AWF18: City Streets, with Pip Adam, Xu Yiwei and Dominic Hoey

AWF18: City Streets, with Pip Adam, Xu Wiwei and Dominic Hoey

Pip Adam, Dominic Hoey and Xue Yiwei  talk of the inspiration of place, and the ways in which location gives vital realism and urgency to their stories, in conversation with Julie Hill.

Illustrated notes below, by Tara Black

AWF18 14 City Streets

Iceland
by Dominic Hoey
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9780947493431

 

The New Animals
by Pip Adam
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561346

Schenzheners
by Xue Yiwei
Published by Linda Leith Publishing
ISBN 9781988130033

Check out ALL of Tara Black’s coverage of the 2018 Auckland Writers Festival here.

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Book Review: Ponti, by Sharlene Teo

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Sharlene Teo is appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival this weekend, interviewed by Acorn Foundation winner Pip Adam. 

cv_pontiUK-based Singapore novelist Sharlene Teo’s absorbing debut examines the complexities of teenage friendship, the realities of mother-daughter relationships and the affecting power of memory.

Spanning from the late 1960s up until the not-so-distant future of 2020, Ponti is narrated by three Singaporean women. Szu Min (2003), a solitary sixteen-year-old who is haunted by her mother’s early stardom and her own comparatively lacklustre life; Amisa (1960s–2000s), a one-time starlet of a trilogy of seventies horror cult films; and Circe (2020), Szu’s privileged friend who is now a disenchanted thirty-two-year-old social media consultant. Having lost contact with Szu over a decade ago, in 2020 Circe is tasked with promoting a remake of the Ponti! film trilogy in which Amisa starred – a task that brings back haunting memories of her teenage years. Switching chapter-by-chapter between the central protagonists, Teo effortlessly interlaces past, present and future into a deceptively simple but subversively complex narrative.

Teo’s visceral and vibrant writing is captivating in its originality. Drawing beauty from gritty reality and never shying away from the blunt realities of life and death, Teo writes with an accessible and emotionally evocative prose. The metaphysical become physical: time is a ‘pit’ nested in a chest, pain is a heaviness to be dragged around, and sadness ‘drips’ over furniture and sucks ‘the light out of the room’. The protagonists’ mental health struggles are frankly portrayed, from Szu’s eating disorder and devastating loneliness, to the ‘exquisitely etched stencil’ of Amisa and her ‘bloated and foggy’ postpartum depression.

As a ‘teen’ story, Ponti is unique: it centres on the experience of two ‘citizens of nowhere’ teenage girls who are proudly and unapologetically themselves. While Szu and Circe ‘never felt a belonging’, they revel in their outcast status and feel ‘secretly enlivened by our discontentment’. Their complicated relationship is described as a ‘tenuous, milk-toothed kind of love’ that evolves into ‘the toil and torpor of a difficult marriage’. Teo expertly captures the fraught nature of teenage life and the difficulties of learning how to express thoughts and emotions in a world that so often doesn’t want to listen. A novel awash with pop culture references, readers are sure to find the familiar mingled with the unfamiliar, creating a reading sensation that is simultaneously nostalgic and enlightening.

Ultimately, Ponti is a tale of a city. Singapore is depicted in unabashed reality: not as a stereotyped exotic paradise, but as a bustling metropolis bursting at its seams; a poverty ridden city-state, humid and polluted, liberal and advanced. Through the protagonists’ personal narratives, Teo records the rapidly changing nature of south-east Asia over the last three decades, where new ideals and technologies are juxtaposed against entrenched social mores. Flavours of Singapore life pervade the pages, not only through vivid descriptions of food (‘candied orange peel, fried cuttlefish, chilli kangdong’), but also through colours (‘lines emerge like litmus blooming through filter paper: neon pink, acid green, boudoir red’; ‘the aquarium light shifted from purple into teal . . . turned the green of cartoon slime, nuclear waste’). The sticky heat and haze of pollution oppresses Singapore as much as the past oppresses the protagonists.

