NZF Writers & Readers: Looking Back – Elspeth Sandys and Renée

Sarah Forster reviews Looking Back – Elspeth Sandys and Renée. 

Elspeth_Sandys_and_Renee_Looking_B.2e16d0ba.fill-300x250.jpgI decided to come to this because I saw Renée at Litcrawl last year and thought what a woman. And I came out with the same opinion, and a much better knowledge of Elspeth Sandys than I had going in.

Mary McCallum was chairing, and had them both read their opening chapters of their memoirs (in Elspeth’s case, her second one). Both dealt with their love of reading. Renée states, ‘Reading was a drug, a spell under which I fell willingly.’

Elspeth’s memoir is about her teenage years into her years in the UK: ‘I’m the bad news my parents never wanted to hear.’ She read Trollope, Dickens, The Cruel Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Moby Dick, Georgette Heyer. Shakespeare. She notes, ‘Is it any wonder I’ve become an expert at pretending I know what I’m talking about?’

Both women were missing parents – Renée’s dad died when she was only two. Renée’s mum had to marry because Renée was born, which saw her seen as inconvenient, while her younger siblings were loved dearly and given opportunities galore. Renée says, ‘She taught me to work, and she taught me to read. And how to manage personal disasters.’ She regrets not having the chance to know her as an adult, as her mum died at 42.

Elspeth’s adoptive mum turned up to her first wedding on tranquilisers – dressed entirely in black, with bold lipstick. She stood out, with her big lot of lipstick. Elspeth learned much later she was extremely intelligent – had topped nursing school and ought to have been running a hospital, rather than a home.

Mary then brought up a story Renée tells in her book – there was a man on her bus who noticed she was a reader, and began giving her his old John o London’s Weekly’s, which opened her mind up to the idea that there were people who wrote books, plays, performed in theatre. At this stage she was 12, and starting paid work, but now she had a possibility.

Elspeth’s source of books was more straightforward – her father was in publishing, and they had all the great writers available to her. However, in her teens she was with three different foster families in the space of three years, so they became more important to her.

We moved, then, from reading to writing. Elspeth married an actor and moved to the UK and wrote on scripts for radio and TV. They moved to the Cotswalds, where anyone who had moved there since the 1640s were seen as interlopers. Their presence there attracted many others – John Hurt, Sam Neill, among others. Hurt bought one of the manor houses and came with his partner. They bought horses, but neither could ride. His partner died after being thrown from a horse during a storm.

Elspeth notes that they entertained every weekend, and it was exhausting – being a mother, writer, wife. Mary asked more about who she learned from – she said Ben Kingsley taught her the most, despite being one of the most difficult people she’d ever known: ‘he was enormously imaginative.’ Meanwhile John Hurt was a ‘devil-angel’.

Living in the village, as the kids make friends  at school, they slowly become part of it all – and all goes well until Mrs Whittaker – the upper class – labels them ‘communists’. The upper class counts as Mrs Whittaker. The longhouse they live in is painted as a communist cell.

Back to Renée – a proud lefty. Renée’s explosion of creativity happened when she was 50. She left her husband, became a lesbian, and an activist. She started writing, revues and plays centred on women. Prior to this she had worked doing everything in Napier’s theatres, directing, down to the jobs nobody else wanted. She says, on moving to Auckland, ‘It was like releasing something that had been damped down all those years.’

She had a lot of luck – sent a script to Mercury Theatre on spec, only to be asked for something else – she wrote her play ‘Setting the Table’ in four days. From there on, she was asked to do revues, commissioned for plays, and more. Her play ‘Born To Clean’ was a musical play. She says of the period, ‘I was very very stroppy. I hadn’t had an adolescence. I regret nothing.’

‘Born to Clean’ is about three young women who meet at school, drift apart, then reconnect. It includes a tampon scene – the characters read the wording on a pack of tampons – which Renée was concerned was too far out for people to accept. People laughed so hard, there was a queue for the box office for the rest of the run. It did well all over New Zealand – then filled the theatre every night for a month in Sydney, despite a negative review from a male in the SMH. In Renée’s words: ‘so tough shit’.

Mary then asked Renée whether she thought she would effect change. Renée noted on her two plays where she presented the female POV, that she’d read maybe two things about how women survived in the 1930s: she could see what they did, they went hungry. This is who she wrote about in ‘Wednesday to Come’. And she wrote ‘Pass it On’ about the Waterfront Lockout. She noted this was a tough one to research – the stories were hard to find.

Mary noted for Elspeth and Renée that the nexus of real life and fiction was ‘slippery and fertile.’ She then prompted Elspeth to agree that yes, her novel Obsession is based on she and Maurice Shadbolt’s relationship – Shadbolt enticed her back to NZ to live in the bush. She then said ‘I don’t see much of a difference between memoirs and fiction writing. All fiction is autobiographical.’ For those of you waiting – there will be no third memoir.

