Badjelly the Witch, played regularly on Sunday morning kids’ radio and how this helped learn to be listeners and to understand story and narrative. BTW, childhood influences are something that I have explored on Library Whisperers with Christchurch’s good friend Matt Finch.

Tayi Tibble. Image supplied.
Tayi Tibble. Image supplied.

Tayi introduced us to two up and coming poets Jessica Thompson Carr and Joy Holley, advocating for their work by reading us some of their poetry. Finally Lana spoke about artist Leofa Wilson who has mentored and opened so many doors for Pasifika women.

Opening doors was a big theme of the questions that followed. How do people get to that place where you become an overnight success? How can doors be left open for the people that come after? What are the best ways to advocate and champion others and build networks and relationships? This was an interesting debate, suggesting that we must be mindful of who we promote, always have our wings open so people can be taken under them, keep making connection, and above all speak about the the things, and the people, we love.

Selina Tusitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia – Fast burning women: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Selina Tusitala Marsh is impressive. Tall and exuding warmth with an open, smiley countenance topped by a mass of long dark curls, she enters carrying her tokotoko which is topped with long hair mirroring her own.

Selina Tusitala Marsh. Image supplied.
Selina Tusitala Marsh. Image supplied.

One immediately feels drawn to her and the packed audience settles down to be entertained. Selina is in conversation with her sister poet and friend, Tusiata Avia. They are obviously at ease with each other and enjoy talking together.

Selina is New Zealand’s current Poet Laureate, the fifth woman to hold this position and the first woman of colour. She feels she has an obligation and responsibility to make everyone feel included as well as showcasing her Pasifika heritage.

Her mission is to get the story of the tokotoko out there and she regularly invites people to come along and touch it. It is fitting that she is the 11th Poet Laureate and the tokotoko breaks down into eleven pieces which is necessary for travel.

Paula Green, NZ poet, says “Hone Tuwhare and Sam Hunt are the two poets that are so beloved by our nation. I predict Selina is our third.”

One wonders how she manages to fit everything in in her extremely packed schedule. She has composed and performed for the Queen and welcomed Barack Obama to New Zealand. As well as travelling extensively both here and abroad, she is involved in the Writers in Schools Programme which is booked up for the next two years.

She feels women find it hard to value their self-worth and to ask for help. With the help of her friend Tusiata, she is learning to be more forthright. She equates life to four burners – Family, Health, Work and Friendship. For a long time the friendship burner was missing. She felt guilty about leaning on friends when she had so little time to reciprocate. She is definitely in the fast burning lane.

Tusiata meanwhile is recovering from burnout, suffering ill health from her fast pace of life. Whilst recuperating at home, they spent many hours on the phone talking. Selina was thrilled. She could now talk whilst running around Waiheke Island, where she lives and maintain two burners at once – exercising for health and friendship by being each other’s sounding board. She also advocates movement of mind and body for relaxation. This is achieved by running, yoga, writing and creating. Running is also where she has inspiration for her poetry. She has boundaries surrounding her family time and makes sure she spends weekends with them when she is in New Zealand, hence her 4pm flight back to Auckland following her appearance.

Tusiata Avia. Image supplied.
Tusiata Avia. Image supplied.

We were treated to Selina reading a poem from her latest book Tightrope titled ‘The Working Mother’s Guide to Reading Seventy Books a Year‘.

Where to now? Her latest project is a graphic mini memoir very aptly titled “Mophead to Poet Laureate” which is due out in 2019.

Colette Squire
Papanui Library

Hollie McNish and Hera Lindsay Bird – Poetry Stars: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Kate Sylvester introduced the two poets and her assertion that poets were the antidote to a world out of kilter brought rousing applause.

Hollie McNish and Hera Lindsay Bird. Image supplied.
Hollie McNish and Hera Lindsay Bird. Image supplied.

It’s not an easy thing to report on a poetry reading. You listen with different ears to poetry than you would to a speaker.

Being tagged with the epithet “poetry stars”, might bring with it an unfair burden of expectation and if Hera Lindsay Bird, who was first up, felt that she didn’t show it as she appeared quite at ease on the stage. The poems she read were generally dealing with love and sex, but often in a tangential and quirky way. She read the poems: Jealousy, Love is like laying down in a major intersection, Monica (about the character, Monica Geller, from the sitcom, Friends), Da Vinci Code, Six Seasons of the Nanny  and Pyramid Scheme.

