Katherine Mansfield’s 130th Birthday

Sarah Laing’s graphic memoir Mansfield and Me.

Katherine Mansfield was born as Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp on the 14th of October 1888, into a prominent family in Wellington. Her father, Harold Beauchamp, became the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand (then, curiously enough, owned by New Zealanders). He had been born in Australia, but moved to New Zealand with his family when he was three years old. At the age of 65, he was made a knight of the realm. Katherine’s mother was Annie Beauchamp, whose brother would marry the daughter of Richard Seddon, former Prime Minister of New Zealand. This marriage wove the Beauchamp family into New Zealand’s prominent social circles.

When Katherine was five, her family moved from Thorndon to the then country suburb of Karori for health reasons. Katherine spent the happiest years of her childhood in Karori. Her short story Prelude published in 1918, was inspired by her memories of this happy time.

Katherine Mansfield’s childhood home in Thorndon, 2007. Photo by Lanma726. Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)

Mansfield’s first published her short stories in 1900 in a society magazine called New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal.

Mansfield expressed a feeling of alienation in her journals. She became disillusioned with New Zealand because of her observations of Māori being repressed by the Pakeha settlers. This is probably why Māori characters are often portrayed in a positive light in  a story such as How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped, first published in 1912.

At age fifteen, Mansfield moved to London to attend school there. When she returned to New Zealand, aged nineteen, she began to write short stories prolifically. She was determined to become a professional writer and returned to London at the age of 21.

Financially, Mansfield was sustained by an annual allowance from her father of one hundred pounds. But Mansfield was a woman ahead of her time and led an unconventional lifestyle, being bisexual and becoming pregnant while unmarried. Her mother was horrified and raced over to London (well, as quickly as you could race in 1909) where she dispatched Katherine to Bad Wörishofen, a spa town in Bavaria. Mansfield miscarried soon after arriving in Bad Wörishofen and, to compound her woes, her mother cut Katherine out of her will.

CoverHowever, her stay in Germany was to enhance Mansfield’s writing career. Here she first encountered the works of Anton Chekhov, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. Her experiences of Germany produced the stories which became her first published collection In a German Pension published in 1911.

Mansfield was profoundly affected by the death of her younger brother, Leslie Beauchamp, who was killed fighting in France in 1915. “Chummie”, as the family called him, had been very close to Katherine in their childhood. Perhaps mindful of this shadow of mortality, Mansfield wrote prolifically from 1916 onwards.

This was to prove prescient as Mansfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis in December 1917. In order to lessen the effects of her disease, Mansfield went abroad to Europe, staying in France and then Italy. During this time she published two more collections, Bliss and Other Stories (1920) then The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922).

Bliss KMgarden Party KM 2dove's nestchildish

Katherine Mansfield spent the latter part of her life seeking unorthodox treatments for her tuberculosis, but, unfortunately, she died on the 9th of January, 1923 from a pulmonary haemorrhage. Mansfield left a lot of unpublished stories behind, but her former husband, the editor, John Middleton Murry, took it upon himself to gather and publish several posthumous collections of her work.

Mansfield’s legacy is writ large in the New Zealand literary landscape. Our most prestigious literary residency is the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship which all the big knobs of Kiwi literature have enjoyed since it was inaugurated in 1970. Many a grand poobah of Kiwi writing has resided for six months in Menton, France, at the Villa Isola Bella, enjoying the freedom of writing without the financial pressure of the everyday world. Katherine Mansfield lived and wrote at the Villa Isola Bella in the latter years of her life.

I hate to end on a slightly sour note, but I wonder in New Zealand where we have had several highly talented short story writers like Mansfield, Frank Sargeson and Owen Marshall, why the short story writer seems to be regarded somehow as a lesser being and not taken seriously until they publish a novel. We have let the novel become the Olympus to which all writers should aspire. Some writers like Mansfield clearly felt their talent lies in writing the shorter form fiction. Living, as she did, far away from the claustrophobic literary milieu of New Zealand, clearly Mansfield never felt any pressure to write a novel but she produced a myriad of smaller literary treasures.

More on KM

NZOnScreen has material on Katherine Mansfield, including the 1986 documentary A portrait of Katherine Mansfield.