The two women held different opinions on whether you ask permission to write about others in your family. Elspeth hasn’t written about her children or her first husband, at her childrens’ request; while Renée doesn’t ask permission.

One last word of wisdom for the genuinely fascinating and wonderful Renée: ‘As soon as you give mothers a name, they become people’. She refers to her mother by her first name throughout – and her sons began doing the same for her once she explained her logic.

I would 100% go to any event featuring Renée in any festival this year. Don’t miss her!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

 

Advertisements

Book Review: The Trials of Minnie Dean: A verse biography, by Karen Zelas

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_trials_of_minnie_deanKaren Zelas tells the story of Minnie Dean: the first and only woman to be hanged in New Zealand after she was found guilty of infanticide. However, Dean also seems to have been a compassionate character who loved and cared for unwanted children. It was the deaths and disappearances of some of these children that led to Dean’s death in 1895. In this biography, Zelas asks the question of how guilty Minnie Dean truly was.

In the poem ‘Where would they be without me?, Zelas writes Minnie Dean as a kind-hearted woman unlike the harsh reports that surrounded her. In this piece, Dean is someone who helps the mothers of unwanted children start again: ‘I sweep their mistakes like dust / beneath the rug so they / may dance upon it / in white linens’.

And indeed, where would those children and their mothers have been without Minnie Dean? By exploring Dean’s story, Zelas is also studying the story of many struggling women. In the poem The home for fallen women, Zelas further explores the difficult position that mothers with unwanted children held during this period. She describes how, after giving birth, ‘at last their shame takes human form / it’s whisked away… here the nightmare ends/begins.

So perhaps Minnie Dean was a saviour for helping to alleviate a burden on other women. In  the poemNothing in this world, Zelas describes a scene where Dean brings back a child on the train. But to her shock, Dean looks to the child to see that she has died on the journey. The verse becomes erratic and Dean thinks, ‘the child is dead / what shall I do?… dorothy edith / dead’.  I couldn’t help sympathising with Dean, so much that I felt a little pang in my heart reading her despair. However, Minnie Dean is also an obsessive character; her endless trips to find more children become progressively more hazy and frantic. Overall, Zelas recognises the importance of investigating Dean through both the good and the bad.

At the end of the biography, Zelas then brings out the story to a modern conversation. Breaking out of the immersion of Dean’s world did leave me feeling jarred, but this section was also important in its own right. When Zelas is asked to bring her own thoughts to the case of Minnie Dean, her background in psychiatry comes to the fore as she suggests a new perspective: ‘minnie dean was a confabulist / & a liar’. The two things Dean cared about the most were her reputation and her children. She lied when she felt threatened, but evidence shows that she could have been a caring mother as well.

The Trials of Minnie Dean is heartbreaking and compelling in many ways. At its core is Minnie Dean, a woman just trying to survive and perhaps doing it in the most compassionate way she can. But along with her are many others trying to survive: the fallen women. Whether guilty or not, Zelas asks us to step back and reconsider Dean as a complex character, as well as how Dean’s story would be seen from a modern perspective. Perhaps in another time, another system that worked to support rather than shame, Minnie Dean and all those fallen women would have turned out differently.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

The Trials of Minnie Dean: a verse biography
by Karen Zelas
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129994

 

Book Review: Aukati, by Michalia Arathimos

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aukatiAukati is written by Greek-New Zealander Michalia Arathimos and is beautifully written. The story starts with two people arriving at a marae to support a protest against fracking on a nearby farm.

Isaiah is returning to his marae – he wants to learn more about his long-gone father and to regain his lost te reo. Since he was little he has been told he is destined for great things – but he doesn’t quite know what to do and isn’t confident he wants this responsibility. He is welcomed back as whanau to the marae. Alexia is a law student, escaping her Greek family, a bereavement and the end of a relationship. Dragging with her this baggage, she comes to assist with the protest. The others are unsure why she has come – and why she continues to stay. Both Isaiah and Alexia are lost, and this commonality draws them together.

Reading New Zealand-produced modern fiction that has a marae-based contemporary setting is a real pleasure. Learning the effects of generations of harm via land confiscation or environmental harm is sobering. The author presents very clearly the lack of power the community has to prevent further harm to their land, even in the face of serious pollution. Finally, the residents of the marae come to realise that they are under surveillance. In a Kafka-esque nightmare the hapu’s objection to the pollution is seen as the wrongful action.

