Mortification: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

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.

Jarrod Gilbert, Megan Dunn, Steve Braunias, Paula Morris, and Robin Robertson, with Rachael King, Mortification
Jarrod Gilbert, Megan Dunn, Steve Braunias, Paula Morris, and Robin Robertson being introduced by Rachael King, Mortification, WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Saturday 1 September August 2018. File reference: 2018-09-01-IMG_1570

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.

*Nope.

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Curiosities : Paula Morris and Tina Makereti: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

CoverMy next adventure was waiting for me at The Piano; a port in a storm after The Hunt for Moby-Dick at the Christchurch Art Gallery.

Curiosity is the seed of adventure. For Dr Paula Morris and Tina Makereti it has led to historically sensitive, lyrical works of fiction based on both fact and social myth.

Paula (Ngāti Wai) is the author of Rangatira, winner of the 2012 NZ Post Book Awards and Nga Kupu Maori Book Awards. False River is her new collection of short stories; topical as Dr Morris will be the Pacific Region Judge for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Well-travelled, Paula teaches creative writing at the University of Auckland and has appeared at festivals and conferences worldwide. She is the founder of The Academy of New Zealand Literature.

Introduced by Nic Low (Ngāti Tuahiri), our two curious writers treated the audience at the Heartland Chamber to readings from their works.

Paula read from both Rangatira, and False River, Tina from her new book, The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke, for an audience full of writers, if question time was anything to go by.

False River is an unusual collection of contemporary stories in that some are fiction and some are non-fiction; blurring the lines between story and fact. This can be said of historical fiction also; where it may only be possible to imagine the world of our ancestors, based on myth or archaeological evidence.

CoverTina Makereti (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Rangatahi), also a PhD and winner of the New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing (2009) to name just one of her accolades, is the author of Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, a lilting and moving tale of cultural conflict, place and belonging told through characters that are between Moriori, Maori and Pakeha cultures.

In Tina’s experience, fiction based on a real person involves letting go of reality. The historical figure is a flat image to be turned into narrative.

Something like performing your identity on stage? asks Nic. There’s a pause as Tina contemplates this. Exactly that!

For me it’s more playing the New Zealander, having to say, “Fush and Chups.” But the character of James Poneke (in The Imaginary Lives) realizes that in ‘dancing’ for the Europeans (letting them exhibit him), he has been complicit in perpetuating their sense of ‘other.’

Both writers teach creative writing. Any advice?

Tina : Just do it. Tell your own story, get it out in the world. There’s no guarantee but there is no one else to tell it. So much remains to be written.

Paula : We must do all we can. You can’t complain the field (of writers) is sparse if you haven’t sewn the seeds. Write the book you want to write : engage with language and tell your experience, your world view.

Lastly Nic asked how the two authors found material for their books; did they ‘plonk’ elements of their lives into their stories?

Tina : I prefer to call it artfully interwoven.

Paula actively purloins anecdotes and overheard scenes from her daily experience, using them to create scenes or characters.

Nic : “Your friends have to be careful”

Paula : “My enemies have to be more careful”

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Reading favourites – WORD Christchurch

Is there anything so satisfying as introducing someone to a book that you love? In librarianship it certainly falls under the categories of both personal passion and professional responsibility (see our own Staff Pickles for examples). And the Reading Favourites session at WORD Christchurch yesterday had a similar vibe – of reading enthusiasts, well, enthusing.

Renowned New Zealand children’s author, David Hill; editrix of Tell you what, and comparative literature PhD, Jolisa Gracewood; and author and founder of the Academy of New Zealand Literature, Paula Morris, all took the stage to wax lyrical about their favourite New Zealand reading. Poet Chris Tse was also supposed to be part of this panel but was unable to attend due to illness. A shame, and it would have been good to have another, and yes I’m going to say it, younger voice in the mix but it was still definitely a session worth attending regardless.

Things kicked off in a jovial manner with Paula relating the ridiculous predicament of having flushed her reading glasses down the toilet and having to make do with some hastily bought, budget ones.

And then, because it’s National Poetry day, each read a short poem, Jolisa and David both choosing pieces from well-worn copies of 100 New Zealand Poems edited by Bill Manhire. This is a collection that Jolisa called “subversive” due to its lack of attribution of the poems unless… you refer to the index, a device that perhaps forces the reader to engage with the poem on its own merits.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve already forgotten the name of the 4 line poem that Jolisa recited, but do clearly remember that I liked it, and can accurately report that David Hill’s choice was The Adorable Thing about Mozart by Elizabeth Smither.

