Conversation/Kōrero: Tracey Slaughter and Sarah Strickley




Tracey Slaughter is the author of the highly acclaimed poetry collection Conventional Weapons (VUP, 2019) and short story collection deleted scenes for lovers (VUP, 2016). Her first collection of poems and short stories, her body rises, was published by Random House (2005), and her novella The Longest Drink in Town by Pania Press (2015). Her short fiction has received numerous awards, including the international Bridport Prize 2014, a 2007 NZ Book Month Award, and BNZ Katherine Mansfield Awards in 2004 and 2001. She won the 2015 Landfall Essay Competition, and was the recipient of the 2010 Louis Johnson New Writers Bursary. She teaches Creative Writing at Waikato University, and edits the journal Mayhem.



Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). She’s a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowship, an Ohio Arts grant, a Glenn Schaeffer Award from the International Institute of Modern Letters, the Copper Nickel Editors’ Prize for Prose and other honours. Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Witness, Harvard Review, Gulf Coast, The Normal School, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and earned her PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She teaches creative writing and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle at the University of Louisville.




This conversation took place via email over December 2018 – February 2019.


From Sarah Strickley:

While reading your collection, I was thinking a lot about voice and the many conversations that tend to eddy around that term in writing circles. I think it’s safe to say that we’re both writers who prioritize this element, so my guess is that we’ve both been ensnared in many conversations about how we arrive at the voices we employ. 

I don’t know about you, but I feel as though I’m forever disappointing folks with the revelation that my stories don’t in emerge in one, big muse-inspired frenzy. An interesting voice might pull me into a story, but, once I’m in there, I start planning and structuring the piece in a way that I think some might regard as anathema to the mission of “listening” to the voice powering the storytelling. 

The un-fun truth is that I don’t really consider myself a channel or a medium through which my characters communicate, but I do prize my ability and my willingness to imagine very very deeply. Sometimes I think that when we’re talking about voice, what we’re really talking about is imagination and I tend to prefer a deep dive to a dunk. 

I knew you were a pro deep diver by the time I’d finished reading the second paragraph of your book. You’re abundantly willing to see and notice as your characters see and notice. I think not all writers are willing to go there and that’s fine. But, I happen to find it riveting. I wonder what your thoughts are regarding voice-driven works–the writing and the reading of them.


From Tracey Slaughter: 

Just how do we dive the way we do? I must admit, despite long trying to step outside the process to get some self-reflexive hold, there’s still so much that mystifies me – and so much swept up in those strong currents which pull and pour into a piece of writing that I can’t catch in a critical discriminating grip. I can’t describe myself as planning – although I do know there’s hard craft involved, and the knowledge that comes from ceaseless reading, poring through every page I encounter looking for methods, structures, cues. But yes, I believe in total immersion, giving over my senses to the depths of that imaginative dive. I love your metaphor of the dive – because I think you do have to enter the element of your story, its dark risky water, with your whole body, let it flood and fill you, breath, mind, eyes, pull your consciousness down. It is often voice that calls me to that edge, then character that leads me under. That can be a swift haul, with the story coming in a rush, dragging me into thick unconscious currents – or it can mean a float, a drift in sensation, waiting to pick up glimmerings, streams of connection, flickers of narrative. Either way, for me, it’s a process of working through the senses, listening with the whole imagination awake and submerged. Has someone called this disciplined surrender? If so, oops, I don’t recall who…

But today, too, I went to a play which quoted Katherine Mansfield on her mode of immersion: ‘I’ve been this man, been this woman. I’ve stood for hours on the Auckland wharf. I’ve been out in the stream waiting to be berthed – I’ve been a seagull hovering at the stern and a hotel porter whistling through his teeth. It isn’t as though one sits and watches the spectacle. That would be thrilling enough, God knows. But one IS the spectacle, for the time.’ That somehow captured it for me – that sense of utterly inhabiting the scene you’re writing, living it visually, responsively, palpably. In every dimension. Being it. But of course, at the same time, there’s got to be this other self present, a tactical, observing, recursive self, that knows it’s creating all of this from its command of words, it’s hardwon structuring of sentences…You see, I’m circling back to mystery! 

But I do think that the deep dive is the only one worth doing. To hell with the detached and lukewarm dip! I love Ann Lammott’s demand, that the reader needs to sense ‘a lot of very very dark water down below,’ that the writer has to be fearless enough to crash through and plunge us into the places ‘where life is so cold and confusing and hard to see.’ And I loved your stories because they took me there instantly! That submerged woman on the cover seemed the perfect eerie image. 

I wonder: are you gripped that hard with character? Because the cast of your stories hit with such force. In ‘The Collapse’ you really did have me trapped in that hole, so I could hear the darkness and get gooseflesh from the mutterings of the men and taste that stale countdown of hope…



From Sarah:

I love how you describe the experience of simultaneously tending to the needs of the medium (words, paragraphs, sections, white spaces) while also inhabiting a scene as fully as possible. The most powerful writing moments (for me) are when I don’t have to think about shuttling between modes. It’s just happening. I’m in the scene and I’m also sculpting it with some spontaneous precision. A writer friend of mine once told me she feels like she’s playing a piano when she’s writing in this mode and (for whatever reason) that image has always stuck with me. I do sometimes feel like sound is coming out of me; it’s not, of course, but this is as close to the kind of immediacy that a musician regularly experiences as I ever get in the creation of my art.

I regard revision as a superpower (one that works best when no one notices you using it), but I don’t get the same writerly thrill in this phase of the work. I’m often quite distanced from the prose and can be brutal in this mode. I make big edits: chop, chop, chop. And I move things around. It’s in this phase that I often first see the larger shape of the piece, so it may not be as thrilling, but it is very crucial. 

That said, the composition/deep dive stage is often so intense that I can’t always handle it for very long. (In fact, sometimes I’ll avoid working on a piece because I know I’m not ready to fully dive back into the headspace required for me to forge on.) So, it’s nice to have a few pieces in various stages on my desktop at once. That way, I can toggle over to more distanced, analytical mode. The trick is toggling enough to get anything done. (Spoiler alert: I have not mastered this trick.)

But, to answer your (very perceptive) question more directly: yes. I am gripped very hard by character. My spouse, who is also a writer, often asks me why I put myself through the wringer to get a character down and the short answer is that it’s the only way I know. The long answer is that I believe the most powerful art is always very deeply imagined. I recall a scene in one of your stories in which your protagonist dunks her head in the sink and I could see it so clearly and with such startling precision because you’d seen it so clearly and rendered it with potent, fresh imagery. That level of exchange between reader and writer is why I’m in the game. I just love it. As you say, to hell with the lukewarm dip!

There are, though, some risks in deep diving. For one thing, it means your readers often have to follow you into dark places. An editor once warned me that I needed to make sure there was a glimmer of hope in each story lest I make my readers want to fling themselves off bridges. At the time, the advice made me grumpy. But, now I do see the point. I like to think that all of my characters stand a chance of finding themselves heads-up in the water. I wonder if you ever struggle with that question: how do you go about balancing lightness and dark? Is this a consideration as you draft an individual piece? Or, does it begin to be a more meaningful consideration once you’ve pulled a tentative collection together?

As always, looking forward to hearing your thoughts.




From Tracey:

There’s a kind of heaven that comes from hearing another writer interpret the mysteries of process – & I could not connect more with your depiction! I got so excited when I read it! Being in the scene, breathing and sensing and seeing it, yet simultaneously ‘sculpting it with some spontaneous precision’ is exactly what it feels like! It’s a ‘seizure of awareness’ (& in the pattern of wanton quoting which I seem to be following in our dialogue, I’m ascribing this to Anne Sexton!) where everything you’ve critically absorbed is also acute and operative during the trance. I know I’m going to sound crazed and rapt, and there’ll be many readers who loathe me now but: it’s actually taken me two days to respond to you because I’m deep in that process now, and a little dazed by it. It’s been a sudden arrival – unbidden, the outset of a story has just broken out in me. And it feels long. And it’s dragging me under hard. To the point of, yes, a kind of shellshock. But also I have no choice but to follow. Because there’s nothing like playing the music of unconscious sentences that way: feeling the sound and the rhythm and the pressure of them just glide the meaning into place. Somehow, out of nowhere, I just know these pages: I know the sound of the piece, I know the score, I know the flow, the melody and beat of its sentences, so when searching for the words I just somehow feel the sound-shapes I am after, down to the syllables, edges, stresses, vowels. And yes, the silence between the notes, the pull of the white spaces. Its profound, and exhilarating. And fierce. And I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it. And I’m kind of getting gooseflesh even daring to voice it aloud, in case I break the spell. Superstition closing in…fear that it won’t last! That it will spread its wings and sweep away as fast as it rushed in on me.

But I also know it’s costing me. I feel it in my nerves, down my spine. It’s going to be a very dark dive. So yes, there’s a great risk of finding yourself in cold spaces, in other lives you don’t want to breathe and see, in events whose traumas you don’t want to have to carry around under your ribcage. But there’s no other way, I agree. If I guard myself, detach, put on armour, I do break that pact of immersion, of empathy – and somehow that’s just a part of the deal, that the story gets full access to me, mind and body. It’s the only way to transmit it to the reader’s senses, if it’s first allowed all over and within yours. 

I really like your idea that the editing stage could be a place to take a breath though, come up for some less intoxicating, or polluting, air. Because I must confess, I’m just not drawn into the editing process with the same intensity – and so have to drive myself to grind through that task. There’s just not the same grip and fix in it! Yes, I can get quite cold while labouring there, a bit distant and disengaged. But I think the concept that it’s a healthy little head-break from the bodily demands of the dive is a stroke of genius. So rather than missing the rush of composition, and lamenting that the music is defused there, I should see the edit as a phase of almost release, a taste of (maybe) easier analytical pleasures. I’m going to adopt the art of toggling!



And yes, I’m sure this all feeds into the issue of the balance of darkness and the danger to the reader. God, yes, in the past I’ve felt constantly assaulted by complaints that there’s just too much darkness in my work. But now I think I’m muscling up, getting a bit of mongrel in me, on this question. Recently I did a flash fiction panel with the magnificent Nuala Ni Conchuir, and she fielded this issue with such a ferocious eloquence I wish I could remember what the hell she said! – but in essence it was a radiant middle finger in the face of critics who complained women shouldn’t write dark. I do agree with you, that there has to be some equilibrium, some balance – even in those places of absolute fracture there has to be a glint of hope, of resistance, let in. In this way, my heart belongs to that Van Gogh quote, which says something like ‘I’m trying to paint the darkness, which nevertheless has some light in it.’ That’s what I see my stories as trying to do. ‘There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in,’ says Cohen, too – and I’m not ashamed to say that song dissolves me every time I hear it! I guess I believe that you have to show the dark, expose the cracks, to find a trace of the light. Maybe to earn it…Ultimately I think the light is the language itself, that we have a hope of using it to illuminate what hurts, what starves, what hunts, what weights. That we can find a voice that lives to speak the story. Because as bleak as some of my characters’ stories are, they’re still stories of survival, through the sheer fact someone’s telling them.

But yes, too, I do find that balance comes into close focus when ordering the stories. When I’m in each one, I’m owned by it alone, and I never have a prefigured flow or sequence of overall pieces in mind. It’s a strange transition. With deleted scenes I somehow felt this triptych fall in place – I knew the pieces that should begin and end the piece, and the one that stood halfway – but outside that bare frame I did find the weaving of the others quite a challenge. And it was the impact on the reader that I found playing most on my awareness. The story that stood at the centre was ‘consent,’ which is just a bodyblow of a story, as the title gives away, and I found it a struggle to know what to follow with, after such brutality…I searched for every inspiring metaphor I could find from other writers on how to arrange pieces – the one I liked the most was the image of the old LP, with the flow of listening experience across sides A and B. So any insights you could share on the art of ordering stories would be so good to hear! Because I found the experience of your volume beautifully ‘tuned.’ (And stay dark – maybe we should get that printed on teeshirts!): I goddamn loved the darkness of it!)



From Sarah:

Yes, I do think we may need the shirts: go dark or go home. I too have felt a great pressure over the years to lighten up. It’s difficult not to hear the sexist undertones (or are they overtones?)—all my life, strange men (and even my familiars) have told me to smile, relax, let it go—but, for better or worse, my gaze always returns to darker territories. I am cursed (blessed?) with the literary equivalent of resting bitch face. And I get it: not everyone is in the mood all the time to read a story, for example, that won’t let the issue of a missing girl go. But I honestly tire of texts that use the missing girl as a mere device and my work has become a means of resisting the dominance of those kinds of narratives. I don’t know that I initially went into it this way (I think my early direction as a writer was largely instinctual), but now I feel as though the depiction of female emotional pain and trauma, for example, is a form of radical resistance. I won’t shut up and neither will my characters.    

I hope you’ll endure, though, a sudden veer into another territory of conversation: I recently did a visit with a class of college students who had read some of my stories in advance of the visit and they asked me what I’d been reading when I wrote a particular story and what I was reading generally. I anticipated this kind of question and had a few texts at the ready, but then I found myself unexpectedly talking about how I was attracted as a writer to “stealing” shapes from other texts in order to form a structure strong enough to hold my (sometimes highly expressive) prose style. I noticed (with great pleasure!) as I read your collection that many of your stories assumed distinct shapes: epistles, stories told in parts, etc. And I wondered if you arrived at those kinds of choices organically or if you went into the writing process with the knowledge that you’d employ a chosen form? 

One of the stories we discussed in that class was “Sole Survivor,” which is a story told in three rotating parts, but also a re-telling of a Grimm’s fairy tale. It came out of an assignment I’d given my own students (I often write alongside them because I’m always looking for nooks and crannies in my teaching life to fill with my writing life) and it was probably the speediest story I’ve ever written. I think I had the parts in place in a week and then I shuffled and re-shuffled a little. The quickness of the writing was a big revelation for me (I have been known to work on stories for decades (!!!)), but the synergies between the parts of the story were also big surprises. This one little story taught me how to write better faster and how to bring spontaneous discoveries and rigid formal structures together. Since then, I’ve regarded pre-fab forms as a secret superpower. I’m always excited to hear from other writers how they approach these kinds of things. I expect that we use these new superpowers until they become old and we need new ones to keep us going. What’s keeping you going these days?



Sarah Strickley in her work space.


From Tracey:

‘I won’t shut up, and neither will my characters.’ I feel like nailing that over my desk! (Or should we start that line of lit-bitch t-shirts?: there are days when I need to wear this branded on my ribs! I agree: that message to ‘lighten up sweetheart’ doesn’t even seem disguised as an undertone in so many cases – one of the things I gloried in when reading your stories (‘Peek-a-boo is such a killing encounter with the sexualised Jane Doe) was the way you eyeball it with such feminist ferocity!)

Far from having to endure a detour into the question of structure or shape, I’m just struck again by how uncannily you’ve pinpointed an issue which runs deep into the core of craft for me. I agree that structure can be key, especially for writers like us, who want to play with the full palette of language and let poetry ripple out into the prose sentence. One of the things that pulsed for me when I opened your book was the atmospheric sound of your sentences, and the way you pushed depictions into such sensuous tension through your painterly awareness of words. They had a sculptural, bodily feel too, so skin-temperature and arresting – I connected instantly. Because that’s the way I’ve worked: refusing to strip back and sacrifice poetry, trying to seek ways to transfuse it into narrative. (I’m a fan of writer Sarah Hall who describes poetic-prose as ‘cat-dog’ literature: yes, we all know the dog of narrative has to run ahead and chase the damn stick, but the cat likes to stretch, and sneak, luxuriate and hunt where it pleases, sunning itself in sound-pleasures). And shape has been central to that project – I utterly identify with your perception of needing a hard structure to take poetic weight. It’s like you need a tight frame to keep all the colours and sound-intensities contained. I don’t know how conscious this discovery has been, or how much outright stealing has been involved in it – but I certainly woke up at some point to the way in which a rigid structure can license release, and let the unconscious, animal energy of language out within a strong formal cage. And like you, I’ve had those moments where that fusion of the two just seems to pour the story through you, at speed – and yes, now you ask me, I realize that that has often occurred around stories where I’d struck upon a kind of ‘pre-fab’ skeleton or architecture for the piece – not in the sense of knowing what the plot would be (a facet which I usually know nothing of to start with…) but in terms of having found some schema, a network, or sequence, or patterning, even a refrain, or repeated phrase (like poetry…hmmm, maybe that’s where it comes from???). So it’s structure as stylistic device rather than design of narrative events, I guess. It’s like finding a kind of choreography that the language can dance to…With the title story in ‘deleted scenes for lovers’ I remember the first line arriving and working on me like a chant, that hummed vaguely in the back-room of my mind for days: ‘They are the lovers. You can’t blame them.’ But initially I had no idea where that line I found so hypnotic was taking me…Then the concept of inter-cutting the story from film-scenes of lovers to the sufferings of real ones just flashed upon me, and frame after frame surfaced from there. Or in ‘scenes of a long-term nature’ (which came after ‘deleted scenes’ like an antidote for those lovers) I had the aim of capturing the scope of a lifelong relationship within a short fiction – but it didn’t leap to life until I set myself two technical controls: writing in future tense, and switching from scene to summary. It’s fascinating that those stories both use sliding scenes, or a sequence of shifting frames, the same way ‘Sole Survivor’ does – a piece whose deliciously menacing tone and eerie filmic control I just ate up! It’s the tone that seems to focus that story with such irradiating fixation, dwelling on lush and chilling detail with such an aura of threat, and dark irony: I wonder, did the voice of each section grip you straight away? Was the voice or tone or point-of-view inseparable from structure, roused instantly by the formal discovery? 

But to go back to another facet of your structural insights that fascinates me – I’m struck (& heartened!) that they happened around your teaching. Because looking back, the breakthrough around these two ‘scene’ stories of mine did too – and it was a similar process: I was so consumed by teaching that I snatched time by attacking exercises I’d written for students. The more walled-in by teaching my creative self gets, and the more blocked off from her own time, the more she switches from ‘resting-bitch’ to ‘bloodthirsty animal,’ so I had to let her out somewhere! It’s uplifting to think that amidst the often-dominant demands of teaching the breakthroughs still came. I remember being terrified when I once read Jayne Anne Phillips’ comment that ‘teaching shoots writing in the head.’ I know exactly what she means because there can be whole months where my skull is just owned by it, drained and vacant – and I have to stage violent brawls with my timetable to batter back in some alone time with the page. To teach, and to write, you have to give, give, give – and I often, sometimes graphically, even physically, hit limits. But simultaneously, there’s nothing like it: and as much as it can tap and tax and over-use me, it can fill me back up, or relight me in unforeseen bursts, such as with those stories. And I’ve even wondered whether the conditions of pressure are what’s caused the story to unleash in a rush – I’m so restricted in terms of writing time, and the need to get words down builds to such a pitch, that ‘the blood jet’ is story…How do you feel about the teaching/writing balance? Are you poised beautifully on that tightrope? Or do you sometimes fall without a net?