A Portrait of Katherine Mansfield

 

Ted Chiang – Arrival: WORD Christchurch

American science fiction writer Ted Chiang has a very particular way of speaking. He pauses a lot to gather his thoughts, and the intonation, or melody, of his voice doesn’t vary much. This can have the effect of making it feel that he is taking a very long time to get to the point. Fortunately, Arrival is the third WORD Christchurch session of his that I’m attending so I’ve become somewhat accustomed to it. Because once you get past the quality of his voice, he actually does have some interesting things to say.

It also helps that Arrival (the only sci-fi movie I’ve every watched with a middle-aged female linguist as its hero – feel free to recommend others if you know of any) is a recent favourite of mine, and that I’m part way through reading The story of your life, the novella on which the movie is based.

Arrival

Local sci-fi and fantasy author, Karen Healey happily lets Chiang talk about the things that interest him about the genre he writes in. You get the impression from Ted Chiang that he spends a lot of time thinking generally, and about science fiction especially, so his thoughts, when he does finally express them are fully-formed. His lines are not throwaway ones. He’s considered these things from a variety of angles.

For instance, he rejects the notion that his writing “transcends genre”, as, in his opinion, this is the kind of thing that people who don’t usually like science fiction say – the implication being that the rest of the genre isn’t very good, and that this thing that they somehow like is some kind of aberration.

Hollywood sci-fi vs literary sci-fi

Ted Chiang - Science Fiction Triple Feature
Ted Chiang reads one of his short stories at New Regent Street Pop-up Festival. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0120

I especially enjoy hearing about his views on the nature of science fiction storytelling in movies versus in fiction because, as a fan of sci-fi cinema, I recognise that his observations have the unerring ring of truth to them and I may never watch an MCU movie in the same way again.

In Hollywood sci-fi, he says, there’s very often a good vs. evil scenario in which the world is in a good/peaceful/stable state then something evil/monstrous/destructive comes along and there is a struggle to overcome this force of evil and return the world to a state of goodness, peace, and harmony. It’s a very conservative formula in that it’s looking to restore the status quo. This immediately makes me think of Make America Great Again (MAGA) and just how powerful narratives that resonate with people can be. Human beings love stories and we like to use the same patterns of story over and over again.

The kind of science fiction that Chiang is interested in is entirely different. In these kinds of stories the world is changed by some kind of disruption or discovery and the change is irrevocable. There is no going back to the way things were before. At the end of the story the world is a very different place from what it was at the beginning, and more than that it’s not necessarily a better place, just a different one. This is a much more progressive storyline and one that you don’t get much in Hollywood movies, if for no other reason than that they are not easy to make a sequel to.

For instance, all the Jurassic Park franchise (currently on its 5th film – a 6th is planned) needs for there to be another dinosaurs-cause-chaos story is for some scientists to make the same errors of judgement the first lot did and the “oh no, who could have foreseen this dinosaur-related catastrophe happening again?” scenario can and will happen again.

Compare this with Chiang’s favourite science fiction film, The Matrix. In many ways it looks like a battle between good vs. evil story but it’s not. The world is a radically different place at the end of the movie. “Neo’s monologue at the very end of the film,” says Chiang “has really stuck with me”. And just in case we didn’t believe him, he quotes it, word for word:

 I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

To Chiang this quote perfectly captures what it is to be a radical or a revolutionary. It is not the status quo and it is not comforting, which good vs. evil stories often are. Ted Chiang is not interested in writing “comforting” fiction.

Humanity, curiosity and evidence

What he is interested in is what it means to be human and for him a sense of curiosity, which Healey points out is often present in his characters, is essential.

To be fully human is to be actively engaged with the world around us…

Trying to learn more about the universe is a really noble pursuit and “profoundly meaningful”. And though a lot of his stories have a theoretical question or “though experiment” at their core he feels that science fiction, by tying these ideas to a character with an emotional storyline, can make them more accessible to people.

Philosophy doesn’t have to be so radically removed from our lived experience. I think it’s interesting because it does apply to our lived experience.

