WORD Christchurch: Mortification

WORD Christchurch: Mortification

After a hectic day getting riled up about Brexit and then learning to Vogue the FAFSWAG way, I settled down with relief for some good old-fashioned storytelling.

WORD Christchurch director Rachael King took to the stage first to introduce the Mortification session, inspired by an anthology of the same name edited by Robin Robertson in which writers tell stories of their public shame. She was joined in person by Robertson, Paula Morris, Steve Braunias, Megan Dunn, and Jarrod Gilbert; and in spirit by Irvine Welsh.

After a brief word from Robertson we were treated to a video from Welsh, who told a truly horrifying story of having shat himself in public and then trying to clean himself up in a filthy public loo. The tale also involved being laughed at by a bunch of drunk Glaswegians while standing naked from the waist down trying to wash himself in the sink. So gross – yet so funny. He really set the tone.

Morris was up next. ‘I have no public befoulings’ she said, to my relief, but instead told a story of ‘a thousand small humiliations’, often involving miniskirts. ‘I have the legs of a Polynesian seafarer and they need to be on display’ – but various wardrobe malfunctions have meant ‘once again feeling the breeze where the breeze should not be felt’. Her story of being perched awkwardly on a posh chair at an opera concert ‘vagina on velvet’ was particularly well told – and most women will be able to relate to the mortification of an unexpected period just when you’ve chosen to wear white trousers.

Braunias’ story was beautifully composed, with apparently unrelated details all coming together at the end. He first said he’d spied Helen Clark here at WORD, ‘storming along like a southerly in slacks’, before reminiscing about his life as a young man in Wellington – ‘the city felt like a jagged edge’ – refusing to go on his OE because NZ was too strange and baffling to leave. I can’t do justice to the story without relating it in full – hopefully there will be a second volume of Mortification and you’ll be able to read it for yourself. Suffice to say that I will never see the back of Helen Clark’s head the same way again.

Dunn took us in a completely different direction with a tale of trying to be a mermaid – including repeated use of the term ‘mermazing’ which I now wish to work into my everyday conversations. As part of her research for her forthcoming book, she took a mermaiding class in Florida, where ‘the heat sat on my skin like processed cheese’. She was told to undulate not just her body but also her head and neck: ‘I felt really dumb’. But she gave it a try – ‘middle age is gamely keeping going’ – despite a ‘deep sense of ugliness that’s hard to shake’. Dunn concluded that her happy place is in a bookshop, not the water, where mermaids are safely sealed within the pages of books ‘where they bloody should be’.

Our final storyteller was Gilbert, who told the story of trying to win a bet to run a marathon in three and a half hours. This involved him striding to the centre of the stage to act out a particularly mortifying episode from his training whereby he had to take an emergency dump in public on the side of the Sumner causeway, ‘possibly the most exposed piece of geography on earth’. He called the marathon ‘cruel and despicable insanity’ – but he did win the bet when he finished with a time of 3 hours 28 minutes. ‘It’s very difficult for me to describe just how little satisfaction that gave me.’

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

WORD Christchurch: Black Marks on the White Page: A Roundtable

Black Marks on the White Page: A Roundtable

One of the great things about festivals like WORD is that you not only get to hear from your favourite writers, you sometimes also get to sit in discussion with them, to learn from them in workshops and masterclasses. The Black Marks on the White Page roundtable was a session like this, a chance to hear from the experienced contributors to the book, but also to sit in conversation with other Māori and Pasifika writers.

Co-editor of the anthology, Tina Makereti, introduced the session as a talanoa. I am going to borrow from BMOTWP contributor Jione Havea to describe talanoa: ‘For the sake of ones who do not understand the lingo, ‘talanoa’ is a word used in several (but not all) Pasifika languages; it refers to the (three in one) triad of story, telling and conversation.’ This roundtable session definitely lived up to this definition of talanoa.

