2018 has been a stunning year for me when we talk about books and reading, and here’s a selection of recreational non-fiction titles that I have enjoyed in the back half of 2018 and that you too can enjoy over the New Zealand summer season!
I was lucky enough to see/hear Philip Hoare speak at this year’s Word Christchurch festival, and it was the realisation of a dream that I didn’t know I had – to meet the man who has had me mesmerised with his writing about the sea and natural science too often to count. Philip Hoare writes of the sea in such powerful and beautiful language. This particular book is his own graceful exploration of whales, their place in our world, our human history interacting with them, and the perils that they face at the hands of humanity and environmental changes. A book to read slowly, embracing every sentence for its beauty and poetic brilliance.
In completely the other direction, 2018 was the year I discovered this book from long ago – Wisconsin Death Trip
This book is a surreal journey about the real events surrounding the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin way back in the 1890s. Over a decade or so the townsfolk underwent what can only be called a mass-mania with incidents of murder, arson, infanticide, institutionalisation, and all manner of other horrors. These stories are told through archival newspaper reports and the most astonishing images taken from glass-plate negatives taken during the time. Haunting images and crazy stories… an amazing piece of captured history.
A very compelling volume of short accounts of the sessions delivered by many noted British scientists including Richards Dawkins and the great David Attenborough himself. These lectures were aimed to get kids excited about science and they are very entertaining and informative – you’ll love them too!
And the last title I’ll share with you is a micro-history. A micro-history is a work which focuses on one very specific piece of human or natural history. In the past I’ve enjoyed brilliant micro-histories like Salt by Mark Kurlansky – the amazing story of the most popular food seasoning in the world, or The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester (a repeat offender when it comes to micro-histories!) – an account of a madman who made the most significant contribution to the English language dictionary. I may one day write a blog just about the amazing world of micro-histories (Alina has done a very good microhistories list to start with) but for this time it’s all about Krill in The Curious Life of Krill.
This is a fascinating read about one of the most bountiful and important food sources in the Earth’s oceans. Written with an expert’s mind and a writer’s sense of storytelling this is a most enlightening read. Krill; they’re not as small as you think, and they are almost definitely the most important link in the food chain for life on Earth. Great read. Cool creatures. Think of them when you’re BBQ-ing your prawns this Christmas! 🙂
And that’s the back half of my 2018 reading in recreational non-fiction. These are not all the titles that crossed my path but definitely the most interesting and the ones I would like to share the most.
Happy Christmas season to y’all and happy reading for the rest of 2018!
I am well into the morning-after glow of having spent an evening in the company of Lee Child, Paul Cleave and 750 of his Christchurch fans – and what a night it was! This is my first WORD Christchurch event – this one presented in association with Penguin Random House New Zealand – and I couldn’t have asked for a better author to kick off with. Lee Child is funny, intelligent and relaxed as he responds to Paul Cleave’s questions. He looks every bit as he does on the back cover of his books too. Now don’t worry – there are no spoilers for Past Tense in here – nor were there any in the interview, thankfully. I am still only part way through the book so I would have been gutted if it had been discussed in depth.
Have you ever wondered if Lee Child is channeling any of himself into our favourite character? Turns out that he is. He has gone out and experienced moving around the States as Jack does and has a similar dislike for technology. He also told us that other than the leather jacket and boots that he was wearing on the night; everything else will find itself in the bin in a few days and he will leave with new clothes. The basics aren’t expensive – he’s tried expensive clothing and found that they look the same anyway. And yes his jeans go under the mattress at night!
So which of you didn’t like Tom Cruise in the big screen role of Jack Reacher? No? Me neither! Quite simply because he doesn’t have the requisite traits that we all know Reacher to have – if anything, Tom Cruise is the antipode of Jack Reacher.