Paula Morris encouraged us all to read some other piece of poetry for ourselves, preferably out loud (or possibly in public), reflecting that “…you can do anything in Christchurch these days…”

Well not quite, but surely, on a wild and wet winter day a verse or two of Hone Tuwhare, either whispered or shouted at the sky wouldn’t be considered too transgressive?

Cover of Wednesday's childrenJolisa’s first choice of favourites was Wednesday’s children by Robin Hyde. Her copy of this novel about a woman who wins the lottery and “lives as she pleases” has its own story. It was bought here in Christchurch at a library book sale and still retains its borrowing slip, and cards in a pocket at the back. Initially it went unread (by her) for quite some time and it wasn’t until a boyfriend of Jolisa’s started reading it and really enjoyed it that it came back onto her radar – a unexpected surprise of a read.

Wednesday’s children set in the 1930s and is about women, women on welfare, and women with children – all things that are as relevant now as they ever were. Though sadly it is no longer in print (so get a reserve on a library copy if you fancy trying it).

cover of From the cutting room of Barney KettleDavid Hill’s first choice was much more current, namely last year’s From the cutting room of Barney Kettle by Kate De Goldi. David admitted it made him both weep and laugh and said that De Goldi’s writing was “crystalline” and sharp. Moreover the adults in it are depicted as “fallible, real human beings and not caricatures”. He said he was “honoured to be thrashed by her in the children’s book awards”.

Jolisa’s second choice for favourite read was by another Christchurch author, this time Margaret Mahy, and her young adult novel The Tricksters.

Cover of The trickstersSet in the general vicinity of Lyttelton Harbour, Jolisa went into movie trailer voiceover mode describing its tagline as “The Christmas it all fell apart…”. It’s a story about a family and an earth-shattering revelation but it also has elements of the supernatural. Even as a confessed rationalist she still enjoys books that “ask you to take on faith that there are other worlds…” which is something we have in common. I can’t abide notions of magic or “woo” in real life yet find this not only permissible but desirable in fiction.

This book too, is sadly out of print, but Jolisa’s hope is that with the film of The Changeover (based on Mahy’s novel) being made, other “adjacent” Mahy young adult fiction will receive renewed interest. (If we’re casting votes, may I also suggest The Catalogue of the Universe and Memory? Please and thank you.)

Cover of Going westDavid Hill’s second choice was Maurice Gee’s Going West. He described Gee as very “modest” and the least “show-off” writer he knows, and described a tension between his quiet style and the quite shocking events that unfold. In fact, he’s so good that “I’m not even jealous”. Happily Going West is still in print, and via someone in the audience, who presumably has the inside line on things Gee, we learned that there will be a new young adult novel out in February 2017.

Digressions were common (and welcome – at least by me) throughout the session, and Paula Morris’s reflection that Gee’s novels being set in Henderson, where she grew up, meant something led into the question of whether or not New Zealand writers should include New Zealand place names in their work. What if it’s jarring or too “foreign” for non-Kiwi readers? Apparently these are questions that publishers want to know the answers to, as David Hill has been asked this himself.

I liked Paula Morris’s sarcastic remark on this that readers would surely be completely bewildered – “I thought this was happening in London… but apparently it’s Taihape…”

Well, quite.

David Hill went as far as throwing the question to audience member Ted Dawe aka “another author who beat me in the children’s book awards”, who said that he didn’t like to be too specific about anything in his books, but even so the US version of Into the river has a 130 word glossary, providing meanings for every Māori word used, for instance.

Cover of The book of famePaula Morris also picked two favourites, the first being The book of fame by Lloyd Jones, a really funny book that nevertheless got sneering reviews in the UK but which “everyone I’ve ever recommended it to has really loved it”.

She also recommended Māori boy by Witi Ihimaera which, as a memoir, is necessarily “full of lies” but is “searingly honest” as well.

The session veered off at the end towards discussing the eternal question of why people don’t read more New Zealand fiction. Kiwi authors do well with children’s books but somehow this doesn’t translate to adult readers.

Jolisa suggested that being forced to read something at high school in an “eat your veges – this is good for you” kind of way could harden a reader against particular writers, and I must admit I still bristle at the suggestion I read any Janet Frame again, ever. So I think there may be some truth in that.

Paula Morris in particular highlighted some of the odd “prejudices” that create barriers to people reading New Zealand fiction – the notion that it’s all doom and gloom, “man alone” stuff when that’s demonstrably not the case. Would reading one depressing British author put you off reading British authors for life? So why does that seem to apply with local literature?