First up: story. We heard from Makereti, Nic Low, Paula Morris and Victor Rodger. Each discussed their thoughts on Black Marks on the White Page and what it meant to contribute to it. Makereti talked about the process of collaborating with co-editor Witi Ihimaera, who she described as having ‘big visions.’ Morris describes the anthology as ‘subversive.’ She says of the book, and its impact ‘We’re reshaping the Pacific.’

Rodger carried on with this train of thought: ‘Spectrum is a word I use a lot of. For a lot of people it means quite a narrow thing, but for me there’s a huge spectrum [of Pasifika experience].’ Low expanded on this, explaining that what has been expected of people generationally being put in the box of ‘Maori writer’ or ‘Pasifika writer’ has been restrictive. ‘We have global perspectives. The boxes that we’ve all been put in are totally artificial.’

Low and Rodger then read excerpts from their pieces in the anthology, both captivating and amusing tales, subversive and witty.

Telling. The second part of the roundtable session consisted of three short writing exercises. Low’s was to do with the context of our writing. He described it as ‘useful for honing in on your subject matter,’ which it really was. Rodger’s exercise was plot focused, and Morris focused on characters. With these three short exercises under our belts we came out more equipped and enthusiastic to get stuck into our own writing projects.

Conversation. After working through the exercises the talanoa moved on to more open conversation, the asking of questions and the sharing of ideas. As is typical of many talanoa, the session carried on well past it’s scheduled time slot. Long may these talanoa continue, and carry on throughout our communities.

Reviewed by Gem Wilder

Nic Low will be part of Nerd Degree on Sunday
Paula Morris is in Mortification at 5.30pm Saturday
Paula Morris introduces Go YA at 11.30am Sunday

 

AWF18: An Evening with Karl Ove Knausgaard

AWF18: An Evening with Karl Ove Knausgaard

Expectant energy sparks in the theatre as the capacity crowd waits for Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose six-volume series My Struggle propelled him to stardom and established a category of writing all of its own. He has everyone talking, including the people sitting behind me: ‘He is very serious’, one says. ‘Apparently the books aren’t entirely based on his life’, says another.

This collective anticipation finds release in the applause that greets the ‘Norwegian literary phenomenon’ (this epithet is a permanent attachment) as he and Paula Morris take the stage. She begins by asking whether he ever dreamed of this success. The short answer: ‘No’. His first book in the series, A Death in the Family, was about his ‘very ordinary life’, which both he and his editor were doubtful anyone would want to read about. A low print run ensued; it took off. ‘Being alone in a room and writing what was in my head’ somehow led, to his bewilderment, to being here in New Zealand.

Morris.Knausgaard_Still_01

Photo courtesy and copyright Auckland Writers Festival

It took many years of practising, Paula suggests diplomatically, to find the right way to tell the right story. Karl outlines his ten years of struggle, the 800 pages of false starts: ‘This was my job, I did this every day and I was failing’. The story he wanted to tell was that of his father’s death and of his own feelings of hate, shame and grief, all jostling in the balance. He tried to write about it for five years, until he thought ‘fuck literature, I am just going to write this at it was’. This removal of restrictions brought sudden relief – the book poured out of him. As he now tells his students, ‘It’s easy to write a novel, it’s just hard to get to a place where it is easy’.

This new-found freedom resulted in his extraordinary series. Its unique form evolved from his love of diaries and the comfort they offered through the details of the everyday, which he merged with the dramatic form. This combination allowed him to be ‘boring’, to integrate thoughts and to leave the book’s dramatic arc up to one hundred pages at a time. It also became much easier to write – he wrote book five in just two months. But Karl Ove sees this as no feat – it is a matter of having low expectations and just writing. ‘When you have restrictions of quality it is much harder’.

