Book Review: You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon, edited by Barbara Francis

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_you_do_not_travel_in_china_at_the_full_moon‘The sky was clear and the moon brilliant. At 1 o’clock the urgent alarm went off and at 1.10 the planes arrived’, writes Agnes Moncrieff, known as Nessie, from Hankow in 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

From 1930 to 1945, Nessie served as New Zealand’s foreign secretary for the YWCA in China, an organisation formed in 1855 in England to promote ‘the welfare of young women’. The collection of excerpts from her letters and reports published in You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon captures a period of uncertainty, a time when ‘long spells of wet weather’ are welcomed during the full moon, as they hinder air raids. Ranging from observations of daily life through to thoughts on military tactics and accounts of epic journeys, the letters all share her delightful style.

The book is formed from two complementary threads – the stories of the letters themselves and those that the letters hold. The letters, subject to the laws of the physical world, survived not only the vicissitudes of war, but also travelled a great distance to arrive in New Zealand. Barbara Francis, the editor of this volume, became Nessie’s friend while boarding with her in the 50s, and much later discovered the existence of the letters by chance, through a conversation. A trip to the Alexander Turnball Library followed, and her efforts have ensured that Nessie’s experiences can reach a wider public.

These letters hold a tension. They are foreign in that they bring news from elsewhere, and from another time – one that has passed. But there is the intimate sense of person that the letter form enables, where the writer is free to express herself and unselfconsciously communicate thoughts to the receiver. Nessie’s voice is immediate; she translates this other place and time into something we can relate to through writing that is a pleasure to read.

Letters from her first four-year term working for the YWCA in Peiping (now known to us as Beijing) detail her life of running a hostel and helping women in need. In addition to humorous sketches, there are observations of political undercurrents, which we view through our own filters on the other side of history. In 1934, she wrote that she was pleased to ‘note steadily increasing interest of students in rural and social reconstruction as fundamental to the solution of China’s problem’.

After a furlough, she returns to Shanghai in 1936 to begin her second term for the YWCA. While she is on holiday up the Yangtze River, the Japanese take Shanghai. Here begins the accounts of epic train and road journeys, the constant worry, and admiration for the resilience of a people. Unable to return to Shanghai, she moves up river to Hankow, the seat of the Chinese government. This is quite a glamorous time, involving lunch with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, dinners with diplomats and a variety of people moving through the Lutheran Mission. But it is also heavy with the realities of war and an ever-present threat. She writes to her dear friend Eva Skinner: ‘Sometimes I can just not believe that it is possible that the things that happened in Nanking and elsewhere will surely happen here if the Japans come in. It is all too fantastic and terrible and so remote from the ordinary decencies of human life.’

28205-PA1-o-1191-11-2.tif

“Waiting for the train at Ch’u fu Station,” Agnes Moncrieff Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ. PA1-o-1191-11-2

Though the threat is approaching, she does not wish to leave, fearing for her Chinese female colleagues. Eventually she must and sets out on a journey to Hong Kong, in spite of stories of bombed trains and survivors having to hide in ditches or long grass. An epic journey via truck, rail and boat ensues, one that she records with her trademark reserve and dry humour. An air raid takes place during a stop, where she notes that the ‘green canvas did not seem very adequate protection against shrapnel, so as soon as the anti-aircraft guns came into action, I shot off the truck and got under it in company with the two Chinese men.’ She reaches Hong Kong only to learn that she had left Hankow just two weeks before it fell to the Japanese.

With a return to Shanghai in 1939, the strain of living with constant bombing raids and reports of horror begin to take their toll. Nessie writes in her understated manner to Eva of her profound fatigue and a visit to the doctor: ‘my reaction to her knee taps nearly knocked her out of the room, so I suppose the trouble is nervous.’ From here, another visit to Hong Kong for recuperation, a return to Shanghai and then another furlough.

The YWCA of New Zealand allows her to return to China for a third term on the insistence of YWCA China and Nessie herself. In order to arrive there safely, she travels through Burma, involving another epic journey of 3500km. She arrives 15 days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon allows insight into a dangerous time and Nessie’s extraordinary life, where engaging writing, a formidable personality and a turning point in global history intersect. In a tribute paid to Nessie upon her death in 1988 (six weeks before her ninetieth birthday), the YWCA of New Zealand wrote ‘Although she is no longer with us physically her spirit will endure’. It comes through time and time again in her letters.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon: Agnes Moncrieff’s letters from China, 1940-1945
edited by Barbara Francis
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560882

Book Review: Sport 45, edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sport_45Sport 45 is packed with an array of new and brilliant pieces from New Zealand writers. There’s poetry, there’s essays, there’s even a novella. It’s a collection that’s not afraid to widen its scope, and this is how it provides a wonderful snapshot of new writing.