I’m aware I haven’t answered your question about whether the formal discoveries surfaced from my reading. Do I steal shapes from what I read? I can’t put my finger on any that I’ve overtly pinched. But I often get triggered to give students exercises built around particular pieces – and I think in some way that process of creating tasks based on structures or techniques drawn from others’ work, is kind of just externalising and extending to students my own reading-stimulated process. They’re always asking me where I get the exercises from: I’m always answering, READING (that thing I relentlessly urge them to do, and lament at the eternal evidence that they don’t!). And reading is one thing that keeps me going: as soon as I’m in a book I feel my creative self being fed, and moving among the lines hunting for inspiration. And intoxicants. And sustenance. And yes, those formal tools to draw fresh blood. 

Here’s a question I’m hungry to ask you, because the sound of your lines is so bodily and radiant – how much is it the sound or the feel of the words that draws you on, keeps you moving ahead in a story? I have to confess that I can’t connect with the ‘shitty first draft’ theory in every sense (or at least, not in solely narrative terms) – I believe in letting go and making whatever uncensored mess necessary in the first creative stage, yes, but I just can’t sacrifice awareness of the sound of my sentences in order to chase that big stick of the story. Because in some primal level it’s the words themselves that lead me on, prick my senses, light my way ahead; it’s the words and their energy that make the scene vibrate and live, so without them, there’s no way to see…Is that the same for you I wonder? 


From Sarah:

First, a thousand apologies for my disappearance. I seem to have fallen off the very tightrope you described in your last (wonderful) message. I’m teaching more than I usually teach this semester and also editing a literary journal, which I am apparently so hellbent on growing that I seem to do nothing in the evenings but read submissions. It is finally time for me to claw my way back to more creatively vital (to me) endeavors, so I made writing to you and editing one of my own stories my two priority items for the day.

In any case, I find so much with which to concur in your last message that I fear I may appear to be the human embodiment of an ardently nodding head in my reply. In answer to your question of how much the feel of the words figures into my forward movement on the page, I’d say that I tend always to follow the sound–perhaps even to a fault. In my head, each word is connected to the next like a garland I’m winding around a room. Going too far along without righting an item on the strand creates a kind of dissonance that wrankles the whole damn line. So, I’m tweaking and tinkering and—yes—sometimes even speaking quietly aloud as I feel for the “right” words and sounds and stringing my way forward. 

Some of my oldest stories are so deeply embedded in my felt-sense of the process of writing—testing the whole line again and again for resonance, for rightness—that lines will come to me unbidden as I’m walking through the grocery store or driving to work. It’s a weird thing having one of your own sentences land on your tongue like some famous quote—I think therefore I am!—might for another person, but there it is in the checkout line: I was sixteen the day the water came. I’ve worked and reworked the lines so frequently that their sounds are permanent decorations in some deep anteroom of my brain. I suppose there are worse things to carry with you, but I will say that I envy the speed with which I witness other prose writers filling pages. It would be easier, I think, to not worry too much, to not hear, but then I’d be writing in a way that didn’t carry the same weight and meaning for me. I’m not sure it would carry the same, enduring interest for me. I write therefore I am.

This summer I spent time with a writer who writes in a similar fashion—all the words seem inextricably connected because we’ve so carefully sounded our way to them—and we both confessed to each other that we’ve tried and failed repeatedly to write a shit-ton of shitty first drafts. Both of us are known as good editors and alpha readers for other writers; I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I talk to my students frequently about learning to trust their gut instincts about the way a sentence should sound, or a way a novel should reach its way into being. As writers, we’ve been training all our lives to hear missteps in pacing, detail, timing—every book we read is yet another opportunity to build upon this deeply internalized knowledge base. I’m reminded of Italo Calvino’s lessons in “On Quickness.” He argues that the “defects of the clumsy storyteller” are above all “offenses against rhythm, as well as being defects of style,” because the writer does not “use the expressions appropriate to either the characters or to the events.” It’s about paying attention, I think. About listening. Hearing. Anyone who has ever endured a poorly-delivered joke knows what it means to sound your way to the better line. Writing is not so different to me.

So, yes, as you say, the answer to so many questions is READING. I’m currently two books into an apocalyptic trilogy and I think I may never complete the sequence. It’s very unlike me, but I’m just not sure this series has anything more to teach me. I wonder what you’re reading. Have you discovered anything to love recently? 

To answer your question regarding “Sole Survivor,” I went into it thinking that each of the three storylines would represent different degrees of lyricism. So, the first cycle, which is the most direct re-telling of the Pied Piper story is thick and dense. I open things up a little in the second cycle, which features the dance recital. And then, the art professor’s sections, I’m about as loosey goosey as I ever get. I wanted the difference in the style to be clear so that even without the section breaks the reader would have the very clear sense that the story was shifting into a different mode. It’s so wonderful that you mention “deleted scenes for lovers” in conjunction with that one because I so deeply connected with the structural finesse on display in that story. I love the sense of the pieces coming together to create the fullness of the whole—the shuttling between modes as a performative aspect of the tensions in the story. It’s really not very often that I see that happening in short fiction and, when I do, it’s often couched as “experimental” fiction, which shuffles it off from “the norm” or the “mainstream” in fiction in a way that I don’t find terribly productive—which brings me to my next question for you: what (to you) is true experiment in fiction?

As the editor of a journal with an “experimental category” I find myself trying to define this for myself quite often. I’m always interested in work that challenges formal conventions—the boundaries between poem and story or story and essay, for example—but I tend to balk at work that invests very deeply in concept and doesn’t seem to utilize all of the other tools at the fiction writer’s disposal. Where’s the rigor? The kind of experiment in fiction that turns my head around are stories that make me rethink what a story can do, but also tell me something about the world in which I live. And, in a way, that’s not very experimental at all; that’s what all writers should be striving, on some level, to do. As you can see, my thinking on this topic is, in a word: fraught. What are your thoughts?

I’ll close here with apologies again for vanishing for so long. It’s so good to climb back on the tightrope and begin to balance again.



From Tracey:

So – now it’s my turn to beg forgiveness for my vanishing. I can’t believe I let the world wash me out from our project quite so far – but a tide hit that was over my head by miles & I feel like I’m only just resurfacing. God, doesn’t real life like to blindside you, & blow all your pages into the roar…Maybe life is what happens when you think you’re only writing…

Anyway, this is an attempt to pick up the traces: you asked about what I had been reading – and the truth is, pulled off course into crisis, I wasn’t reading anything at all. And that’s always a bad thing. It’s guaranteed to deepen the dark. When I’m not able to read I feel cut off, only half-awake, like a kind of electrical system within me has nothing left to run through its nerves. There’s an atrophy to it that gets outright terrifying, a drought around the heart. Something inside me that needs to hear that music feels shut off, solitary, in a sound-proof cell. The lesson must be not to let go of reading no matter what place life leads me into, no matter what high-pressured straits of time the conditions of each day drive me through – it’s like trying to give up breath. And to finally learn that reading, for me, is an inextricable part of the writing process: once I’m restored to it, the rhythm of my own words somehow wakes back up in answer. It’s like a kind of call-&-response – and if I don’t open books the call never comes…

So lately I’ve been trying to read my way back – and it’s short stories that have pulled me back above: Lucia Berlin for her boozy iridescence, her husky been-there look at rock bottom; Carmen Maria Machado’s lush and fleshy and hard-eyed re-takes on the apocalypse; the chime of Kirsty Gunn’s high-strung brightness, the smiling middle-class brink where her characters tip; Katherine Mansfield’s luminescent sadness, the barest wing of it brushing through the light glint of her sentences (which Gunn is the inheritor of); Maryse Meijer’s Heartbreaker, whose precision cruelty & twisted sexual loneliness I intend to flourish in future at anyone who dares to brand my work dark (it’s a pale dream up against Meijer’s wounding psychodramas); and a short story writer I just met, Robin Maclean, whose stories in Reptile House are like a tour past dark & breathtaking pieces of sculpture. And god Sarah, yours: because I’ve been re-reading Fall Together and the stories all hollow my sternum with the same sense of recognition: when I came again to the words in the final piece ‘The Roads Are Like That,’ to the heroine longing for ‘a place deep enough in the woods for people to forget me as more than a face that happened once behind a bar,’ to her realisation that ‘behind the bones in my face were the bones of a hundred other women gone before, none of us having made it straight’…well, those sentences struck. I felt like you’d somehow distilled the lonely voice of women’s short stories, lined it up shining on the bar and made me shoot it neat. I felt brokedown, but goddamnit, home. And home too, in that final axefall of sentences that ends the story, where she talks of splitting wood, last trick against the bleak still alive in a body that rocks with unquenched longing: ‘You have to let something of yourself go, and strike without doubt, because it is necessary, because there is no one else…to swing your palm up on the neck of the axe in one motion, like a one-syllable word…like want, like I want this, and it will happen.’ Those words are a clean fatal hit to the heart – and they must be among the most perfect closing words to ever shear off a story, and a short story volume. (But I shouldn’t have been shocked at how perfectly that last blow fell, because the evidence of every story in the book is that you’re in possession of a true gift for the end – so I wonder, when does the ending of your stories hit you, and does the sound and rhythm of it ring out strong from its arrival with those particular words?)



Brokedown realities up against the ache and rock of want…that last sentence sings to the collection so perfectly. And yet each story in Fall Together is so utterly itself, so strikingly its own stark object, with its own properties and voice and weight and light. (And I need to veer off and thank you here for directing me to Italo Calvino – I hadn’t read his Memos and I’m now poring through them, and feeling, though my thoughts are still hazy around them, like some zone of my brain is inhaling insights I need). Which leads me to your other question, about what constitutes experimentation. Is it a stretch to say every story is, and should be, an experiment? It felt to me, reading you, that each piece had been carved into character and drive and shape and style utterly anew, each story its own fresh work with language. I don’t know if you feel that when you start a piece, you’re standing on a new unknown edge – but I always do, and it always feels like it’s an experiment with what language can tap or scrape or whisper out of this particular darkness…a bit like your buried man in ‘The Collapse’ ‘spend[ing] hours developing words in this pipe-rock language, a vocabulary broad enough to communicate…realising that your language is already dead. How do you…teach it to the men on the outside? How will they come to understand your pain, the pressure in your ears, and the thirst that rises in your throat?’ It’s a physical need to find a method of connecting through the dark that always takes experiment. And yes, we come to the unknown of each story with the technical tools that we hope might help us leave a mark, but what works this time will always come as a shock, and will usually, at least for me, be reached by instinct and the unconscious. I think that’s where I always land on experiment: my stories don’t experiment out of conscious technicality, I don’t tamper or play up out of tactic or strategy, it’s something that arises from the need of a freed unconscious, the baseline of instinctual surrender that has to be allowed to let the language run through me and take on the forms that it wants and wills. So the pieces that might look, from the outside, like they came of testing and calculation, usually came instead from unconscious rush and a sense of physical pressure: they didn’t happen because I was switching technical hats, but because the top of my head came off, as Emily Dickinson says. Absolute experiment – wide open radical no-holds submission to free-ranging wildness – has to be in play for the unconscious to touchdown on the page. I don’t know…if good prose is like a windowpane, as Orwell says, then I seem to have taken a sledgehammer to it in my latest couple of stories, which are not so much a narrative sequence of scenes as a shattered collage of story shards, the form and language smashed up with all the opacity and jaggedness of trauma-ridden telling. The result comes perilously close to poetry, jerking the story round the page in discontinuous flashes, but again that’s the kind of risky genre-fluid space that I most want to navigate. Letting the unconscious loose in the composition of story, as with poetry…it’s all trying to get to the inarticulable, to grip it and ink it, and face it and pin it, and that will always lead the way of experimentation. I don’t think there’s any other way. And I think what I end up loving in other experimental work is that sense too: that it came about not through cerebral antics but through the rule-break and blood-beat of the human, the pushes of the Id, the trespasses of the heart – yes, as you say, it’s experiment that’s founded on a deep need to see and say who the hell we are now that holds far more appeal than any masterful po-mo for-the-sake-of-it trickery.

Maybe that’s why I stay with short stories and poetry, and shy from longer prose…because I fear the novel has a longer-term investment in shutting down those risky energies. And here (descending trio of threatening chords, dun-dun-dun) is where I creep towards the question I know I’ll regret if I don’t ask you, and yet I fucking dread! As a writer who’s obviously got instinctive gifts for the short form, how do you find longer prose? I’m always trying to wander there…but I think Calvino might be helping me see where, when I work at length, I lose quickness and lightness…



Tracey Slaughter discussing her work, 2016.


From Sarah:

I have chosen a day when snow has hushed the house (the children are out sledding with my husband) to formulate a response to your always-immensely insightful treatments of this crazy business we call writing stories.

I say crazy because it does feel really very crazy to put something so unwieldy and at least half unknowable at the center of your life and try to hold it there. Forever. 

It is easier, far easier, to vacuum or grade papers or shovel the walk than it is to force writing time into the average day. The flip side, of course, is the emotional toll NOT writing takes. With my vacuumed carpets and graded papers and shoveled walk, I can feel as though I’ve been good, but I can’t feel fully realized. At best, I’m a guilt-wounded thing staggering around in search of a way back into regular practice; at worst, I’m an angry malcontent: why is all of this stuff in the way of my work?!? 

A good writing day, meanwhile, makes me feel like myself, my best true self. Sometimes, on very fleeting but exhilarating occasions, it makes me feel powerful—like a massive and confident being stomping around in my own life. And reading, as you note, is a pretty damn reliable way to draw forth that potential giantess. How strange to re-realize again and again that reading brings me back to writing. What a strange affliction these bouts of writerly amnesia can be; so many things I must teach myself again and again. 

All of this is a way of thanking you for your wonderful catalogue of juicy book leads. I have Machado’s spunky collection, but I’m putting Berlin, Gunn, and Meijer in my queue. Lately, I’ve been too easily seduced by the bright shiny object of political news. I am attempting to wean myself off my evil phone by downloading digital books to my slightly-less-evil tablet. And I’m in desperate need of new short story loves. 

Alexander Chee’s brilliant How to Write An Autobiographical Novel and Sarah Sweeney’s super saucy Tell Me If You’re Lying are helping me to see how some literary non-fiction I’ve been tinkering with might organize itself into a longer work. And I am also, I must confess, working on a (probably very weird) novel, so I’m reading some books that operate in the absurdist realm: Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love and Tom Drury’s The Driftless Area are both novels that pull off literary strangeness in a way that seems both effortless and significantly mind-altering, but they are otherwise nothing at all alike. All of these books (and others) live in a tablet that I share with my children, so fingerprints and snack remnants are part of my reading experience. 

Full disclosure: I finished writing a very conventional historical novel a couple of years ago and can’t quite figure out how to fix it, so this second novel was initially an attempt to get some time and distance on a project that has sucked up more than a decade of slogging-type work. And this new, other book also lets me work in a much freer form. The POV is very mobile, so I’m able to pop into very lyrical modes for short bursts and then toggle back into a more conventional, novelistic mode. 

The malleability of the form is what is making it possible for me to write something that might wind up becoming 200-300 pages long without tossing myself off any available and nearby brain-cliff: vacuuming, grading, rage tweeting. While I do find writing longish short stories to be a good fit for the way my mind works (dear Lord I love the m-dash and all of it’s embedded expansiveness), my most automatic and deeply-ingrained way of being on the page is to lean into the image in a way that is not entirely sustainable beyond 10-15 pages. So, to answer your question, the way I am doing it is to trick myself into doing it. I bargain, I cajole. 

Look, I tell myself, you can write a two-page chapter today! And it can be super voicey and stylized! Hardcore persuasive tactics are required to force myself into the planning part of things. I allow myself to do that kind of work on my phone (a now-forbidden object) in the “note” function. Look, I tell myself. That’s the kind of work that you can do anywhere—at the bus stop, for example, or in a waiting room. What could you lose by giving it some thought? You do remember that decade of slogging aimlessly, don’t you? And then I hammer out a series of outline-type things with my thumbs.

There is a great deal of pressure on the level of the career to write novels, of course. I became aware of it as I was working on my MFA, but I was so in love with stories that I couldn’t even imagine turning away—even to experiment, even to ponder a decent advance. Stories were my fuel—the writing and the reading of them. They were the best way I’d figured out how to live. And I’d say that that’s still true today, but now having written a novel, I know that I can do it. And writing in the longer form showed me something about realizing a bigger chunk of life on the page. I’m sufficiently intrigued to give another whirl. But, stories are still my thing. It seems the form’s impression on me is permanent. 

After publishing a collection of stories that may not have reached a bazillion readers, but did reach readers who said they felt “found” by the book in (wonderful, sustaining) messages of support, I feel buoyed in a way that I simply didn’t feel before. And it doesn’t have very much to do with career in the financial sense of the word. (Short stories are not generally known for their cash-generating properties and I have resolved myself to the reality that whatever I write, it’s necessarily going to be somewhere outside of the mainstream.) Rather, it’s about rationalizing the decision to place writing at the center. Trying to hold writing there—forever—is very difficult, but it’s who I am. I made myself a writer and, since there’s no undoing it, I may as well trick myself into doing something interesting with the time I have left in this life. 

I assume you feel that career pressure too (all prose writers do), but I suspect (based on the fire in your work and what you’ve shared of your life here with me) that stories are the enough, the way. I know I’d be happy to read about a bazillion more from you. So, wherever you may go, I hope you’ll keep returning to the form. 

I think short stories love you back in a way that novels can’t. You can read a story you wrote a decade ago, two decades ago, and you can do it in one sitting and walk away feeling: Oh, yeah. I did that, didn’t I? I did that. I wonder: what’s the story you know in advance will remind you of what you may have forgotten of your own capacities and potentials? When you cited the final lines from “The Roads Are Like That” in your last message, I so was happy to ping back to the moment when I put those words on the page. I was many years removed from the woods that inspired the story, but I could feel the trees swaying around me and knew the story was right. What a feeling of potential!

The children have returned—red cheeks and enormous appetites for spicy hummus. So, I’ll close here.




From Tracey:

There’s snow at my house too…but that’s been created by the process of tearing up cartons of old failed manuscripts in an effort to carve clear space in my new little cottage. I’m not sure yet whether kneeling in a new ‘room of your own’ to shred long-abandoned pages is a good way of breathing fresh life into your writing world…or whether it’s an act of mourning. Whatever it is, it’s a tough kind of rite. There’s something physical about it – the sound of all those gashes sliding open in your words! My muscles ache tonight from the trash I’ve made out of the alphabet. Maybe if I throw myself down on this landslide of scraps I can sled off to somewhere unexpected – maybe I should just try to remember the creative rush I first felt riding these early words, even if I finished up crashing at the end of the slope…Instead, I’m trying to bodybag all these white feathers and dump them out on the kerb – hoping a late-night dog doesn’t turn it to a blizzard. 