He tells us that the accident of memory was responsible for a lot of the work too (he meditates on memory often). In the first book, he needed to lay the ground work so that the reader might feel the effect of his father’s death in a way similar to himself. He ended up, accidentally, writing about when he was 16 in a scene that constitutes half the book. He narrates how he and his friends were on a way to a party, the difficulties in getting beers and then getting there, only to be refused entry. But that is his point: ‘And that’s it; that’s life. It’s boring, there’s a sea of mundane and then death. Death is completely different, it is charged with meaning’. As are love and birth, he offers, the subject of his second book.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard, photo courtesy and copyright of Auckland Writers Festival

And what of the controversial title? He explains this was ‘coincidental, like everything else in these books’. His struggle is about a little life, about ‘misunderstanding things, failing, burning a finger when making food’ – juxtapositioning this with the other My Struggle, which is totalitarian in nature, does inform the work though.

Karl Ove still struggles – he feels a strangeness living in Sweden. ‘There is still a distance in me and that is language’. He is often silenced as he doesn’t know what is appropriate to say in certain situations. This results in retreat. It makes him wonder, ‘Where is your identity? Is it culture? Is it language?’. He, unsurprisingly, has thought about this problem of language – which has also allowed him access to so much, and resonated with so many readers. ‘These things that you think belong to you are charged with something that is not you, that will stay on when you are dead.’ It leads him to question how much of the book is particular to him. ‘Probably almost none of it’, he muses.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Karl Ove Knausgaard was supported by Norwegian Literature Abroad to be at the Auckland Writers Festival.

NZF Writers & Readers: Teju Cole – Blind Spot

Tara Black reviews Teju Cole: Blind Spot. Image copyright Tara Black. 

In his new book Blind Spot, Nigerian writer and international photography critic Teju Cole features his own photography for the very first time. He discussed this with Paula Morris.

NWF18 Teju Cole

 

NZF Writers & Readers: Tikanga Now, with Emma Espiner, Māmari Stephens and Morgan Godfrey

Tara Black and Elizabeth Heritage have both reviewed Tikanga Now, Tara in pictures, and Elizabeth with considerably more words.

Emma Espiner, lecturer Māmari Stephens and unionist Morgan Godfery discuss why Pākehā need to understand and embrace tikanga Māori, alongside Paula Morris. A timely conversation for all  New Zealanders.

NWF18 Tikanga Now

Big chunks of the Renouf foyer had packed out for Tikanga Now to hear Paula Morris chair a panel with Emma Espiner, Māmari Stephens, and Morgan Godfery. They all have essays in the Journal of Urgent Writing.

We started with definitions of tikanga. Godfery said people think of tikanga as magical, ‘but it’s simply the right thing to do’.

Stephens said it’s a Māori approach to things and mode of doing. Tikanga can be uncertain, but that uncertainty is positive and generative. Tikanga provides a framework upon which practices can hang – it saves you from awkward silences. Stephens also noted that there are ways in which tikanga can be used to exclude. For example, there are tensions between groups saying that te reo Māori is for all Māori, and those who say it is for everybody. ‘The same thing could be said for living our lives with tikanga – it’s a gift for beyond just those of us who are Māori.’

Espiner said that, for example at a tangi, the tikanga helps take the pain out of it a bit because you know what to do. Sometimes people are frightened of getting it wrong, but that discomfort is part of it. Look for the situations where you don’t feel safe. If you’re feeling comfortable it’s probably because you’re within the dominant culture.

Espiner said that as someone who is both Māori and Pākehā sitting across two worlds, she notices how things could be done better if you apply the principles of one to the other. She spoke about the importance of representation, noting for example Mihi Forbes’ essay on The Spinoff about being invited to a prestigious event celebrating International Women’s Day and Suffrage 125 but then being nearly the only Māori in the room.

There was an interesting discussion about ‘Maussies’ – Māori people in Australia. Māori are the tangata whenua of this land, but not of the land in Australia. Is it appropriate for them to build marae there? Godfery thinks it’s unacceptable. Stephens pointed out that ‘as Māori, we were not born to be just in one place’, and talked about the Māori diaspora.

