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.
Deleted 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.
Meet 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.
Sunday 27th May kicked off national Sāmoan Language Week, with each of the main city centres hosting a service at a nominated Sāmoan church. There will be loads of events happening across Christchurch (the Ministry for Pacific Peoples website has a national events calendar).
This year the national theme for le Vaiaso o le Gagana Sāmoa is “Alofa atu nei, alofa mai taeao.” Kindness given is kindness gained. To incorporate the themes of alofa (love and kindness) and ‘āiga (family) into our activities here at Christchurch City Libraries we are shaping our Tala mo Tamaiti (Storytimes sessions) around a picture book called How Do You Say ‘Thank you’? by Sāmoan author Karamia Müller. We were lucky enough to get permission from Karamia to feature her book for the week, and to catch her for a moment in her very busy life to have a quick chat to find out more about her writing and her life outside of writing.
Karamia was born in Honiara in the Solomon Islands. Like many peoples of the Pacific, her Sāmoan heritage is influenced by the many islands of the Pacific, with her father being raised in Fiji, and her paternal grandfather being brought up in Tonga. It was the pull of family settled here in New Zealand that led to Karamia’s family settling in Auckland. She is the youngest of five siblings, and a proud aunty to three nieces and 4 nephews who range from 5 to 11 years old. A creative in many ways, Karamia is currently completing her Master’s thesis at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland.
As is common with many New Zealand-raised Sāmoans Karamia was not brought up speaking Gagana Sāmoa exclusively. And like many of us who are not allowed the privilege of speaking our own languages for different reasons “this absence was felt profoundly.” Being the younger of her siblings, her mother spoke Sāmoan to her older sisters but Karamia has had to take on the learning of Gagana Sāmoa as an adult.
It was this learning journey that inspired Karamia to write How Do You Say ‘Thank You’? After finding that her learning style was not suitable for learning languages, she wanted to share her technique with others with similar learning preferences through the navigators in the book Alofa and Filipo. Karamia acknowledges that as a Samoan, speaking Samoan is important to us all. She is not only working on developing her proficiency in Gagana Sāmoa, but also looks to utilise Indigenous Pasifika themes and titles wherever she can in her architectural practice and scholarship.
When I first started to ask Karamia questions she assured me that she was “quite boring”, but after speaking to her I felt nothing but awe and inspiration.
As a parting gift for our readers I asked Karamia if she had a favourite Sāmoan proverb or ‘alagā’upu to share. She didn’t have one but when I told her about our theme – “Alofa atu nei, alofa mai taeao.” She shared her perspective: “This means to me that we can never run out of kindness because as much as we give, we receive. Which I think is a lovely way to think about kindness. I shall keep that in mind myself when I feel stressed or unkind! I think is my favourite, so thank you!”
I’ve discovered a new online tool that I want to tell you about.
Kōmako is an online bibliography of writing by Māori in English, which has grown out of research undertaken by Bridget Underhill at the University of Canterbury. Kōmako lists Māori writing from over the past 180 years, gathers it in one place and makes it publicly accessible. This is extremely helpful for research purposes and gives visibility to some amazing works by both well-known and lesser-known Māori authors.
Kōmako utilizes the wonders of modern technology for the searcher – I can type in my iwi and be returned with a list of available writing on my iwi or I can type in my last name and see a list of my Aunty’s poetry. Anybody accessing this resource can search by author, title or iwi to find fiction, non-fiction or even music by Māori writers to go off and try to find at their local library.
Māori writers are one of my favourite things to talk about and here at Christchurch City Libraries we have a fantastic Ngā Pounamu Māori collection which covers a wide range of topics produced by a variety of sources. While they all have their individual merits Māori authors can give us an insider’s view on Te Ao Māori, which is both valuable and necessary to our understanding of a given topic: we would not ask a lawyer what it’s like to be a doctor, we would ask a doctor. As such the cultural insight provided by the Māori writers listed on Kōmako is a taonga, something to be both cherished and celebrated.
While we’re on the topic, check out some my favourite resources by Māori authors held at Christchurch City Libraries:
What is it about Katherine Mansfield that continues to capture the imagination? Is it her gamine figure and thoroughly modern bob? Is it the fact that she died so young, at only 34 with presumably many more stories in her left unwritten? Is it the idea of someone with such a proper upbringing would so fully embracing the literary, bohemian lifestyle? Is it the turbulent, drama-filled love life? Or is it even… the writing?