Based around the Malayan myth of the pontianak – a cannibalistic female ghoul who hunts and kills men – supernatural influences insidiously seep through the social realism of the novel. Like its mythological phantom namesake, Ponti will quickly ensnare readers with its muscular prose and radiant beauty, but its haunting emotional resonance will leave some gasping for air. It is a visceral, lush debut.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

Ponti
by Sharlene Teo
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781509855322

 

Book Review: The New Animals, by Pip Adam

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_new_animalsPip Adam’s new book is both astute observation and raw imagining of what life is like when involved in the fashion world in Auckland. And it makes me want to run like hell in the other direction. The shallow lives of the characters, the consumption and micro-examinations of self and other (without reaching any kind of depth of understanding) seem representative of the mass consumerism and solipsism that can be found in such spheres of life.

Carla is the first character we are introduced to. She’s not altogether likeable or appealing: ‘Her skin was wrecked, her eyes, her nerves. But the powders and pills and tongue scraping and cleansing made it possible for her to pay the barista, smile at the child, look down as she left the cafe …’ Later, there is Sharona and Duey, the latter masturbating to porn in boredom and panic at work, and the former somewhat dismissive of the fashion world in which her friends have centred their lives around.

They are all purposefully awful in some way. And are they really even friends? It’s hard to say. They are always questioning what others think and reflecting on past decisions, like nervous, twitchy rats in a cage. In fact, it seems that each character just tolerates others for the sake of scraping through the shallow life that’s been chosen, whether older (Generation X) or younger: ‘ Now Carla was scoffing. He could see it, the way her mind ticked … she was wrong and now he couldn’t say anything because that would be a dick move’. The addition of a dog named Doug who pretty much wants to kill her owner Carla, and who is locked in a crappy little apartment all day has the reader feeling a real dis-ease representative of the sickness of these people’s lives.

Everyone seems to be sleeping with make-up artist Elodie, who, on the surface at least, is an easy-going pleaser. The book makes a sudden veer in the magic realist direction in the second half, when Elodie seems to have a breakdown (or revelation of truth?), and steals Doug to head out into the ocean. Literally. Well, like, literally in the book, but not, one would imagine, in the story. She encounters the grotesque on her journey, a metaphorical representation of the grotesque of the fashion world.

Even though I found it hard to enjoy when reading (I really disliked the characters and the interactions they were having, although it is of course unnecessary to always like characters) this book stayed with me. The imagery of Doug the feral dog, who was once tame, and Elodie’s oceanic experiences were haunting. The title refers to such things; this book is animalistic. I would say prepare to feel uncomfortable.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

The New Animals
by Pip Adam
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561162

Getting creative with Cats and Spaghetti Press

cats_and_spaghetti_logoI asked three new publishers five questions, in an effort to understand why you would decide to start anew in the current publishing environment (see feature article in The Read from yesterday.)  These are the answers from Emma Barnes and Pip Adam, who founded Cats and Spaghetti Press. Here are the answers from Paper Road Press, and we will post Mākaro Press’ answers on Monday.

1. Why did you decide to create your own publishing company?
Pip and I spent a lot of time talking about things we’d like to see getting published. Books aren’t always the easiest format to get creative with and the vagaries of publishing in this climate mean that what gets published can sometimes end up being larger manuscripts that are easier to make into books. We really liked the idea of doing weird things or little things or things that might not otherwise see the light of day.

2. What are you hoping to achieve in your publishing ventures?
We’re not in it to make money. But who is with poetry and short fiction! Even fiction! We are just wanting to make room for the unusual. I think that sums us up best.