I think the hardest thing about the process has been this: all those pieces that flashed before my eyes that might have lived in a shorter story, but instead were lost because I couldn’t press on to give them their whole form. I pick up their fragments and they almost breathe…but ultimately I can’t find a way to revive them. I hate the feeling that if I’d stuck to what seems to be my instinctive mode I could have given them a beautiful story; instead I’m left with all these stillborn pieces. And yes, the pressure to push into the long form does come from the dreaded market and its insistence that the novel is the only commercially viable model for prose. There’s an overwhelming sense that as a short story writer you’re committing career suicide if you don’t strive for a novel. Make what sells, box up words the way the industry wants. I find myself showing my teeth on this subject all the time – it gets me good and red in jaw and claw. And yet, the twist here is that simultaneously I am immersed (again) in something longer, that does keep speaking to me. And at the outset of it, I knew it as utterly as I know my short stories when I start to write them, knew the beat of its sentences, knew its scenes in the gallery at the back of my mind. But – & this is the threshold I know I have to find a way to cross – I can tap into, channel this knowing swiftly in a short piece, I can catch at its connections quick and light. With a long piece, somehow gravity hits me. There’s some tipping point of wordcount where I can’t outrun doubt, where all of those fears that the sheer thrill of writing has ousted for long enough in shorter work, come back to weigh me down. I know what I’d tell any other writer facing these: keep the faith, kill the angel, surrender, write like everyone is dead. I need to scull flagons of my own medicine. For a novel I might need intravenous doses. 

Slog, grind, chip, battle, bluster and drag – I do take your point about the bootcamp tactics that it takes to bully yourself through to the thick end of a novel. It’s a kind of stamina I was very conscious of missing as I ripped up those old soft boxes of words. But I don’t think it’s truly a lack of grit, so much as a surplus of good old dark and doubt. I’ve just got to find a way to tease and decoy those demons. I am inspired to know that a writer as rich and rhythmic and image-lead as you has battered their way across the finish line – and I’m definitely keen on scamming myself by similar means of bribe & lure: whatever setup of feint and chicanery keeps me writing through! It definitely has to be a trick that allows the language to stay central. And yes, refusing to see the long form as any more fixed and limited and blinkered and mainstream than the story is going to be key, so I still give myself full permission to play as loose and crazy as I please. An experiment at length. An extended episode of reckless poetic fucking about. And ultimately there is a piece of me – even crouching on my office floor circled by tatters – that thinks no work with words is ever wasted. All the false starts and spoiled chapters might just be where the light gets in, and shows the way ahead. I have to hope that Joyce Carol Oates is right, and ‘failure is preparation.’ 

That is the only course I can take, because, just as you say (so goddamn beautifully), I have set writing at the centre of my life. nailed my colours to the wall. I love how you lay such boldface claim to it, that unwavering ‘I made myself a writer.’ Yes, a writer is what, & maybe all, I’ve made of myself. I’ve lit that flame and thrown everything to it, fed it so much there may be nothing else. And if I have to keep feeding it – even stacks of story I’ve torn clear through the heart – well, that’s what I’ll do. 



You are so right though, that the feel of a single story that worked can lend such grace back to you years later, so matter how slender its pagecount. Cross my tired heart I’m glad you sent me looking for those! Because even amidst the gloom of dumping all those old discards, I did have some seconds where I sat and looked at a story, a very early one called ‘Wheat,’ where I felt like I’d truly caught what I needed, in this case to capture mother-child love (maybe the traces of your little ones’ footprints coming home in your last letter took me there…). And by coincidence I was also sent back, by a publisher’s request (oh how we need to cling to tiny victories), to a fresher piece – one of those experimental stories that hit the page in fractures I was telling you about – and then, out-of-nowhere, the weirdest kind of chain-epiphany struck. It was too crazily multi-layered to explain – it was more of a detonation of shards than a traceable sequence of thought-connections – but a whole net of things just scattered into place – including ways I might be able to solve not just one but two of the stalled longer stories…Creativity is such a hair-trigger thing. It’s always capable of stunning me with strange unforeseen moves. Early days, but…it’s such a mystery to feel that fire in your brain again, burning along tracks in a glistening instant where it seemed that every direction had shut down, gone dark. (And not just temporary dark, but the dark of months, even years, staring at a stunted story). Just what sets those atoms humming? I do not pretend for a split second to understand that. But I’m hopeful that just carrying the ache of the questions around with me for long enough has done unconscious work. And also, maybe the process of actively pondering these issues in letters to you has set those questions so alight in my mind the heat just built to flashpoint around them…Perhaps that’s a good reason to keep some kind of diary on process, to keep those everpresent questions vocalised, to keep prodding the mind to push & stretch at issues of craft. God knows I love reading other writers on writing, whether diary or essay or interview – do you? 

And yet (the lead-in to my next question)…I’m also conscious that both the stories which prompted this strange spurt of renewal are attached to memories of a win, of approbation, confirmation coming from outside, in the form of publisher or judge. Of an external source telling me it was good work…I’d hate to think that I’m that spinelessly vulnerable to outside reassurance – and I know that I’d never let outside views alter anything about how or what I wrote – but I have to confess that if I hadn’t had some of the wins I’ve received, especially in the early years, I might not have managed to pull together the self-belief I needed…Do you find that you need (even just a little dose of) the sustenance of others endorsing your work? Or have you mastered a way of saying to hell with approval? 




From Sarah:

How brilliant are to blizzard your manuscripts. It’s a wonderful thing, I think, to let some of the debris of past writing lives go. I have done it mainly by accident—too many big moves to count, two failed hard drives—but I recently tossed some old files and had this very strong feeling that the fact that I was able to see their uselessness to me meant that I’d made it just far enough to escape a certain era of doubt. And then I read an interview with a writer who said she’d just placed a story she’d written 20 years ago and felt instant regret.

Let it go, says the animated girl in the movie my girls wisely recognize as a bit too scary in her insistence to be believed. Let it go, let it go, let it go. 

In the beginning, you’re writing to create a pile that’s discernible as a pile. Anything less than a pile isn’t quite enough. And then two decades pass and the piles are all around you—suddenly all too discernible. I do agree that no word is wasted. One takes you to the next and the next. Sometimes I’m revising my novel and I swing past several different versions of myself in one edit. I think that’s the difference with the longer work. It takes many of you to bring it into being. A story I can write as one self. 

Speaking of selves: I do try to record them in a journal, but I’m a terrible slob in notebook form. I have these moleskines I try to make last for about year and by the end they are scrap-bundled messes. Teaching helps me to articulate matters of craft and process in a way that keeps me accountable, keeps me reaching, keeps me organized. I too love reading other writers on craft—especially for those little technical nuggets—and I collect those pieces in a folder in the cloud.  

One day, I’ll be confronted with the great pile of digital debris I’ve created and I’ll have to discern its meaning. Until then, though: file, save, file, save, file, save. 

On the matter of outside approval, I do need and absolutely crave it. But I’ve never listened to anyone on the business end of things about what I should write. Or, maybe I tried and failed to listen. I tried once to ghostwrite, for example, and wound up writing a deranged re-telling of Little Women than I absolutely love, but is so far from what was asked of me that I have to laugh a little. An editor once told me that I’d better start writing magical realism—a genre I happen to love to read—because that was all anyone was publishing at the time, so I set out to write the story of a mystical pregnancy and normalized the bulge into a tumor. I love the story that resulted, but it isn’t at all what I was supposed to do. Once, a well-meaning professor asked me why I kept writing so many stories about women in bad relationships. I’m not writing about women in bad relationships, I said. I’m writing about men who are assholes. We can only do what we can do; we have very little control over what that means to anyone else. It would be nice, though, one day to do something that accidentally lines up with the market. A girl can dream!

Placing a story, selling a book, winning an award. All of those things mean so much—mainly because they rationalize the fact that I will keep going. No matter what, I’ll keep going. It’s not always very smart, I have to admit. And it can be lonely and depressing and a slog. But then someone wants to publish my deranged re-telling of Faulkner and I’m doing actual fist-pumps and a half-assed moonwalk in my office. I’m alive again and making my piles, making my piles.   

Tell me more about this spurt of renewal? How do we bottle that light?



From Tracey:

It’s a different kind of blizzard I’ve let loose in my house tonight – I’ve spread out the next collection of stories in a wild white cloud around my lounge, and I’m crawling around them trying to piece together a sequence. There’s something good about getting down here, all fours, clambering round these pages, stories crackling under my hands and sticking to my knees – in some ways it has made me a kid again: I’m remembering being down on the mat banging round those sucked blocks of the alphabet, or belly-down on sketch-paper with a stubbed crayon melting in my grip, my tongue out (because it had to be out) to make those shaky rainbow letters. Once it felt impossible just to make bits of the alphabet hold up, keep a tricky stack: once it took a mess of muscles just to make that streak of crayon link into a word. But I kept doing it. The love of language has been in my body from the start. And it’s still there, climbing round the piles of type I’ve fanned around my floor – they’re thin piles, yes, not the solid foundation of novel that the market wants from me. But I love them anyway. And some of these piles were total gifts, stories that just broke out in me, nape and gut and fingertips – why would I ever send those back saying no, sorry, not commercially acceptable, not long enough? Nope, down here bodily among my stories, I know there’s no way I’m closing myself off to them. I dent them and drop them, smooth them and shuffle them – and then I have the whole swatch in my hands – & it seems to me that they add up. 

It’s that sense of page as play-pen that I love about the notebook too. I know what you mean about the pile-up of scuffed books – I’ve got a tower of them now too, leathery, spiralled, brimming with mad biro. And yes, the weird tilts in handwriting would make anyone think they’d been scribbled by a blur of selves – I seem to have one script when I think I’m writing fiction, and another when the currents of poetry blow the letters down. And I scratch notes at all angles – nothing toes the line. I make my students keep notebooks for this reason – so they learn to use the page as utterly free space again, a place to jot and blurt and hoard and chase whatever word-fragments they want, a room to jam in, to let the language in them make a musical mess, a free-rein noise. And though my notebooks are now a faded bank of scrap, every so often something leaps from them, and glitters – if I’m lucky sometimes I’ll be glancing through an old page and a whole net of notes will suddenly lift free, link and breathe…(Maybe it was one self saving words for the next one, bits of code it didn’t understand but the self to come could crack – your idea that the longer work takes many selves is fascinating. I know that sometimes if I’m forced to take a break from a story – if life knocks me away from the page – I can find it a struggle to fit back into the self that was first focused on it. And lately I seemed to have slipped a whole continuum of selves – maybe I’m getting a sense of the many skins it takes to shape a novel…I’m loving reading Alexander Chee too, and the way he talks about the novel’s many faces, the way that its first skin may be utterly unlike the self that steps out at revision’s end. You just have to keep opening doors to let the next version of the stranger enter. You just have to keep using words to weave that ‘chrysalis of guesses.’)

Which is all to say, I suppose, that it’s worth making the debris. That cloud of trash is where the light can abruptly strike out. So many of the stories rayed around me on the floor were accidents – not exactly unbidden because of course I’ve filled my life with language, packed my days with it, house & eyes & heart – but still they’ve often been strange arrivals. ‘After the successful accident, you wake. Something is left in your hand’ writes Chee. Of course, he’s talking about the novel – and I’m ready to suffer that kind of accident – but even if I don’t then I know what I’ve got in my hand. It’s a manuscript of unruly gifts, a sheaf of dark blessings. There’s still a lot of work it must go through – it’ll have to be pored and combed and stripped and questioned, yanked apart and pieced together again. And inevitably it’ll be up on that charge of darkness again, & yup, it’s a line-up of ‘women in bad relationships’ — but damn you have armed me with some shithot comebacks for those complaints! And on top of those bits of feisty artillery: your letters have meant so much to me – I think, if there is a way to bottle the light, then it comes from talking to other writers, even if all we’re doing sometimes is comparing the cracks in our work, the strains & missteps…Other times, like you say, we can kick off a shared dance round the desk at the sheer rowdy pleasure of writing. So right now, sitting with a new MS of stories in my fist, I wouldn’t change a word. 







'NZ literature is such a vast and varied thing' - Pip Adam

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Conversation/Kōrero: Robert Sullivan and Billy Kahora


Robert Sullivan

Robert Sullivan is a poet and academic. He is a significant internationally published Māori poet, author of seven collections of poetry and editor of a number of anthologies. He works at the Manukau Institute of Technology. Read more about Robert’s work here.


Billy Kahora

Billy Kahora is a writer from Kenya. His short fiction and creative non-fiction has appeared in Chimurenga, McSweeney’s, Granta Online, Internazionale and Vanity Fair, and Kwani. His work includes the non-fiction The True Story Of David Munyakei. He was highly commended by the 2007 Caine Prize judges for his story ‘Treadmill Love’; his story ‘Urban Zoning’ was shortlisted for the 2012 prize, as was ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’ in 2014. He wrote the screenplay for Soul Boy and co-wrote Nairobi Half Life, Kenya’s first Oscar submission, which won five Kalasha Film and Television Awards. He is working on a novel, The Applications, and a short story collection, The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Youthful Follies, will be released in 2017.

Billy is Managing Editor of Kwani Trust and has edited seven issues of the Kwani journal and other publications including Nairobi 24 and Kenya Burning. He is also a Contributing Editor for the Chimurenga Chronic. He has been Kwani Litfest Curator since 2008 and recently curated Kwani Litfest 2015 Writers In Conversation: Beyond The Map Of English. Billy is a past recipient of the Chevening Scholarship and an Iowa International Writers Program Fellowship.


This exchange took place over email in April and May 2017.



Billy Kahora:

Hi Robert, pleased to meet you. In Gikuyu I would greet you thus: Wee mwega. In Kiswahili: Habari gani.

I write fiction and non-fiction (variously described in other places as literary or creative non-fiction or even narrative journalism). I live in Nairobi now but I have spent significant periods of my life in South Africa, Scotland and the U.S.

I see that you wear many additional literary hats that are in ways similar to the ones I wear as Editor and part-time writing teacher. For now, I will just say I am no poet and come back and tell you what I am up to one-on-one with you a bit later.


Robert Sullivan:

Kia ora, Billy. It’s a pleasure to be in touch with you. I’m a poet and a teacher of creative writing, formerly a librarian. These days I find myself writing love poetry, although not so long ago I was more interested in historical narratives in verse, re-telling histories in a creative format that removed them from the pantomimes of history and into unusual rhythms and spaces. I was hoping to conscientise our literature, to make it possible to embrace words like colonial, or even imperial in our contemporary literature, rather than allowing us to remain is-lands. It’s about decolonising minds here by recognising colonial pasts.

My mother’s people are the largest tribe, Ngāpuhi, from Northland, about three hundred miles north of Auckland where I live; my father is from Wellington. His father was an Irishman, and his mother was from the South Island tribe, Ngāi Tahu through her mother (my great-grandmother), and through her father (my great-grandfather) she had Welsh ancestry. The effects of colonisation on Māori have been deep, resulting in our being in most of the negative trends demographically. We’re about 15% of New Zealand’s population, currently. Nevertheless, our culture is strong.

I’ve never visited the African continent, and I cannot claim to be familiar with Kenyan literature. One of the most influential thinkers in postcolonial studies here, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, visited Auckland about twenty years ago. I was lucky enough to get his signature at a reading, though, in Honolulu, Hawai’i, where I lived for almost ten years (that was about 2008, I think). A Māori intellectual and academic, Linda Smith, wrote an excellent summation of Western ideologies and their influences on indigeneous ways of knowing, Decolonising Methodologies. Both Smith’s and Ngugi’s work helped me to navigate and to replace some rather dense Eurocentric theory as I wrote my PhD on indigenising a close reading method for five indigenous writers of the Pacific region.

Billy Kahora:

I am the Managing Editor of an outfit called Kwani Trust. Kwani started off as a literary network of a generation of writers. Over time it has developed into a small publishing firm that also curates a biennial literary festival, runs a poetry performance space every first Tuesday of the month and produces a literary journal Kwani every 18 months or so. I edit the journal and co-curate the festival. My time is split between writing and my day job.

I’ve been working on a novel for about three years. I started the novel a while back in 2006/7 while I was doing an MSc in writing and then I put it away for different reasons. I was going through a different phase in my writing which lasted at least four years when I was reading and writing mostly non-fiction. I went back to the novel in 2012 and been working on it steadily since then.

Early in my career when I came to back to Kenya in 2005 I mostly wrote short stories. Just recently I decided to put these in a collection – working title is The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Youthful Follies. All the stories are in one way or the other about youthful failure. I hope this will be out next year. So, my writing in phases continued and after the short story stint I started writing creative non-fiction from 2008. I wrote a book back in 2010 titled The True Story of David Munyakei about a Kenyan whistle-blower who went into hiding for a decade when he worked as a Central Bank clerk exposing import irregularities. The scam involved the highest echelons of government at the time that resulted in serious inflation and the disappearance of about a million dollars from Kenya Treasury coffers.

After the book I worked on several extended creative non-fiction projects at the time including an extensive investigative stint in environmental corruption. I then ended up at the International Writers Program in Iowa and did a five-city tour of the US. Non-Fiction Writing from the tour was published in an anthology titled Fall and Rise, American Style.

After this non-fiction stint I wrote three films. Two of these – Soul Boy and Nairobi Half Life, which I co-wrote with three other writers – were produced locally but also got onto the European film circuit and did pretty well. The other is still in film production limbo. Then I got back to my novel and that’s what I’ve mostly been working on with a short break on the collection earlier this year.

I’ve edited five Kwani journals, a Sci-Fi anthology with a Malawian publisher and two visual collaborations between writers and photographers titled Nairobi 24 and Kenya Burning. In all these projects, in my work as a writer and editor I’ve always set out to capture the social realities around me on the page. This comes from when I was growing up and realising that there were such few examples of writing of the life around me. Recognised works by Kenyan writers such as Ngugi capture an older Kenya. So, I would say that my writing project has been trying to recapture my social realities through creative non-fiction (experience) and fiction (experience and the imagination). I also like to test the veracity of my observable realities. The fiction I’ve always liked is always described as hyper-realism which I think challenges the limits of descriptive realism.


The Abderdare area.


I was born in Nairobi. My parents are Gikuyu, one of Kenya’s largest tribes. I grew up with a lot of Gikuyu-ness at home but Gikuyu-ness was also something I saw as past, my parents’ past. I can speak Gikuyu passingly well but cannot write it. I can speak Kiswahili better but cannot write it as well as I do English. My third language is Sheng, an urban patois that mixes English, Swahili and Kenyan African languages.