But this isn’t something that we will have to continue to grin and bear for any future films. That’s because there won’t be any. It was in Lee’s contract with the studio that he could opt out of any future movies once two had been made. So he has. Instead we have something much more worthy to look forward to. A TV series! He has just signed the paperwork to put Jack Reacher onto the little screen and I for one will be happily bingewatching it. If luck has it, there will be 8 seasons which will incorporate 24 books – 3 per season. One book will be chosen as the main theme and the other 2 will be cannibalised to round out the episodes. Can’t wait to see the result.
It was nice to see Lee graciously accept the book of a first-time author from the audience, when he was offered it. I had the impression that he genuinely supports up and coming talent. He does however, heartily disapprove of a well established author who quite blatantly kicks off a series with a character who is a bit of a dead ringer for ol’ Jack. David Baldacci… you know who you are! Amusingly, Lee didn’t take this affront lying down and is openly disparaging of such behaviour. He even went as far as to name a couple of his minor characters Baldacci and made sure that Reacher got a chance to punch them in the face. It seems that was enough to assure the absence of David Baldacci at some book events that he and Lee Child were due to attend together. Better watch your back DB!
So, ‘how does he remain as thin as he does?’, was one audience member’s question. Lee has discovered that stoking the fires of his creativity is as simple as keeping himself hungry. He writes better like this. He puts it down to some primal part of his brain that is activated when he is hungry – and it’s no doubt trying to imagine what it will have to do in order to hunt and forage to fill this need. Deep stuff.
So even though food doesn’t play a huge part we can rest assured that he is consuming copious amounts of coffee. This stuff must be running through his veins as it’s not unusual for him to consume 36 cups of coffee in a day! 36! Mind blown! How on earth does he sleep at night, I wonder?
So that was my night with Lee Child. It was a very entertaining time that was had by all. And no I didn’t hang around for my book to be signed, because I didn’t have a couple of hours to spare! Maybe next time.
Time to immerse myself back into Jack Reacher’s world – Past Tense here I come!
This WORD session was hosted by David Higgins, Upoko of Moeraki Rūnanga, with kōrero by the book’s editors Helen Brown (Ngāi Tahu) and Takerei Norton (Ngāi Tahu), and by book contributors Robyn Walsh (Ngāi Tahu) and Mike Stevens (Ngāi Tahu).
The book emerged from the work of the Ngāi Tahu Archives team on Kā Huru Manu, the amazing Ngāi Tahu digital atlas. While collecting and recording places names around Te Waipounamu, the research team realised they were also discovering the names and stories of people who were the very heart of Ngāi Tahu whakapapa. This book is intended to be the first of a series born out of the work of the atlas, and a second volume is already in process.
The individual biographies in Tāngata Ngāi Tahu cover 200 years of Ngāi Tahu whānau history, producing a ‘tribal family album’ of stories and images. Editor Helen Brown talked about how among the stories of the ordinary, often household names in te iwi, have been revealed the extraordinary lives of so many Ngāi Tahu people.
The book has been arranged by person/name, which Helen said gives a more nuanced history than a book based on themes or a more traditional history book arrangement, perhaps in alphabetical or chronological order. The order of the book does invoke a back-and-forth journey across time, with people from the 1800s to more recent times spread at random throughout the book. The effect embraces serendipity, with a mix of stunning, historical black-and-white photographs between more modern colour images drawing the reader into the rich history within.
Each biography had a limit of 1000 words, and editing to this limit Helen described as often excruciating. “Whole books are needed,” she said. Perhaps for individual whānau this book will plant the seed to pick up the stories and expand on them for their own tīpuna?
The biographies have been written by a team of writers, whose writing experience in this context Helen described as ranging from gathering the purely anecdotal to more academic pursuits. We were lucky to have some of the writers present in the team of speakers at the WORD event, and each speaker featured an individual from the book, giving the audience a summary of their whakapapa and life.
Robyn Walsh talked about her mother Dorothy Te Mahana Walsh of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Kahungunu decent, a leader heavily involved in the ‘hui hopping’ during the Waitangi Tribunal Hearings and a keen performer who travelled to San Francisco supporting the Te Māori exhibition. Robyn concluded “we need and must remember these histories and people.”