Another point raised was about how cultural familiarity with te ao Māori can vary enormously even between neighbouring suburbs. Damon Salesa has written about segregation in Auckland and white flights from South Auckland. Espiner said that one of the most harmful things about our society is that we don’t live together.

Morris noted that te reo is having a cultural moment. Espiner is very optimistic about this, especially about the recent increase in enrolments in beginner te reo classes. She says the next step is to have lots of places where te reo is spoken, to support te reo teachers, and to have excellence all the way through.

Stephens noted the learning te reo isn’t just about learning the lexicon and the grammar, it’s also about engaging with the practices of Māori life and with real live people. ‘Whanaungatanga is the act and art of creating relationships.’ She spoke about the importance of marae, and how small rural marae are in danger of ‘going cold’ through neglect. She noted that, often when Māori are faced with threat, they build a wharenui to come together and discuss. In the 1960s and 70s especially there were massive marae built because of all the political ferment. Pan-tribal marae in urban centres are particularly important.

Morris brought up the question of tikanga and gender. In the 21st century, is it fair to ban wāhine from doing certain things? Stephens said it makes more sense if you take a step back and look at all the history. Tikanga can be changed, but it has to be the people of that particular marae who make that decision. Espiner pointed to the most recent episode of Kaupapa on the Couch, a web series about all things Māori from Te Ātea editor Leonie Hayden at The Spinoff. In it, Hayden addresses gender issues and mana wāhine in tikanga. She points out that, although men and women have traditionally had different roles in te ao Māori, women were not regarded as less than men. And many Māori gods and supernatural deities that we now think of as male may have been female, since te reo has gender-neutral pronouns. Maleness may have been imposed upon them by colonists.

The standard of audience questions in this session was very high. One question was about combining tikanga with environmentalism and business practices. Godfery said that on the issues of whether tikanga Māori can coexist with capitalism: ‘Hell no! But reasonable people have different views.’

Reviewed in pictures by Tara Black, and in words by Elizabeth Heritage

 

Book Review: False River, by Paula Morris

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_false_riverThis is a very sophisticated collection of short stories, which sit comfortably together. While many have been previously published in magazines, or read on radio, bringing them together allows the reader to appreciate the true depth of Morris’s writing. The title story, False River was a finalist in the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in the UK, and Morris is no stranger to awards for her writing.

I am not a regular reader of short stories as once I have sorted out characters and setting, I prefer to settle in for a long read. But this collection allowed me to enter each world quickly and with minimal fuss as I became engrossed by the stories. It was a revelation.

Morris knows her settings. Be it New Orleans, Mexico or Latvia, we are quickly immersed in a familiar world where small details add depth. Some stories deal with relationships such as the delightful story Isn’t It. Here we have the Auckland housing crisis meeting family mourning. The meeting of these two worlds is beautifully portrayed.

A well-chosen black and white photo follows some stories. I like the inclusion of visual art within the written text as it adds another layer for the reader. However, I was a little disappointed at the cover of the collection. The dark blue, understated cover did not live up to the quality of the stories and artwork within the  book. Even the endpapers were more creative.

I really enjoyed this collection: it seems, after a thirty-year standoff with short stories, Paula Morris has lured me back. I would pick the book up to read one story, and then sneak another too. Of course, this meant I was running late!

This is the perfect summer read. A sleep, a swim or even a small wine could follow each story.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

False River
by Paula Morris
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9780143771630

 

 

AWF 17: In the Bardo: George Saunders

George Saunders appeared on Saturday, 20 May at 12 noon at AWF 2017

George Saunders was a geophysicist in a previous life. He’s been a short story writer for quite some time. And his latest turn has been as a novelist, with the release of Lincoln in the Bardo.

He was in conversation with Paula Morris, who broke the ice by pointing out that for quite some time now, George’s books have been dedicated to his wife – who is also called Paula. ‘So for years, I’ve been pretending they were dedicated to me.’