I couldn’t help thinking that this is very similar to the problem of representation and diversity in media generally. We’re used to what we’re used to and what we’re used to is a particular kind of voice. In movies this has typically been male and white and probably American. But things are slowly changing. Kiwi films are going gangbusters at the box office, ones with indigenous faces and voices, even. And there was a time when a nightly Kiwi soap opera was a risky proposition rather than an institution. Perhaps the next Ghostbusters reboot or Hunt for the Wilderpeople* of New Zealand fiction is just around the corner?

Here’s hoping. In the meantime, we’ve all got some favourites to try.

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*Technically the Hunt for the Wilderpeople of New Zealand fiction is Wild pork and Watercress, but you get my meaning.

Patricia Grace: On Belonging

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?

Patricia Grace and Paula Morris
Patricia Grace and Paula Morris. Flickr, 2015-08-30-IMG_0034

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”.

Chappy

Cover of Chappy

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.

Cover of TuThen 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.

Cover of PotikiA 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.

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Our girls Paula and Rachael

Well, I say ‘our girls’, but really, we are having to share them both with the rest of the world – both are being published overseas in ever-increasing degrees.  Paula Morris’ latest book for teens, Ruined, is part of a three-book deal with Scholastic, and Rachael King’s earlier work The Sound of Butterflies has now been translated into eight languages (we counted them). 

A full room, a great chair (Dorothy Vinicombe),  and a very engaged audience meant the hour flew by, and I took so many notes I don’t even know where to begin.  Rachael has promised to chat with us back in Christchurch next week, but in the meantime, here are a few of the questions asked, and their respective answers.

What are the perils and pleasures of writing historical fiction?

Rachael: The pleasure comes in letting your imagination run away with your choice of character (you can choose someone as far removed from yourself as you like – Magpie Hall features as one of its main characters a 19th century heavily tattoo-ed English male taxidermist), but then you do need to ground them in some sort of reality.  And this is the perilous bit, she says: “When you’re reading my book, I don’t want you to be thinking about me and my research.  If you are, I’ve failed in my job.” 

Paula:  Once you’ve started a story, your research can lead you much more deeply into that story, if you let it:  “One thing leads to another.”  And if sometimes the research reveals facts that don’t fit with your plot, you must either choose to change your story, or to ‘ignore’ those facts. 

Exactly, comments Rachael:  “If this is fiction, I should be able to make things up, otherwise it’s not fiction.” 

Tell us about how you developed some of the other characters in your books.

For both writers, this turned into an exploration of ‘object as character’.  For Rachael:  In Magpie Hall, Henry’s cabinet of curiosities was pivotal enough, and had so much impact on those around it, that it really did attain ‘character status’; and for Paula, the same could be said of Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans, the setting for much of the action in Ruined.  In fact, Paula’s editor felt so much ‘love’ was going into the cemetery descriptions, she was asked to stop, already!

And finally, a question about how connections with new books can inspire revisiting of older classics.  For example, the Twilight series has awakened a huge surge of interest in Wuthering Heights, just as Bridget Jones’ Diary introduced a whole new set of readers to Austen.  The question then became:

Team Austen or Team Bronte?

RK:  Has always been Team Bronte, and although she hated Austen as a student, now fully loves P&P.

PM:  Both Team Austen and Team Bronte, always. 

Rachael did comment, however, that for her Wuthering Heights has always been a novel not of great love, but of great revenge, a statement fully supported by Paula, who added, “Yes, and a sadistic one at that”. 

Other highlights of the session included a detailed description of how to skin a tiger (Rachael), an illuminating discussion of tattoos in high society (Churchill’s mother apparently had one!), and a brief mention of Paula’s earlier career as ghost writer, featuring “trashy shopping and kissing novels set in San Tropez”.

A great session, great authors, and great books – go find them and read them both.  Now.

Kiwi writers make Commonwealth shortlist

Among the economic doom and gloom, the dropping New Zealand dollar might turn out to be very good news for the Kiwi writers chasing the thousands of pounds on offer in the Commonwealth Writers Prize competition.

Three New Zealanders have been shortlisted: Paula Morris’s Forbidden cities is included in the best book section, while both Mo Zhi Hong (The year of the Shanghai shark) and Bridget Van der Zijpp (Misconduct) have been nominated for the best first book award.

Finalists in each of the four regional areas are announced mid-March with the winners announced at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival in May. All of the finalists are taking part in the festival.

The full list of short-listed entries can be found on the Commonwealth Foundation website. Head to the library website for more literary prize news.