Tara Black recorded this at the Manawatu Writers’ Festival this past weekend. Copyright Tara Black, all rights reserved.
Nicole Phillipson has recently joined Booksellers NZ after completing her MA (Applied) in Short Story Writing at the IIML. Here are five books that impressed her this year, that she will be gifting to her friends and family.
Man V Nature, by Diane Cook (Oneworld) 9781780748153
This short story collection feels truly “2016.” Each genre-defying story contains a miniature dystopia: floods rise to swallow the earth, monsters invade workplaces, and a society reverts to brutal survivalism. Maybe you’re feeling that you’ve had enough apocalyptic events this year to last a lifetime, but if humour is the best medicine Cooke’s extremist fantasies are the perfect, darkly funny antidote to this year. Her unhinged characters – like walking, talking Freudian ids – are strangely loveable, and the title story, a Lord of the Flies scenario set on a fishing boat, manages to be both unsettling and hysterical.
Mansfield and Me, by Sarah Laing (VUP) 9781776560691
The first thing you notice about Laing’s graphic memoir is the visual deliciousness – the warm and affectionate drawing style makes it hard to stop turning pages. As you read on, you will become immersed in a frank, funny and understated exploration of Laing’s life. What sets this book apart is its dual narrative: Laing’s story is interspersed with Mansfield’s own. Laing brings Mansfield’s spiky, brilliant, often tormented character to life through Mansfield’s own words and striking black-and-white images. There is a bare honesty which lets you feel the most poignant moments of both women’s emotion: their self-doubt, deep pain and passion.
Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury) 9781408880364
Ann Patchett has a great talent for evoking situations that feel deeply real. She is unafraid in exploring the darkest folds of humanity, but also casts light on moments of beauty and warmth. Commonwealth follows ten different characters in two entangled families, the Cousins and the Berts, over five decades. The story begins with a striking scene in which married lawyer Bert Cousins shows up at the christening party of acquaintances Beverly and Fix Keating. A drunken kiss between Bert and Beverly is the single catalyst for irrevocable changes in both families. Patchett is a dab hand at pulling the rug out from under you. Characters who initially seem incurably heartless are slowly softened under Patchett’s empathetic touch. Commonwealth is a universally relatable story of family.
How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, by Chris Tse (AUP) 9781869408183
In How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, Chris Tse uses poetry to transmute history into a living pulse of emotion. The collection is loops around an event 1905, when white supremacist Lionel Terry murdered elderly Cantonese gold prospector Joe Kum Yung. Multiple voices sing through the collection including that of the unhinged Terry himself. But one beauty of this book is the way it turns history on its head, giving a voice to the Cantonese immigrants and Maori whose voices were written out from the Pakeha historical narrative. Tse explores death both in literal and symbolic senses, as Yung is erased both physically and narratively: ‘As you bleed out/ the night rejects your history,’ and Tse brings him to life again. These are deeply evocative, empathetic poems with words that ring and echo.
Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing) 9781922182029
Coming Rain, set in the harsh outback of Western Australia, explores the human condition amidst a mesmerising evocation of farming life and the desert. The novel is set in 1956, largely set in the ‘marginal wheat and sheep lands’ of the South West of Western Australia. It follows the young Lew and the older Painter, who work together, shearing sheep and charcoal burning, traversing the land in Lew’s truck. Two concurrent stories weave and intercross: the quiet, tragic narrative of Lew and Painter and that of a pregnant dingo being tracked by a hunter. A book which delves into the minutae of the outback with beautiful, haunting descriptions, and leaves space for the deep, quiet sorrow of its main characters to fill the narrative.
by Nicole Phillipson
Available now in bookshops nationwide.This book is launched tonight at Unity Books Wellington, from 6pm.
I am genuinely curious to see where this book ends up on the bestsellers lists: fiction or non-fiction? Two things are for sure: it’s from NZ, and it’s going to be there.
