Book Review: Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016, edited by Fergus Barrowman

cv_sport_44Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

is an annual publication that anthologises fiction, essays and poetry in one volume. The criteria for selection, with this volume as evidence, is a certain high standard of technical ability allied with a capacity for formal experimentation that doesn’t draw attention away from the progression of ideas and images.

Sport 44 is populated with the work of writers ranging from high-profile (Manhire, Knox and Stead) to well-known in the field of literature (Wallace, Dukes and Tiso) to well-regarded in a variety of cultural contexts (Bollinger, Wilkins and O’Brien). Regardless of the names of the writers, the writing has one key element in common: quality. And the book itself has an aesthetic appeal, with its textured paper and austere cover design. It may not stretch things too far to suggest that just as Sport the publication provides a space for new writing, the physical object provides a series of spacious pages in which words, sentences and stanzas can float or declare themselves without fear of overcrowding. Has it always been thus, or has the digital era, with its emphasis on filling spaces with data or colour, highlighted through counterpoint this wondrous effect of black ink on white paper?

Regardless of the answer to that question, the focus here is quite clearly the words and their cargo of ideas and symbol, emerging from the empty space. In Sport 44, there is valuable freight on every page, but there are several pieces that may especially catch the eye of the reader.

Tusiata Avia’s poem I cannot write a poem about Gaza, in which the poet tells herself why she can’t write such a poem, is in her words ‘like a missile plotted on a computer screen’… that will… ‘enter the top of my head and implode me.’ By the time she comes to the end of her list of reasons (she will be called anti-Semitic, it’s too complicated for a non-PhD to talk about, she will upset her Israeli friends in Tel Aviv, her fury and grief will explode but this pales beside the fury and grief of her Palestinian friends), the hopelessness and seeming insolubility has entered the top of the reader’s head also.

Breton Dukes, who has seen the light and moved to Dunedin, contributes an excerpt from a novel he is working on — Long White Cloud. This short piece, with its customary Dukes wit, astute characterisation, and analysis of the uneasy relationships that sometimes define New Zealand society, is a prompt to hunt down the novel once it is published. Dukes is a real talent, as is Craig Gamble, who also has a novel in progress; this excerpt, taken from The Society of the Air, is a shimmering molecule of fluid language.

The essay section provides many excellent examples of how nonfiction writing can make effective use of the devices and principles often associated with fiction writing, such as disrupted chronology, reincorporation, metaphor and subjective revelation. The truth of the subject matter is made doubly resonant, and at the very, very least we learn something we might not have otherwise known. Nick Bollinger’s piece The Union Hall casts light on the genesis of his career-forming obsession with music and musicians; in the piece While you’re about it contemplate werewolves, the speculative and inclusive genius of Sara and Elizabeth Knox is revealed in a transcribed Skype conversation; and Emma Gilkison, in An Uncovered Heart, charts the repercussions of a diagnosis of ectopia cordis, a condition whereby the foetal heart grows outside the body. In her tender and painful essay, the writer probes the literal and figurative enigma of the human heart.

In unison, the writers of Sport 44 aim at the head and heart. It is the best kind of writing, it is the best kind of book.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016
Edited by Fergus Barrowman with Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by Fergus Barrowman
ISBN 9770133789004-44

Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival – Chain Reaction

“Chain Reaction” was one of the earliespp_philippa_duffyt events on offer during the inaugural Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival—in fact it preceded the official opening. But I, as a booklover, was very happy to see that didn’t stop a big crowd turning up (in inclement weather, no less) for this six-launches-in-one event. After drinks and nibbles, Philippa Duffy (pictured) from University Book Shop opened proceedings and introduced the writers whose books were being launched—David Eggleton, Vincent O’Sullivan, Breton Dukes, Paddy Richardson, Owen Marshall, and David Howard.

Unfortunately, the night started on a somewhatcv_born_to_a_red-headed_woman sombre note. Kay McKenzie Cooke had been scheduled to also attend the event in order to launch her third poetry collection, Born to a Red Headed Woman. However her mother—the ‘red-headed woman’ of her collection’s title—very recently passed away. Rachel Scott from Otago University Press spoke on Kay’s behalf, and read “Family Tree” from her collection.

David Eggleton’s address was jovial and lively, in support of the latest issue of Landfall, going strong since 1947 and, in David’s words, “like Aorangi [Mt Cook]… a landmark” in Kiwi letters. Although themed around “vital signs”, Issue 227 sounds like quite a varied smorgasbord cv_the_familiesof delights (or as David put it, “a cabaret between covers”!). There’s poetry from 34 poets, an essay on the word ‘Solomon’, and a suite of paintings by Mark Braunias.