Chiang is an Atheist but has an interest in religion. In one of his stories he imagines a world in which there is irrefutable evidence of the existence of God and explores whether that would make it easier or harder to have faith. In some ways, he thinks it would be harder.

In response to a question from Healey about how you approach people from the past as a topic for science fiction, Chiang is magnanimous – people in the past had a different way of viewing the world. Given the observations they had at the time, their interpretations often make sense. Subsequent observations can change this view, of course. They were engaged in the same general practise as modern scientists are engaged in.

It was perhaps this train of conversation that prompted the first of the audience questions, as a very forthright arm shot up a couple of rows in front of me, and an older gentleman asked what Chiang’s thoughts were on the question of “settled science”, a phrase that he felt was being used to shut down debate in such areas as Climate Change (a topic, it should be noted, on which the vast majority of the scientific community is in agreement).

Chiang, as is his habit, takes a while to get to the point of his answer but to summarise it is basically this: Science is practised by human beings who have biases, but scientists are far more aware of their biases than other people (in particular, politicians, who are the worst at recognising their own vested interests). Science fiction in general aligns with scientists. And science by its nature doesn’t really get to an end point.

This is so successfully diplomatic a response that the questioner, judging by the nodding of his head, felt he was being agreed with. Sir, you were not being agreed with. You were being disagreed with in a slow, patient manner.

Movies again

The only other audience question was, shockingly, about science fiction and picked up on Chiang’s earlier discussion of The Matrix, which the audience member wondering what he made of the sequels. Like most of us, he found them disappointing calling them “the prime example of the harmful effects” of Hollywood’s demand for sequels, when “commerce runs counter to artistic goals”.

Which led nicely into a discussion of how the film Arrival got made.

Arrival

The movie’s genesis was rather different route than what’s usual, as the screenwriter Eric Heisserer had read Chiang’s story and wanted to adapt it, but then had to find someone to produce it. Chiang is at pains to point out that Heisserer deserves all the credit for making The Story of your life work as a movie, as Chiang himself considered it “unfilmable” due to its very “internal” nature. And Chiang himself offered a few comments on the screenplay but mostly stayed out of it.

The movie-making business is so, so weird and it’s not something I want to be closely involved in.

Diversity in science fiction

Chiang is happy about the shift in science fiction that has seen increasing diversity in its authors and writing, though this hasn’t been without its conflicts, Chiang describing sci-fi’s “own version of the Alt-Right” laying seige to the Hugo Awards for a number of years. These efforts, in his opinion, have ultimately proved unsuccessful. N. K. Jemisin, a queer, African-American woman winning the Hugo for best novel for an unprecedented three years running.

Chiang also points out that the popularity of The three body problem by Cixin Liu, a work translated into English from Chinese, is another example of a growning openness in science fiction.

I think it’s great because for a long time science fiction, despite it being very forward looking – in practice it’s been very conservative.

Not to mention the tropes. So. Many. Tropes. And conventions and little in-jokes. Science fiction, Chiang seems to be saying, in some quarters has become unchallenging and… comfortable.

I very much want [science fiction] to be filled with surprising reading experiences. I think science fiction should be about questioning your assumptions… It should make you wonder about things you took for granted, things you assumed to be true but actually are just a societal convention.

The more different science fiction writers there are, he says, the more likely it is that you get that experience.

And there he goes again, advocating against the status quo. Ted Chiang: the slow-spoken, thoughtful revolutionary.

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New Regent Street Pop-up Festival: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

The New Regent Street Pop-up Festival is like the whole of WORD Christchurch distilled into an hour and twenty minutes, and if that sounds intense well, yes, that would be an accurate assessment.

In some ways it’s like trying to pick something off a menu – how do you know what you’ll like the best? What if you choose and don’t enjoy your choice? And just to extend the dining out metaphor, the pop-up festival offers three “sets” of readings in much the same manner as restaurant courses, allowing you to mix and match.

For my pop-up dinner I chose the following:

Entrée: Gory Bits at Crate Escape

Main: Science Fiction Triple Feature at Rollickin’ Gelato

Dessert: FIKA and Friends at Fiksate Gallery

So how did I do choosing a great meal?

