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.
Nic Low (writer of an upcoming book described as “a bicultural response to the Southern Alps”) opened the session by asking author Laurence Fearnley to read a passage from To the Mountains, her recent anthology of alpine writing co-edited with Paul Hersey. She chose Young, short, and loving it by Rebecca Smith, a short account of the mad rush of preparing for a weekend in the mountains while she was still at high school.
Laurence explained that the anthology was consciously structured in the shape of a mountain, beginning at sea level, rising towards the bush, glaciers and saddles, up to the peaks and the epics, and then coming down and reflecting. There was also an interesting shift in the style of writing used from generation to generation, with earlier (mostly British) climbers in Aotearoa using very romantic language to talk up the scale of their climbs, compared to the more laconic writing of Kiwi climbers later on:
“The more deadpan the description the harder the climb,” joked Nic.
Most writing was also limited to those of a certain wealth and class until access to the mountains became easier and mountaineering became more democratic in the 40s and 50s. After that came the 70s hard-man stories, full of machismo, before getting into more reflective and gentle narratives like Aat Vervoorn.
Laurence warned that this book is definitely not of the most extreme mountaineering experiences, so don’t look to it for the top 100 climbs. When selecting material they consciously expanded the boundaries from those first ascents and difficult routes (which tends to favour one particular voice), and looked at the experiences of family groups, women who used guides early on, the guides themselves, and Māori experiences in the mountains.
When you include these people, those who enjoy going into the mountains to connect with the beautiful landscape or as an escape from the city with friends, then you realise how many people participate — people who would be overlooked if only looking for those at the peak of New Zealand mountaineering.
Some of these experiences make difficult reading. Anyone even tangentially involved in mountain climbing will know of someone who has perished in the hills, and some of the extracts address that loss along with other miserable experiences on the mountains. “Why do we love suffering so much?” wondered Nic, but of course the flip side is the emotional connection that being in the outdoors can provide, the joy of a successfully completed challenge.
Some pieces in the anthology had me laughing out loud: a group of climbers lugging a bunch of tins of various luxury food items along on their trip, only to open each one to find the same disappointing can of kidneys; Jill Tremain’s ‘Letter to Mavis Davidson’ about being caught out by bad weather for several days and finding her decades-old food stash, getting drunk on the tin of apricots and trying everything to make the stale biscuits more palatable.
These highs and lows are all documented in To the Mountains, the latest in our whakapapa of alpine climbing and literature, so if you’re an avid mountaineer, tramper, climber, or simply interested in some gripping stories of the New Zealand outdoors, I’d recommend having a look. No crampons required.
We all consider ourselves good people, so it can be confronting to realise that we’re unwittingly contributing to oppression. For peace of mind it can seem easier to ignore the evidence rather than engage in change, thinking if we cover our eyes then it isn’t there, it’s all the past, it doesn’t affect me. Or we go to the other extreme, demand our education from those we meet rather than listen to those already speaking.
When you quiz me on genocide highlights — “Were those smallpox blankets real? I’ve always wondered about that” — to sate your hunger for facts, I do not owe you a free education of the kind that my university students pay for, and I am not so flattered by your interest in my people that I might unfurl a lecture on 500 years of colonization for your edification.
Nic Low asked about the role of anger in writing. Both have been through traumatic experiences – rape, disordered eating, the removal of a child – but are still gentle, kind people in person. Writing provides a safe space for anger. Eckermann brought up the idea of good anger and bad anger, and Washuta responded:
We have that bad anger and what do you do with it? A lot of us just destroy ourselves with drugs and alcohol, because that bad anger has just embedded itself, and then we’re told Oh that’s all in the past, that was hundreds of years ago, get over it. The reality is that in our communities we are experiencing ongoing colonisation every day, all the time. We are still a colonised people.
Eckermann agreed – they don’t want to hurt others, so they hurt themselves. She hopes writing can bring us closer to a collective understanding and healing. By acknowledging pain, maybe some can begin to heal.
Who are you writing for?
Initially I thought I was writing for myself, or for my community, but now I think I’m writing for the future. Poetry is supposed to change and inform lives… I mean statistically we know that one in four women is raped in their lifetime, but we have to share our stories so it’s not just statistics, it’s life lived. – Eckermann
I wanted to see people like me on the page – I didn’t know any other native people at college, I was diagnosed bipolar, raped, had an eating disorder, and to me they all seemed interconnected but I couldn’t find anything that reflected my own experience. So my books are a gift to other college students. I knew there had to be other people like me, and there are. – Washuta
How do you feel about your country?
I’d like to remove the culture of denial in Australia. It’s been really rewarding going to other countries that know their histories, who aren’t afraid of their history. — Eckermann
There’s this cheerful narrative about the brave pioneers who crossed the continent to create something out of the “pristine untouched wilderness” when really people were doing all sorts of maintenance work. The pioneers just didn’t understand how the land was being used, or couldn’t see it. But it’s always “It’s really nice that the Indians helped the settlers make something out of this super boring place.” — Washuta
The session ended with a plea for greater friendship and connection in the face of the tsunami of racism that seems to be washing over the world.
So listen to others. Be kind. And go read their books.
What (or who) are you most looking forward to at WORD Christchurch?
I grew up in Christchurch in the 80s. I have great memories of my parents taking us to Peace Group in a church hall. We’d paint anti-nuclear banners and learn protest songs (accompanied, badly, on a ukulele) and have a damn good time. So what I’m most looking forward to is the People Power session with Nicky Hager and Maire Leadbeater, talking about the history of New Zealand’s nuclear free movement. I live in Australia and travel overseas a fair bit, and I often talk about our nuclear-free status as an example of Why New Zealand Is Awesome. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of about being a kiwi. It’s also one of the reasons why my stories in Arms Race are about mischievous political shenanigans.
What do you think about libraries?
I’m obsessed! As a kid I probably borrowed and read 75% of the books in the kids and YA sections of the Christchurch Public Library. I lived in libraries while doing both undergrad and postgrad. The 11th floor of the UC library is my favourite: having a view of mountains while being surrounded by books remains a lifelong goal. In Melbourne I do my daily writing beneath the State Library of Victoria’s magnificent vaulted dome. And in 2012-2013 I created my own library – hundreds of books packed into six hand-made travelling cases that transform into book cases – and toured them 2000km across India by train. That project was a roving writers festival called The Bookwallah, and you can learn more about it during the opening Pecha Kucha night.
Share a surprising fact about yourself.
A lot of my ideas for short stories seem to come from … tramping trips. There’s something about being in the mountains, often with my brother Tim, that gets the imagination going.The closing story in Arms Race, ‘The Culler’, came from a mid-winter trip into the Lewis Pass back country. There’d been heavy snow – the Lewis Pass road was snowed in for two weeks – and the beech forest had been shattered. The tracks were impassable with fallen limbs. We spent five or six days wading in the rivers instead, and along the way we stayed in a tiny hand-hewn shelter called Slaty Creek Hut.
The ground outside was a boneyard of deer jaws and teeth. Sitting by the fire, my brother and I got talking about the cullers and hunters who escaped society to live and work from huts like this after WWII. We chatted about the mountain radio service, and imagined what it’d be like living in total frozen isolation, and getting news reports about major world events. What would it be like spending your days hunting among the moonscapes of the Alps, then getting word that the Americans had put a man on the moon? What if you actually met a party of Americans in those mountains, carrying a flag and a movie camera … ?
Now I know how much tramping seems to fire my imagination, my second book is all about the mountains. It’s an imaginative history of the Southern Alps, told through eight crossings of the mountains on foot. It’s called Eight Passes and it’s out with Text in 2016.