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.
Not 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:
When 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?
The 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.
Wool 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.
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 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.
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.
In 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!
There 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?
Right 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.’
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).
Today I sat amongst a crowd of young girls, clutching their favourite horsey books – some even with their riding helmets on – to listen to Stacy Gregg and Soraya Nicholas telling Horse Tales at WORD Christchurch. I expected to enjoy myself, but I didn’t expect to feel myself brought to tears!
Stacy, in her wonderful, silver stiletto boots, told us the moving story of Princess Haya, the girl behind her first based-on-a-true-story book, The Princess and the Foal. Stacy had been in the middle of writing the Pony Club Rivals series when she saw a newspaper story about Princess Haya of Jordan, president of the International Federation for Equestrian Sports, and knew that she had to write about this courageous, gutsy girl. At first she had thought of adding her as a character in the series she was writing, and tucked the newspaper clipping away to refer back to. But as she thought about the Princess, she soon realised that Haya needed to have her own book. And so The Princess and the Foal came to be.
I first read Stacy Gregg’s books years ago, beginning with Mystic and the Midnight ride, which I gave to Miss Missy for Christmas. And I enjoyed reading the Pony Club Secrets series along with her, as I added each new book to her shelf. I hadn’t gotten round to reading all the more recent books, but believe me, as soon as I get home, I’ll be raiding her Stacy Gregg shelf, and reading The Princess and the Foal.
Princess Haya is the daughter of the Lion of Jordan, whose mother was killed in a helicopter crash when Haya was just 3 years old. And of course the little girl didn’t really understand what had happened, and thought that it was all her fault. She had lost her mother, and her father was too busy ruling his country to be able to spend much time with her, but he saw how sad and lonely she was becoming, and gave her a new-born motherless foal for her 6th birthday. And Princess Haya’s life found new meaning. By the age of 13, she was riding at international level, and she went on to become an Olympic show jumper.
I can’t wait to read it! I can’t wait for The Fire Stallion to come out either! (It’s on order already, so you can place a hold).
I’m also exited to read Soraya Nicholas’ Starlight Stables books. Although at 15, Miss Missy may be getting a bit old for these stories, I know that a few years ago, she would have just loved them! Soraya, also in shiny metallic shoes* – gold this time! — loved reading pony stories as a kid, and read the authors I read, like the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and dreamed of one day writing the kinds of books she loved to read. Just as much as the exciting excerpts from her books, I enjoyed hearing of her determination to become an author, even though people sometimes laughed at her dream. “Dream big” she told all those horse- and book-mad girls. Don’t let people who lack faith in you stop you from going after your biggest dreams.
What could be a better message than that?
*These two authors are definitely the most stylish of children’s authors, as Kate De Goldi said in her introduction.
Go YA brought together three writers for young adults – Juno Dawson, Whiti Hereaka, and Yaba Badoe – to read from their novels.
First to read was Juno Dawson whose latest novel Clean is a confronting depiction of heroin addiction and withdrawal as told by a teenage socialite, Lexi Volkov. Paula Morris described Clean as being about “the lure of self-destruction” and the teenage pressure “of being something they’re not”. She compared Lexi’s narrative to that of real-world figures in the media who struggled with addiction such as Peaches Geldof.
Paula Morris had previously warned the audience that there would be some swearing and Juno Dawson jokingly referred to Clean as “degenerate filth” before beginning her reading. Lexi’s choice of language as she lashes out at the world challenged the 12+ rating given to this ‘family’ event. Lexi speaks directly to the reader, sharing her every thought and feeling. As a result, it was a performative reading. Juno Dawson rolled her eyes, pouted, and screeched, as she read from the opening chapter in which Lexi – waking from a night of partying and heroin in a car – realises that her brother is admitting her to a rehabilitation clinic away from the familiar lights of London.
Our second reader was Yaba Badoe whose novel, A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars, was described as an “exploration of our rich inheritance of myth and legend, pain and love”. A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is a magical realist novel about a young girl, Sante, whose family attempted to migrate from Africa to Europe by sea but were killed when the ship was purposefully sunk. Sante, washed ashore in a chest laden with treasure, is rescued by Mama Rose and becomes part of her travelling circus. She yearns to know more about her family’s story. Yaba Badoe read from a later passage in the book in which Mama Rose begins to tell Sante about her origins. Like Clean, A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars, has serious themes, this time human trafficking and migration. As Sante recalls seeing brown bodies washed up on a beach and herself being thrown aboard as an infant, it’s hard not to recall the images of the body of Alan Kurdi, a young victim of the refugee crisis and human trafficking. Yaba Badoe spoke more on magical realism and migration during ‘Yaba Badoe: Fire, Stars and Witches’.