Now, I confess, I’m a sucker for humour in poetry because poetry can often take itself very seriously. There was a strong vein of humour running through all the poems that Bird read and the audience chuckled a lot during her reading.

I’ve read that the poet, Lord Byron, was treated like a rock star in his day with people, mainly women, queueing for hours outside booksellers when Byron released a new book of poetry. He died a rock star’s kind of death too, dying at Missolonghi, aged 36,  while helping the Greeks battle the Turks for their independence.

Perhaps Hera Lindsay Bird will revive the “poet as rock star” phenomenon if the reception of her eponymous debut is anything to go by.

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Hollie McNish came to poetry fame via that most 21st century medium, YouTube. A little older and a little more experienced than her reading companion, McNish read poems that traversed her life from childhood to pregnancy in her thirties. She read the poems: Yanking (a variation on what she claimed was a Kiwi-ism “giving a wristy”), Call On Me (about the nature of friendships changing as we get older), Hiccups (for her daughter), A Dead Pig I Mean (about a bizarre ritual David Cameron indulged in at private school), Wow (about her one-year old daughter admiring her naked body in a mirror), Sex (about not wanting sex for six-and-a-half months after her daughter was born, Bricks (talking with her 92-year-old grandmother about what turned Hollie on) and McNish ended with a poignant poem dedicated to her Grandad called Cherry Pie with its echoes of post-war trauma.

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I’ll be first to put my hand up and say that I am all for the popularising of poetry (being a poet myself and wanting to get my books out there in the hands of poetry readers), but there are still ivory tower elements fiercely guarding poetry for the elitist few as evidenced by the poet, Rebecca Watts, refusing to review Plum, McNish’s latest poetry collection, for P. N. Review. Watts instead wrote a polemical article titled Cult of the Noble Amateur in which she wrote: “Plum is the product not of a poet but of a personality. I was supposed to be reviewing it, but to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry. Besides, I was too distracted by the pathological attitude of its faux-naïve author, and too offended by its editor’s exemplary bad faith, to ignore the broader questions it provokes.” Watts’ article subsequently received broad coverage in several English news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC.

The Body is not an Apology – Sonya Renee Taylor: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Poet and playwright Tusiata Avia, introduced Sonya Renee Taylor, the founder of The Body Is Not An Apology, and informed us that they had fourteen years of friendship.

The Body Is Not An Apology is an ideal and now also a global business committed to radical self-love and global transformation.

Sonya Renee Taylor. Image supplied.
Sonya Renee Taylor. Image supplied.

If I could only write two words about this session they would be: Inspiring and Illuminating. Taylor is, as the saying goes, a force of nature. She describes herself as a performance poet and an activist.

Tusiata and Sonya spoke about an incident when they first met at a festival where someone body shamed Taylor, but Avia took it on board as well and it has lasted with her these past fourteen years. Taylor said that “body shame is contagious” as it is often overheard by others.

The day before, Taylor had done an interview with Kim Hill who seemed sceptical that radical self-love could transform the world, but Taylor affirmed that transforming our need to be superior to others transforms the world. Taylor said “we can’t build outside if we haven’t built inside.” The message of love is a transformative tool and Avia posited that this was a message given by all the major spiritual teachers. Taylor explained that self-love should not be confused with self-confidence or self-esteem which were fleeting and externally influenced. Self-love is divine love because it acknowledges the divine within us all. Radical self-love is enduring because it affirms our inherent “enoughness”, our worthiness.

CoverTaylor explained that we never see a two-year-old who hates themselves because we all came here with love, but as we grow that essence gets buried somehow. “Love must be the foundation of the world.”

Taylor said her entire journey in writing the book, The Body Is Not An Apology, was about her learning to navigate her own self-love journey. The book was seven years of examination of the self.

The genesis of her journey began at a Poetry Slam in Knoxville, Tennessee. A female participant with cerebral palsy had excused having unprotected sex by saying that she didn’t feel she could ask the man to use protection because of the way she felt about her body. From somewhere in her subconscious, Taylor told her “your body is not an apology”. This then evolved into a poem and then a Facebook page and eventually a global organisation. It was what Taylor described as a “transformational portal” which occurs when three facets are present: honesty, vulnerability and empathy.