My imagination straddles these language worlds and even if I write in English it is one that is peppered by the influences of the other languages I’ve mentioned. I grew up in a generation that was well aware of past colonial influence but more affected by ongoing national politics. I have always felt in-between the traditional and the post-traditional, what many might describe as modern, always in a strange and unique time/space between modern urban Kenya (partly Western/English/educated tinged by so many other African cultural forms). This transition is multi-dimensional, non-linear and chaotic in a good way, at least as a writer. I like to think in hours I can move within a physical distance that spans decades.

We hosted Ngugi wa Thiong’o at our 2010 Kwani Litfest. I distinctly remember a conversation I had him with him on FM talk radio about writing in one’s own language. In the conversation he meant African languages as our own languages. As I listened to him I wondered what I was to do because I had grown up in a society in which three to four languages were used in equal measure and in different spaces. My generation in a certain Nairobi space grew up caught in between these three to four language-worlds. So, I wondered during that conversation, what is my own language? The Gikuyu of my parents? A language of familial intimacy? The Kiswahili of the nation? A language of national authority when I was growing up? Sheng? A language described frequently as an urban patois of rebellion – for me of freedom between the nation, parental authority and English; a language of official knowledge, instruction, of privilege.

My imagination exists in all these language-worlds. I choose to write in English because that’s the language I first wrote in when I started school. I was never given anything else. With time it is an English I feel that I can bend into all the worlds I’ve described. An English that captures Gikuyu-intimacy, Sheng-rebellion, Swahili-nation authority. An English of my own.

I think that Ngugi’s arguments for writing exclusively in African languages leaves little room for individual agency and choice. From my perception in his arguments, language is an all-powerful structure that either privileges or conquers whoever uses it.

Linda Smith’s book sounds very interesting. The most influential work of theory on my own work and thinking is On the Post-Colony by Achille Mbembe.



Robert Sullivan:

I’ve just read your story ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’ on a blogsite. I’d tried to read the Granta site where it first appeared but I haven’t a subscription so had to switch to the blog. It’s a great piece. What drove you to write it? Is it the surface story of Jimmy and his friend Sebastian the gorilla from Rwanda? or the comprador gorilla expert, Professor Semambo. Are you a character-driven writer? For a short story you conveyed a lot of character. Did this story bubble up for you? How did it present itself?

The orphanage for animals resonates with the boy’s back-story, and his yearning to speak the gorilla’s language through the parental figure of the professor while fires burn outside, a newspaper article and a ‘muted’ television news item all revealing political violence. Was it anything to do with the political unrest of the time? Are you like a poet who doesn’t wish to explain one’s work?

It’s tempting to ask about the embrace at the end of the story and what it represents. For me, I see an uncomfortable alignment between Sebastian and Semambo, a deeply colonial embrace. I found your usage of the word ‘apoplectic’ quite troubling, quite spot-on in that moment of recognition and the indignation of the master as he is killed by the creature just as it is euthanized by his injection. I guess I’m answering this one for you. If you don’t wish to explain the piece, could you talk about the process, and the communities, of its creation?


Billy Kahora:

I wrote ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’ after the post-elections violence of 2007-2008. After the Kenyan elections in December 2007 half the country started burning after the Presidential vote was split in half and contested. At the time I put together a writing workshop asking writers for stories based on their experiences of the time. Several things jumped at me from this political crisis that would inspire the story.

One was the Nairobi-based foreign media’s attempt to look at the crisis as purely ethnic at the time and suggest the potential for a genocide a la Rwanda. This approach was simplistic but telling. The Rwanda genocide in 1994 has always been a large part of the social imaginary in Kenya. This is partly because of the country’s proximity, with a lot of Rwandese citizens living in Nairobi since the 60s after several ongoing crises there over time. So, when the crisis happened in Kenya the genocide was a very familiar reference. And there was a large outcry that Kenya was not Rwanda. The idea of a genocide remained with me for a long time and would influence the story.

The second aspect of the crisis was a worrying refusal to engage in what had happened by the urban middle-class. The majority of the conflict, killings, looting happened in the urban slums and specific rural areas and so the urban middle-class did not see it as their problem.

I became aware of this aspect of the crisis and it was to inform the context in which the story worked and looking into how middle-class-ness played into an event of national significance.

The other thing that influenced the story was an alarming rumour that never really goes away even now that one of the most sought after international Génocidaires, Felicien Kabuga, lives or lived in Kenya protected by politically well-connected individuals. This brought the story arc together.  These I would see as the thematic elements.

As a kid I remember visits to the Nairobi Orphanage. There was a celebrity gorilla there called Sebastian, brought from Rwanda, that all Nairobi kids (at least the ones I knew in school and in my neighbourhood) knew. So, I thought it might be interesting to bring in this celebrity gorilla character with an international fugitive and former Génocidaire within the context of a political crisis. Then, Jimmy the boy-character, whose life with his mother was slipping down the class ladder.

A bit more on the middle-class context. I feel that the Kenyan class context involves an uneasy mix of aspiration and disappointment based on Kenyan social realities over the last three decades. Kenyan urban life seems to be a constant treadmill of social and economic aspiration, a never-ending hustle chasing money (rent) and power (illusion of self-control) that compromises values all to keep one’s precarious class position at the expense of physical and mental health. I wanted the story to play out in this context. A world that is constantly precarious that suddenly starts burning. And there I had a series of images.


Buru Buru. Photo credit: Boniface-Mwangi


Then, back to the image of the Orphanage and the gorilla, Sebastian, who Jimmy constantly visits to remember older and happier middle-class times. And then again, the third – the Génocidaire. The closing brings them together as the crisis reaches its zenith. The story is partly set in Kibera, a slum where the blood-letting happens juxtaposed against middle-class settings just minutes away.

With most stories I think I am an idea-driven writer. I start with a ‘what if’ scenario? And then think of a character that fits in the scenario. The character that humanizes the idea. With some stories the two – the character and the idea – come together almost at the same time and it’s hard to differentiate. These are the easier-to-write stories.

I finished a short story collection last May. I started most of the stories from ‘what-if’ scenarios partly from experience then building them through the fictive.  I’ve been accused by a writer friend of mine of trying to rewrite novel ideas into short stories. Like many stories in the collection I’ve been told ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’ reads almost like a truncated novella. I’m not sure whether that is a good or bad thing. I wrote it very quickly in the heat of the crisis. Maybe if I’d put it aside and revisited it I might have expanded it into something more. So, like you point out, it has a lot of characters. I am not too sure whether it really works or now.

The novel I am working on is based on a middle-aged female character who deserts her middle-class family to go into a neighbouring slum to become a sect leader.  Told in fivve sections it tells the story of the middle-aged woman, then the narrative shifts to her husband and her three kids. So, different voices, different registers. I plan to finish in 2017. I also want the novel to be about this class transition conundrum that I mentioned. I want it to play with language-worlds moving through the city in English, Gikuy, Sheng and Swahili manifested in different class settings.

Haha. I am no poet. My background as a journalist makes me want to explain everything. With fiction maybe that’s not always a good thing, substituting dramatization with exposition. One of my favourite literary quotes is from Marlon James’ A Brief History Of Seven Killings:

– So, what’s this Crazy Baldhead about

– Brethren, Crazy Baldhead is about Crazy Baldhead. If the man have to explain him song he would’a write explanation, not song.

I haven’t read much literature from New Zealand – I started reading The Bone People years ago but couldn’t finish it. Maybe I’ll go back to it. What little I know of New Zealand is from popular culture. I watched Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider years ago.

I went to a rugby school here in Nairobi and lived in South Africa for eight years, between 1997-2004. Maybe because of this and any many other different reasons I am an All Blacks fan.  I follow them quite closely. I watched them get beaten by Ireland on Saturday. I read New Zealand press at least every week – the New Zealand Herald and on all things NZ Rugby. I am sure you will find this very funny.

I studied Journalism at a University called Rhodes. I went back to teach at the Creative Writing MA programme for two months between July and August last year. The universities are on fire. Like rugby there are all these spaces that are still fighting for transformation. This has to be done in the long-term. For rugby the problem is that all parties have not sat down to talk through the transformation. At times this is not something that can be talked through. So it is what it is.


Billy teaching a writing class.


Robert Sullivan:

Well, watching the All Blacks is kind of funny because it means you are familiar with our most popular poem, the haka ‘Ka Mate’ which literally talks about the nature of life and death in the Māori language. I love that poem. This is an article I wrote about it during one of the Rugby World Cup championships that we lost (a long time ago now).

I can understand your comments about Ngugi’s ideas, given your language context (four!). Here in New Zealand we’ve been facing the threat of Māori language extinction since the 1970s. Basically, young people stopped speaking Māori in the cities. I can speak Māori passably, and have written a little bit in the language with the help of a friend who was born into it. Most of my extended family doesn’t speak Māori, just some of my younger cousins who went to immersion pre-schools and secondary schools. I learnt it at university. Writing in the language for us would mean a loss of audience, and yet there is a growing number of writers who are doing that, including the spoken word poet Te Kahu Rolleston, and the novelist and playwright Whiti Hereaka. Some of our popular writers, like Witi Ihimaera who wrote The Whale Rider, have also had their work translated into Māori. There is a wealth of material published for the Ministry of Education to use in schools (such as Whiti Hereaka and Peti Nohotima’s work), but none of this material is available for sale outside of schools.

Hearing you talk about Kwani reminds me of our Māori writers’ organization, Te Hā, which is a committee of our national writers and artists’ organization, Toi Māori Aotearoa. We’ve been running since 1991, although our founding members were also part of a collective that began in about 1970.  We don’t have a journal, although our principal founder, Witi Ihimaera, brought out a five-volume anthology of Māori writing across all genres in both languages. We run writing workshops at our annual gatherings, and have performances during the Matariki Festival in June/July, which is the traditional Māori New Year celebration.

I put my second book, Piki ake!, online because it’s one of my most family-centred ones with a sequence about a reunion at my mother’s home village. I think I wrote it partly as a record since so many of my family don’t go back to Karetu. The collection is in English because that’s my first language, and as I said, most of the family only speak English. As I’ve learnt to speak Māori, I’ve learnt that there’s so much information only available in that language, and most of that information is the stuff of creative writing, emotion, spirit, relationship.

Here’s a short video featuring the history of my tribe, Ngāti Manu told by one of my relations, Evelyn Tobin, subtitled in English.

Whaea Evelyn recounts a piece of our history in the late contact-period, early 1830s, when we had traded with European sailing ships at Russell in the Bay of Islands. I’m drawn to this story because it resulted in the first removal of my mother’s people to a different headland in the Bay of Islands in the north of our country where we established another trading post. Ten years after that, it was the British who removed us by bombing the trading post with a frigate, HMS North Star. For us, this history is quite recent. It is the reason we come from Karetu, and not from Otuihu, or before that, from Kororareka/Russell. Of course these relocations were not like moving house!


HMS North Star destroying the Pā of Pōmare II, 1845. Painting by John Williams.


Billy Kahora:

I didn’t know that the ‘Ka Mate’ was a poem. That’s wonderful. And also that the New Zealand anthem is also based on another poem. Our own anthem is based on a Pokomo lullaby (Pokomo are an ethnic group based at the Coast of Kenya). I travelled in their lands years ago doing research on Kenya’s biggest river the Tana which passes through their ancestral lands and there’s still a lot of unhappiness about the use of the lullaby without proper attribution. Very political stuff. I’ve even written a short story – ‘We Are Here Because We Are Here’, part of my upcoming collection – about my experience in the Tana Delta and with the Pokomo. Once published I’d like to send you the collection.

Is what you’ve written about ‘Ka Mate’ well known in New Zealand? In Kenya we hardly have anything akin to a ‘national poem’; there used to be pretty well-known traditional narratives that had national reach through media and the education system but now that seems to be a thing with the past. Increasingly, social media, memes now push legends, phrases that go ‘national’ but I can’t quite think of anything that combines the traditional and the popular. Correct me if I’m wrong but it sounds to me like what ‘Ka Mate’ is like in New Zealand. Maybe I am projecting my own fascination with the haka which is such an international phenomenon and not necessarily for the right reasons.

Since we spoke I’ve actually written a piece for Chimurenga Chronic, a well-known South African based cultural network. The piece looks into the connections between creative writing training history on the continent and its influence on the craft of well-known writers. Using Ngugi as representative of an older generation of writers in East Africa, I look into how his time at Makerere University, missionary school, and the Old Testament have influenced his work.

The Editors at the Chronic cut quite a lot of it that got into his politics of language and how that is related to his ‘influences’, training, etc. I’ve been thinking about that quite a lot beyond our ongoing conversation. What you say about the dearth of audiences in trying to write in Maori and any other non-European language has huge parallels in Kenya, as you’d imagine. And it is also true here about the growing number of writers trying to write in other languages which reflects the very real non-pragmatic necessity for writers in spaces like ours to tap into other aspects of language they are privy to outside of European languages. In my own recent writing more and more I find myself translating in my head. I guess this is what a growing number of writers are possibly trying to counter by touching base with their ‘father’ and ‘mother’ tongues.

Please see a link here to the history of Kwani. Interestingly, like Toi Māori Aotearoa, we are really trying to do more writing workshops. In fact we are thinking of developing our own creative writing programme.

I find the historical connections you’ve made in your own writing quite fascinating. I think I’d mentioned before that I’ve been working on a novel for three years. One of the major hurdles with it has been trying to reconstruct the working life of a teenage boy during colonial times in Kenya who is of the same generation with my father. I’ve had to reconstruct a period when he is part of a road-building crew twenty years before independence by reading political histories and looking for non-political asides to the narratives. Most of the official history of Kenya before our Independence is very political.

What is also common is a lot of oral narrative of traditional life. Personal accounts are primarily English through letters and diaries. So, I had to do a lot of my own research on road building during colonial times in Kenya. I also spoke to my Dad quite extensively. Eventually, I did not use the reams of material I collated – the thing about research for a creative project is that it builds confidence and frees up the imagination. So after working for about six months and reading so many documents I did not use any of the material directly. So, thanks for the link to your book – I am always curious how writers use history.


Robert Sullivan:

I’m writing this just a couple of days before our national commemoration of the major wars we fought overseas, called ANZAC Day. The commemoration has really become more popular in the last decade possibly because so many of the returned soldiers are passing away. I wrote a book about my grandfather who served at the end of WW2 in Italy. Two of his older brothers were killed in North Africa, in Egypt (El Alamein) and Tunisia (Takrouna). It’s ironic that we had both welcomed and fought the British in the 19th century during our Land Wars. I’d written the book, Cassino, City of Martyrs, to point out that our relationship with the British was actually a deep one, and to point at collective memory lapses. I also wrote it because my grandfather never spoke about the war, and I needed to know. I think he suffered from PTSD after he returned, and I think a lot of our men suffered quietly.

Just a year ago our government agreed to mark the anniversary of our Land Wars and so for the first time it’ll be on October 28th this year. Most of the stories of the 19th century conflicts haven’t been taught in schools or talked about widely so many people just don’t know about them, and so they don’t know about colonization in this country. There has been some great work in starting a reparations and reconciliation process, though I worry that the reconciliation hasn’t been widely shared and so many people just won’t understand the depth of feelings, and the need for aroha or deep affection given the suffering that happened here not too long ago.

The Waitangi Tribunal has a powerful set of reports from all over the country which tell the people’s stories about the loss of land, lives, and livelihoods here. Let’s hope the commemoration helps with the healing process. Some of my family contributed to the report on the War Veterans and included a poem I wrote for our two great uncles who were killed.

I see it as part of a poet’s role to comment and incite, and to care about the currency, hopes and memories of one’s community, as well as to create something that was not there before the act of writing.


Robert reading from Cassino, City of Martyrs at Karetu on Anzac Day, 2016.


Billy Kahora:

Thanks so much for your context on how you’ve tried to connect the past and the present in your writing and enlightening me on ANZAC which I’ve seen in ceremonies before NZ-Aussie Test matches.

I am quite jealous that you have the resources with which to write about historical events from 200 years ago. I find that as a contemporary Kenyan writer, I am limited to how far back I can go which is nor far beyond Kenya’s independence in 1963. And Kenyan writers have done a handy job of writing fiction that tackles the arrival of the British and immediate post-independence thought there’s still a lot to be done. A good writer friend of mine, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, wrote a great novel, Dust, a few years ago which I would call an alternative history of modern Kenya. Basically, Dust is a history of Kenya through the lens of its political assassinations.

Political history since Independence is just so omnipresent and oppressive that it almost freezes the imagination. I’ve been trying over last few years to free myself of this especially as it’s drummed into one in school, and to invest more in personal subversive narratives as I’ve outlined I’ve been trying to do with the book I am writing. A few years ago I spent the better part of a year reading up on that and trying to write short stories based on Mau Mau times. I’ve also been thinking of doing a Creative Writing PhD to work on a novel loosely based on Kenya’s recent Constitutional process in the early 2000s.

So, unlike New Zealand where it seems that there is a lot of creative writing spanning ‘history’, there are still large gaps beyond the Ngugi generation and its fascination with post-independence Kenya and latter colonial period especially with Kenya’s recent political history in the 90s. So, unlike the context you give, in Kenya here we do have a lot of colonial history and awareness about it in general but very little before that and the recent past.


Robert Sullivan:

I’m writing from Haworth in Yorkshire, not far from the Bronte Parsonage, where my partner, Rachel Fenton, is researching a graphic biography of one of Emily and Charlotte Bronte’s friends, Mary Taylor, who lived in New Zealand for a time in the late 1840s to mid 1850s.

I’ve only read two Bronte novels, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I might have seen a TV movie of Wuthering Heights and I used to be a Kate Bush fan. Plus I read Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, so I’m more familiar with things associated with the novels. Isn’t that how it works in literature anyway?

It makes you wonder about the after-life, being in Haworth. When I stop this message I’ll visit the Bronte graves inside the little church here, and then the parsonage. How is it that some literary work endures in the real world, so that real people become pilgrims to the stories? When I taught creative writing, for me it was about emotion. I based it on Ezra Pound’s definition of the image, and his emphasis on newness which meant one needed to know what was traditional. Only emotion endures. You can see places like Haworth elsewhere. Florence has a three-story house decked out in part as if it was Dante’s home. Yet Haworth it’s a little more obvious because the town is so much smaller in its range than Florence, although I’m only a tourist cruising through so there may be much, much more to this place.

I have some places I’d love to visit that have associations with writers dear to my writing, such as Keri Hulme’s Okarito on the southern West Coast of the South Island, or Kaka Point where Hone Tuwhare spent his last days writing his nature poetry. In fact, it’s a feature of Māori poetry in English that we reference our natural environment, yet it sounds silly to put that in plain language like this, too non-poetic if you know what I mean, too blimmin obvious. Hulme, for instance, has the shore line of Moeraki communicating through the waves striking the sentinel rocks there, she has the flax and the midges speaking, whales singing off the coast. The closest I’ve come to it in non-Māori literature is in a couple of German language poets, Rilke and Holderlin. It’s as if Hulme has access to her subconscious and communicates at the level of the collective psyche. Māori words have a special resonance for her, and even more effectively, the Māori words are in local Ngāi Tahu Māori dialect so that the language derives from the people of the coastline.