Last Sunday I shrugged on a heavy coat and ventured out into a grey and dismal Christchurch morning to hear two New Zealand fiction writers – Paula Morris and Patricia Grace.
The On Belonging session was advertised as exploring themes “themes of nostalgia, memory and belonging” however both women confessed very early in that neither of them had read that particular description before that morning, so things would likely veer off a bit. Writers, eh?
But, in fact, some of those themes did come through as Paula Morris encouraged Patricia Grace into remembrance and recollection over the course of the hour. The pair had an easy, relaxed rapport. Patricia Grace, whom I have never had the opportunity to hear speaking in public before, has a calm and softly spoken demeanour. She speaks slowly and thoughtfully.
To start with they spoke a bit about Grace’s background, and the degree to which she grew up in two worlds. That of her father’s family – rural and Māori, compared with the world of her mother’s family – urban and Pākehā. The divide between her life growing up in Wellington “hooning around the streets” with her cousins and crabbing at Mirimar Wharf, and the marae community of her father’s whānau, where she lives now. As a child she enjoyed the environment of sea and bush, with both in close proximity.
In fact, many of the memories she recalled over the course of the hour would factor in the sea, including the passage she read from her novel. I get the impression that Patricia Grace would not be comfortable living in a landlocked country or too far inland. As it is she seems to have a very strong sense of belonging in her seaside community with her brother, cousins and children all living in what Morris compared to a “family compound”.
Then they moved on to discussing Grace’s latest novel, Chappy which has several settings, including New Zealand, Japan, Europe and Hawaii. The novel is about Daniel, as he unpicks the story of his Māori grandmother and Japanese grandfather, the “Chappy” of the title.
Grace said “Chappy” grew out of a story she heard from her husband, who is from Ruatoria, about a Japanese shopkeeper who had lived there and was a much loved member of the community, but who was imprisoned on Somes Island during WWII, and then deported, leaving his New Zealand wife and family behind.
As an aside, due to various First World War centenaries this year, I’ve been looking at a lot of contemporary news reporting and this treatment of Kiwi Japanese during WWII is no different than that of New Zealand Germans in the earlier conflict. It seems we always repeat the same behaviours, demonising the enemy (and anything that reminds us of them sometimes, whether it’s justified or not).
Grace started wondering how this man had come to be living there and that formed the seed of what became the novel. The device of having Chappy’s story revealed by other characters was partly due to her belief that she couldn’t adequately convey the mindset and culture of a Japanese character though she felt she could “get into his heart as a human being”.
“Chappy” is Grace’s first novel in ten years, and Morris was at pains to point out this isn’t just laziness.
“People think when you’re a writer and you haven’t written a novel for ten years that you’re just lying around eating bon bons all day.”
In fact, life intervenes. Grace has seven children and a mother who lost her independence – family life does sometimes take precedence over writing novels.
Grace read from Chappy, a passage about sea journeys and stowaways.
Then Morris went on to ask Grace about her earlier novel, Tū (which in Morris’ opinion would make a great movie) and led to her sharing memories of being a child in Wellington during WWII. The American soldiers who gave the kids oranges and chewing gum, the ration books which she though were “cute”. Trams rattling up and down (accompanied by the sound of a tram, rattling past on Worcester Boulevard). The experience of waving her dad off on a military ship so immense she mistook it for a building.
She never intended to write a book about war but found her father’s notebooks and started researching. Her father had never talked about his war experiences (and she had got the impression that he’d never been at the front lines when, in fact, he had) and the stories she had heard from Māori Battalion men, who sang Italian songs, were mainly tales of mischief. Her research revealed otherwise.
Multi-culturalism and te reo Māori
Morris says that Grace is “subversive” and offers one of Grace’s quotes, from 1989, for comment.
New Zealand is a multi-cultural society but you wouldn’t know this from reading our literature.
Does she still feel that way?
Grace thinks that literature and the media have changed since then and technology has helped though she admits “I don’t do technology, really”.
She also has no issue with the novel as a “European form”. “You have to do your own thing,” she says “in the lens of the novel. Make it your own”. Morris believes that published literature is still fairly Pākehā dominated.
A comment from the audience led into an interesting discussion about whether Grace is “political”. The questioner says that “Potiki” and its use of te reo Māori really opened doors to the language for her without feeling educative. Was it intentional?