While reading through each piece of short fiction, I couldn’t help but recognise common themes. I discovered many characters who were estranged, isolated, alone. I saw the loneliness of waiting, as reflected in Tracey Slaughter’s story ‘Cicada Motel’. I stumbled through the bush with Kerwin in John Summers’ short story ‘Own Shadow’, as he tried to understand what was haunting him.

But the dynamic between characters also spoke volumes. Displaced in new and unfamiliar places, characters were left to try and make sense of each other. In Melissa Day Reid’s short story ‘I Will Come and Find You’, a husband and wife have travelled to Barcelona on a whim. They have also decided to abandon planning for spontaneity instead. Reid portrays Barcelona in a wonderful dream-like way; she describes a snapshot image of ‘arm, neck, lips, ear, tears, drums, and firecrackers’. But shifts in dialogue reveal a growing rift between this husband and wife. In fact, the two seem to be talking on top of each other. The wife points out a candlelit room in a building; her husband sees an alleyway below it and starts making his way there instead. As the story progresses, this rift widens. The piece seems to capture the natural but inevitable drift that sometimes takes place in friendships and relationships. It’s a palpable and bittersweet emptiness. And in this story, Reid explores whether this rift can be stitched up again.

Nicole Phillipson’s novella, ‘Moulin d’Ornes’ touches upon these estranged themes as well. Paul travels to a commune in France, intending to get away from the world so he can write. It’s a quiet setting where ‘the old, grand beauty of Europe… made his memories of New Zealand seem slightly cheap.’ In her novella, Phillipson highlights an interesting advantage to moving away: the delight of cutting away old connections.

A few essays also slipped in next to these pieces of fiction, taking their place comfortably amongst other genres. Giovanni Tiso’s essay ‘Before the Earthquake’ is one of these essays. Tiso describes the possible calamities that could occur if a serious earthquake were to hit Wellington. But he also describes the emotional state that Wellington is already living in because of this possible earthquake. Wellington’s next serious earthquake is not an if, but a when. As Tiso states, ‘we live before the earthquake. Everything around us is foreshadowing’.

There is also an array of beautiful poems in Sport 45. Helen Heath’s poem ‘A Rise of Starlings’ is delightful; she beautifully weaves the image of ‘wild celestial fields’ and messages traced ‘in particles of dust and light’. Natalie Morrison’s poem ‘Three edible grandmothers’ is a peculiar and whimsical little piece that sounds like it came from a fairy tale.

Overall, Sport 45 is a delightful instalment of this annual magazine, and there are a variety of pieces that provoke wonder and rumination.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Sport 45
edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561995

 

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

Book Review: Black Faggot and other plays, by Victor Rodger

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_Black_Faggot_Reading playscripts is something I used to do for pleasure as a teenager. (Fair to say I was maybe a bit besotted with theatre then, not to mention being a bit of an oddball as well!)

So putting my hand up to read some about 60 years later is either a sign of regressing, or a renewed interest.  I’m going for renewed interest.

It was absolutely fascinating to read a script again. Victor Rodger certainly packs a punch in his dialogue, but it’s what lies beneath the script that provides the real substance – values, stereotypes, pre- and mis-conceptions are all challenged in these three plays.

They are sometimes shocking, often funny, and above all they challenge the reader in many ways, so I can only guess at the power which must emanate from the stage productions when the challenge is really laid down.

Black Faggot, (the book title, and the first play) grew from a response to Destiny Church and their position on same-sex marriage, and it’s a powerful and thought-provoking work. VUP has kindly allowed me to quote from the comments by Tanu Gago:

‘I never understood what it took to love another man until I was transformed by the love of another man…………………….on the other side of all that pain and fear we are also capable of experiencing real love. The type of love that saves our lives.’

This, to me, is the essence of Black Faggot. There is a very positive message here for young men, in particular, struggling with their gender identity.

The other plays, At the Wake and Club Paradiso give equally thought-provoking messages. At the Wake shows the difficulty some of us have with acceptance of the other, in whatever shape or persona that comes, and again is a deeply moving play.