I’ll be seeing some of the moors and the Yorkshire dales soon. There’s so much scale here in how the land rolls up from the heights so that you feel the wideness of the sky. There’s a curvature here, that kind of scale.


Okarito Beach, South Island, New Zealand.


Billy Kahora:

I really like novels that capture place. I’m quite a fan of Virginia Woolf and I visited her home in and I’ve been reading her diaries. I also visited Jane Austen’s house years ago.

Because I studied in South Africa I am quite familiar with the landscapes one of my favourite writers, J.M Coetzee especially in Disgrace and Life and Times of Michael K. My own novel-in-progress is based in Buru Buru, the estate I grew up in, and I have spent quite a long time thinking about the physical nature of the estate and its link to my psyche and that of the main characters in the book. Here is a link to an essay I wrote recently about growing up there.

Part of the novel is also based where my parents come from two hours away from Nairobi in the country and I write a lot about a mountain range called the Aberdares … I try and reflect on the physical landscape, particularly the Aberdares, and what it does to the psyche of one of the main characters.

I think that the European modernists really thought a lot of about the relationships between ‘in-scapes’ and physical landscapes. I recently read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and that has really influenced my own thinking about this book I am working on. I’d really like to read Keri Hulme.


Robert Sullivan:

Thanks for sending the link to your essay about Buru Buru. I can see the reason behind Mrs K in your novel. I really sense the intergenerational, family dynamic of the place since you move between now and the 90s so comprehensively. Economics unfortunately plays such a large part in communities, and cracks in an individual such as Mrs K who sounds like she was a leader in the community must provide powerful fuel for a novelist. I can’t wait to read your novel.

Also, congratulations about the great work you’re doing with the Kwani writers’ collective. All power to you.

As for the haka, ‘Ka Mate’, it’s very well known in New Zealand. Most New Zealanders can give you a rendition, although it isn’t always with the best pronunciation or recall of the actions. I just love the poem’s politics, its refusal to accept death, and its embrace of the rising and setting sun.



Billy Kahora:

I’ve noticed that your writing, at least the excerpts I have read, have a very distinct voice and just wanted to get a sense of how you approach narrative voice. Is this something you consciously do. How do you choose your narrator?

I’ve been thinking about this question of voice for quite a while. I ask because for me the question of place comes from this.

For the book I’m writing I struggled to find the right tone, the right register for the novel.

The main character/narrator, Mrs Faith Karoki, decides to go mad to ‘escape’ her husband and family and their middle-class setting.

I set out right at the start to write a novel told completely told in different subjective voices by Mrs Karoki and the rest of her family. In Mrs Karoki I wanted to write a book that not only recreated her ‘mad’ voice and the reactions of her children and her husband but also capture different languages, registers from all of the characters that illustrated the socio-political and socio-economic dynamics of Kenya at the time the book is set, 1990s Kenya.

Part of the struggle was recreating a language in the novel had evolved in the informal social and political spaces in Kenya within the context of the English I had been taught formally.

But by and by I started hearing her in my head and once I could do that I felt that I knew her concerns and I could see her immediate setting and the world she lived in. For me more than anything this was about time.

Another main character, Mr Karoki, identifies with the mountain but its immovability holds a fear for him. Because he is an engineer of roads, he also sees it as an enemy of progress. So, for me place not only creates the world in which characters live but also provide contexts which can illustrate character’s strivings, and of course place can always be a metaphor in a larger sense.


Robert Sullivan:

Most of my writing is grounded in poetry and place, and as you suggest, place is often metaphor. I’ve heard it said that the setting for a work of fiction can be a character, can voice itself as struggle, or a range of other literary limits in the fictional world. In my poetry I like to think the ‘I’ is a collective pronoun since I believe in a family of spirits who accompany me. This sounds to an extent like the familiarity you have with Buru Buru.

Witi Ihimaera is known as the chronicler of Waituhi, since his home village flavours his many stories and novels with voices from there. In my extended sequences, such as Captain Cook in the Underworld and Star Waka I quite consciously adopted multiple personae, yet these are limited by my own understanding of such major things as class and gender which I’m happy to own. It gives me more to look forward to in future writing projects. I am most familiar with place, and tend to orient my work by referencing my mother’s village, Karetu, which has ancestral and historical (derived from civics and the political engagement there) resonances.

I’m quite interested in the madness of your character Mrs Faith Karoki. Albert Wendt, the great Samoan novelist, who has been influenced by a number of postcolonial writers, uses a similar device for the central character in his wonderfully intense short novel Pouliuli. I highly recommend it. Wendt also passionately writes about mountains.

I am only sorry that our conversation is coming to an end. I will look through the other emails you have sent in order to catch more of the generous threads and the passion that you have shared with me, Billy, and others here in Aotearoa. Ngā mihi nui ki a koe, big greetings!


Robert reading at the University of Auckland marae during the book launch of Puna Wai Kōrero, an anthology of Māori poetry in English which he co-edited with Reina Whaitiri.





‘Inspiration is the name for a privileged kind of listening.’ - John Howard

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Conversation/Kōrero: Vivienne Plumb and Adam Wiedemann


Vivienne Plumb in Poland, seeing snow fall a lot, for the first time ever.


ANZL member Vivienne Plumb is a poet, playwright and fiction writer who has published more than 15 books. Her play The Wife Who Spoke Japanese In Her Sleep was published during 2016 by Playmarket N.Z. in Shift, a collection of three plays by New Zealand female playwrights. Her new major collection of past-published work, As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry, will be launched in March, 2017 (available through split/fountain online). She has held numerous residencies and been the recipient of several prizes including the Bruce Mason Playwrighting Award. She lives in Wellington.


Adam Wiedemann at a reading.


Writer and critic Adam Wiedemann was born in 1967 in Poland. His books include the poetry collections A Small Male (1996); Animal Fables, a volume of rhyming poems (1997), and Starter Motor (1998). Both his story collections – The Omnipresence of Order (1998) and Sek Pies Brew (1999) – were nominated for the Nike prize, Poland’s most prestigious literary award, as was his most recent poetry collection, Calypso (2004). In 1999, he won the Koscieleski Foundation Prize, which recognizes literary achievement in Polish writers under forty.

This conversation took place via email in late 2016.


Vivienne Plumb:

I think it was 2004 when we first met? We were both on the International Writers Residency Programme at the University of Iowa in America, you from Kraków in Poland, and me from Wellington, New Zealand. We became friends and since then we have stayed in contact and I visited you in Poland in both Kraków and Warsaw, where you now live. I’ll never forget that when I visited you in Kraków, the Nike Award (a national literary award, and you were on the long list, I recall) was broadcast on the television at prime time viewing at around 7 PM. I thought it was wonderful to see literature considered prime time importance.

Sometimes we’ve discussed the differences between Poland and New Zealand: after I judged a NZ poetry competition we discussed the difference in subject matter. You assured me that topics in a Polish poetry competition would include death, death of a close family member, death of a good friend, the death of a pet dog, the death of nature, and the death of the world. I replied that in New Zealand poetry topics would include nature, a close family member in nature, a friend doing something out in nature, a dog or another animal in nature, the environment, nature worldwide, and a death in nature.

How many poetry books do you think would be published annually in Poland?


Adam Wiedemann:

Dear Vivienka – of course, it was earlier: Slovenia, Vilenica Festival 2000 or 2001 (I don’t remember now because I’ve lost the catalogue). One of the events took place in a small town, we were reading in a church (memorable for me because it was my first reading together with Tomaz Salamun) and then it was the party under the open sky when I met you and your Irish friend (you both gave me your cards). We were dancing, drinking plum vodka and Michael Farrell from Bombala was climbing the trees.

That was our first meeting, before Iowa, where naturally our friendship flourished. We were neighbours in the hotel and had many adventures – in fact, it was a nice time for me only because of you and the ‘two pale boys’ (Alberto and David) whom I’d met in the classes about the Polish writer Bruno Schulz.

As far as the Nike Prize is concerned, during your first stay in Poland it was really a thing – now it’s simply one of four biggest prizes (we also have the Gdynia, Silesius and Szymborska Prizes) and, because of the political circumstances, TV is no longer interested in broadcasting it. It was just awarded to Bronka Nowicka, a young poet, and we had only one minute about it in TV news. Poland is a paradoxical country. Now our government is doing everything to destroy the culture and change it to a tool of the political propaganda. What to do? We must survive it.

À propos death, I am reminded of two funny situations: first was a poetry competition in SDK (I hope, you remember the place) when my ex-boyfriend Michałek and another young poet, Seweryn Górczak, were fighting for the first prize with poems about the death of their fathers. Some months later, Professor Śliwiński gave a speech about new poetry and asked: Why do poets write so often about their father’s death? His answer was: Because women live longer, so when mothers die, poets are already tired of writing those funeral poems and therefore don’t write about them. Poet Małgorzata Lebda, present there, said quietly: But my mother died first …

So, death is very popular here. Once when I was reading a New Zealand poetry anthology, I noticed that the most popular topic in your poetry is a stone. And I must say: stones are very useful here too. The book of prize-winner Nowicka is called To feed a stone; selection of Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki’s poetry is called A Stone full of food, young Wisława Szymborska wrote the long poem ‘Talk with a stone’ and Józef Czechowicz, one of the most important pre-war avant-garde poets, titled his first collection simply A Stone (and now it’s the name of the poetry prize given in his birthplace, Lublin). So, maybe we should talk now about stones?


New Zealand stone art on Okarito Beach. Photo credit: Harley Hern


Vivienne Plumb:

Yes, many New Zealand poets write about stones. The Paekakariki-based poet, Dinah Hawken, recently published her seventh poetry collection, Poetry and Stone; and the Palmerston North poet, Leonel Alvaredo, has written a poem ‘What Stones Know’, a piece that relates to a local river.

The symbolism of stones appears to be a favourite literary theme, not just because New Zealanders love nature so much, but because stone is also representative of our indigenous Maori and our colonial European histories.

I admit to falling under the influence of stones myself. I use a large stone as a paperweight that has a plant fossil embedded inside it. I found this on Dunedin city’s Tunnel Beach, a mysterious, primeval beach surrounded by high fossil-filled cliffs that can only be reached by a hand-carved tunnel through a rock promontory.

I have written about the Stone Store, which was built in Kerikeri by the early missionaries to sell goods, and was a point of first contact between European and Maori.

A poem I wrote features ‘a bleached stone shaped like a large jelly bean’ that ‘has lain on the foreshore for many years doing nothing except gazing at the sky, which it has studied hard in all its intricacies, concluding that the sky is merely a large cloth, sometimes pulled taut but at other times tucked and folded back on itself in a devious origami-like manner.’

Speaking of stones, do you know if Miron Białoszewski ever wrote about stones? There is ‘A ballad of going down to the store’ and also ‘And even if they take away the stove’, neither ‘store’ nor ‘stove’ being quite a stone but both being still as wonderful in these poems. I love the way he wrote about everyday practice.


Adam Wiedemann:

Białoszewski didn’t write about stones because he was a ‘city poet’, spending his entire life in Warsaw. Of course, stones were very important during the Warsaw Uprising (he wrote the very important book about it, but from the position of a private citizen, not a soldier), and during the time of the transformation in late 80s (though by then he had died). So he was writing rather of stoves or pokers and the most important things for him were the micro-sociological, interpersonal situations, a strong contrast to a stone, which symbolizes stability and invariability.

The Polish philosopher Andrzej Falkiewicz says that the border between living and unliving beings is fluid, so a stone is simply a better-organized being, able to survive more time than a human being (like the Catholic Church or culture, for example). It’s very interesting but nobody knows Falkiewicz because Polish people don’t respect Polish philosophers. Do you have any important philosophers in New Zealand?

Now it is quite difficult to find a stone in Warsaw (but, as the writer Krzysztof Środa says, ‘the Earth is still giving birth to new stones’). In my book With Movement there is a poem about a stone which I found on a pavement as a sign of something that – maybe – will happen. Now I’m afraid that the stones will be useful again: who knows? (Polish women fight for their rights with black umbrellas now). But the position of the female writers seems to be very high: they are even more powerful than our male writers. How does it look in your country?


Vivienne outside the Solidarity Museum in Gdansk, standing next to a photo of Anna Walentynowicz. She was a Polish union activist and when she was fired in August 1980, this sparked the famous strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk.


Vivienne Plumb:

Of course, regarding women writers in New Zealand, we have our famous female writer, Katherine Mansfield, who left an indelible mark on our literary history. And Robin Hyde is another important female writer here, and Janet Frame (both later than Katherine Mansfield).

Just returning to Bialoszewski, and the way he wrote so much about his own space (within his apartment), and his geographical spaces during his everyday life – this has made me think about how important a role domestic spaces play within a writer’s life, as both male and female writers often spend a great deal of time working at home within their domestic space.

A domestic space can be defined as a space that is very personal, even private, and at the same time pertaining to our everyday (domestic) business. And these spaces offer insights into an individual’s own self, as these spaces can even shape identity. Throughout 2008, I lived in a thirty-square-metre apartment on the twelfth floor. Everything was in one room although the bed had a three-quarter wall around it, and the bathroom was separate. I wrote one (commissioned) play script in the morning, then went to drink coffee and eat in a nearby cafe, and in the afternoon I worked on another (commissioned) play script. In this apartment, I became obsessed with storage space. At night the apartment felt like a little boat, sailing high up in the sky, as the twelfth floor was more in touch with the sky than the land. And this small space was like a discipline on me, that I feel contributed to the discipline required in the writing of the two commissioned plays.

It does seem to me that writers are fond of controlling the environment they work in – producing conditions that they find they can work under, although you can still be uber-aware of the desk, the chair, the rug, of the room as a whole. The humming refrigerator. These are the tangible objects in the writer’s space that make up your working environment and assist you (or not).

Geographers believe that space should be mappable so it can become transparent, understandable. But writers work with intangible unmappable spaces that exist in their minds and can be made up of atmosphere and dreams.

I know you live and work in your own (domestic) apartment space in Warsaw, so how important do you feel that place is to your writing? To your everyday practise? After all, it is our everyday practise that makes our writer’s life.

Speaking of black umbrellas, my mother travelled by herself in 1930s Europe, as she was quite adventurous. And she told me that if ever I found a man following me as I walked along the road, then I should turn around, face him, and then shake my umbrella at him in a ferocious way (she demonstrated this), and that would make him go away. I don’t know if she meant a black umbrella.


Adam Wiedemann:

Here, in Poland, we have two powerful streams or branches of the literature: one is private and one is civil, and they are in a continuous contest. Of course, I belong to the ‘private’ tradition, so maybe now I’ll tell you shortly about my favourite writers who constitute it.

– Karol Irzykowski: author of Paluba, the first psychoanalytical novel in Poland and probably in Europe. It was published in 1902 and never translated. He wanted to be a professor of German literature but stuttered, so he worked for the Polish parliament as a stenographer.

– Bolesław Leśmian: greatest poet of the 20’s and 30’s, but personally very tiny. He was a very unfortunate lawyer, once almost arrested because of financial scrapes. His poetry is like a cruel, metaphysical fairy-tale.

– Zofia Nałkowska: the ‘great Lady’ of the Polish literature. She wrote many psychological novels but the most important are nine volumes of her fascinating diaries.

– Anna Kowalska: probably the best Polish author of short stories. At the end of her life she was the partner of another writer, Maria Dąbrowska.

– Leo Lipski: a Polish-Jewish writer, whose brother was injured at Monte Cassino, then paralysed. He published only two little books but he was a genius.

– Leopold Buczkowski: the author of novel-collages using diverse ‘found’ documents, e.g. the old translation of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.

– Mieczysław Piotrowski: primarily he was a draughtsman but he published four big novels. I feel he is the most important Polish novelist besides Witold Gombrowicz.

– Witold Wirpsza: an extremely intellectual poet who was the symbol of the avant-garde of the 60s. Then he emigrated to Berlin and was nearly completely forgotten. Now the young poets ‘recover’ him.

– Miron Białoszewski whom you know: he discovered colloquial language for the literature. Wirpsza and Białoszewski were as important for Polish poetry as John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara for the Americans.

This is the list of my ‘saints’. I could mention more of them but OK, we are nearly tired of names. The second stream stretches from the Romantic poets (Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Cyprian Kamil Norwid) to Czesław Miłosz, from Henryk Sienkiewicz to Szczepan Twardoch, including all the well-known authors of the political poems and historical novels. They are quite unimportant for me (I am ‘private’), but because of social-political situation this is the mainstream now, so I feel like a minor writer existing on a margin of the literature and can only look back to the 90s when ‘we’ were on the top.

My apartment is very small (you have been here, so you remember). It includes only my cat, my books and CDs, and the big painting by Paulina Lignar on the wall, it’s enough. It’s only on the second floor, so I don’t think of it as an attic – rather an owl-hollow where I sit trying to write something every day. The first years of my artistic activity took place in a student dorm and until now I liked to feel a little as if I was still there, with everything on hand. You said you wrote in parallel two ordered [commissioned] plays. I can write only for myself. I hate orders – do you like them?


Adam Wiedemann giving a reading at Lviv, Ukraine, 2016.


Vivienne Plumb:

On hating orders: I guess writing to ‘order’ has taught me some good discipline in my writing. I have also taught creative writing and over the last few years I have mentored creative writing students for various institutions, and I really enjoy the one-to-one aspect of mentoring. Are you subsidised in any way, as a writer in Poland?

I remember that one thing I liked when I was in Poland was the small spare room in the Massolit bookshop in Kraków where writers could sleep the night. I love the Massolit – an independent English-language bookshop in Kraków with a small cafe. Massolit always has the most fantastic books plus you can find some great English translations of Polish literature there. I think New Zealand bookshop owners would think it very strange to put in a bed in the back room for a visiting writer, who was maybe giving a reading at the shop. But it sounds excellent to me!

I’m interested in hearing about the other differences between Poland and New Zealand. For instance, how many poetry books do you think would be published in Poland in one year (roughly)? In New Zealand it would be about 30–35 books, I would say. And what sort of places would publish the poetry books in Poland? In New Zealand it is only the university presses (each NZ university has a press attached) or small independent presses that publish poetry.


Adam Wiedemann:

I don’t know, how many poetry books are published in Poland, but much more than in New Zealand. Every year I get about 20–30 free copies from the publishers and authors, so I nearly never buy such books. We have three main publishers of poetry: WBPiCAK in Poznań (my publisher; established by Mariusz Grzebalski), Biuro Literackie in Wrocław (established by Artur Burszta) and a5 in Kraków (founded by the couple Krystyna and Ryszard Krynicki). But there are many small publishers too. Some of them are respected (like Nisza, which publishes Michał Sobol, or Instytut Mikołowski), but mainly they are completely unknown and have no distribution. Very often, I find books written by my friends only in second-hand bookshops because no one knew that they were published. Some poetry is published in the literary magazines, but no university press publishes poetry in Poland.