Others spoken about on the day were Amiria Puhirere – a stunning figure standing in her full-length korowai in the photo on page 86, she was a prominent leader and renowned weaver who lived at Ōnukū on the Akaroa Harbour; Trevor Hapi Howse – a major part of the research team that led the long work for Ngāi Tahu Te Kerēme/the Ngāi Tahu Waitangi Claim and a key figure in the Kā Huru Manu project; and William Te Paro Spencer – a seafaring kaumātua and muttonbirder, described as “proudly and strongly Ngāi Tahu” and “very much a Bluff local but wordly with it”.
As mentioned above, one of the strong features of the book are the photographs, many of which are from iwi archives and other private collections, and often have not been published or displayed outside the embrace of whānau before. It is clear that it is something special these photos are being shared not only with iwi whānui but with the whole country, and such a personal act of whakawhanaungatanga is to be valued and cherished.
Although the prime audience for the book is Ngāi Tahu tāngata there has been huge interest in it since media company The Spinoff published an article about Mere Harper, who helped setup the Plunket organisation. The audience has since become national and international, with a strong focus on the book’s contribution to the historical narrative of Aotearoa.
The thing I really enjoy about comedy podcast, The Nerd Degree, is that though there’s generally a theme running through the episodes, you really never know what you’re going to get. And neither do the panelists, for the most part. But a safe bet is that there’ll be amazing facts, nerdy knowledge and plenty of laughs.
If you’ve never experienced The Nerd Degree either in person, or in podcast, then the best way to describe it is as a local comedy quiz show for nerds of all stripes (there are many varieties). It’s QI meets the MCU (or MMORPG or… LARP) . There are two teams, the host asks the questions, and points are distributed in a rather haphazard fashion.
The nerds at last month’s very special episode at WORD Christchurch were local YA author Karen Healey and Jolisa “Tell you what” Gracewood competing as team Comparatively Literate with scary movie specialist Dr. Erin Harrington and Ngāi Tahu writer and artist Nic Low as Essentially Illiterate. With Brendon Bennetts in charge of time-keeping and correct answers.
The theme of the episode was “adventure” and we sure were taken on a journey. It’s hard to talk about the content of the episode without spoiling it though I can say that Nic Low is a man who has an amazing story about seemingly everything (if he ever writes a memoir it will be a must-read), that Karen Healey has missed her calling as a writer for Macgyver and that apparently armadillo tastes a bit like duck.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
During the chaos of dashing between WORD sessions, writer and co-editor Laurence Fearnley kindly agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about her new anthology To the Mountains and other works.
What brought you to writing about mountaineering?
My parents used to do a lot of climbing in Scotland and Wales after the war [before moving to Christchurch]. We spent a lot of weekends tramping — dad went on a couple of expeditions to the Himalayas, my brother was a keen climber… When I was doing research for my novel The Hut Builder I read a lot of Alpine Club articles and ended up with boxes and boxes of material, so I thought it would be quite nice to do something with that. There hadn’t been an anthology of mountain writing since Ray Knox’s A Thousand Mountains Shining in the 80s, so it seemed a good time. I hadn’t really kept up to date with modern mountaineering writing but [co-editor] Paul Hersey edited the Alpine Journal and is a climber, so he had that sort of knowledge.
You researched a lot in the Hocken Collection. What was that like?
They have full archives from the Alpine Club, which was established in 1891. It’s interesting because they allowed women to join as members right from the start, compared to others like the Canterbury Mountaineering Club which didn’t allow women in until the 1980s. I got material from those archives and also from notebooks, journals, and letters that individuals have donated to the collection. It’s an amazing archival record, it’s incredible. It does taper off from the 1970s/80s onwards so it would be great if people continued to donate to the collection, if this could be our central repository of mountain writing.
A lot of voices chosen for this anthology aren’t those most people would associate with alpine writing — usually we only hear from those at the cutting edge of mountaineering.