Club Paradiso challenged me more; the violence is too much for me and the play shocked me deeply on several fronts – the mindless violence, fuelled presumably by methamphetamine, the sexual bullying and the graphic details depict a kind of place where, fortunately, I have never been. However the play has a innate truthfulness, and that is perhaps why I struggled with it – as a straight pakeha woman of a certain age, I hate to think that behaviour like this exists, even though I know that it does.

More power to Victor Rodger, is all I can say. It takes a brave and accomplished writer to deliver work like this.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Black Faggot and other plays
by Victor Rodger
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561032

 

 

DWRF: Catherine Chidgey, with Emma Neale

Each time the Writers & Readers Festival comes to town, the Dunedin autumn becomes clear, still and nuanced. Catherine Chidgey sat on stage this Sunday afternoon and embodied the qualities of the season.

cv_the_wish_child_nzThe festival audience was treated to an articulate conversation between Chidgey and Emma Neale, herself a poised speaker and talented writer. The word and thought chemistry between the two speakers was significant, and it enabled a depth of response from Chidgey on such topics as the tug of Germany, the novelist’s craft and the thirteen-year gestation of her new novel, The Wish Child.

Neale began with an autobiography of Chidgey the writer, and a description of her particular talents. This was an excellent way to bring the audience into the circle of conversation. Chidgey then read a long passage from The Wish Child; this drew the listeners in closer still, and provided context for the ongoing discussion (as well as convincing anyone sensible that this was a book to buy and read in its entirety).

The scene that was read was laden with sensual, often visceral detail ‘…the glittering callipers above his skull…’ ‘…the bees huddled in their hives… and the geese hung by their necks…’ and foreshadowing ‘German boys should be brave… should know that some things had to die’; this combination of delicate detail and exaggerated description is deliberate on the part of Chidgey, and a feature of her best writing. There are echoes of Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum here. The effect is a sense of constant unease for the reader, a feeling that death lives inside ripe matter. This style of writing, of perceiving is entirely appropriate to the subject of the novel: Nazi Germany and its aftermath, a time when bizarre, exaggerated things happened and became part of daily life.

berlin-1816944_960_720.jpgDuring the course of a very swift hour, with fingers fluttering in a Lynchian sort of way, Chidgey laid out the processes involved in writing The Wish Child: her connection to Germany based on time spent there as a shy high school student from Lower Hutt, then on a scholarship in Berlin not long after the fall of the wall, being affected by the visible history in a city still divided. She spoke of the balance to be found between writing and researching, so that the latter doesn’t dominate unduly yet is given the opportunity to shape the narrative. She spoke of the scope of this novel being larger than any she had written previously, of how life events intervene, of how writing Facebook posts about cats had distracted her at times… cue knowing laughter from the audience. Now she works two jobs and has a toddler, so 6am has become the time to write, which has not been a bad thing, ‘as the internal censor does not yet seem to be on!’

When Emma Neale closed the session with the question, ‘And what next?’ Chidgey was able to allude to two projects in progress, which was reassuring; from a selfish point of view, it is good to think that after The Wish Child there will be more from the still, clear, nuanced mind of a fine, fine writer.

Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Ed’s note: Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child (VUP) and Emma Neale’s Billy Bird (are both up for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards on Tuesday evening. You can see Chidgey at various events during the Auckland Writers Festival. You can similarly, see Neale at the Auckland Writers Festival next week.

The Wish Child
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560622

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053

Book Review: The Internet of Things, by Kate Camp

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_internet_of_thingsThe title of poet Kate Camp’s latest collection is telling. The Internet of Things is the latest phrase being bandied about by technology bloggers. According to the Internet (funnily enough), it was first coined by someone called Peter T. Lewis as far back as the end of the late 1980s. It refers to a future where physical objects are connected via, you guessed it, the Internet. Alternatively called ‘smart’ technology, the phrase evokes objects speaking to one another without the need for human intervention.

With that context in mind, we delve into Kate’s poems, where objects do indeed speak and tell stories, beginning with the title poem. Here, the narrator visits John Lennon’s aunt Mimi’s home in Liverpool and the surrounding ports (ports of course having a double meaning, pops up in several poems).  The cover picture of the seemingly miniature kitchen evokes the objects of a children’s tea party, with its symbolic collection of objects for various dining rituals. There is a feeling of unreality to the photograph, like a staged home in a museum. Each object is clean, with no traces of the ‘eggs and chips’ or the whistle and steam of the kettle as Mimi made John his cups of tea.