Potiki was published in 1986 and uses some Māori language components. At the time of its release, Māori was not yet an official language of New Zealand (this was achieved, after much campaigning, in 1987).
Accusations were made at the time that this use of te reo was “divisive” and intentionally political. Grace however thought she was just writing about ordinary people. Morris agreed in this saying that when she wrote Rangatira she used Māori words that lots of people would be familiar with, and any that weren’t would be clear from the context…but apparently not everyone agreed. Morris also pointed out that many writers do this and have to defend themselves, people like Junot Diaz who have to explain that “this is how my characters speak”.
Grace says that the only political part of “Potiki” was the absence of a te reo glossary. She’d had them before but felt that “a glossary is what you have for a foreign language”.
“Nobody did a glossary for me when I came across French in a book or anything”. Certainly my own reading experience with The Lord of the Rings novels and even The Chimes, is that it’s not necessarily an impediment to reading if occasional words are in an unfamiliar language (elvish) or specialised vocabulary (music).
It was a shame that the session had to stop just then because I felt that there was more that could have been discussed on that topic, but end it did.
Check out some of our pioneer women writers. Some wrote very controversial books; many were published overseas and became hugely popular.
The Butcher Shop by Jean Devanny Set on a King Country Station, Jean Devanny’s The Butcher Shop is about adultery and murder. It was described as disgusting, polemic and ahead of its time. It was banned on publication in New Zealand and in many other countries due to the violence, open sexuality and feminism portrayed within its pages.
The Story of a New Zealand River by Jane Mander
Jane Mander’s The Story of a New Zealand River is set in Northland and describes the issues faced when a local sawmill boss marries a cultured, piano-playing Englishwoman, who brings with her to the bush her children from a previous marriage. It has been suggested that this novel provided inspiration for elements in Jane Campion’s film The Piano.
Isabel Maude Peacocke Isabel Maude Peacocke wrote children’s books and light romances set in Auckland. Although not well known in New Zealand, she had a large readership in England, where her work was published.
Nelle (Ellen) M. Scanlan Nelle Scanlan wrote four family-sagas set in New Zealand. The novels in the ‘Pencarrow’ series (Pencarrow, Tides of Youth, Winds of Heaven, and Kelly Pencarrow) published between 1932 and 1939, portrayed early New Zealand as a prosperous thriving country. They were very popular and considered to have created an interest for New Zealand fiction in that era. Nelle also published many novels in England before writing the ‘Pencarrow’ sagas. She was the most popular New Zealand novelist of her generation.
New Zealand Holiday by Rosemary Rees Rosemary Rees could be described as the pioneer ‘chick lit’ writer! She wrote racy romance novels, some of which were set on back blocks farms in the North Island. Her 84 novels became so popular that some were serialised in papers in America and Britain.
Breakfast At Six by Mary Scott Mary Scott made international success with the writing of her rural domestic comedies which began with the publication of her ‘Barbara’ newspaper sketches in 1936. One of her most popular novels was Breakfast at Six about newlyweds and their life on a back-blocks farm and the problems and pleasures faced by a rural community in New Zealand. It was followed by the sequel Dinner Doesn’t Matter.
Please note that some of these books are only available at our Store. There is no public access to this collection, but you can place holds on most Store titles for borrowing. Reference only items held at Store can be sent to Central Library Manchester for viewing – please ask a librarian to arrange this for you.
This is the story of the Forrest family and the secrets and demons that haunt them. Their creator says that one of the family’s main problems is that there are just too many of them. Lee and Frank Forrest can’t live with or without each other, and they put their complicated, troubled relationship before the needs of their four children. The Forrest family is deeply dysfunctional and your heart goes out to each in turn.
The main character in the novel is third child, Dorothy. The author started to write, in a ‘mossy and accumulative way’, a series of poles in this character’s life. She selects interconnected threads that reflect changes of mood and style to create the novel’s structure. Underpinning the work is the question of whether or not human beings really change. Emily Perkins doesn’t aim to provide a definitive answer. Instead she shows Dorothy being influenced by the changing circumstances of her life. She adapts but there is something at her core that remains constant.