3. How are you selecting your titles? Have you got a MS pile yet?
I came across Magnolia’s work and thought it was a natural fit for us and Pip agreed! So that was great. We’re going looking. If you’re only accepting submissions, you are often bound by that in that maybe you don’t know what you’re missing! I want to go out and find diverse work, both from different backgrounds and work that will challenge us to produce.
Pip_Sugar_Emma
4. How are you going with distribution? Is there anything you would like to see booksellers doing?
A few weeks ago, Cats and Spaghetti launched its first publication − Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s long poem Pen Pal. It was not a conventional publication and we didn’t want to distribute it in a conventional way. We decided to give all the copies of the first edition − which was a beautiful object − away for free. We organised an event, several writers read work which reflected some of the themes of Pen Pal (Magnolia gave them a brief to think witch-craft and the occult), then we let people know through social media that this would be the only chance to get a copy of the first edition of Pen Pal. In this way, we gifted the publication back to the poetry writing/reading community. We also tied the publication to the event, so it was sort of a record of the event for people who came and heard and read. We wanted people to read Magnolia’s work and we’re not totally sure ‘sales’ equal readers as unproblematically as we assume. By distributing Pen Pal the way we did (at the launch event), people paid for it through effort and participation and love and joy and support of the writer and the event, which we hope means that their relationship with Pen Pal will be different to what it might have been if they had paid money for it.

I hope that maybe when they pick it up or read it or see it in their bookshelf they’ll remember the night and the readings and the people they talked to and that will kind of commit them or tie them to the community around them. We were lucky to find a writer who shared our kaupapa.

As you can see, this makes it tricky to think about how we might work with booksellers, but I do think booksellers are an important part of the community that I’m talking about. I’m really interested in how a bookseller might fit with a gift economy kind of project.

5. I would imagine with a small list, you are easily adaptable for new realities. How are you dealing with future technologies for distributing/publicising your books?
I feel really lucky because neither Emma, Magnolia or I had money as a base criteria for publication. This is a ridiculously privileged position to be in, but I think that this, more than anything gives us scope for experimentation in distribution and publication. We were, and I imagine will be, mainly working in a self-funded model. This has two advantages, one of them is obvious − we please ourselves − but the other advantage is that we need to be creative and I think that is also very good. For instance, with Pen Pal, we had enough money for a small run of beautiful things, so we needed to find an exciting way of getting this small run into hands that would love it like we did. Our next project is a collection of a lot of writers’ work which has been rejected from other publications, and yeah I find it quite exciting not to have to think of it as a ‘literary journal’ as such or an ‘anthology’, it feels like there is so much room for it to become.

– Booksellers NZ

Book Review: Sport 42, edited by Fergus Barrowman

cv_sport_42Available in selected bookstores now.

Reviewing an issue of a literary journal is a rather curious thing. You’re given the issue—in this case, Sport 42, the latest issue of that well loved landmark of Kiwi lit—and you look inside and see not only a clutch of short stories, but also a hefty double handful of poetry, and a couple of essays, and despite the disparate genres and the disparate levels of experience of the disparate writers (some fresh out of IIML, some already well established), you are told “Go! Go forth and review!” And you look down at this overflowing buffet of words in your right hand and you say, “Um. Ok. Sure. How are you supposed to eat an elephant again?”

Despite my trepidation (Sport 42 boasts a lot of poetry, and I am not a poet), I remembered that I can in fact recognize fine writing when I read it, and Sport 42 has a great deal of fine writing on display in this issue. In particular, the pieces of writing I responded to with the greatest enthusiasm were always the pieces where the style matched, supported and enhanced the content. Hence why Pip Adam’s story “Tragedy of the Commons” continues to ring in my mind; the story is disorienting to read, and there is a stone of despair in its belly, but this is the experience and point of view of Adam’s protagonist too, who looks out at a drenched Christchurch through dead, disoriented eyes.