“History is moulded by the those who tell it” Paula Morris told the audience before Whiti Hereaka took the stage. She read from her newest novel Legacy which is about the experiences of the Māori Contingent during World War One and where their stories sit in that ANZAC narrative that strongly permeates New Zealand culture. The protagonist of Legacy, Riki, is drawn to the idea of enlisting in the army. Each generation of his family has enlisted and his mother shares with him stories of his great-great-grandfather who fought in Egypt in World War One as part of the Māori Contingent. Whiti Hereaka’s reading highlighted the theme of legacy as Riki ruminates on his likeness to this legendary family figure and the repetition of the war through its commemoration. The reading ended with a cliff-hanger as Riki read a text revealing why his girlfriend has been avoiding him and stepped straight into the path of a bus on Lambton Quay.
This drew a big gasp from the audience and started off question time with a request to know if Riki survives. Whiti Hereaka cheekily held the cover up and plugged the UBS stall in the foyer for those who needed to know what happened next.
There wasn’t much time for questions. The first question asked the authors how they created their characters. Juno Dawson remarked that she “sometimes has to spend more time devising the character” but sometimes they come to her fully fledged, like Lexi did. Yaba Badoe similarly remarked about Sante: “Once she came to me, it was really fun writing her. I loved her company.” Whiti Hereaka admitted that she’s a “bit of a creeper” and sits at the back of the bus with her headphones in, but not listening to anything, to eavesdrop on the conversations. It’s great way to capture the voice of young people and pick up new slang. Juno Dawson commented that voice is the most powerful part of a character development and once you have that voice and you can firmly say that your character wouldn’t say or do something, you know you’ve got it. In this way characters are like “imaginary friends” or “voices in your head”, she laughed.
The second question from audience was about writing for adults versus young adults. Yaba Badoe told the audience that her editor defines YA as “12 to 120”, that it’s writing for anyone and everyone. She remarked that YA is a “marketing term” and novels such as Catcher in the Rye and Jane Eyre, generally put in the basic of (adult) ‘classics’, could be considered YA. Sadly, we ran out of time to continue unpacking this question. What is (or isn’t) YA was the subject of a university course I took so I was a little disappointed not to be able to hear more about the authors’ thoughts on it. However, if these selections of readings are anything to go by, YA isn’t afraid to tackle complex topics and is about discovering your voice and place in this often-difficult world. I would highly recommend picking up these authors’ books and giving YA a Go.
… Literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; …
(from “On being ill” by Virginia Woolf)
Sonya Renee Taylor opened up the particular body struggles of black women, and said:
I have a PhD in whiteness.
In her every WORD appearance, Sonya has been a revelation. She was here too, asking so many deep questions:
What does body positivity mean if black bodies are indiscriminately killed?
She explained the immense frustration of people telling you are not experiencing what you are experiencing. Sonya paraphrased WORD author Rajorsh Chakraborti’s view of privilege:
The function of privilege exists in not having to look at anything other than your own existence.
Annaleese Jochems read from her novel Baby with touching of armpits, and bodies that are disasters. The book is all about neediness, she said.
Helen Heath read poems from her brilliant collection Are Friends electric?: Anatomical Venus, Illuminated, and My Body as a leaky vessel, and Spilling out all over:
I ask if you would like a body.
You say, ‘No I’m beyond bodies now,
I’m ready to be fluid, spilling out all over.
Helen noted that AI is now moving towards intelligences with bodies, not brains in jars.
Tayi Tibble read Vampires versus Werewolves from Poūkahangatus, a Twilight (and FKA Twigs) referencing journey into high school bodies:
Because we crave otherness, and hate otherness.
Tayi talked about how post-colonialism plays out in interpersonal relationships, and the sense as a Māori wahine of “colonial entitlement to your body”. Charlotte asked if young women talk to her about this stuff? “Hard out!” said Tayi:
Lots of wahine tell me that it matters.