Paula went on, however, to expand on what George has been achieving in his work, noting that Lincoln in the Bardo serves as a reminder that the novel is still a very experimental format – after all, at it’s crux it is ‘a story told by ghosts that explore what it is to be alive.’

george saunders

George Saunders, photo by Chloe Aftel

They discussed the original genesis of the book as a series of drafts for a play, and the shift to the long-form prose format of the novel. George extolled the  virtues of rewriting – which is eventually led him through the marshes of his play drafts (‘the idea of monologues intrigued me’) through a foray into a fiction piece in the third person (‘Gore Vidal-esque’)before arriving at the final cut. ‘Your first draft doesn’t need to be good … in a certain way, the writer’s job is just to not suck.’

So he settled on the ghost-based narration. ‘But ghosts are a bit like dream sequences – a teacher once told me that you have three dream sequences in your career, so don’t use them up all at once.’ It’s safe to say that this particular instance of ghosts/dreams has been put to good use, with Lincoln in the Bardo receiving plenty of praise and securing a spot in the New York Times Bestseller List.

I went into the session with a relatively unusual relationship (or lack thereof) with George Saunders. I hadn’t read any of his books, but I knew of his work – Tenth of December was read by many a Unity Books colleague in my time working there – and I had heard him speak very on a podcast very recently. So I had a sense of knowing what I was in for, while still gleefully knowing that I had yet to read and unpack his work.

He speaks candidly, with a chirpy tone – he described himself as sounding like ‘a Valley Girl on quaaludes at one point’ – but he at the same time be brings forth these cutting truisms and opinions about writing, about reading. As someone who fancies themselves quite dedicated to both, my notes were scribbled as much for personal reference as supplies for this piece. Here are just a few:

‘There’s that thrill as a young writer when, for the first time, you write something truer than reality.’BookSaunders-kuI--621x414@LiveMint

‘I talk about writing in the language of sales. It’s a contract, where my job is to anticipate your resistance … my best self comes out through revisions – your best self is led out through the intimacy of the conversation.’

‘A writer takes a chance, pushes you away – and then on the next page they bring you back with an uplifting, luminous scene.’

‘I know writers who plan everything out – and then they write it, and it gets subverted. I like to see where a story goes.’

That final point can apply to writer and reader alike – and George reinforced this as he pointed out ‘part of the job of the story is to not know where it’s going’. He even pulled out an Einstein quote to really drive this home, as applicable to the story as to a physics equation: ‘No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.’

Paula brought up the contradictory elements of the narrative – an entirely intentional move by the author to reflect the nature of individual experience. ‘Historical accounts are often contradictory … there’s the complication of understanding something, the limits of our own perception.’ With the multiple perspectives telling the story, multiple versions of the truth become inevitable.

The discusison also covered the idea of the bardo – a Tibetan term for a transitional space between life and death. ‘It’s not purgatory,’ George explained. ‘It’s a lot more workable.’ He referred to one school of thought in Tibet that suggested that any deeply affecting emotions and experience become amplified many times over in the bardo – regrets, unrequited love, that sort of thing.

Discussing the spiritual aspect of the book let into conversation around George’s own religious upbringing – in a Catholic family in the south side of Chicago in the 60s. That particular kind of religious exposure wove its way into the discussion several times – discussion of the devotional scapular, to Lincoln’s saintly attributes, to one particular nun that paved the way for George’s future as a reader and writer through trust in his capabilities.

But as a flip side to heavier religious influences, there was frivolity – inherent in his view of the world, it seems. He described coming across two ‘working-class girls’ on the street who caught his attention with their particular cadence of speech – so he went home and tried to emulate it on the page, unraveling things about these two characters that had leapt from life to his page, from reality into fiction. He summed it up, saying: ‘I like when a story comes out of genuine verbal joy.’

As a member of the audience, the whole conversation was genuine verbal joy – and this reviewer will certainly be shuffling George Saunders titles to the top of her to-read pile.

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408871744

Civilwarland in Bad Decline
by George Saunders
Published by Vintage Classics
ISBN 9781784871291