But while performing the poem, The Body Is Not An Apology, Taylor realised that she was transforming some of the contradictions raging inside her. This was further developed with the liberating sight of a plus-size model. Taylor asked herself “why was she hiding?”

Avia explained how through illness she had lost 40 kilos and she noticed a change in social perception of her. Taylor asserted that the concept that healthy bodies are better bodies marginalises so many body types and runs contrary to the irrefutable fact that all bodies are finite because we all die. She called the hierarchy of bodies that was promoted in Western society by media and others “body terrorism”. An example that highlighted body terrorism was the ability for TSA personnel in US airports to body scan body types that sat outside their perfect frame. Taylor said that during one such scan a TSA agent touched her genitals in an act of state-sanctioned sexual assault. New Zealand was not immune since immigrants to our country can be refused if they have a BMI over 35.

Avia posed the question: “How do we achieve radical self-love?” Taylor responded by saying that we all have to interrogate “Body oppression” and change it. We must be willing to change our negative internal messages. Every person has their own sphere of influence in which to practise this. Avia pointed out that there were many tools in the book to help readers with this process.

Gleefully introducing science into her book (Taylor said she was not good at science in school), she compared body shame to pathogens. In order for body shame to thrive there needed to be a triad: host, environment and pathogen. We were the hosts, society was the environment, and body shame was the pathogen. Taylor claimed that when we interrupt that triad, it stops the process of disease.

A.J. Finn – WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

CoverThe next thrill-ride is here and it’s editor-turned-bestselling-author A.J. Finn and his new book The Woman in the Window.

The newest thing in psychological crime fiction is A.J. Finn and he has joined some illustrious company, the likes of Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins. I was lucky enough to hear the author speak as part of WORD Christchurch Festival  and was impressed by his energy and his insights into the processes of writing a best selling novel.

A.J. Finn reads at the Bad Diaries Salon. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018.Friday 31 August 2018. Flickr 2018-08-31-IMG_0196
A.J. Finn reads at the Bad Diaries Salon. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018.Friday 31 August 2018. Flickr 2018-08-31-IMG_0196

A.J.’s real name is Dan Mallory and he’s a die-hard crime thriller fan. It’s very evident on reading  The Woman in the Window too, all the elements to unnerve the reader are there and the suspense increases as our protagonist starts to question her own mind. It’s part Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ (a movie and director that has had a huge impact on Dan Mallory), and part contemporary suburban gothic. Once you’re hooked in there’s no putting it down and you’re swept up on a rollercoaster ride of suspense, drama, and heavy merlot consumption.

Let’s have a look at Dan Mallory as a person and see what we know about him and how it might provide insight into his becoming the next big thing in crime fiction…

  • A.J. Finn is obviously a pseudonym and it was selected carefully to achieve a certain gender neutrality but also for the author to maintain some healthy distance between his personal life and that of his role as a best-selling author. A fun fact; “A.J.” was his cousin’s name, and “Finn” was his other cousin’s French Bulldog – great choices that really sum up his attitude to life and family!
  • He’s been a keen fan of crime stories from a young age when he was dropped at the cinema by his mother as a form of free child-minding. On the screen that day was the classic film ‘The Vanishing’ and young Dan was hooked. He then studied the genre religiously, including becoming a devotee of Hitchcock, forming a strong love of our own Ngaio Marsh, and completing formal post graduate studies on none other that Patricia Highsmith!
  • He’s an outspoken champion of people living with mental health issues – he himself has had a life long struggle with misdiagnosed depression and bipolar disorder. This book’s main character Anna Fox also has mental health concerns and Mallory has a very sound insight into her voice and attitude. She’s the perfect example of a sufferer who still engages meaningfully with society in the face of her illness.
  • The character name ‘Anna Fox’ was chosen deliberately so as to be easy to pronounce and remembered across all languages and cultures – few people will have issues with the sounds used to produce any of the names of the book’s characters – a brilliant piece of multicultural accessibility right there!
  • Before becoming a worldwide sensation Dan Mallory worked in publishing and states that he did indeed use his knowledge of the industry to help him produce The Woman In The Window. Mostly this was down to effective processes that he used for editing as he went along, but also extended to ensuring a solid architecture of twists and turns – he learned a lot as a publisher and read a lot of books, he even worked on stories by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling’s’ crime fiction pseudonym!)
  • The movie rights to ‘The Woman in the Window’ were sold well before the book was even published and the soon-to-be-released film will star Amy Adams and Gary Oldman, among other big names. Mallory is determined however to not become an author who consciously writes for film and plans to hold out until his next book is out (it’s already started and is due in early 2020) before making the desicion to sell the filming rights.