I’ve admired Sarah Laing’s work since her first publication, Coming up roses. Her web comic Let Me Be Frank has been a mainstay in my regular rounds of websites of people I like to see life alongside, and it is a joy to see her artistic talent, her descriptions of real life, and her skill with sort-of fiction come together in Mansfield & Me.
Sarah Laing’s obsession with Mansfield as a like-mind begins with a drawing in her Aunt Aliosn’s home drawn by Mansfield’s friend Edith Robison, “She was a naughty girl, that Kathleen.” The story takes off from there, drawing phases of Sarah’s life and aligning them either to parts of Mansfield’s life, or her stories. ‘Her first ball’ is one of my favourite chapters, with the alignment of Laing’s preparations for her first ball with the story of that name by Katherine Mansfield, segued nicely through a read-aloud of this story in class, and finished with a rumination on what Mansfield might have been feeling when she wrote the story.
As the book carries on, the alignment of Laing and Mansfield’s lives becomes more marked. As Kim Hill remarked in her interview with Laing on Radio NZ over the weekend, it isn’t forced. The similarities are certainly there. Her determination to be what she was destined to be – graphic designer, writer, whatever – is similar. The series of varied sexual relationships – now quite usual and accepted, but in Mansfield’s days possibly usual (in the Bloomsbury group at least) but not widely accepted. And the reaction that occurs in many New Zealanders at some stage – a desire to be anywhere but here, to kickstart your life somewhere that isn’t so small, so small-minded.
My emotions at the end of this book were confused. I was a little jealous – I’m always a little jealous of people A Lot more talented than I, and Laing has followed her passions in a way I don’t dare to. But then I was just… wow. This book is a fabulous piece of work, and one that will stick around in Mansfield’s ouevre, ensuring Sarah Laing’s name stays in the public consciousness. And that it ought to.
And, again inspired by a remark from Kim Hill, it has also acted as a ‘doorway drug’. I’m going to go to the secret bookshelf under the stairs and find the collection of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories I have stashed there somewhere; and get inspired by her.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
Mansfield & Me: A Graphic Memoir
by Sarah Laing
Published by VUP
Afterword: Just reflecting on this book, and on Billy Bird (which I haven’t yet published my review of but loved); and thinking while I understand the cultural cringe that has led to our literature to be brushed off by too many readers, these types of books are why we need to read New Zealand authors. I could not have felt this close to a woman growing up in New York, or Toronto, or Iraq. And while Billy Bird had a more international feel, it and other recent books by the likes of Danyl McLauchlan and Tim Wilson, just prove the fact that New Zealand has more talented writers than anybody could suspect; and they don’t all write in one genre. They don’t write in one note. They write diverse, creative and exciting work: read it.
Like any good millennial, I’ve read some comics. At university, I studied Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, and I’ve read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series with Dave McKean’s glorious covers. I have Alan Moore’s Watchmen on my book shelf, as well as Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville. I’ve even read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. But this is a fairly small sampling of what comics today has to offer. The anthology Three Words showed me that the world of comics is more diverse, more stylistically varied, more wildly idiosyncratic and more weird and wonderful than I had ever anticipated.
It also includes a lot more women. Did you notice that the comic artists I previously mentioned were all men? Though I do know of some female creators of comics (Marjane Satrapi, Alison Bechdel), it looks to the uninitiated like men outnumber their female counterparts in comics by quite a lot. But it only looks that way. One of the striking things about Three Words is the sheer number of female artists who either came out of the woodwork or picked up a pencil for the first time (in a long time or in some cases at all) in order to contribute to this anthology of comics by women. Three Words shows that it’s not that there aren’t female makers of comics—it’s that they haven’t been visible. Space has not previously been made for them to spread their wings.