That’s the sad thing because that’s how you get the same old voices coming through, if they’re not disrupted by allowing different voices. Mountains are a big part of our sporting identity, it would be nice if it was seen as something families do, not just rugged individuals. There are so many reasons why people go into the mountains — photography, art, for somewhere quiet and restful, to admire the beauty… The public perception of conquest [of the Alps] doesn’t really hold true, it’s not necessarily a motivation for most people.
At the same time a lot of the 1930s Canterbury Mountaineering Club articles are of trips in the Port Hills because it was difficult to get good transport to the Alps — they might only be able to get into the mountains once or twice a year but they were very fit. It was a class orientated sport, particularly in the early days. It’s interesting when the boundaries start breaking down between the upper middle class mountaineers and the working class mountain guides. Guides weren’t allowed in the Alpine Club because they were professionals.
Which doesn’t give credit to the fact that the guides were doing a lot of the work putting up tents, cutting steps, carrying the equipment…
Yes, you get someone like Dora De Beer on an expedition overseas in China, they walked 400 miles before they even got to the mountain, it was a real Victorian expedition. They would expect shelter from whatever was available, from monasteries to embassies, just take over their house. She was an amazing woman — during the 30s just before the war she would drive from London through Holland, Germany and Switzerland to get to Italy, on her own a lot of the time. Her diaries are from 1936-37, a lot of her entries are things like “Very inconvenienced getting across the border,” such a sense of imperious entitlement with no mention of the political climate. People like her were so curious and enthusiastic, in New Zealand they’d set off on horseback across Otira to the West Coast, just loving the absolute freedom of being out of that rigid society. They thought it was a great hoot.
Some of my favourite parts of the book are letters from the 1800s, there were some really funny excerpts. You must have had a lot of fun finding these in the Hocken collection. Do you have any favourites?
The ones I liked were the quieter, reflective pieces, people going back later in life and just enjoying being in the outdoors with their friends. I guess Jill Tremain had a big impact on me as a kid when she did the [1971 traverse of the Southern Alps] with Graeme Dingle — I can remember it being on the radio, there was a lot of controversy about them sharing a tent as she wasn’t married. From her letters she seemed to have such a generous outlook on life.
Voices I like least would be the 1970s slightly macho hard men stuff, that’s not a voice that appeals to me but quite a big part of the literature of the time. When you compare those writers with Aat Vervoorn, so reflective and spiritual, learning from the landscape… The ones who enjoy being in the space rather than needing to prove themselves or get a reputation, those would be the voices I like.
What are you currently working on?
I’m two-thirds of the way through a novel looking at landscape through scent and identity, under the umbrella narrative of a woman who loses her job when the university Humanities department is done away with. That one will be coming out next year. I’m also looking at doing an anthology of New Zealand women mountaineers. This will be more historical, it will be worthwhile to have a chronology of women mountaineers as there are so many of them.
What are you reading at the moment?
Just read a couple of books that I reviewed for Landfall, one called Oxygen by [New Zealand freediver) William Trubridge — not a book I’d necessarily be drawn to but interesting to see just how determined and focussed he has to be. The other is a beautiful book about hunting called Dark Forest Deep Water by Richard Fall, which would normally be something that turns me off but hearing him reflecting on why he hunts and the emotional journeys of hunting… It’s a great book, I’d really recommend it.
Thanks Laurence for a lovely interview, and I look forward to reading your next books!
Once again, WORD Christchurch was fabulous. All the session I went to were thoroughly interesting and enjoyable, and reading all the fabulous write ups of other sessions caused some serious past-tense FOMO. My holds list has also got rather long…
However, I’ve also been thinking about some of the connections between different sessions. One very sparkly connection was Stacy Gregg‘s silver boots, another around leaving New Zealand – or not. At the very wonderful Mortification session Steve Braunias told a beautifully crafted story about giving a well-known politician fleas, but one of the points he made was about how he wasn’t particularly keen to do a big OE – he was settled in New Zealand. In Explosive ArchaeologyBrannavan Gnanalingam noted that Robin Hyde developed her career in New Zealand, rather than going overseas to do so. Sometimes it seems that some Kiwis have to go away to achieve in order to come back and be successful, but as these stories show that isn’t always the case. New Zealand is more than enough.