Ray Shipley read a series of poems about X and their gender issues. Filling out forms, toilets with Ladies and Gents indicated by a Handbag and a Pipe and X had neither … and a kid that asks “Are you a boy or a girl?”. Coming to the answer “Yes”. A journey.
Kirsten McDougall read an excerpt from her novel Tess. One of those encounters a woman has with men on the streets, who just want to say Hello …
What was ok? Not raped, not dead, the bar was pretty low.
Juno Dawson read from Gender Games, telling about an encounter at The Attitude Awards. The phenomenal scrutiny of transwomen’s bodies. Why don’t cisgender people have to talk on breakfast tv about their bodies? Identity has nothing to do with genitals. Juno’s birth certificate said boy, but is also said weight 6 pounds. Things change.
Women are objectified all the time … transwomen are no different. For all women, objectification is deadly.
Daisy is a local poet and performed her rugby league poem “Body Gospel”:
Your “fat girls” do not define us
and one on her traditional Malu tattoo piece “Laei”. She was astonishing, and held us in the palm of her hand, as she slapped her thighs, joyfully reclaiming her body as she was tattooed:
The woman that I do, the woman that i is!
Other topics covered included safety in public, ‘ethical periods’, eating disorders, and the poem Notes for Critics by Tusiata Avia was name checked. The talk turned to the importance of compassion and kindness, learning emotional literacy and intelligence, and finding support in groups, collectives and networks.
Ray noted that people are finding their networks of love and support, but that can come at the expense of being heard. We need to listen to each other.
The Body Issue is a big one, and this was a diverse and fascinating walk in and around it:
Most of our answers are actually in our questions. (Sonya Renee Taylor)
Friday night was Starry, Starry and then things took a turn. We headed off to Cafe 1851 in the newly opened Crowne Plaza for Bad Diaries Salon – a literary series created by Melbourne writer Jenny Ackland. This sold out sesh was co-curated by Jenny and the fabulous Wellington writer Tracy Farr, our MC.
I love the events in WORD Christchurch Festival that take you off piste a little, and it’s a joy that there are plenty of them. Adventurousness isn’t just about extreme sports.
Bad Diaries Salon at WORD was the first to take place outside of Oz. Local comedian/poet/librarian Ray Shipley, author of pony novels Stacy Gregg, AJ Finn – all the way from New York, and NZ blogger and writer Emily Writes were the brave souls who fronted up and shared …
But the first rule of Bad Diaries Salon is I can’t tell you a THING about what they shared. Suffice to say, I snort laughed myself silly. Bravo and Brava to the Salonistas – you were KA RAWE and TU MEKE. What I can share are some photos from the Bad Diaries Salon, and urge you to go to a Bad Diaries Salon if you ever get the chance.
Bad Diaries Salon was established mid-2017 when Jenny Ackland pondered on Twitter – were there any writers who still had their teenage diaries? Would they front up and read from them, live?Turns out heaps of them were more than willing.
The Bad Diaries Salon format is the writers read stuff from their diaries or other unpublished juvenilia. Each BDS has its own theme.
What you really want from a session called “You write funny!” is for there to be writers and for them to be humorous. It’s pretty much right there in the title. You’re expecting to laugh a bit. And certainly this Friday night session at WORD Christcchurch Festival 2018 MCed by the affable Ray Shipley filled the bill.
The laughing, however, was expedited by Shipley’s careful, “kindly primary school teacher” style coaching, leading the audience through some “little titters” to start with, and eventually even, some good, old-fashioned cackling. “All laughs,” we were told “are valid and important“.
So that was a good place to start from.
The line-up of reading authors was largely unfamiliar to me but the feelings of amusement and genuine laughter (did the coaching and practice beforehand make for a better quality of chuckle?) weren’t. This is what funny sounds like.
First up was Erik Kennedy (author of poetry collection There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime) who read three poems all with a wry serve of humour, “You cannot teach creative writing”, “Get a pet with a longer live span than humans have”, and in between, a strange take on Christmas heavily influenced by the content of spam emails. I can’t really explain this poem except to say that it was simultaneously more AND less weird than it sounds.