Lawrence Patchett’s taut writing was wonderful to read too—no fat, all muscle. I also greatly enjoyed the economy on display in both Breton Dukes’ and Uther Dean’s work. Dukes’ very short short stories were each only an A5 page long but nevertheless scooped together sharp characterisation, metaphor, dialogue, depth, plot and a character called Raimundo (and how can you go wrong with a character called that?) Uther Dean’s collection of haiku also managed to say a lot with a little, using the haiku form to perfectly (and often weirdly) present some of the grains of absurdity or sadness scattered through our lives: (“All the sad robots/Pretend to robot smile/At their robot friends.”) I also gravitated towards those pieces that seemed to open a door for us to drift out of real life and into dream or memory, as in Frances Samuel’s “Vending Machine”, and I also enjoyed Bill Manhire’s “Bridle Song”, which was zany as heck right up until it became very troubling (“pyong-yang-a-lang, pyong-yang-a-loo/dear leader says he’s coming soon for you”).

Stephanie de Montalk’s ‘fact-ional’ interview with Alphonse Daudet (who died in 1897) was a highly absorbing piece of writing that also merged reality or fact with pure fiction, but which always felt truthful. de Montalk imagines going back in time to meet Daudet who suffered from the neurodegeneration typical of advanced venereal disease. She gives Daudet a voice, imagines his character based on his writing, imagines how he might sit, speak and act, while still incorporating facts and analysis and moving the interview through meditations on chronic pain and suffering. This was a truly masterful piece of writing, and it exemplifies why literary journals like Sport must continue to exist. I admit to some exasperation at the several pieces of writing made of well turned out words but little real feeling (as far as I could tell), but there was more than enough in this issue to show the importance of having this kind of outlet for creative writing. Long live Sport, and here’s to issue number 43!

Review by Febriani Idrus

Sport 42
Edited by Fergus Barrowman
Victoria University Press

Book Review: I’m working on a building, by Pip Adam

This book is available from bookstores in October.

When I first received this book, I thought it was acv_Im_working-on_a_building misbound copy – for not only does the cover appear to be upside down (as you can see in the thumbnail), but the back cover is also upside down, which means when I walk and read I look not only like the crazy person that is walking and reading, but also like the crazy person who is walking and reading with her book up the wrong way. After seeing the thumbnail I realised my mistake, and also that it is somewhat meta – a clever indication of the narrative, which also works from a point in the not-too-distant future backwards through the live of the main character, Catherine.

The main character, Catherine, is an engineer who does not relate well to others, and as her story works backwards you can sort of get an inkling as to why this might be. She is engineering a building in the Southern Alps of New Zealand – the building of a full scale replica Burj al Khalifa, currently the tallest tower in the world. She is feeling distinctly uncomfortable about the whole process – as would anyone building a tall tower atop a fault line.

This event follows on from a dramatic (fictional) earthquake that destroyed most of Wellington, including killing several of Catherine’s friends and almost claiming her. This novel was written in 2010, but whether or not Pip Adam had direct experience of the Christchurch earthquake is unspecified – regardless, she writes the narrative very convincingly, including the sort of distancing oneself/dissociation from reality that one experiences when they undergo such a dramatic event. This was probably my favourite part of the story and I read the passages several times to experience the full flavour for it.

We go back further, through various fractured relationships to her formative years. Sometimes the narrative skips into first person, with the narrator being Isabel, Catherine’s sister. Her purpose in the storyline is not entirely clear, except perhaps as an outside observer of Catherine’s life. We also have chapters from the point of view of minor cast – such as Donna and some of their male associates, all which either enhance the plot or muddle it rather, depending on how deeply you are involved in the story.

The writing style is somewhat dry, and a little too much tell, not show, for my tastes. All in all, I feel this novel was trying to be a little too clever for me, and possibly requires more in-depth reading than I was able to give it at this time. At some points it left me confused and befuddled, at others Pip Adam’s poetically worded internal musings of the characters had me marvelling. Her challenge was to use the language of structural engineering to enhance the narrative, and for someone who is not an engineer (either me or she), I would say she did a very convincing job and has clearly done her research.

Review by Angela Oliver

I’m working on a building
by Pip Adam
Published by VUP
97680864738981