At his WORD session, Dan Mallory presented as a man with infectious energy. He was quick with a funny story and unashamedly successful and happy. I look forward to his next release and hope that he continues to grow into the brilliant thriller writing that he seems capable of. And if you haven’t got your copy of  The Woman in the Window yet then jump on our catalogue now and add yourself to holds queue – it’s worth the wait!

Happy reading!

Nanogirl: Cooking with Science! – WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Dr Michelle Dickinson wants everyone, everywhere to enjoy a meaningful relationship with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics).

She introduced her book and her mission to a sold-out crowd of kids and whānau. If you missed her on Sunday, get ready for Nanogirl Live! “Out of this World!” – a Live Science Spectacular on at the Isaac Theatre Royal on Saturday 17 November 2018. Her bus is Paul McCartney’s old tour bus rigged out in a science-focused fashion, and it will be coming to Christchurch in a Hercules plane. There’s also a TV show Nanogirl and the Imaginauts coming soon to the TVNZ app HeiHei.

Michelle explained her mission  – “teaching kids to have fun experiences with different technology”. Her nanotechnology career has involved cool jobs such as designing concept cars that will tap you on the shoulder if there is a cyclist behind you, and know if you are feeling a bit bleak and make your commute home go past the beach. She also helped devise a 6 nanometre wide coating for iPhones to protect the screen.

Then she talked about her new book The Kitchen Science Cookbook. It came from the idea that you can sneak science into a recipe book:

Home is where the learning is probably more powerful.

The book took three years of experimenting, and a determination that the recipes be achievable for all families, using what is in the kitchen.  After shopping it to publishers who wanted to skimp on production values (she wanted the ribbon/bookmark in her book), she made the decision to self publish. Michelle used Facebook to solicit recipe testers. People were keen as.  A Kickstarter campaign raised the necessary money ($85,462). Her father in law took the photos.

10,000 books have been sold already, and for each one sold, one goes to a needy family or school and there is a connection to organisations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and Pillars (for families with parents in prison).

Next up, it was kitchen science ahoy – and kids got to head up on stage to be part of the experiments. Can crushers, unicorn noodles, edible earthworms, chicken in a cup, centrifugal force – it was brilliant to watch, and kids had their hands in the air, desperate to get up on stage and do some kitchen science.

Photos from Nanogirl! Cooking with science

Nanogirl: Cooking with Science
Nanogirl: Cooking with Science<

The question from the audience were the tops:

How long have you been a scientist?
I have been a scientist since I was 8.

What is your absolute fave experiment?
Ones where I blow things up, like the 66 gallon drum crush.

And my personal fave:

Can you please come to my birthday?

Yup, Nanogirl is a rock star.

Postscript:
My scientist made marbled milk this afternoon.
Marbled milk experiment from The Kitchen Science Cookbook

The Kitchen Science Cookbook

Motherhood – Emily Writes & Hollie McNish: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

There was a welcome number of baby bumps and wee ones in the audience for the WORD Christchurch session on Motherhood with Kiwi blogger and The Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes – who has recently launched her second book on parenting – Is It Bedtime Yet?  – and British superstar poet Hollie McNish, known for her poetry and writings on the lesser talked about aspects of pregnancy, birth and parenting, collated in Nobody Told Me.

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Emily Writes and Hollie McNish, at WORD Christchurch, September 2018

When Emily wasn’t sure whether to sit or stand to start off the session with a reading from her book, moderator Catherine Robertson jokingly suggested she just pretend that the audience are all in bed and that Emily is reading to us at our bedside. By the size of the sold-out audience, it’s evident even adults love being read to.