There are some beautifully descriptive passages in Aukati.  My favourite is below:

‘Alexa had never smoked, perhaps sensing that hers was the kind of personality that would fall wholeheartedly into the habit. But right now, if she was offered a cigarette, she would smoke all of it, down to the nub. She would grind it out and ask for another. She would take all that sickness into her body, all that bitterness. She thought she understood the drive towards self-abnegation, the need for a thing that made you feel alive but that was also death.’

I thought this book was amazing. It is always exciting to read good fiction set in Aotearoa and this is a very strong story. The intersections of culture, family and protest make for an exciting and thought provoking read.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Aukati
by Michalia Arathimos
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780994137852

Book Review: Field Notes, by Mary Cresswell

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_field_notes.jpgField Notes is such a wonderful poetry collection because Mary Cresswell explores a vast number of forms in one book. Just a few of these forms are sonnets, ballads, and word clouds. And each form explores a new playing field where the rules are different.

Cresswell wonderfully employs repetition in her poem ‘Trespassers W’. She warps the normal by distorting a familiar phrase: trespassers will be prosecuted. Instead, Cresswell tells us how ‘Trespassers will be empathised. We will know their destination before they do, and we will tell them which road to take’. Creswell continues playing with the phrase and as a result, trespassers are not only pasteurised, but also exacerbated and liberated. It’s a witty little piece that plays on rhythm and words, with the imagery sometimes verging on the bizarre. My favourite? ‘Trespassers will be disambiguated. They will be turned into tigers and run around the pancake trees until they melt into butter’.

Cresswell’s poems are also very conscious of the world that they have been written in. One of these poems is ‘Indexers in love’. Cresswell uses themes surrounding love as entries in an index. For example, there’s ‘hazards, 56, 75, 113’. Then there’s longer entries in the index such as ‘heart: broken, 56; in mouth, 24-2; murmur, 123; of darkness, 307.’ It’s a beautiful and clever poem that reveals the very many concepts that surround love through the simple format of an index.

Moving on is an especially beautiful poem. The poem has four different parts, and I loved the final section, a small piece of prose poetry titled Borrowed light. In this ethereal and surreal piece, Cresswell turns the moon much more than just a circle of light in the dark sky. The moon is characterised as something closer to human. She is someone who ‘hoists herself over the hill heading for the sea’, who ‘flicks aside the stickiness of the stars’. When she finally finds her way to the sea, the moon is ‘grateful for the horizon at last’.

And when Cresswell moves to more traditional forms of rhyme and verse, Cresswell’s own delight in the form shines through. In the poem ‘Evoking the muse (2)’, Cresswell proves that she is a wordsmith who is very much aware of the external and internal rhythms that each word carries. This is shown through the second verse of this poem, which is an absolute delight:

He licks in shape the purple flame

of perfervid fabrication

and scrambles for fresh figments

on my tree of inspiration

The sheer variety of forms in Field Notes was wonderful to read, and I hope Cresswell keeps exploring the different rules that she can adhere to as well as the different rules she can break. Cresswell’s Field Notes prompts us all to be open to the various forms that poetry can take. Poetry is riveting because it is so varied and Cresswell’s collection is a brilliant reminder that there is no objective way that poetry “should” be written.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Field Notes
by Mary Cresswell
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780994137951

 

Book Review: The Discombobulated life of Summer Rain, by Julie Lamb

Available in bookshops nationwide.

The Discombobulated life of Summer Rain is shortlisted for the Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction, and the Best First Book Award in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

cv_the_discombobulated_life_of_summer_rain.jpgIt’s hard not to want to read a book which has “discombobulated” in its title, and thanks to Margaret Mahy it’s a word that many kids will be familiar with.

From the first paragraphs, I was hooked. Summer Rain is a feisty, funny character who has a particularly weird family. Her mother departed the family early in the piece, and with her dad not able to cope, Summer spends much of her school week with her grandfather, Pop – shrewd as a ferret and cunning as a weasel, but also a good mate to Summer, most of the time. His lifelong stinginess means he’s loaded, but you would not know this from the dilapidated farmhouse and the state of Dock’n’Thistle, his rundown farm.

Summer feels that she does not fit in well with her peers, is a bit embarrassed by her living conditions, and makes up for it by being a bit of a clown, which makes her popular with the boys, and viewed more cautiously by many of the girls.

The story is well-developed – a romance between Pop and a local serial marrier (I made that up, I can’t find the right word!) brings Summer tremendous angst and she works to bring this to an end.

How she does that would be a spoiler, but along the way the ideas of real friendship, family loyalty and individuality are well-explored. It’s a bit wacky – quite a bit, actually – but that adds to the charm. I did find my credibility a little bit stretched once or twice but I didn’t really find that mattered in the end.