The Forrest family immigrate from the United States when Dorothy is seven years old. They are outsiders with not even the Commonwealth connection to make them feel at home in New Zealand. A boy called Daniel attaches himself to the family and shows them how to get by. He’s also an outsider from a troubled background but he’s a survivor. Dorothy’s complex relationship with Daniel is at the centre of this novel. He’s ‘a touchstone for her sense of self’ and provides the gravitational force in her life.
Emily Perkins has created memorable characters in this narrative. They’re familiar. I feel like I know them. The Forrests feels like a New Zealand book. The Kiwisms help – the possum smell of woman’s hair and the glow-worms that mirror the night sky. This is a story with ‘Auckland light and Auckland trees’. You sense the big sky and the mental space that surrounds the characters.
A new novel by Emily Perkins is always an exciting prospect and The Forrests doesn’t disappoint. The author’s aim is to experiment and she enjoys the freedom to be exploratory and do different things in every book. With The Forrests she says she breaks a style of writing she’d had enough of. This work takes writing rules and breaks them. It’s got emotional grit.
I’m already looking forward to her next work. Perhaps it will be The Albanian Book that was put aside while The Forrests was being written as part of her Masters thesis? Who knows, but Emily Perkins is an author with something to say and I, for one, am very willing to listen.
Snacks are the ultimate (writing) props. The kettle, the fridge, sharp pencils and good paper.
When a friend asked me out for the evening to a fundraiser at the Oxford Working Men’s Club, I said yes without really listening. By happy accident, it turned out to be an evening with international bestselling author Sarah-Kate Lynch on the first stop of a tour to launch her new book Dolci di Love. Tickets sales along with proceeds and royalties from the evening were donated to the Red Cross Canterbury Earthquake appeal.
For me, an incurable romantic is a person blessed with a limitless supply of hope. They are not brought down to earth by the ordinariness of everyday life. Their joie de vivre is not snuffed by sadness. They are not put off by adversity, but instead see challenge. They use escapism to recuperate. Look for beauty in pain. Seek light where there is dark. They read romance when things are tough.
Sarah-Kate is such a woman. She talks of happy accidents, including her accidental career as a writer, and the “happy” accident that occurred when her husband “the Ginger” lost his job when the film he was working on got cancelled. They used the opportunity to tour around Italy, finding themselves in Tuscany. She thought of Tuscany as overhyped, and was delighted to find it was a “fairytale waiting to happen”, with “hillptop medieval towns like jewels atop a crown”.
Inspired, she decided to return there to write her latest novel. With romantic notions swirling, she arrived in a Fiat Bambino, baby blue to match her cinched-in-at-the-waist suit. She had enrolled in an Italian language school and was ready to eat every meal with her new Italian family.
To her horror, the sun was not shining. No, it was raining, and not just light rain, but a “biblical downpour”. Her suit was soaked and she was freezing. She drove on to the house where her lovely Italian family lived. It was in a run down part of town, with graffiti on the walls, and there was no “family” – just one 80-year-old-lady who didn’t speak any English. Sarah-Kate is a vegetarian, and had to explain this to her host in Italian. The closest she could get was “I don’t eat dog”.
It was cold, there was only a single blanket on the bed, no heating and … well, you get the picture. So, being the incurable romantic, she booked herself into a nice room down the road, and started writing anyway.
Who’d be a literary judge? A thankless task if every there was one – everyone thinks you’ve been bought, are pandering to populism or just chose the book that had the prettiest pictures.
The Sir Julius Vogel awards, which honour New Zealand writers of fantasy, science fiction and horror, avoid that by having fans vote, with the winners announced at the National Science Fiction Convention.
It’s a cunning move, epsecially as this year the competition is fierce. The young adult section is typical – Helen Lowe (who’s Thornspell broke into the American market) battles it out with Margaret Mahy, Ella West, Fleur Beale and Glynne MacLean. Lowe and West are also up for the best new talent award.
Whoever wins, the fans are the ones who voted for it, and they can battle it out with hexes, light sabres and Vogon poetry if they want. Armageddon, anyone? Love it or loathe it, it seems this slice of New Zealand genre writing and its fan base are in good health.
Fans of Dunedin crime writer Vanda Symon will be pleased to learn she has finished the third novel in the Sam Shepherd-based crime series. Containment is going through the editing process, but should be out in September.
I caught up with Vanda when she visited Christchurch City Libraries for the Words on Wheels tour last week. This interview is about three minutes long. You can also read about Vanda’s experience on the book bus on her blog.