CoverIn the anthology Is It Bedtime Yet? Emily has edited together different perspectives of parenthood, be they single parenting, parenting from a Māori perspective, parenting a child with a disability or learning needs, older mothers, queer parents conceiving, stay-at-home dads and more. The variety of experiences shows that there are so many versions of normal parenting. Emily has said there is a danger in a single story or narrative of parenting so by sharing multiple variations of parenting it fosters empathy and the reassurance that actually, we’re doing it okay. Here, mothers are both equally ordinary and extraordinary.

This is most certainly not an advice book – just personal situations, reflections or a snippet in time on a parenting continuum. You can dip into the book anywhere – there are 50 short vignettes with half of them written by Emily herself and interspersed throughout the book. The stories range from poignant to the comedic. In interviews for this book, Emily has said: “We are all so different in the way we parent but that can be a thing that unites us.” She hopes these stories “make us change just a little bit in our day-to-day interaction with each other as parents – or to parents.”

The personal stories shared in Is It Bedtime Yet? are from both never before published writers as well as established authors, some of whom also regularly write for the The Spinoff Parents website. Humorous highlights from the book include musings on “competi-parents” – even those unwittingly being competitive without meaning to; the myth of the magical creature known as ‘the relaxed mother’; the anti-glitter brigade and the realisation that we’re not just mothers, we’re sudden experts in palaeontology to our dinosaur mad kids. The confessions chapter was especially funny! And after reading one dad’s vasectomy story, I will never see The Wiggles the same again!

CoverThere are plenty of WTF? moments in parenting shared in the book. And there’s no holding back on the use of the F word but unfortunately for the parents contributing, there’s not a lot of the Zzzzz word (which may have something to do with the former?) Ironically it was Emily’s lack of sleep after having babies that meant she had plenty of time (albiet in the wee hours) to write and we are benefiting from that with her books like Rants in the Dark: From one tired mama to another. “I’ve always been someone who writes to work out my feelings.” She hopes her books are like “a friend in the dark” as they offer realistic views of parenting versus idealistic notions. Judging by the 15,000+ emails she says she got right after her initial sleep-deprived parenting post (“I am grateful, now f*** off!”) went viral in 2015, there’s a few friends out there in the dark indeed. One mother in the audience said perhaps if she had been given books like Emily’s when she had her babies – instead of just Gina Ford parenting books – then she might have been a lot better off.

There’s one chapter which is just a literal recording of what Emily says to her wee son one day, starting from 5:00am. We don’t get to hear the child’s replies but the one-sided conversation of “put your shoes on” is oh so familiar. I read this transcription to my young son and he thought it was hilarious and spot-on, just change a few words and it could be any parent repetitively saying the same basic instructions to their kid and then amplifying their pleas with hollow threats.

There’s a few piss-takes in the book too and Emily read to the audience her humorous chapter on parenting styles. Move over ‘helicopter parenting’ and make way for the ‘cucumber’ style of parenting which consists of just giving your kid the only food they’ll happily eat. In this case, cucumber! Someone needs to invent a word for laughter crying because there was a lot of it coming from both the audience and guest speakers. In fact, before doing her reading, poet Hollie McNish shared her bemusement at Emily’s cucumber parenting description since she herself has pictures of her own child sharing a pram with a whole cucumber. (My first child too was so obsessed with cucumber to the point that he can be seen wielding one in the birth photos of his sibling). But Emily has ultimately decided on the style of parenting she got from growing up with the Cub Scout motto of ‘We will do our best’ – not ‘do THE best’ she clarifies – just YOUR best! And as Emily inscribed in her book at the author signing afterwards, “Hang in there!” – perhaps that’s a parenting style too?