Entrée

Robin Robertson reads at Gory Bits
Robin Robertson about to make everyone feel uneasy. Crate Escape. New Regent Street Pop Up Festival. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0109

Meaty, blood-soaked and best served cold, this was a very enjoyable way to start. True, it’s rather a full-bodied choice for an entree, but if you’re going to have tales of death and fear read to you in the confines of a strange, wooden Antarctic hut fashioned from a shipping container you may as well do it early so it’s still daylight when you leave.

WORD Christchurch Festival director, Rachael King read a suitably gothic, Wuthering Heights inspired passage from her book Magpie Hall, and Brindi Joy’s flash fiction story of the dead that don’t necessarily stay buried had a pleasing rhythm and exotic (for Christchurch) US locale.

But certainly the standout of this “course” was Robin Robertson‘s readings of gruesome death and murder, his voice dragging on certain words, and fairly growling others – at one point his hands held out in the pose of a man strangling his beloved and… well, lovely man though I’m sure he is, should I bump into him in a dark alley while he’s here in Christchurch I’ll probably squeal and run the other way, so affecting was his performance. And I fancied as I left, to the screams of children playing at the Margaret Mahy Playground across the road, that they might not all be squeals of delight…

Mains

After that kind of darkness what you need is something different, distracting and refreshing. Science Fiction Triple Feature offered a trio of writers of different flavours reading stories and excerpts.

A. J. Fitzwater, a local writer of Spec-Fic (Speculative Fiction) opened with a really interesting take on post-apocalyptic tales, telling the story of a trans vlogger and traveller making their way across Europe in the wake of some catastrophic outbreak. They are on the hunt for… tampons. Which is an amusing twist on the usual dystopian scavenging one usually expects from tales like this, and one that I have always wondered about myself. Sure, the characters in The Walking Dead always look sufficiently unwashed and grimey… but they still seem to be able to find their colour of hair dye and everyone’s top lip is still getting waxed so how post-apocalyptic is it really? Yes, I do have tampons in my emergency kit, and yes, so should you.

Another local sci-fi/fantasy writer, Karen Healey then took the mic (in a Thor-themed dress that I am most covetous of) and read from her version of Beauty and the Beast in which Beauty’s quest involves dark, spooky creatures who have possessed her beloved father, a malady that only a strapping magical beast might be able to cure. And American author Ted Chiang read a strange and perplexing story of science used to support fiction – a comment on the nature of faith and truth, perhaps.

Ted Chiang - Science Fiction Triple Feature
Ted Chiang with A. J Fitzwater and Karen Healey. New Regent Street Pop-up Festival. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0119

Dessert

A small sorbet of something completely different was on offer at Fiksate Gallery (a place that I would very much like to go back to) in the form of touching, poignant poetry. Personal tales of a loved one’s dementia, or legendary tales of some guy called “Maui”. Short and bittersweet. The perfect ending course to this pop-up adventure.

New Regent Street Pop Up Festival
New Regent Street Pop Up Festival, WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0096

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Reading many lives

With regards to the quote above, if one were of a sardonic frame of mind one might point out that at the rate at which Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin kills off his characters a thousand lives might be an understatement. Nevertheless the basic premise stands. Reading allows anyone the chance to “inhabit” a great many people and characters.

This is never more true than when you’re reading a book of short stories. Though you may become attached to a character, the next protagonist is probably only a few page turns away. Sometimes this is a relief. Sometimes it leaves you wanting more.

Recently I’ve found myself reading books that work with the theme of many lives but in very different ways.

Cover of deleted scenes for lovers by Tracey SlaughterDeleted scenes for lovers by Tracey Slaughter. I think her surname is appropriate because she killed parts of my soul with this book (in a good way). Her short stories are set in New Zealand, but a rather grimy, rundown one. The stories, with exception of the last one which is a novella, are short and sometimes brutal vignettes from the lives of damaged and lost people. You’ll want to set aside time between each one. This is not a book to rush through. The writing is incisive and brilliant and made me feel a lot of things, some of them against my will.