Polish poets are nearly not subsidised at all. You can apply twice a year for the scholarship from the Ministry of Kulture, then you get about $1000 a month for half a year. I’ve received this three times. There are some residencies as well, for example Villa Decius in Kraków (mostly for Polish, German and Ukrainian writers, but not only). If you are a translator of Polish poetry from Central Europe, you can apply for the Gaude Polonia scholarship (it’s for half a year as well).

The source of money is mainly readings and festivals of poetry. Festivals are very popular and nearly every bigger city wants to have a festival, or two (with different organizers), so if you are quite popular, you can live off them. And, of course, we have the four literary prizes. If you get any of them, you can live a year or two from this money. This year [2016] was very special because they all were given for short prose poems – can you imagine? It is one of your favourite forms, isn’t?


Vivienne Plumb:

Yes, the prose poem form has become popular here in New Zealand (and I have enjoyed using it), although it is not as popular as something else called ‘flash fiction’ which is a kind of short-short fiction. Of course, prose poetry travelled to NZ via various American poets who were exponents, such as Robert Bly, Russell Edson, Charles Simic, James Tate, and John Ashbery. And the wonderful Gertrude Stein. Although it has roots in French literature (Bertrand, Baudelaire), and also in Japanese literature. Is it true that the Polish writer Boleslaw Prus wrote ‘micro-fictions’ that could be termed prose-poetryish?

I have been thinking a lot about memory recently as the project I am working on requires me to reach back into time and recall events and happenings, although previously, in my novel Secret City, I focused on how precarious memory can actually be, how much it can be influenced by other forces. Memory cannot necessarily be trusted.

Place and memory are very intertwined. While memory is personal and social, it can be aided by memory’s attachment to place: cities, neighbourhoods, where you live, where you grew up, where you work, and geographical place (mountains, beach, river, lake coastline, etc). And the ways of knowing these places – by sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – can result in an even more potent memory.

Have you ever had an experience where a sound or a smell has suddenly transformed you into another (past) place? I grew up in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, and when I was a child we always caught the train when travelling out of our suburb. We walked to the train station (about twenty to thirty minutes) and then caught the train. It was the only mode of transport available to us in the early days.

Returning to Sydney many years later after I had been living in NZ, I was standing on a city railway platform in intense Sydney summer heat when the train pulled in, producing an up-blast of hot dry dust that you could smell. I was immediately transformed back to the place of my childhood. It was such a small thing and yet a powerful trigger on my memory.

I recall you telling me a little about your Polish childhood. You liked dinosaurs, but your mother knitted green woollen singlets for you to wear in the Polish winters. And you dreamt of pulling these green woollen garments off, and of running with the dinosaurs. Do you remember?


Adam Wiedemann and Vivienne Plumb (centre-left and left) where they met, at the 2004 International Writers Programme, University of Iowa, USA.  Adam wrote a poem  “Wiersz Vivienne” (“Vivienne’s Poem”) about translating Vivienne’s “The Vegan Bar and Gaming Lounge”. Both can be read here.


Adam Wiedemann:

Bolesław Prus? I don’t think so. He was a novelist and columnist but never wrote ‘poetry’. The first Polish prose poems were written by Tadeusz Miciński and Stanisław Przybyszewski, a friend of Edvard Munch and August Strindberg (he wrote them in German and then they were translated into Polish very badly). But the best prose poems in Poland were written after WWII by women: Anna Świrszczyńska (her poetry was partially translated to English by Czesław Miłosz), Julia Hartwig (who has translated many prose poems of Max Jacob and was influenced by him) and Krystyna Miłobędzka (the wife of Andrzej Falkiewicz; she invented a completely new ‘language’ to describe the experience of being a woman). So, I find it a typically ‘female’ form. Or maybe this form likes Polish female poets?

With Julia, I have a memory from Iowa: the second day of my stay, Mary Nazareth, our ‘guardian’, took me to the bank. While we sat waiting for my ATM card, Mary said: ‘Julia, she’s dead now, isn’t she? She was here forty years ago and wanted to get the Nobel Prize’. But Julia is still alive and active: she’s 95 now. I’m wondering if Mary is still working with new groups of International Writers.

She said another thing too, that the people who have their readings in the Iowa University Hall get the Nobel Prize. Our year, remember, there was a reading by John Ashbery. And her prophecy didn’t come true. The prize for Bob Dylan I find a total discredit to the Sweden Academy. And it’s hurting me that even some wise people say that Dylan’s texts contain poetry. OK, they contain some poetical gestures but songwriting is a completely different occupation than poetry. I feel cheated.

My memory changes – of course, I remember the stories from my childhood that I told you, the garments; it was an extremely sensual experience. Now I can stand the touch of wool but then it was simply terrible, and I was always untouchable. But lately, I must say, I’m gradually forgetting all the direct impressions connected with my own poems. I read them as ‘texts’, better or worse, but apparently written by somebody else. That’s strange. Maybe because of my move to Warsaw – it’s a totally different place than Kraków. In Kraków you feel putrescent, in Warsaw you feel eaten. Is it similar to your experience with Wellington and Auckland?


Vivienne Plumb:

Place is so important. Kraków/ Warsaw and vice versa. Auckland/ Wellington. In Maori culture they talk about a turangawaewae, which is the place where you feel you truly stand – your place. Maybe you don’t live there at present, but you will return.

Regarding Auckland and Wellington, I have always thought that the big difference between them is the weather. Auckland has the better weather, so people are friendly, benign. Wellington gets these crazy southerlies blowing straight from the Antarctic, and that wind shakes you up a bit, rattles you around, so it feels as though there’s a sharp, slightly acerbic side to the inhabitants.

New Zealanders are obsessed with weather – remember, I was taught some Polish by the beautiful Basia, who worked at the Wellington Performing Arts Centre (where we both worked together on the front desk). She was born and raised in NZ but could still speak Polish (although she had never been to Poland), and taught me ‘the weather is excellent’ in Polish! But this was so NZ!

Here is my next question: Have you ever read a novel entitled Wiedemann? A novel that used your own name as its title? For me, this is the N.Z. novel Plumb, written by one of New Zealand’s most well-known novelists, Maurice Gee, and considered one of New Zealand’s best novels. It is part of a trilogy – the other two novels being Meg and Sole Survivor, and all are written around the family of the character, George Plumb. This character’s life is loosely based on the history of Gee’s grandparents, Florence and James Chapple. Gee has been quoted as stating that ‘much of George and Edith Plumb’s early history is Chapple history’. But the later part of the narrative is not.

In the novel, George Plumb, now elderly, looks back on his past life and tells his own story. The narrative moves between George Plumb’s memories and the present time, when he is planning to travel from Peacehaven to Wellington for a special visit. During the telling of the story we discover Plumb’s past history as a Presbyterian minister, the accusations of sedition against him, and his own spiritual journey. And Plumb’s voice is extremely convincing.

Although not as a Real Plumb: let me explain further. I have to admit that I only read all of Plumb fairly recently as when I had tried to read it previously I’d found it uncomfortable continuously reading the name ‘Plumb’ in the narrative (being a Plumb myself), and I’d put the book aside. Plumb is not a common name. But for me it was, as there were many children in my father’s family: Jill Plumb, Stella Plumb, Bill and Bobbie Plumb (the twins), and my own father, Harry Plumb, and many more. They were all Plumbs.

And within the family we would often speak of a child as ‘looking Plumby’, or of having ‘a Plumby sense of humour’. Plumbs were good at telling stories, having parties, and cracking jokes and laughing. A famous Australian Plumb was Gwen Plumb, an actress. We once swapped communications which included the agreement that, yes, we both ‘looked Plumby’.

My problem with George Plumb is that – he doesn’t look Plumby and nor does he sound Plumby, and I think this is why the novel was difficult at first for me to read. My favourite Gee book is actually The Fat Man (1995), a very scary children’s book.

So, comment from Pan Wiedemann – as I know you have actually read Plumb (maybe thinking it was about me!).


Adam Wiedemann:

We don’t have any book called Wiedemann because it’s a German name, mostly popular in Bavaria (though my family comes from Berlin); it’s an old medieval word, originally used for the producers of wicker baskets and fences. When I was born, there were only 13 Wiedemanns in Poland (my grandmother, my two uncles and two aunts, my two cousins, my parents, my father’s first wife, my two stepbrothers and one stepsister), but now, I suppose, there’s about three times more of them, mostly thanks to my Uncle Zenon who had many wives and mistresses, and many children with them, who have now children and even grandchildren.

From the literary point of view – there are three Wiedemanns in the USA: John Edgar Wiedemann (a novelist; the only thing I know about him is that he’s African American and teaches at Brown University); Barbara Wiedemann (a poet from South Florida); and – last but not least – Elettra Wiedemann (a columnist and daughter of Isabella Rossellini). Another Barbara Wiedemann lives in Thübingen, Germany, and is the editor of Paul Celan’s work; once, I was asked whether I was her son.

Characters called Wiedemann appear episodically in novels by Thomas Mann and Harry Mullisch.  I like this name because it’s connected with weaving and we have an old Polish word pleciuga which in one sense means ‘a weaver’ but in another sense means a tattler or storyteller. So I feel a connection to my name, though my mother uses it as invective. When she wants to criticise my behaviour, she says: ‘You do it like a typical Wiedemann’. Her maiden name is very Polish: Kubiak, and she is not happy being a Wiedemann.

I got the Plumb novel from you and just read it. Of course, Maurice Gee is completely unknown in Poland and – I’m afraid – he’ll be never translated because the problems and adventures of a Presbyterian minister are too exotic for our readers, although the struggles between evolutionists and creationists are still vivid (religion is an obligatory subject in schools). But the novel is written in a traditional way and with ‘transparent’ language, so reading it was not difficult for me. It was a bit boring because what I like in prose is the grotesque mixture of humour and tragedy, and here I don’t find it. If I could find you in this book, I’d say you’d be Plumb’s daughter, who is quite reasonable and likes cooking.

So, maybe we can speak now about eating, you’ve been to Poland several times: what is the most strange thing for you about Polish food?

[PS. I did ask another friend (who works for a publishing house) about the number of poetry books published annually in Poland and he found it: 1692 last year. So, imagine…]


Vivienne Plumb:

Dear Adasz – Yes! Food! Let’s talk about food. I have read some of the other conversations/koreros on the ANZL site and I didn’t notice people mentioning food so much, so we will remedy that, as we all know that food is what writers truly think about. When we were both in Iowa at the university, the other writers on the same programme discussed annoying noises in their environment, annoying furniture in their environment, money, agents, publishers, and FOOD.


Fresh corn at the Iowa City Famers’ Market.


Of course, it has been said that I often write about food in my work – my mother was an excellent cook and my father a baker, so maybe there is an influence there. But food is part of our very being, and it reflects so much about any culture.

In Poland I loved the pierogi – similar to small Chinese dumplings or Italian tortellini. I liked the way they have different kinds of stuffings (sweet and savoury). I also like the special cheese they sell in Kraków: Oscypek. It’s smoked salted sheep milk cheese and comes from the Tatra Mountains. It tastes salty, and very sharp. Individual men and women sell it around the market, or in places like that underground walkway at the railway station.

Bigos [or Hunters’ Stew] seemed the strangest Polish food to me. But I enjoy the general mixture of sweet and sour or tart tastes in Polish food – the sour cream, the sauerkraut, the pickles; and then the cakes and sweet breads, such as the chalka that I wrote about in one of my Polish poems. When staying in Kraków, our dear friend Jarek Klejnberg, another writer, advised me most pointedly (at midnight) that he and I should urgently eat chalka early in the morning, with coffee, fresh from the shop below the apartment in Blich St, Kraków. It is a sweet bread made in a plait, and it was excellent.

Later, I visited Jarek in the small village near Warsaw where he now lives. He was in the Little White House with a wood fire stove and dried tobacco leaves which he kept rolling into cigarettes, while he made his drawings. I slept in the Big House where his granny and brother, Andrej, were living (his mother and her partner had gone away for a few days). Granny, (who I liked a lot) and I could not speak Polish or English to each other and understand, but we made apple pancakes together and the making of that food was a bond that leapt the language barrier. Then Granny would shout: Andrej! Andrej! for Andrej to go down the stairs all the way down to a cellar and put more coal (was it coal?) in the heater.

And there was snow so deep. I had never seen so much snow! I wanted to walk in it all the time (although Jarek thought this madness). When it’s fresh it squeaks and if it’s old it can be hard and icy. And Andrej’s dog barked, boof boof boof.

And then Jarek said, we will take you for a walk in the Polish forest. And my knees knocked together in a delicious fear and I dressed in all my thoroughly useful New Zealand cold-weather clothes and we drove to this small forest and got out with the dog. But no, maybe the dog wasn’t there. But I want him to be there, anyway. So I place him in the story now. And Jarek said, we will walk in the forest and drink the gold vodka. It was maybe Gorzka Żołądkowa. As we walked the snow began to fall again, slow at first and very beautiful, and then thick, and it became colder. It was an unbearable fairy story, an environment I had never known physically, only read about in fairy tales when I was a child. It was colder and colder, and then this is what I thought: what a way to die, to drink the Gorzka Żołądkowa in the snow. Maybe you sit down on a bank of snow to rest, drink some more, then you lie down, and kaput. (You freeze.)

Regarding your favourite ‘grotesque mixture of humour and tragedy’ – these are the sort of works that the general reading public of New Zealand seem to abhor (according to a recent article in the Listener).

They instead prefer historical-type stories about family that may contain a little humour (not too much, and definitely not grotesque), and no drastic ending. (For instance, the plays of Sarah Kane are very rarely performed here.)

New Zealand is a young country and many prefer to call a peg a peg, and if the peg hurriedly transforms into a pig overnight, it can be troubling. What does that mean? some would ask. A peg becomes a pig? And I cannot answer, only to say that change is inevitable.


Adam Wiedemann:

I see food from another point of view. Eating (and shitting) humiliates me, this putting strange things into me and digesting them. I’d prefer to not eat, only absorb some minerals. But I know the story about the great Slovenian poet Jure Detela who died because he denied eating, so I eat, and even sometimes I like it. It must be simply clean and tasty. (I like hot spices). Because I eat, I eat meat as well, my body needs it: it’s a question of hunger, a need of some specific substances. My stomach hates soya and even too many vegetables seem to make me sick, what to do? I hate ‘elegant restaurants’, prefer small Chinese or Vietnamese sheds (happily, very popular in Warsaw). Oriental cuisine is the best.


A plate of Bigos.


I like bigos the most of all Polish food because cooking bigos is a ritual. My mother is a mistress of bigos and she knows the recipe from the great writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (he had a radio talk about it in the 60s and she’s remembered). Good bigos needs three days of cooking, First you wash two kilos of sauerkraut and then cook it with a big amount of tomato pulp (the pot must be big). On a pan you fry different kinds of meat cut into little pieces (no sausage: bigos with sausage is a fake), then you mix them with the sauerkraut, adding prunes, raisins, red wine and caramelised sugar or honey. The most important spice is the juniper berries: they make it smell like a forest. And then you cook it for three days on the small fire. The result must be brown and soft, and you eat it with bread and butter. I do it only once a year, for my birthday, and it is enough for all the guests (for the vegetarians I prepare a smaller pot with beans instead of meat). I dislike cooking but when I cook, I do it well because I’m attentive.

What I also like a lot is czernina, soup made of duck’s blood (popular only in the Wielkopolska district, where I’m from). It’s black, with small white dumplings and dried fruits (I’m just back from Poznań, where I ate czernina in my favourite restaurant Król S). I must say, I prefer it when food is a little dramatic and strange. I like seafood as well, especially small cuttlefish in Slovenia and tiny fish served as French fries. But okay, it’s boring.

Jarek Klejnberg is one of my best friends and I constantly complain that he’s published only one book of short stories because he is very talented writer. Recently he began to write a novel about a Martian, Ezekiel, who visits him and his family in the Cieńsza village, but after three chapters he stopped. It’s a problem with Jarek now that he’s unable to finish anything, maybe because of these times which do not favour a literature like his (fantastic, narcotic, funny and full of abominations). But I’m sure, the people in the future will adore him as an écrivain maudit. What a consolation.

The vodka you drank could be Żołądkowa (good for the frost) but we have also Golden Vodka from Gdańsk that contains really small flakes of gold, probably only for the visual effect, though it’s very tasty as well. (Jarek just called and said that it was Żołądkowa.)


Vivienne Plumb:

Okay, so enough about food! And vodka. We are obviously both obsessed with it! I remember emails in the past where we have simply described our most favourite recent meals! You speak about your friendship with Jarek, which is an important one, so finally, this brings us to the subject of friendship. Writers work in isolation, and for this reason ‘writing friends’ are important.

We first met in Slovenia, and then in Iowa we established a friendship based on our own writing, our thoughts, our sense of humour (which involves an interest in the absurdities of the everyday). After Iowa we kept emailing, we wrote letters, encouraged each other, and discussed writing problems. I visited Poland and discovered I liked it.

We have cooked Polish cheesecake, and also New Zealand scones, together. I have worn your jacket and you have worn my scarf. You have translated my poems, and our writing friendship appears to outrageously continue. What will happen now? At the end of the day, I believe human contact and human friendship is one of the most essential requirements in life. So, we will go on, as everyone must.






'The thirty-five of us were in the country of dream-merchants, and strange things were bound to happen.' - Anne Kennedy

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Melbourne by night. Photo credit: Kevin Rabalais

Conversation/Kōrero: Pip Adam and Kevin Rabalais



Pip Adam

Pip Adam


ANZL member Pip Adam’s short stories have been widely anthologised, and her first collection of short stories Everything We Hoped For  (2010) won the award for best first book of fiction at the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Following a PhD project exploring how engineers describe the built environment, her first novel, I’m Working on a Building, was published in 2013. In her Better Off Read podcast, she talks with authors about writing and reading.


Kevin Rabalais photo Sabina Hopfer

Kevin Rabalais. Photo credit: Sabina Hopfer


Kevin Rabalais was born in Louisiana and now lives in Melbourne. For his debut novel, The Landscape of Desire (2008), he received a Sydney Morning Herald Award for Best Young Novelist. His work has appeared in Tin HouseBrickThe Kenyon Review  and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He edits the on-line literary website Sacred Trespasses.


This conversation took place via email in August 2016.


Pip Adam:

I’ve just finished reading through a draft of a long thing I’m working on, so thought I’d take a break and write to you.

I’m working up in our loft. It’s a mess. The ceiling is low. I barely fit. You can also see the washing rack which is beside me – I work in among the washing drying. There is a skylight above me which lets in the light and the sun; it’s pretty cool when it rains. The other day it hailed. My child is home from school. She is downstairs watching old episodes of Pokemon. So this is how I write and work, in among the washing with ‘Pikachu’ repeatedly in my ear-shot.