As we found out, when you are mortified you are very vulnerable – think inopportune periods, an inopportune goat in the buttocks, assorted inopportune number twos and buttocks exposed to the elements. I enjoyed hearing people talk about things in life that had not gone so well – we need to be open about our screw ups. Sex also makes us vulnerable. Sharing your wibbly bits with someone else is risky, as is showing your mum poems you’ve written which contain a lot of sex. Tayi Tibble was nervous showing her mum her more sexual poetry, but her mum was fine with it. Her risk paid off.
But, as Chris Henry reminds us, it really is ok to be vulnerable. Looking after our mental health is so very important, and reaching out to people and telling them how we feel is huge and so worthwhile. Chris demonstrates very well how you can be a hero and vulnerable. ‘We can make a life‘ not only covers family stories and the earthquakes, it also advocates for the amazing work that rural GPs do, which Chessie feels is sometimes under appreciated.
Advocacy came up again in Explosive Archaeology – in terms of making sure we are speaking about underappreciated artists and genres, and also in terms of making sure we are leaving doors open for those that come after us. When we succeed – who do we take with us? Who do we raise up?
I love events that make me think and WORD certainly did that. I’m going to make sure that I’m ok with my vulnerability, and that if I like something I tell people about it.
I like the WORD Christchurch Festival, and I’ve enjoyed telling you about it.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
Broadcaster and writer Miriama Kamo introduced the lineup for WORD Christchurch’s final session by prefacing with a definition of the topic:
adventure (n.) a wild and exciting undertaking (not necessarily lawful)
All four women featured fully fit the description, from extreme endurance to joyous risk-taking while travelling. The only thing I have in common with these ladies and their incredible lives is our gender, but while I won’t be running off to the Greenland ice cap anytime soon, their talks have inspired me to be a little more adventurous in my own life.
Hollie Woodhouse began her adventures with an Outward Bound course in her late twenties. While alone in the bush she wrote down four goals she wanted to achieve:
Start her own business
Go to the UK and do her OE
Sign up for an event each year that would challenge her
Get a tattoo
For me a challenging event would be speaking in front of a crowded auditorium at The Piano, but for Hollie that meant signing up for the Coast to Coast with no prior experience, after which she headed to London and now publishes a magazine called Say Yes to Adventure, which combines her love of design, adventures and the written word. So that’s three checked off her list, but instead of resting on her laurels she decided to apply for an expedition to the Greenland ice cap — a natural next step, I’m sure you’ll agree.
This part of the talk had me putting multiple question marks and exclamation points next to my notes: for 29 days Hollie and three others would walk from 8-14 hours on the ice, pulling a 60kg sled behind them. The weather was unseasonably bad, causing at one point a hurricane that kept them shut up in their tents for so long that a necessary toilet break was made, and in the 20 seconds they were outside the frostbite already set in. The delay caused them to take longer than anticipated, resulting in a grueling 30+ hour trek on the last day to get to the helicopter. (Who does this to themselves?!) Really puts my holiday food poisoning in perspective.
Our next speaker, Lilia Tarawa, thankfully began her talk with something I could relate to: growing up on the idyllic West Coast, surrounded by rivers, trees, bush, and mountains. She was close with her friends and family, loved going camping, and excelled at learning musical instruments. At age six she was proud to receive a glowing first school report with excellent grades and the comment that “Lilia demonstrates leadership qualities which could be useful when she gets older.” Lilia’s grandfather read this out to their gathered community at the evening dinner, and as her heart swelled with pride he popped it by saying: “We don’t need women like you.”