Fergus Barrowman from Victoria University Press then introduced Vincent O’Sullivan and Breton Dukes. Vincent spoke first, and quipped that, given that the writers stood on the mezzanine level of the venue while most of the crowd stood below, “this will the closest any of us will get to the Sermon on the Mount!” Then, while he was in the midst of thanking VUP and Fergus Barrowman for their support of his new short story collection The Families, his cellphone rang. Oops.cv_empty_bones_and_other_stories

Breton Dukes read from his new book Empty Bones And Other Stories, which was the product of two years’ hard work. He described a short story as an immediate “transport system” to the experience or revelation of a character. He also described some of the stories in his collection. As a student, I was amused to hear there’s one about getting drunk and stealing a car from outside Poppa’s Pizza, the local pizza joint opposite the University’s main library. Nothing like a bit of local flavour!

Paddy Richardson also read from cv_swimming_in_the_darkher new book, called Swimming in the Dark and published by Upstart Press. The passage she read, which detailed her German protagonist’s sense of displacement in New Zealand, was evocative and certainly held the audience’s attention.

Owen Marshall was there to launch Carnival Sky (Vintage). In particular, he singled out his long time editor Anna Rogers for thanks, as well as the Henderson Arts Trust, which granted him a residency in Alexandra that enabled him to finish Carnival Sky. (Incidentally, a significant portion of that novel is set in Alexandra.)

Finally David Howard read from his new chapbook The Speak House, which imagines thecv_carnival_sky fevered thoughts and memories of Robert Louis Stevenson in the last hours of his life—what David described as Stevenson’s “mental disarray”.

All the speakers thanked the organisers of the DWRF for organising the event. Fergus Barrowman went a step further and thanked them for bringing the festival back, and foretold (hopefully correctly!) that the DWRF would be an important fixture in Dunedin’s calendar in the future. Hear hear!

Event reported by Febriani Idrus, freelance writer and student 

Book Review: Empty Bones and other stories, by Breton Dukes

Available in bookstores nationwide.

This is the second book written by Breton Dukes cv_empty_bones_and_other_storiesand published by VUP. Like the first, Bird North, it is a collection of stories, but only six rather than seventeen as in the first. I haven’t read the author’s first book, but I understand from reading online reviews that is a hard-hitting and not very attractive look at the underbelly of the young New Zealand man. Hmm, says this reviewer – over 50-female, just my cup of tea. Is his latest book more of the same?

The cover features a woman, in a swimsuit no less, one hand on a ladder rung and the other holding a fishing line, apparently some distance from land. The character on the cover, Laura, is one of three adult siblings in the story ‘Empty Bones’. This story, according to the blurb, is a novella; the remaining five being short stories, although to be honest, it read more like a long short story.

In ‘Empty Bones’, Laura’s father Ian is hosting a bit of a weekend family reunion at the family bach. Ian and his three offspring have plenty of baggage between them as well as the usual love-hate stuff that goes on between siblings. By any family’s account, this is certainly a very strange family with peculiar dynamics happening. For a start, Ian has just had a major facelift.

A family reunion, for a writer, is a marvellous place for emotions to run high, for events to tilt slightly out of control, and for issues to be resolved, which all happens in this story. The author penetrates very deeply into the psyche of his characters, which is somewhat disturbing, as none of them are very likeable, and the things they do aren’t very admirable, but I guess there really are people like that out there, and not just in New Zealand.

The five other stories, being considerably shorter than ‘Empty Bones’, have a lot more tension, dysfunction, and unease packed into them. And all with the same degree of intense characterisation as in the longer story. This, I feel, is the author’s strength – he has the ability to get into the souls and heart of his characters, their complexities. And none of them are nice.

I can’t say I liked reading these stories. I didn’t like the characters, mostly young to middle aged men, who seem to have little direction in life, very little to get up for each day, users and bludgers of other people. Other than Laura, who has her own issues, the only other story with a main character who is not a man, is the story about Rachel. Plenty of potential perhaps for things to turn out a little differently maybe? But no, same downward spiral as the others. In all of his stories, the characters seem to have got to a point in their lives where they seem to have lost control of where they see their life going. And didn’t seem to know or be able to see how to get it back.

Maybe that is the author’s point, to get us thinking a little more about the type of society we are living in and the type of people it is turning out. Are these behaviour issues something people are born with or a product of their upbringing/the passage of their lives/alcohol/drugs. Or maybe this underbelly of human nature has always been there, and he is simply bringing it to our attention.

Whatever we may think of the subject matter of the stories, the unlikeable characters the author has created for his reader, and the future of masculinity in New Zealand, there is no denying the quality of the writing. These are well written stories, very evocative, they leave powerful images, and if they can bring about a strong emotion from the reader, then maybe the author has been successful in communicating his message.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Empty Bones and other stories
by Breton Dukes
Published by VUP
ISBN 9780864739186