Some of the comics explicitly address just this issue (Indira Neville’s work, for example, which wraps up its rather pointed message in a style of cartoon you might see in the School Journal). Other comics don’t specifically comment on this but nevertheless couldn’t have been written by anyone except a woman, like Zoë Colling’s spot-on ‘boob envy’ comic. And some don’t seem to draw attention to gender at all – they’re just bloody good. Marina Williams’ “10 Things People Shouldn’t Overhear You Say In Work” is very giggle-worthy, as is Elsie Joliffe’s work.
I was also struck by the sheer breadth of styles I encountered in this collection. Though some looked stylistically mainstream, others were more DIY, and still others were like paintings or collages. One (by Sarah Lund) was made using cut paper to create the elements in each frame. Some were inked, some painted, some were riotous with colour, some black and white. What also impressed me was the storytelling these artists were able to achieve in such a short space. Though some of the comics were focused more on transmitting a single concept, tone or idea, those that were more story-driven repeatedly managed to encapsulate so much in so little.
Typically for an anthology, there were some comics I liked more than others. Some I found alienating; some I just didn’t ‘get’. In addition, the ‘three words’ conceit, where one comic writer supplied three words for another comic writer to interpret into a three panel strip (ala Chinese whispers), was also interesting and fun once I got my head around the layout chosen to present the strips. I initially got a little confused, trying to figure out which comic was supposed to be the three-panel strip, seeing as the first of these strips didn’t have panels per se. Perhaps a sign of my unfamiliarity with the genre, and if a second anthology is planned, perhaps the possibility of comparative newbie readers like myself can be taken into account.
Though Three Words was intended to create a space for women comic artists to be published, it could also be considered a place for potential (women) comic artists to gain familiarity with the scene, and, perhaps, inspiration to pick up their pencils too.
Reviewed by Feby Idrus
Three Words: An Anthology of Aotearoa/NZ Women’s Comics
Ed. Rae Joyce, Sarah Laing and Indira Neville
Published by Beatnik Publishing
Taking Form was a discussion between four writers who have dabbled with different artistic forms. Mariko Tamaki’s work includes graphic novels, Kerry Ann Lee is also a visual artist, Courtney Sina Meredith a musician, and Sarah Laing a graphic designer.
The idea of being a writer and someone creative was a key idea in Taking Form.In reference to Miranda July’s talk on Wednesday, Laing begins the conversation with the idea of “origin stories”, stories about our own origins as writers. Meredith describes how she was a “creative unicorn” as a child and that it was hard to stay different when transitioning into the real world. Her need to create was just a necessity that she “consciously felt since I (she) was a child”.
Laing then poses the question of whether writers have good memories or simply pay attention and therefore notice things that others don’t. Lee talks about how she, like many writers, has a second job: teaching at the design school. She beautifully describes how crossing from this job to her more creative mind is like going into a field, collecting objects and putting them into her pockets. Inevitably, however, she must “cross fields and come back to it”, it being reality. Nevertheless, when she comes back she also now has these new tokens in her pockets, tokens that will allow her to produce more creative work.
Tamaki both agrees with and develops this idea; it’s good to talk to others and discover but also good to be able to go away to this field and be alone. She describes being creative as a fragile “tenuous space”. This leads to the four talking about how,when writing, even one little disruption can be a giant disturbance; Tamaki says with a smile, “I don’t think writers should have to take out the garbage”.
Meredith also has an interesting take on the nature of writing and states that she, as a writer, has to “live three times more than anyone else”; writers have to live a moment, describe that moment, then condense that moment into a creative piece. To her, writing and being creative is like another world. She talks about how going to law school was like a different universe where she had to separate two worlds: one world that focused on certainties while her creative voice and voice was more uncertain.
They end with a discussion on collaboration, including how the idea of something as ‘yours’ is complex, and briefly delve into what happens when collaboration goes wrong and ideas are taken without credit, a situation that is not often talked about. Nevertheless, Tamaki asserts that it is important to “unclench a little”, to let other people into what you’re doing and to have faith in the power of what you have to create.