Cover of Meet cuteMeet cute is rather anodyne by comparison. It’s a collection of young adult short stories, all by different writers and all featuring the “how they met” story of two characters. As with any collection like this some authors and characters resonate more than others, and while the bulk of the stories have a contemporary romance kind of vibe there are a couple of sci-fi/fantasy genre tales too. Most, though not all, of the stories are about straight couples – one of the unexpected joys of the book is that you don’t know when you’re introduced to the main character whether their story will be a boy-meets-girl or a girl-meets-girl one – I found it was fun to try and guess in the first page or so.

He rau mahara: To remember the journey of our Ngāi Tahu soldiers: From the pā to the battlefields of the Great War is completely different again – a nonfiction title produced by Ngāi Tahu’s whakapapa unit about the iwi’s First World War soldiers. It’s a beautifully put together book, filled with photographs of soldiers with names you might recognise – Nortons, Pōhios and Skerretts. Nearly two thirds of the book is dedicated to a profile of every Ngāi Tahu soldier who took part in the Great War, with the first part of the book featuring a sample of stories of soldiers, war, and their families. A gorgeous and poignant memorial to South Island soldiers and their whānau, and the lives they lived.

Flash me that fiction – Friday 22 June

National Flash Fiction Day is on Friday 22 June.

Here are the details for the Christchurch event Flash in the Pan:

Come along and celebrate the smallest fictions on the shortest day. National Flash Fiction Day! Flash in the Pan is a FREE event to celebrate all things flash and brings together Canterbury’s best flash fiction writers for an unexpected literary evening and award presentations.

  • When: 6pm to 8pm Friday 22 June 2018
  • Where: Space Academy, 371 St Asaph Street
  • What: Flash fiction readings, competition announcements, beer on tap and spot prizes from Scorpio Books and the University Bookshop
  • Subscribe to the Flash in the Pan Facebook event.

What is flash fiction? Well, as defined by the Collins English online dictionary, flash fiction is “a genre of fiction in which stories are characterized by extreme brevity.”

So in short; a short, short story.

I refused to read short stories growing up. I felt cheated. They didn’t count. Could only be explained through sheer laziness on the author’s part. I now understand the unique challenge they pose: how each word must be weighed with the gravest importance, each sentence propelling the narrative forward. No easy feat does it present. When words are scarce, each one must prove its value, must hint at something beyond what appears on the surface.

For the past seven years, New Zealand has celebrated flash fiction through an annual competition, culminating in New Zealand Flash Fiction Day (NZFFD). There are three categories you can enter: adult, youth and Te Reo Māori. If you were hoping to throw your writing skills in the ring this year you’re out of luck as competition entries ran February through April…but despair not, for that leaves nine months to motivate yourself for next year’s competition. In 2017 there were 404 adult competition entries – sounds migraine inducing for those on the judging panel – though entries for the NZFFD competition are limited to a rather manageable 300 words. Tempted? You can read winning entries from previous years online, or even attend the Christchurch Flash Fiction event next week.

My research into flash fiction has, if anything, further muddied the waters as nobody can seem to agree upon the preferred word count (or indeed the very name) of flash fiction. Varying wildly dependent on who is asked, word counts range from the modest six word variety made famous by Ernest Hemingway to the decidedly more generous 1500 limit. Last year, 25-word flash fiction was publicised by The New Yorker, appearing in the “Summer of Flash Fiction” series. The term of Flash Fiction has adopted many different guises also: there is, for instance, the intriguing sounding “twitterature,” and of course the commonly referred to “short story.”

But at the end of the day, short and sweet is what Flash Fiction day (incidentally, held on the shortest day of the year) is all about.

Here I have gathered together some of Christchurch City Libraries’ short story/flash fiction collection – or whatever you want to call it – for your perusal.

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Check out more stories of the short variety on our catalogue.

If you are looking to develop your own skills as a writer- or if, like me, you have zero visual art skills and simply find writing to be a nice alternative, therapeutic and creative endeavour – Linwood Library host a Creative Writing group weekly on a Wednesday. You’ll also find guides and inspiration on our catalogue, and check out our page on writing for tips, competitions and courses.

There are many more classes and programmes in your community, some of them free, some with a cost. For further information, see CINCH: Community Information Christchurch for programming in your wider community.