As we move through the poems, we are presented with an array of objects, from the most banal (the contents of a rubbish bin), to the paintings of Rembrandt and the subject, St Jerome’s slippers (Like those white towelling freebies from a hotel). The poet imbues the mundane with a cheeky questioning and likewise grounds the typically austere objects of the art world with connections to the everyday. It is a rich source of subject matter for a poet and one that Kate surveys with skill and ease.

Poems such as Lego Lost at Sea, offer a glimpse of how absurd some childhood objects appear in different contexts. Based on a true story where millions of pieces of Lego were lost overboard in 1997, the poem sketches a scenario where a diver is depicted in the wooden fashion of a Lego person and the cartoonish stories those of us who played with Lego created.

Utilising the metaphor of the title again, we find Kate describing the body as being made up of channels, tunnels and space (a light elusion to the idea of cyber space perhaps?) In the poem Woman at Breakfast, Kate writes:

as most of us is empty space
around which our elements move
in their microscopic orbits. 

Then, we find gems such as the line, the dull miraculous privacy of the human mind. Much like the internet, Kate renders the body as repetitious and boring, but also a thing of wonder. As the book progresses, we are treated to natural imagery as well, so that we are not given a mechanical treatise or a metallic insight into a dystopian future. Rather, the works are often miniature nostalgias; poems that are objects in their own right; speaking to us and connecting with each of us silently and dynamically, wherever we might be.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

The Internet of Things
by Kate Camp
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561063

Book Review: Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_truth_and_beauty.jpgThere has been a surge in recent culture, and across disciplines, of what we could term as biographical impulse. Objects, diseases and cities, through to created historical figures in art works, have all been examined through this lens, which involves interpreting a range of material to construct a narrative. This surge has also led to increasing awareness of the tension in biographical enterprise: there is a constant process of resurrection and modification.

Both impulse and tension are reflected, and even cultivated, in the emergence of a new genre, which is subject to critical discussion in Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma. ‘Verse biography’ melds biography and poetry to produce works where ‘the competing and complementary claims of truth and beauty’ find home in historical figures, whose lives are rendered in poetry.

Biography often favours chronology as the driving narrative force or main thread of work, which is then fleshed out with anecdotes and facts, reliable accounts, and investigations of identity. But verse presents another way of looking at things – ‘a freedom from the concerns of conventional biography’. It emphasises moments, highlights omissions, plays with chronology and is free from the burden of establishing authority or authenticity. We see this tendency in Anne Carson’s lyrical treatment of Sappho’s fragments, where she plays with square brackets to indicate omission: ‘Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it.’

There is an inevitable jousting between the autobiographical and biographical in any act of interpretation or reconstruction, but verse biography stands apart in its approach – it is deliberate and self-aware, conscious of its subjectivity. Not only does verse biography provide another framing for the story of a historical person – for example a look at Billy the Kid in Michael Ondjaate’s work focuses on Billy’s later years, his intimates, what drives him to violence – his ‘trials and tribulations in New Mexico’. But there is also a framing of the relationship between subject and writer, which propels us to consider whose voice is speaking through these works? In Margaret Atwood’s rendering of Susanna Moodie we are unsure whether it is writer or subject: ‘The mouth produces words/I said I created/ myself, and these/frames, comma, calendars/ that enclose me’.

Through various poets’ treatments of figures such as Emile Bronte, Captain Cook and Akhenaten, the cycle of destruction and renewal – of resurrection and modification – ‘reminds us that historical figures are but characters marked beneath our current selves.’ With contributions from academics and poets (sometimes both), the essays survey the concerns of voice, palimpsests, masks, mythologising, characters as vehicles for contemporary messages – and bring this ‘construction of life’ to the reader’s attention – revealing the awareness of these verse biographers carry in their works.

Although this academic text is by no means light reading, Truth and Beauty holds a certain unruly appeal in that it captures a moment in time in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the emerging cultural practice of verse biography sits on the cusp of becoming something in particular. The collection of ten essays, which form this satisfying tome from Victoria University Press, critically analyses important verse biographers and captures this lively diversity, where ‘individual works are so variously influenced, so eclectic in approach to the idea of verse biography, and so various in form’. The range of possibilities before the institution of a canon or genre settles, and the freedom this entails, is exciting to consider. Indeed ‘verse biography expands the possibilities for both biography and lyric’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand
edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560974