The four mainly talked about what it means to be a writer and I was a little disappointed since the description promised “a conversation about letting a story find its form”; there was little talk about these different kinds of art. I would have enjoyed a greater discussion about how these creatives incorporate different forms into their writing. Nevertheless, the four were all poignant and entertaining. Laing was an excellent chair, who offered up questions for discussion but also let the others speak freely, allowing them to give a greater insight into what it means to be a writer.
Attended and reviewed by Emma Shi
My first session for the WORD Christchurch Writers Festival this year was Reading Favourites: Kate De Goldi, Sarah Laing and Carl Nixon in conversation with Guy Somerset about their favourite New Zealand books. It was an excellent way into WORD, which celebrates reading and writing in the context of Aotearoa.
Author and children’s book reviewer Kate De Goldi was first up, recommending to us Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne – a gothic mystery with an unreliable narrator, and hailed by many as the great unread Kiwi novel. De Goldi said it’s the kind of book you love so much that you give it to someone you fancy as a sort of compatibility test. She spoke very movingly about her love for this novel and introduced what would become a theme: the lack of recognition for the work within New Zealand (although a cult following is now developing), with it consequently going out of print and becoming difficult to find. Happily, Sydney Bridge Upside Down has now been republished by Text Publishing in Australia and is available in NZ bookshops – for example, at the excellent UBS Canterbury stall right here at the festival.
De Goldi’s second choice was Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People (Auckland University Press) by Gregory O’Brien. She said it entirely lacks that “instructive worthiness” so prevalent amongst children’s non-fiction, and is instead accessible, personal and engaging – for adults as well as kids. And after she read aloud from the book, I immediately wanted to sit down with it and read the rest. Welcome to the South Seas is due to be re-published by AUP, with two companion volumes soon.
Author and cartoonist Sarah Laing’s first pick for her favourite NZ book was Hicksville (Victoria University Press, 2012; but ), a graphic novel by Dylan Horrocks, who was in the audience. Laing said she devoured comics as a child, but, as a young woman, found comic book shops to be “scary” and off-putting. But she is rediscovering comics now, and incorporates cartoons in her own novels (as well as publishing the webcomic and blog, Let Me Be Frank). Laing praised Hicksville for its multi-layered, intertextual nature, and the way it creates a utopian version of Aotearoa where comics thrive and are loved by all. There was also a very interesting discussion of the way graphic novels force to you read in a different way.
Laing commented that, due to their ephemeral nature (both in terms of magazine-like publishing and in the sense of not being part of the literary mainstream), comics can be hard to track down. Horrocks is now published in NZ, but for a long time was only published overseas.
Laing’s second choice was From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics by Adrian Kinnaird (Random House NZ), which she praised as a unique and extremely useful history of cartooning in New Zealand. Guy Somerset commented that he was interested to learn that NZ used to have a thriving comics publishing industry in the mid-twentieth century, until the moral panic about the effects of cartoons on children’s minds effectively shut it all down.
Novelist Carl Nixon’s first choice was The Day Hemingway Died and other stories by Owen Marshall, which he said was one of the first NZ books he read without being told to. He praised the way Marshall perfectly illustrates human foibles while also producing writing that is laugh-out-loud funny. Nixon then proved this last point by reading an excerpt, which did indeed make us all laugh.
Nixon also enthusiastically recommended to us Gifted by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press), a novel about the real-life working relationship between iconic Kiwi authors Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson. Nixon praised Evans for “capturing what you believe to be Sargeson’s voice”. Like Sydney Bridge Upside Down, Gifted has been adapted for the stage.
Finally, Guy Somerset, Books and Culture editor for The Listener, recommended Arena by John Cranna, a futuristic novel of a brutalised dystopia. Somerset said it’s the first NZ book he read, in order to impress his new Kiwi wife.
Reading Favourites was an excellent session, and I was pleased to see many people head straight to the book stall afterwards. I came away with some excellent additions to my (teetering, infinite) To Read Pile – always a good sign that a writers festival has done its job. Looking forward to more to come!