That’s a copy of Annie Dillard’s The Abundance under a copy of Janet Frame’s Intensive Care which I haven’t taken out of the paper bag they put it in when I bought it. I’ve read it. It’s fucking great. Like I always thought, ‘Yeah, Janet Frame, she’s good.’ But then I started reading some of these later novels and my mind is just kind of blown. Intensive Care is a touchstone for the long thing I’m writing. I bought this copy to try and keep me on track. I am like a magpie always diverted by the new shiny shiny things. Commitment is not my strong suit.

Anyway, I’m up here and I’m pretty grateful for some time to be up here and to be writing – well, rewriting. I kind of love this part but also find it hard with a longer thing because I am moving much bigger things around. My last novel was very – erm – let’s say ‘fragmented’: that’s a thing people say, eh? So I was always moving bite-sized pieces around in the revising stages but wow, this is a lot hard, I have these BIG chunks which I have to sort of manoeuvre like huge fishing ships.

What are you up to? What’s it like where you’re typing from?

This thing I’m writing is not really behaving itself. I went to a talk yesterday with Tracey Slaughter and Sue Orr. Tracey Slaughter was talking about short story writers, that transition to writing novels for ‘market reasons’, and how sometimes the novels aren’t very good – that somehow they lack the intensity of the short story. I have been playing hooky from this big thing all year – cheating on it with short stories. I love short fiction so much. I’m not sure I have any idea how to sustain a story, how to write in all that connective tissue that a novel seems to need. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I am just trying to find reasons not to finish this long thing – even the fact I won’t call it a ‘novel’ makes me suspicious. Do you have different novel-writing and short story-writing heads? What is the mysterious weirdness that happens between the page-lengths?

I am in love with short novels – which is a lie, because I also love long novels. This year I was taken by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. I so loved the way there was so much more ‘inside’ the books than the sum of the size of them. The Landscape of Desire is 280 pages long. I just found that out.

Is length the thing? Is Heart of Darkness a novel? What is the difference that isn’t length? Tracey Slaughter also said yesterday, ‘A novel wants to befriend you – a short story never does.’ Which got me thinking about Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice, the way he points out the difference in the protagonist in the short story how he is ‘brother’ but in a novel he is ‘me’. I really do think that when I pretend to write novels I’m really just writing lots of short stories.

I’m reading A Little Life at the moment and have just finished The Mare by Mary Gaitskill which blew my mind. In a workshop a lot of what was great about it might have been ‘tidied up’. It’s a hard book, possibly a mean book, but boy, it moved me. It was pretty amazing.

Maybe it’s the space that I write in that’s making it hard to write long? Maybe if it didn’t feel like an ‘everything’ space it might feel like a place to lay down roots and settle in for the long haul.

How did you come to write a novel about Australia? What’s that place about?


Pip Adam's desk.

Pip Adam’s desk.


Kevin Rabalais:

Last night while returning home from an evening at the cinema in Melbourne, my wife and I, along with a dear friend, the novelist Daniel Stephensen, started talking about our favourite passages in the work of Clarice Lispector. We all eventually pointed to the second paragraph of A Breath of Life: ‘I write as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own.’ Change the word ‘write’ to ‘read’, and I would only have to make one further amendment: certainly my own.

I’ve always thought of writing as a means to fill that empty space on the bookshelf—to write, that is, so that you may at last be able to read the book you’ve always wanted (perhaps the word is needed) to encounter.

It’s nice to meet you this way, over e-mail, though I’ve always had this notion that readers move through a realm where there are no borders and that, in the shared heat and passion of our endeavour, we all know things about one another that non-readers never will. We read and know that we are not alone; we share this world with others, and it’s most likely that we also share similar dreams—me, a proud native of Louisiana (a third-world country in the Gulf of Mexico, much more Caribbean than American) who now lives in Australia, and a Palestinian grandmother living in Ramallah.

Having said that, I can be obsessive about national literatures. By chance, the day before your message arrived, a friend gave me a copy of Auckland University Press’s Anthology of New Zealand Literature, edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams. ‘Everything is connected in the end,’ DeLillo writes at the end of Underworld. I look forward to getting to know you and your work, Pip.

And thank you for the Janet Frame recommendations. I like writers whose prose has a physical effect on me. Her sentences certainly make me feel in ways that, now that I realise I haven’t read her in years, force me to wonder what I’ve been doing with my time. And ah, yes, the wondrous Annie Dillard. Reading Annie Dillard makes me think of an interview I had with William H. Gass, circa 1999. We were talking about Colette. You read her, he said, and think, yes, please give me another taste.

May you have memorable days (to borrow from James Salter) and many hours of intense writing.


Pip Adam:

Melbourne is such an awesome city. I had such a great week there last year with Laurence Fearnley. Her friend Louis who works at the Johnston Collection showed us around and took us up to Castlemaine and Hanging Rock on a very hot day. I liked it a lot.

My friend Kirsten McDougall has written an incredible short story called ‘A Visitation’ about Clarice Lispector visiting a narrator very similar to Kirsten at a home very similar to Kirsten’s. It’s so great. So everything is connected in the end.

I just finished reading your reflections on Sebastião Salgado. So great. I love reading writers talking about reading. In the talk I mentioned yesterday, Tracey Slaughter said reading fills her up with language and then it brims over into her own writing. Then Sue Orr spoke about how she often finds the solution to a writing problem she is having while she is reading, even when she is reading something simply for pleasure. I wonder if the pleasure is part of the alchemy.

I love your ideas about Salgado’s photography helping us comprehend the major events of our time and ‘showing us not only the glories of our planet but also the crimes we have committed against it’. Comprehend is such a great word and I love seeing it associated with an art form with no words. As a bookish type I always think of words being the tools to understanding but really, if I think about it, when my writing is at its most political what I’m really trying to do is make pictures, in an attempt to escape words which can be argued against and manipulated and just show some pure experience which says, ‘Hey, this is life on earth. Let’s help each other.’

As a person who has, at very close proximity, a person who is non-lexical, for whom words don’t make sense, I’m really interested in this act we call ‘reading’ and I think that’s what I’m trying to Underworld-connect here – your ideas about what reading gives us and the way you talk about the power of the image. Is it a narrative power?

I spoke with my friend Aaron Lister about my obsession for photography the other day. He compared a sculptor, Glen Hayward, with Fiona Pardington, the photographer we were talking about, to try and get to what my obsession might be about. In an interview in the Pantograph Punch he said they’re ‘both exploring that relationship between art, that veil, or that space between an art experience and a real world experience which is really interesting terrain for a variety of reasons. Photography provides an interesting route into that, but it’s not the only route.’

I’m really interested in realism at the moment. I have a class of 12 intelligent young people who seem to have very little interest in it. I had a student a few years ago say to me, ‘Why would I want to write about what’s real when I could just look out the window?’ I feel really enthusiastic about this excitement for new worlds and am intensely interested in ‘getting to the bottom’ of what that’s about. It is so great to send them to Jorge Luis Borges and Stanislaw Lem and sort of re-ignite that other tradition, and it’s exciting when they bring authors to me, stories that move them. Games they’ve played, films and television they’ve watched, music they’ve heard or made.

I just thought about how much I love José Saramago. Like there was just a flash in my body of his story ‘The Centaur’ and that ignited a memory of those opening scenes of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. These things come back to my body, not my mind, sometimes.

Today I have been listening to an interview with Ivan Coyote, who is coming to Christchurch soon, and thinking about what ‘public’ means. I’m just about to read ‘Sea Oak’ by George Saunders again for the workshop we have on Friday.


Kevin Rabalais:

Your note about realism reminds me of why I failed to answer some of the questions you asked in a previous letter. What’s real, in this era of strange politics, has assumed the charge of the surreal. I’m thinking, namely, of a certain candidate in this American presidential election. I wake each day bracing for what he’s done now. This man (he doesn’t even deserve to be named, much less consideration of a vote) has rattled me so much—all of this attention to a vulgar human being who in saner times wouldn’t deserve the time it takes us to utter the two words he became famous for delivering on his reality television show—that I find myself dropping obligations. For the first time, I’m having trouble concentrating, which means (for the first time) that I’m having to reread almost every paragraph my eyes drift over.

For that reason, perhaps more than at any other time in my life, I find myself clinging to the bookshelves, seeking the sanctuary of literature. If there’s any moment to question the validity to this notion I’ve devoted my life to—that literature can change our lives, that it can offer us sustenance and guidance, and that (at the absolute least) a few lines of verse or prose can enhance the quality of our days—then this is it. I won’t say much more about politics, only to note that as an American, and as a human being, I am frightened and disgusted and ashamed to witness the rise of this man (here I wink at Robert Musil) without a soul.

It didn’t surprise me to find that a novelist, rather than a political pundit, has offered the most memorable detail about this man’s physical appearance. In a recent Harper’s article, Martin Amis wrote about this candidate’s ‘omelet of makeup’. The detail made me stop thinking  (thankfully, mercifully) about this candidate and remember the undeniably elegant nature of great prose and how it provides us with details we never forget. It allows us—begs us, at times forces us—to rethink the way we view the world.

All of this makes me fear that Neil Postman was correct when, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, he declared Huxley, rather than Orwell, the true prophet: ‘What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be “drowned in a sea of irrelevance”’.

The truth, of course, will always be there for those who are strong enough to continue asking questions, for those who aren’t afraid to step out of the chaotic rush and look at things for a long time. To look at them, that is, in that way that Raymond Carver said writers must, not caring that others might think we’re being foolish.

I’m tucking away some of those good questions of yours which I’ve failed, still, to answer. I promise to do my best to think of them thoughtfully, to paraphrase something I once heard the wondrous Bill Manhire say.


Centre Way Bride. Photo credit: Kevin Rabalais

Centre Way Bride. Photo credit: Kevin Rabalais.


Pip Adam:

So great to get your email and the photograph. What a magnificent image. I love the way it seems to hold different times in it. At first I saw the straight tie and blonde crew cut and thought you’d sent me to the fifties, then there was this wonderful blossoming of the contemporary – the Souvlaki, that cell phone, the T-shirt. It’s so great.

Recently I’ve been talking a bit to friends about the idea that time is circular rather than linear. That maybe we stand with all time past and present rather than being at a point in it. It’s not science fiction that’s led me to this but Patricia Grace and some study I’ve been doing about whakapapa. I love how whakapapa is about so much more than just who my grandmother was; I love how it forms connections with people now and how it is added to by each generation, and how the word comes with a sense of being grounded in something. The amazing writer and artist Rachel O’Neill came to talk to our undergraduate workshop last year and she talked about how she had been thinking about whakapapa in terms of where her work was grounded, where she was grounded as an artist.

For a long time I had this idea that writing should be about some kind of Byronic impulse and that it should flow out of me unwitnessed. That to ask of it anything was blasphemy. But I loved the way Rachel talked about questioning where my writing was grounded. About thinking about where it stood and where it came from and what it was adding.

The theatre-makers Victor Rodger and Nina Nawalowalo were at the Writers on Mondays series at Te Papa yesterday  and Victor talked about the place of arts in these worrying times. He talked about arts ability to name something, to hold it up for inspection and challenge and I think this is why Martin Amis and other writers (I love George Saunders’ New Yorker piece ‘Who are all these Trump Supporters?’) resound as they do when their art is turned on politics.

It’s funny, in my own writing I feel like I have always ‘written politically’ but I have felt more and more inclined toward the didactic recently. Like, I used to think I needed to be arch so people could clearly see what I was getting at and that if I ‘got at it’ to head-on people would be turned off. But I have been feeling so desperate that I feel like I’ve turned the volume up and up. Overland were kind enough to publish this. I felt as though I was SCREAMING in this but for some reason it felt right for the moment.

I went to a couple of conversations about politics in the arts last year and people kept saying for a political work to be successful as art it needs to be not-didactic – and I always thought that but recently I have been questioning myself about that. I love George Saunders. Each year as a bit of a temperature-taking, I get the undergraduate class to read ‘Sea Oak’. When I first read it, the class was very clear about the predicament of the characters – how little choice they had, how completely the American dream was out of their reach – but, and this is totally unscientific, over the years I’ve noticed a real shift in sympathy. I’ve had more than one student say, ‘I hate it when people won’t help themselves – it’s frustrating. Why don’t they just move or get another job?’

It may say something about the narrowing of the student population due to the cost of university education but I reckon it is more to do with the neoliberal catastrophe we’re living in. The idea that it is a level playing field and people just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We have working families in New Zealand living in cars and on the streets, and I think this terrifies all New Zealand and I think the most dangerous people are scared people.

I think what neoliberalism offers is the assurance that if you work hard enough you will never live on the streets and if you are living on the streets you just haven’t worked hard enough yet. I think this is a great comfort for people not living on the streets – it’s not their fault that other people are living on the streets, they get to ‘keep theirs’ because they ‘earned theirs’. They are in complete control of their destiny, and it is through their power alone that they have kept their family off the streets.

And I get that. It’s good news for a terrifying time, and I completely understand the appeal of the neoliberal agenda and the climate-denying agenda – I really hope those people saying there’s no such thing as climate change are right. But it just doesn’t seem to be true, and experience and facts don’t seem to support this idea. We have a ‘self-made’ Prime Minister here and it seems to have infected Aotearoa from head to toe. Our government is not very fond of the truth.

Despite the reading of the situation of the characters I keep asking people to read ‘Sea Oak’ largely because it names something, and that frustration some of the readers feel seems as important as the sympathy others feel. It annoys them in a way that I hope keeps itching and itching at them.

I really enjoyed your piece on Harold Brodsky. He is so great!


Kevin Rabalais:

I’ve been thinking about your ideas about the flow of time, namely, as you write, ‘That maybe we stand with all time past and present rather than being at a point in it’. I mentioned, in my previous letter, a mounting inability to concentrate on reading, one of the things I hold dearest in life, this act of reading that provides so much sanctuary, so much sustenance. Your letter has made me think about how much time we spend falling back into the past, moving around inside the fading heat of our memories. Either that, or we seem to step out of the current in order to plan for the future, as though we could possibly have control over such things. (Man thinks, God laughs, the Jewish maxim has it, something I learned from Milan Kundera.)

Your thoughts on time and whakapapa have led me back to one of my favourite passages in the work of V.S. Naipaul—the final paragraph of the prologue to A Way in the World: ‘But we all go back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings’. And so thank you for sending me back to Naipaul, which then led me to Kundera’s opening passages of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he writes of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. I first read that novel as an eighteen-year-old university student on spring break. I was in southern California for the first time. I can still feel the energy of Santa Monica, I can tell you everything you don’t want to know about the weather, what the friend I travelled with wore and said and ate, when he laughed, all of it held together, in memory, by Kundera’s ideas and characters.

That kind of voice and vision seems to be rare, all the more valuable for it, of course. I’ve always been in awe, if that’s the correct word, of the way we’re able to recognize whether one writer is meant for us. It’s there, a certain charge, in the first lines; we feel it or we don’t; and when we do, the work arrives as though it has been handed down to us as a gift—the beautiful gift of a book or poem or story that didn’t live, didn’t thrive, until someone took the time to consign it to the page. Such gifts give infinity a much-needed level of privacy.

You mention George Saunders, one writer whose sentences and paragraphs a reader could easily pick out of a line up, I think. I admire such writers and am reading one of them now: Bob Shacochis, whose most recent novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, continues to haunt me after a second read. As for Saunders, I’ve always wanted to read more of his work. I’ll begin again with ‘Sea Oak’, a story I could read on-line, I’ve just discovered, if only I knew how to use this computer as something more than a typewriter. And I like your reference to Patricia Grace. I’m about to read Potiki again for a long article I’ve been asked to write. Please send any other recommendations.


Pip Adam:

I so love reading you talking about reading. It really is a gift, eh? I never really cottoned on to reading until I was at least in my late twenties. I had read, at times, but stopped at some point, not really realising the impact it would have. I think it might have been due to that lack of finding books that were ‘meant for me’. I so love that idea. When I was younger, at home, at high school – maybe even primary school – I read nothing but S.E. Hinton. I read the books over and over again. I was so interested in this place where only boys lived. I got my grandmother to cut off the sleeves of one of my sweatshirts and gave a speech about The Outsiders at primary school. I also made a poster about Rumble Fish at high school. I was so obsessed with this place where the only adult in your house is an older brother. I am sure there is something Freudian in the mix. So wanting to be a boy, so wanting to be with boys.

Then I left school and started working and I just don’t think I found another book that was ‘meant for me’. Until I went to university in my twenties and discovered poetry. That blew my mind! And then I wanted to be a poet. I think it was the music in poetry that I responded to so much. In one poetry paper we got to do Laurie Anderson and Bob Dylan and Talking Heads and I was like, ‘I have arrived!’ And then I left university and started working again and I don’t think it was much later until I read another book. I think it was Emma by Jane Austen. I wanted to be brainy, I worked pretty menial jobs and I wanted to sort of elevate myself above it all – so I read Austen, because I knew Austen was for brainy people.

But yes, that thing when a work ‘arrives’ to us. I love how you put that. I have this theory that this is the only way to teach creative writing. To teach people to notice that moment when they read so that they will hear/feel it when they are reading their own work. I always think of it as a noise. Like art outside me makes a noise and something inside me makes a noise and sometimes the two noises harmonise or really rattle each other in a useful way. Like that way your teeth are set on edge when cicadas hit that right tone.

I just did this odd thing today on the radio.

And coincidentally, it got me thinking about how books are tied up with memories, like your Santa Monica experience. As I took Infinite Jest off the shelf I could almost smell the train I used to take while I was reading it. And Vanity Fair reminds me always of summer in Auckland. I was wondering if this was only with some books.


Pip reading with her dog.

Pip reading with her dog.


Kevin Rabalais:

Yes, ‘to hear/feel’ the moment, as you write. The more I read, the more covetous I grow of my time. That is, I want the work before me to become more than words merely consigned to the page. I want an arrangement on the page that moves beyond the possibilities of speech, beyond first or even third thoughts. (I say arrangement, though performance might just as well do. I think, here, of what Les Murray writes in ‘The Instrument’: writing permits the means of ‘working always beyond your own intelligence’. Perhaps there’s already too much clutter in the world to let anything less pass.)

I do, however, understand the danger of this: writing in a way that looks like, well, writing. It seems that the work itself may always be an attempt to achieve what Lispector writes about in The Hour of the Star: ‘Remember that, no matter what I write, my basic material is the word. So this story will consist of words that form phrases from which there emanates a secret meaning that exceeds both words and phrases’.

Back to your idea (which I admire) about seeking to ‘hear/feel’ the work—your own or that of someone else. I never really understood why you would do drugs if you could read Beckett. That overwhelming physical power of his prose. I have a soft spot for writers whose work strives to create a physical sensation in the reader, writers whose sentences cut and wound and soothe, all within a paragraph. I like the way, for instance, that Nadine Gordimer punches me in the gut with one sentence and then embraces me with the next.