HOLLIE McNISH

CoverRight on the back of National Poetry Day last week, we were privileged to have British poet Hollie McNish appearing at the festival at several sessions, including this one. Hollie writes of the shared unspoken experiences of pregnancy and motherhood and read a poem from her book on these themes, Nobody Told Me. The poem, Megatron, was inspired by her first post-birth date-night where her then partner took her to see the movie Transformers and after they had argued about who was the best Transformer, she realised she had become the ultimate transformer herself after giving birth – rib cages moving, hips widening, breasts becoming milk machines. Hollie only read one poem in this session and I would have loved to have heard more. Hollie became well-known for her poem about the stigma of breastfeeding in public, entitled Embarrassed, which got quite a reaction when it was published – both positive thanks as well as hate mail. Hollie wondered where this hate came from in the world – literally – so she checked the analytics on her website and saw a lot of abuse came from the United States – especially places like Texas where in fact, she discovered, there is a secret breastfeeding club of mothers too embarrassed to breastfeed in public or face religious vilification.

Watch the well-directed video for Hollie’s poem Embarrassed:

Hollie has noticed, while touring, that it is easier to be a parent in Europe in places like Sweden or France and that a lot of urban design isn’t made with parenting in mind (eg. don’t put sweets at the checkout counter!) Hollie was jealous that in France mothers get a year’s worth of free physiotherapy to help them regain their pelvic floor strength after birth. Hollie joked that she was doing her pelvic Kegel exercises “right now” in her chair on stage. Hollie and Emily are very open about ‘taboo’ subjects and they touched on things we don’t talk enough about like post-birth prolapse, sex after birth or even resorting to using our children’s nappies for ourselves in dire moments. It was perhaps apt that I accidentally pulled out my ticket for the WORD ‘Mortification’ show instead of my ‘Motherhood’ ticket when I went to enter the session. Sometimes society makes us feels as if these two go hand in hand but Hollie’s point is, they absolutely shouldn’t! Hollie wondered if people found pregnant women or breastfeeding confronting, in part, because people – like her grandparents – “could finally see I had sex.” In her grandmother’s day she said women weren’t allowed to talk about their vaginas or bleeding and sometimes didn’t even know where they had given birth from.

Regarding the disdain directed at mothers, likewise, Emily said that after giving birth she suddenly felt unwelcome in places she used to go, like cafes. Emily suggested we need to do away with the ‘half-human’ view of babies – and that we should view children as active members of society instead of waiting until they are fully-formed or until they become “tax-paying units” to consider them of equal worth in society. She also questioned the double-standard that happens when a guy goes out-and-about with a baby and onlookers are full of praise for what a wonderful dad he is whereas a mother with children is looked at in worry for when her kids might be an annoying disturbance. However, Is it Bedtime Yet? honours dads as well with their perspectives and author Brannavan Gnanalingam joined the session to read his chapter about dads not just being seen as ‘the babysitter.’

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Brannavan Gnanalingam, Catherine Robertson, Emily Writes and Hollie McNish having a laugh.

Q & A

In answer to the moderator’s question to the authors: “If you can change one thing … ” Emily joked/not joked: “Smash the patriarchy and destroy capitalism” – there was plenty of applause at this rally cry (although my spellchecker changed ‘applause’ to ‘applesauce,’ appropriate for parents perhaps). Brannavan wished there was more information given to parents from the start and Hollie specified “more government money into care and support for parents.” Lucky for New Zealand, they concurred, that we have a current government sympathetic to parents. (In fact, at the book launch for Is it Bedtime Yet? in Auckland, Emily said it was heartening to see a certain Prime Minister had popped in with her new baby).

A question from the audience followed on from this theme: “How do we get the government to change?” or as rephrased: “How am I going to go back to work to afford avocados?” For some, becoming a mother immediately politicises them and they become an instant activist wanting to fight for change but as their children grow, their priorities for what they want to fight for the most also changes – eg. do you give stretched energies to supporting midwives or supporting teachers? How do we get traction when needs change as our children grow? Emily said that the only way we can make change is to make heaps of noise! “Protest, hikoi, engage in conscious-raising – talk to people around you about what’s important to you” – like publicly praising why teachers need a raise or the importance of midwives (who saved her life) and just generally “combat bullshit.” Emily closed the session impassioned: “We need to be noisy and use our voice!” At this, there was enough applause from the audience to wake a baby!

Special thanks to the the Christchurch Art Gallery for offering free ‘babysitting’ (aka a kid’s art workshop) –  while parents were attending this Motherhood session at WORD. More of this kind of thoughtfulness for parents in society is needed! Check out the art gallery’s monthly Parent & Baby tours (Prams welcome). 


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