Lilia grew up in the cult of Gloriavale, and this was her first inkling that her world was not as wonderful as it seemed. The use of shame and humiliation to control others made it difficult for her to see herself raising children in that environment, and after the mistreatment of her best friend as an older teen she resolved to leave. Luckily the rest of her family were already on board (her two elder brothers had already left) so they were able to escape together. Despite leaving the environment it hasn’t been easy to shrug off her upbringing:
They began by using shame and guilt to degrade my self worth. Every day I was told I was a worthless sinner so when people treated me badly I thought maybe I deserve this, maybe this is my fault. My love for others broke the chains that shackled me — why was I willing to stand up for them but not for myself?
Lilia now fulfills the prediction of that early report card, standing up for both herself and others as a strong leader. “I want to tell my six year old self that she can do anything she wants to do, and never let anyone tell her otherwise.”
From the sobering reality of escaping a cult to the wry humour of Margaret Austin, who prefaced her speech with two confessions. 1) She is not Margaret Austin the former Labour MP, and 2) She grew up in Palmerston North. I forgave her these defects when she continued on to detail her escape, first from her home town and later from a cottage in Port Chalmers, fleeing overseas for 14 years. After some good experiences (Amsterdam) and bad (Athens), she ended up on a street in Paris described by Henry Miller as full of pimps and prostitutes. Perhaps that explains why, when looking for a job as a dancer, she was directed to Les Folies Bergère. (If you’re not familiar, think Moulin Rouge.) It wasn’t until she saw the picture of topless dancers on the wall of the director’s office that she realised quite what she was auditioning for. Luckily Margaret is nothing if not game, and that is how an ex-Sunday School girl from Palmerston North became a Paris cabaret dancer.
I’ve taken a lot of risks, and most of them have worked out well. If you’re going to take a risk, why take a calculated risk?
Her parting shot to the audience was the advice that if someone tells you that you shouldn’t do this or can’t do that, do it. An appealingly contrary attitude that describes Margaret perfectly.
After three incredible speakers you might be thinking that the fourth couldn’t possibly live up to the others, but Dr Michelle Dickinson put that thought to bed with the revelation that not only is she a competitive kitesurfer, she also does snow-kiting, mountain biking, runs ultra marathons, swims with sharks, goes rock climbing, and used to do competitive martial arts and cagefighting for money(!!). This is all in addition to her work as an engineer, nanotechnologist, lecturer, and now founder and Director of Nanogirl Labs Ltd. Whew! Despite being intimidatingly smart, Michelle didn’t come from a home of academic excellence — both parents dropped out of school early and Michelle herself failed the exams needed to get into nursing college, the only career option the school advisor recommended for girls. No one recognised her skills with a soldering iron and electronics at home as being valuable, or that being bad at tests didn’t mean you weren’t smart. Luckily she got into university a couple of years later and studied “the art of breaking shit and never having to put it back together!”.
Despite her many challenging hobbies, Michelle says one of the hardest things she’s done is be a woman engineer. It’s a lonely position to be in, with only 11% of engineers in Aotearoa being female. Often she has literally been the only woman in the room. As a lecturer in Auckland she struggled with letting her female engineering graduates out into the workplace, as she recognised that many won’t be safe in their jobs. The audience was treated to a range of sexist adverts and logos from engineering firms across New Zealand to illustrate her point. This situation is unlikely to change while we continue to reinforce job stereotypes, confirmed by a survey done on age 5-8 year olds where they were asked to draw a picture of an engineer. 100% were of a man. Since Michelle has started Nanogirl Labs Ltd and has brought female engineers into schools to talk about their jobs, the survey results have changed drastically. “Every one of you is a role model,” she told us (no pressure), “Every one of us can do a tiny thing that shifts New Zealand into a brand new space.”
We’re so afraid of failure in New Zealand. Take a risk! If it works, you’ll be happy. If you fail, you’ll be wise.
The perfect conclusion to a literary festival celebrating adventure and the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage, recognised by a standing ovation by the audience. I’m already looking forward to the next one.