Megan Dunn read excerpts from her book Tinderbox, about her time working at a Borders bookstore. Much of the time Dunn read with a sly, knowing smirk on her face… that was fully justified. Her tales of retail reminded me more than a little of my experiences working in libraries as well as the self-confessional style of David Sedaris, in particular the essay Santaland Diaries about his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s Department store.
It eventuates that I find both David Sedaris and Megan Dunn hilarious.
Dunn was followed by poet Chris Tse (author of poetry collection He’s so MASC) and his poem, Wasted, was a hit with the audience. Wasted is a treatise on the sort of men who don’t get drinks thrown in their faces nearly as often as they deserve. Though he admits there are few workable alternatives,
Only a monster would throw a bowl of chips in this economy.
Lastly Annaleese Jochems took the stage reading, from her book Baby, an exquisitely awkward scene of backyard fitness instruction that made me feel more squirmy than amused, but many people in the audience let loose their best cackles in response, so I might have been alone in that.
All in all, You write funny! gave my laughing muscles a good, solid workout.
Much like Juno Dawson’s fiction, this talk covered a wide range of topics, from her latest novel Clean — a realistic look at heroin addiction and withdrawal through the lens of its socialite heroine, Lexi Volkov — to her shared love of the Spice Girls with interviewer and fellow Young Adult author Karen Healey, to Doctor Who and Juno’s upcoming tie-in novel featuring the new reincarnation of the Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker.
Asked about the genesis of Clean, Juno talked about her own experience with drug education as a teen (similar to the sex education talk in Mean Girls), her stint travelling around teaching teachers how to deliver sex and drugs education, and her research into what leads people into addiction. From speaking to a range of participants in the 12 steps programme she found that what they all had in common was that they could trace the seeds of their addiction back to when they were in their early teens.
When I was a teenager people we knew were starting to experiment with drugs, and we couldn’t help but notice that they didn’t die. You take drugs and nothing happens, you don’t take them and immediately end up on the streets. That’s how you become addicted: it’s a slow process, addiction creeps up on you and you have this constant sense of unrealistic optimism, that you’re in control. You’ll think it’s fine until three or four years down the line when it’s not.
From drugs to girl power: What made the Spice Girls such a revelation for so many young people? “They were five ordinary girls who got out.” Rather than the refined, polished pop stars of today, the Spice Girls looked like the local girl gang scrounging for cigarettes outside the fish and chip shop. Aspirational but in a relatable way. Identifying as a presenting male fan of the Spice Girls wasn’t easy, however, and it was then that Juno began to opt out of the mainstream and gave up on the notion of being a boy.
What about the phenomenon of male authors being praised for writing about teen girls while female authors get sidelined? Juno had two responses, one being support for more platforms and publishing deals for authors from minority groups – “we need those voices, those are the people who’ll do it the best, who’ll have that authenticity” — but also as a writer the job is literally to imagine what it’s like to be other people. “Otherwise we’ll all be writing memoirs until the end of time.” A lot of the praise for male authors writing female protagonists also stems from the idea that those experiences are difficult for someone else to imagine, as opposed to the default of straight boyhood which anyone could identify with. “It’s frustrating when male authors are disproportionately praised… That said, a lot of the big names in YA are people like Judy Blume. I feel very privileged to write under the legacy of women like her.”
Speaking of identifying with the other, what’s it like writing about the alien, two-hearted traveller in a magic police box?
I always imagined myself (and still imagine myself) as the companion. The companions are the audience discovering the universe, the Doctor is actually the sidekick. The Doctor should always be a slightly unknown quantity. Fans [reading my book] will quickly recognise that Jodie Whittaker is still the Doctor, there’s no difference — it’s the same character as the thirteen men who have played this alien. If you can’t handle her being the Doctor then you’re going to struggle with the notion of fantasy as a genre.
Is it a Young Adult author’s responsibility to provide hope in their books?
Sometimes we react to triggers, but is it fear of tackling something, fear you might need to change something in your life? Or is it putting you in danger? Is reading this book going to damage you? You need to decide for yourself whether you’re just scared (in which case the book might help) or you’re in trouble and aren’t in a place to read it.
That said, Karen posited that addressing difficult topics in fiction can make it easier to discuss, Juno agreeing:
It provides just two of three degrees of separation so you can deal with real things in a safe space.