Julie Lamb writes in an easy, flowing manner and there’s heaps of humour along with the magic. Oh, I did not mention magic before? Well, there is quite a lot, as it happens. But you’ll need to read this book to find out just what that magic does.

Highly recommended, likely to appeal to girls more than boys I think, and definitely worthy of its place in the Book Awards finalists.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Discombobulated life of Summer Rain
by Julie Lamb
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994123701

Book Review: The Little Cloud, by Beverley Burch and Elspeth Nicol

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_little_cloud.jpgWritten and illustrated in 1959 by two kindergarten teachers but not published until recently, this adorable book takes the reader on a trip around New Zealand with a little cloud who just wants to learn how to rain.

Tucked away in the corner of a large grey storm cloud, the little white cloud yearns to be alone. After a storm rages over Wellington for three days and two nights, the little cloud gets his wish.

He was fluffy.
He was white.
He was free.

Now the little cloud has to learn how to be a cloud, like coping with the wind, and noticing his colour changing as the sun goes down. When he wakes the next morning he knows it’s time to learn how to rain, but first the wind picks him up and takes him all over the country.

He ends up floating over Taupo where he notices the dried up grass around the lake and the empty water tanks. He is tired of playing and wants to learn how to rain, but he doesn’t know how. This makes the little cloud sad, and when tears start running down his fluffy cheeks he begins to rain – and rain and rain. When the land is no longer dry he becomes happy again and he stops raining and begins to play.

Not watching where he’s going sees him land on top of Mount Taranaki, where stays for a rest, smiling because at last he knew how to rain.

This book may have been written almost 60 years ago but the story is delightful and the illustrations are not showing any signs of age. It would be a great read-aloud book for younger children, and older children will enjoy the story and the thought of a cloud learning how to rain.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Little Cloud
by Beverley Burch and Elspeth Nicol
Published by Makaro Press (Submarine)
ISBN 9780994137920

Book Review: Wolf, by Elizabeth Morton

cv_wolf_MortonAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Wolf by Elizabeth Morton is an atmospheric and breathtaking collection that explores all the strange and mysterious parts of life. It’s all about the sharp edges, the rough shadows, the things that sit in the back of your mind and fester. It’s the uncomfortable, the estranged, all tightly packed into a world where the moon never seems to set and the sun never seems to rise.

It begins with Wolf. He is wild and he is also lonely. Morton’s language is sharply attuned with the wild world of Wolf. She describes how “as a pup Wolf had mewed / tender words… taller now, Wolf barks consonants.” He walks through forests, visits suburbia, travelling with a feeling of loneliness that presses on him the whole way. In Wolf has a dream, this feeling is brought to the fore as Wolf howls “Mo-ther / Mo-ther… but she does not hear”. The way Morton contrasts the eerie wanderings of Wolf as well as Wolf’s own heartache leaves an unsettling feeling of melancholy.

Then Morton expands out from Wolf into her own world, although it’s still not a world removed from the strangeness of the wild forest. Morton’s metaphors are raw and her words are tough. One of my favourite poems of the collection, 17, is a beautiful yet eerie piece. Morton begins, “it was March. / we had city grit in our gums, / and heads violent with stars”. Descriptions such as these made me pause, consider her words, and imagine in new ways. Morton continues with more of her peculiar and unique imagery: “and at seventeen / we were the final flashing synapse in a wrecked brain. / the last dry thrust of a fish”.

In this world, although things are not as wild as Wolf’s forest, the presence of Wolf still lives on. In The Dream, Morton and her dog walk through a landscape filled with “steel-wool bushes, the bones of manuka”. Morton manages to turn even the everyday into something strange and almost menacing. In Sirius, Morton finds the presence of the canine and the wild again in the deep sky: “I found the Dog Star / winking white and black”.

Another poem I really loved in Wolf is Poem in which i am a zombie. It’s written in the same vein as others in this collection—menacing and melancholic— and the imagery is still absolutely beautiful. It feels like Morton has dropped me in an alluring world, but she has also pressed pause. With the remote in her hand, Morton is free to show us around while trapping us in a strange state of being in between. Morton describes “powerlines heavy with starlings”, how she walks “in dactylic hexameter”. Then the loneliness creeps in: “i remember my name. / it leaves a bad taste.” This loneliness reaches its height in the final poignant lines of the poem: “now and then / i turn on all the lights / and pretend somebody’s home”.

Wolf is an absolutely breathtaking collection of poetry that Morton has crafted together with perfection. There is a little bit of Wolf in her and in all of us: the jagged parts of the heart, the strangeness of the night, and ultimately, the sadness. And Morton touches on this all in a heartbreaking but alluring way that kept me enraptured all the way through.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Wolf
by Elizabeth Morton
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994137821