Sarah Jane Barnett is a poet, creative writing tutor, and reviewer from Wellington. Matt Bialostocki is a writer, photographer, and bookseller from Wellington. Together they went to a full day of festival events at the WORD Writers’ & Readers Festival 2014 in Christchurch. After each of the sessions they recorded their conversation. This is what was said in the first two sessions.
Happy Birthday, Janet
Friday, 29 August, 12pm
Sarah: Our first session of the day was quite a session. What did you think?
Matt: The selection of material was great—a short story, four poems, and then a novel excerpt and a poem.
S: Each writer talked about the way Janet had influenced them. Owen Marshall—where did he get that plug from? [During the session Marshall had held up a bath plug on a chain]
M: Willowglen. It’s where Frame lived in Oamaru, a town where Marshall had also lived. He ripped it out of the sink in the corner of a room.
S: Yeah, it seemed important to him that they’d both lived in Oamaru, that they’d inhabited the same space. I was also quite excited by Bernadette Hall ‘stealing’ Frame’s words—in her making them part of her own poem.
M: They were from the novel, State of Seige. Hall used them in her poem, “Dark Pasture.”
S: It was Hall’s response to Frame’s work. She alternated her lines with Frame’s. That reading floored me; it showed me how much Frame still influences our writers.
M: They all had a personal connection to the work they were reading, and to Frame’s work as a whole. Marshall also noted that while a lot of people related to her fiction, there is a tangible sense of response to her autobiographical work because she was writing about places people knew; they were places they lived and places they shared.
S: He’s an amazing reader. I would like to have Marshall read me one of Frame’s novels.
M: You’d just have to watch out for your bath plug.
Friday, 29 August 2.30pm
Kate De Goldi, Sarah Laing, and Carl Nixon talk about two of their favourite New Zealand books with Guy Somerset.
S: That was freaking amazing!
M: Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels! Let’s quickly cover the books. First, De Goldi told us about Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne. She called it the ‘great unread New Zealand novel’. Laing recommended the graphic novel Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks, and Nixon recommended The Day Hemingway Died and Other Stories by Owen Marshall.
S: Nixon said he felt it shows a darker side to Marshall’s writing. I want to read that.
M: For her second book, De Goldi raved about Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People by Gregory O’Brien. She said that we needed more creative non-fiction for kids in New Zealand. I agree. Laing showed us From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics by Adrian Kinnaird. She pointed out the ephemeral nature of NZ comics, and how this means it’s easy to miss new titles. Finally, Nixon spoke to us about Gifted by Patrick Evans—a novel about Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson.
S: His reading was fantastic. So fantastically funny! That is definitely one I’m going to read.
M: It’s developed a cult following.
S: They all recommended books they came to through a personal process of discovery. I think there’s something in that. Laing read comics as a kid, but then discovered them again in her 30s; The Day Hemingway Died was the first book Nixon discovered himself at age eighteen. De Goldi used the word ‘evangalising’; they really wanted us to read these books—to love them as they did. Many were out of print, though, or first published outside New Zealand. What does that say?
M: Yes—Hicksville was first published by the Canadian publisher Black Eye Productions in 1998 [and VUP in 2012], and Sydney Bridge Upside Down was originally published in 1968 but was out of print for years until De Goldi foisted a copy on a Australian publisher who was over for dinner.
S: De Goldi talked about the value of libraries. That’s where we find out-of-print books.
M: And all of these books were loved by at least one other person on the panel. Actually, Somerset was a great chair. He got them talking about the books so we could hear their varied responses.
S: He called them the ‘uber book group’. I felt encouraged. Nixon said he doesn’t read graphic novels and De Goldi said, ‘You need to learn to read them’. This is something I think for myself.
These conversations were recorded and transcribed after the events: Happy Birthday, Janet and Reading Favourites, by Sarah Jane Barnett and Matt Bialostocki.