I enjoyed hearing your interview on RNZ. I particularly like how you label yourself a slow reader. I always figure I’m one of the slowest. Then again, I sometimes wonder if there is any other way … Also: the way you say that reading should feel like an adventure. I love how, mercifully, I forget the plots of books, even the ones I reread every year. I’m less curious about what happens than in where the writer leads me, how she does it. And in the palms of a great writer, I’m happy to go anywhere, no matter the subject. A great story with mediocre writing, on the other hand …

For now, thanks for leading me to your wonderful interview and all of the ‘long’ books under discussion. It has given me confidence to embark on my third attempt to read Carlos Fuentes’s Terra Nostra, a novel that haunts and confuses and inspires me.


Pip Adam:

I loved reading your last email. Especially the bit about ‘working always beyond your own intelligence’. It got me thinking about how reading is such a physical thing. I loved the reminder of books that ‘punch me in the gut’. I’m really interested in how the body is involved with reading and writing – about how the word feels in the mouth and how the memory of that feeling lives in the muscle memory even when’re reading without engaging our mouths. How long ‘o’s make us make that kissing shape with our lips and set the tongue down low in a way that always feels sexy to me. The way long ‘e’s pull the lips back into a smile that could be happy but is more like we are showing our teeth like an animal cornered. I also love the way a book – black scratches on white – can make me sick to my stomach, or terrified or cry. That just never ceases to amaze me. When I was reading Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, I felt as though I was reading it at such a distance – as though I could see all its mechanics and felt very unengaged from it emotionally – when suddenly, and inexplicably to my conscious self, I found myself crying. It was incredible – it felt like a moment of a book working beyond my intelligence. Just out of my reach, behind my mind and without my permission. While I was looking at what I thought the book was doing, it was doing something completely different.

So great to hear you talk about Beckett. I read Murphy years ago for an English paper and I still have the feeling of that book in me. As soon as I read the name in your email I was there, tied to a rocking chair, chess games in my head. Whenever I think of Beckett I think of those drawers in Krapp’s Last Tape. The weight of the banana and the reel that sits in them those moments before Krapp opens them.


etal01 Et Al. exhibition I talk about. It's from here

Et al exhibition.


One of my favourite New Zealand artists is the collective Et Al. In 2003 I went to a collection of their work at the Govett-Brewster Gallery called abnormal mass delusions? which included an installation piled high with books. The books were bolted shut but they held a weight, and there was something about them that hummed. An exhibition note explained that P. Mule (one of the collective) had written on every page of each of the books and even though I couldn’t see this I felt it. All of this I’m telling you from memory. A memory I return to and make up over and over again.

There were probably only a couple of books; they probably weren’t bolted shut at all. I probably didn’t feel ‘the weight’ until I read the note. I am very sure that P. Mule had appeared at the opening, written on some pages which they ripped from a book and then sold and I am probably forcing the two stories together to fit with my mistake that we get told what’s in Krapp’s drawers in stage directions but never see them (I checked, Krapp has that banana and tape out of the draw before the curtain’s barely up). But surely there is a power in the work behind the work. Like surely the scraping away that Beckett did – the increasing minimalism of his work – is only possible if there is something to be discarded? Isn’t the waste also implicit in the work? Surely the hundreds of years of comedy are part of what makes it possible for an audience to ‘read’ Waiting for Godot or Louise or Lady Dynamite or any of the comedy that isn’t funny which I love so much. Q for Pip: is this Lady Dynamite the TV show or the music act? What is Louise?

I am obsessed with comedy that isn’t funny because I am always interested in how much of something you can take away before it stops being what it is. It all started when I studied Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Paintings – black on the wall. The idea of taking narrative out of painting because narrative comes from the technology of literature not the technology of painting. Trying to produce work that comes completely from the tools that create it. I guess that’s where my obsession with narrative comes from. What is a book without narrative? Is it even possible? Is narrative something innate in the mechanics of writing and reading or can we escape it? Are our minds patter-making, story-making machines because they work that way or do we train them with our incessant ordering of life into time and logic and feeling order?

There’s a writer who lives about fifteen minutes drive from here called Geoff Cochrane. He’s one of my favourite writers and it’s his work where I feel most free of narrative – or rather where I see a new way of ordering the world. His fiction is amazing – especially his short fiction – but he also writes the most incredible poetry. My body is rebelling with the word ‘incredible’. It is winding at the fact I can’t find a better word. It is sort of tapping at my insides saying, ‘This is what Geoff’s poetry is!’ but I don’t have words for it. But the way it moves is at once satisfying and completely un-pin-downable. Although I haven’t tried hard. I’m sure somewhere, someone can explain the way it moves, the way each books seems to be greater than the sum of its parts but I don’t want to know. I want it to keep playing at me.


Kevin Rabalais:

I’m curious about the kind of work that you write about, fiction which is free of narrative. I always tell myself that I need to read more promiscuously. There are times, and I’ve recently fallen into one of them, when I grow too comfortable in my reading. I revisit the same writers I’ve followed for years—lately, V.S. Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Denis Johnson, Norman Rush and Joan Didion. I’m still learning from them. I know that I’ll still be learning from them years from now. But I also know that it’s necessary to stand before the unexpected, to open myself to the kind of work that will point me toward new possibilities.

Your note has also reminded me of what I’ve read about your own work as being ‘a kind of post-post modern fiction—nothing meta, no irony, no narrative arc, no insights or character transformations’. I want to feel, as a reader, what Paul Bowles hoped to experience in his travels: to visit, on each journey, places unlike any I’ve encountered before. Please send some of your work, which I very much look forward to reading. I’ve been meaning to ask you to do so for some time.

My own reading life has come to such a halt that it can mean only one thing: it’s time to get serious about the project that I’ve been putting off for too long. There are books we must write and years in which we must write them, to paraphrase James Salter, who writes it much more elegantly in his miraculous ‘recollection’, Burning the Days. I felt this way (this gets back to one of your earliest questions) about the story that led me to Australia and which became my first novel. Sitting in a New Orleans café during one of those afternoon thunderstorms strong enough to set off car alarms and which New Orleanians can set their clocks by, I read about the Burke and Wills Expedition. It was a brief passage from Mark Twain’s travels to Australia—a place, he claimed, where history ‘does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies’

And so, as I did then, I’ve found myself at the start of something new, that invigorating place in the work where anything is possible. Each day, I keep in mind (I would probably benefit from making cards to slip inside my wallet, on the refrigerator, the bathroom mirror, one pasted to the back of my hand) Isak Dinesen’s words about how we should write each day ‘without hope, without despair’.


Swans at SK Breakwater 2516

Swans on Melbourne shore. Photo credit: Kevin Rabalais



'I want you to think about what you would like to see at the heart of your national literature ' - Tina Makereti

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Photo credit: Kelly Ana Morey

Conversation/Kōrero: Paul Ewen and Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl


Photo credit:

Paul Ewen. Photo credit Mathew Coleman.


ANZL member Paul Ewen is a New Zealand writer who grew up in Ashburton, a place he writes about in his essay ‘The King and I’. He now lives in London. His novel Francis Plug – How To Be A Public Author was described by the Sunday Times reviewer as ‘the funniest book I’ve read in years.’ Reviewing his story collection, London Pub Reviews (2007), the Guardian called Ewen ‘the poet laureate of pub weirdos everywhere.’


Eiríkur Ørn Norðdahl.


Eiríkur Ørn Norðdahl was born in Reykjavík in 1978 and raised in Ísafjörður, a fishing village of just 2,623 people in northwest Iceland. He is the author of six books of poems, five novels, two collections of essays and a cook book with short, meditative essays on food. His 2012 novel, Illska (Evil), was awarded the Icelandic Literary Prize, the Book Merchant’s Prize, and the Transfuge award for best Nordic fiction. He is active in sound, performance and conceptual poetry, and is the translator of, among other works, the poetry of Allen Ginsberg.

This conversation took place via email during June and July 2016.


Paul Ewen:

I have to admit to a keen interest/curiosity in Iceland, which began with a visit there in 2010 – by coincidence, I was on the ground when Eyjafjallajökull started erupting, and although I was technically ‘trapped’ due to the ash cloud, I was actually rubbing my hands at the prospect of being ‘stuck’ in such an amazing place.

I was on another glacier when the one covering Eyjafjallajökull started melting, and the road that I had travelled on the day before was closed in order to remove some of the bridges before they were removed (swept away) by flood waters. This proved a good excuse to see more of the country, which, coming from my current life in the UK, reminded me very much of home in New Zealand. When I was eventually slipped out on a last-minute flight to Scotland, due to a brief change in the wind direction, every flight on the Arrivals monitor at Edinburgh was cancelled due to the Icelandic ash, except for my flight, from Iceland.


The Arrivals monitor in Edinburgh, with the only incoming flight during the ash cloud being Paul Ewen’s, from Reykjavik.


One strong memory of my ‘entrapment’ was at Kjarvalsstadir (Reykjavik Art Museum), when an older woman happened to ask me where I was from. When I said New Zealand she exclaimed, ‘Oh! A fellow island dweller! You are crazy, just like us!’

‘Speak for yourself,’ I replied, albeit respectfully. There certainly are strong similarities between the countries. Small populations, living on isolated geothermal wonderlands, one with Viking canoes, the other with Maori ones. Both countries popular as film locations, known for their dramatic landscapes. Each, arguably, with inhabitants who are overlooked, overpowered by their natural environment.

The Icelanders I met had a certain special way about them. I really felt like they were viewing the everyday world differently, a bit like Pessoa/Bernardo Soares in The Book of Disquiet. As if daily life and normal routines had a higher purpose. Maybe I’d just inhaled too much sulphur. But, to my knowledge, I never actually met any Icelandic writers on my travels. So now’s my chance, via email.

How was Sweden? I read that you spend a lot of time there. But I understand you’re actually based in Ísafjörður, in the northwest of Iceland. You mentioned [in an introductory email] the chaos of language and opinions you’ve been encountering online, and the contradictions these throw up. Do you think living in a fairly sparse and remote environment makes the disorder of the Internet seem even more full-on, chaotic, even violent?


Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl:

I’ve never been to New Zealand. My older brother has been there a few times with his family – he knows Kiri Te Kanawa, for some peculiar reason. I think maybe he was guiding her during a fishing trip in Iceland and they became friends. The closest I’ve gotten is watching Flight of the Conchords and Lord of the Rings – my guess is that if I sort of mix them together, the guys from FOTC with the landscapes from LOTR, I’ll get close to the truth. I also have a feeling your sheep are cuter than ours. I spent the second to last winter in Vietnam and saw a lot of NZ tourists. When I was in high school I got to know an Australian exchange student named Steve, but I’m told that’s different country.

I’m grasping. Grappling with my ignorance. Top of the Lake? Lorde? It’s strange how exotic everything feels when you know nothing about – and perhaps still stranger when you only know little, like the suggestiveness of a naked calf (the body part, not the animal – I’m not sure what the naked calf would suggest).

When Eyjafjallajökull erupted I was living in Sweden going to a poetry festival in Copenhagen. I wasn’t the only poet to show up – I took the train – but there were obviously not that many of us. We read at HC Andersen’s grave and talked about ash clouds. It all felt right, somehow.

About a year later – then living in Finland – Iceland was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt book fair. It was a big deal and almost all the authors went – there may be proportionally many writers in Iceland, but we’re still not many people. And they all more or less went on the same plane. I flew in from Helsinki and I remember thinking that if their plane crashes, Icelandic literature for the next decades is mine. All mine.

In any case. I don’t think Icelanders are very down to earth. And I don’t think they generally like or enjoy or give value to menial tasks. They want the Polish and Lithuanian immigrants to do menial tasks – not least take care of the tourists. Icelanders themselves would rather work for upstarts, be DJs or musicians or writers. I get that, although I’m generally more and more into menial tasks. There’s something about simple accomplishments. The attainability of them.

Last Sunday I needed to get out of small town in Sweden and the buses weren’t running and I couldn’t get a lift. So I walked to the closest open bus stop – 20 kilometres in 3.5 hours – took the bus into Norrköping and sat down to write at a café for two hours before heading back with the bus, and then walking the 20 kilometres back down the country road to the rural house I was staying at. I had to walk back a little faster to be off the road before dark (there were no lampposts). It was harder than I thought it would be – nowhere near devastating, but blistering and muscles are still sore (it’s Tuesday). The most enjoyable thing about it was that even though it was tiring and hard, it was so totally doable. And when it was done it was gone – I didn’t have to do it again. There are not a lot of problems in life that are simple like that.

As for the Internet and language – home never feels remote. I know that I live far away from a lot of things, including Reykjavík, but I don’t feel that. I feel more like the world is remote, Paris, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Toronto, all that. And objectively of course, the world – even the US empire – is very Eurocentric in its thinking. So even the far edges of Europe are still less remote than New Zealand. Do you feel New Zealand is remote?

The thing about the Icelandic Internet is that it actually feels very crowded. People are extremely connected – we’re the second-most avid Facebook users in the world, after Qatar, another small nation (although seven or eight times more populous than Iceland). And because of the size and the connectedness of everybody – we’re all more or less related of course – when you post something on Facebook it almost feels like you’re addressing the entire nation, all 330,000 of them. And then you only get like five ‘likes’. Which is depressing and creates a state of two related but partly opposed social dictatorships: the dictatorship of the funny and the dictatorship of the revealing and traumatic. A third might be the dictatorship of the social-warriorness.

And perhaps there’s no place remote in the world anymore. It’s all just an Instagram #hashtag away. Maybe that’s sad – and I’m saying that as somebody who was overjoyed with the Internet breaking my isolation at age 17. It frees us and breaks us.



Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl at his desk.


Paul Ewen:

Like Icelanders, New Zealanders are rather few and far between; we don’t have many A-listers. The fact that your brother is acquainted with Kiri Te Kanawa therefore is really quite something. She’s a proper Kiwi legend.

Mind you, if that plane-load of Icelandic writers had crashed, I’m sure even she would have boasted how she knew the brother of that most famous of Icelandic writers. Maybe she already does.

Lord of the Rings has definitely put New Zealand’s landscape on the map. And Flight of the Conchords and Lorde are great New Zealand ambassadors, as of course is Kiri Te Kanawa. Kiri has both Māori and European ancestry, and Māoritanga (Māori culture) is a major part of New Zealand’s identity and make-up. The novels of Witi Ihimaera and the short stories of Patricia Grace are good introductions to Māoritanga. Witi also wrote The Whale Rider (1987), which was made into a major film. Another film, Boy, by Taika Waititi, depicts the life of a Māori family in the 1980s, and is very funny – Taika works quite a bit with the Flight of the Conchords guys. Highly recommended.

New Zealand does feel remote to me, but that’s mainly because I live in London. From what I’ve heard, if someone went through the centre of the Earth from Paris, they’d end up in Christchurch (in Canterbury, where I spent most of my childhood). Geographically, New Zealand and Australia (which is like our America, if we were Canada), really are on the opposite side of the world from Europe, and the ‘West’. Yet when I was growing up, a good deal of our media came from Britain and America, and as a youngster, this is where most of my favourite bands were from, and where a lot of the books I read were set. As a result, I’ve always wanted to get out there and see these other worlds. Is that something you’ve felt too?

Before I left New Zealand, I worked for four years at student radio. In that time, I got right into local music, which only student radio was really playing at the time. Now however, the mainstream stations are playing far more local content, and it is helping to launch and support NZ talent such as Lorde and Fat Freddy’s Drop. I think the Internet has massively helped this, but there’s also been this new respect for our own culture and talent that was less prevalent when I was growing up, except on a sporting level. So even though we’re less remote thanks to the Internet, we’re embracing what we have at home, rather than just tapping into the outside world.

I left New Zealand in 1996, lived in Singapore for two years, then Vietnam for four years, before moving to London in 2002. The Internet helps me keep in touch with what’s going on in New Zealand, but it also reminds me of what I’m missing out on. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, so I’m less in touch with people, particularly old friends from New Zealand, but then I’m not really closely engaged with friends in London either, apart from catch-ups/chats in pubs, book launches etc. I Skype my family in New Zealand and Hawaii, and I email, and occasionally write postcards, but I suppose I have retreated from the Internet more than most. Although I do use it as an important news source.

Right now I’m struggling to get my head around Brexit, and the implications for the UK. Here in Britain, we have already suffered from two successive terms of Conservative rule, and now look to be run by even less progressive, even righter-wing politicians. Unfortunately, the nation’s disillusioned – particularly those on lower incomes who’ve suffered the most – have punished David Cameron, who basically lead the country into its current mess. They have used this referendum to express their voice, but by spiting David Cameron, they have made their situation worse. As Philip Pullman said of Brexit voters: ‘We had a headache, so we shot our foot off. Now we can’t walk, and we still have the headache.’

Before Britain joined the European Economic Commission in the 70s, it was a very valuable trading partner for New Zealand. When Britain joined the EEC, NZ was basically left in isolation, to fend for ourselves, despite still being part of the Commonwealth and ruled by the Crown. The positive result of this has been that New Zealand has, in part, thrown off a lot of the ‘Mother Country’ baggage and focused more on developing its own identity, independent of Britain. The increased knowledge and respect for Māoritanga, and for other cultures that make up modern New Zealand (Aotearoa), such as Pacific Island and Asian cultures, has, I think, helped to shape a more diverse, more inclusive society.

Britain’s current path, I think, is the opposite. It has voted to isolate itself, to be more remote from the rest of the world. Not just from Europe, but from America and other countries too. There are also signals of less tolerance for ethnic majorities within Britain itself, at least within the Leave camp. Brexit ended up becoming an immigration debate, based on fear and lies from self-serving MPs, like Boris Johnson. I honestly think it is a tragic situation, because the vast majority of Leave voters were misinformed and will end up much worse off. Anyway, it kind of all ties back to what you were saying about not feeling isolated or remote. At least I hope it does. Or maybe I just went off on a big rant?

On a brighter note – although I don’t follow football, I can’t help but notice how well Iceland is doing in the European Cup. I’m sure even if you don’t follow it yourself, you will be at present? England plays Iceland tonight, and I’ve heard reports of English people who are supporting Iceland, due to the fact that they no longer feel proud of their own nation. It is all a bit topsy-turvy in Britain at the moment.

Well, best of luck from me too. And also with your new history professor President – he sounds promising?


Paul Ewen writing in Bradley’s Spanish bar, London.


Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl:

I’m sorry about the Brexit. We’re not in the EU and we’d probably not vote in, as things are, but it seems most people in Iceland are still sad to see the union self-destruct. It’s also of course a part of a general turn towards the xenophobic, and dare I say ‘fascist’ – it’s probably about time we start calling that spade a spade once more – on the whole continent, Iceland not excluded. Last week we saw the police enter a church in Reykjavík to pull out two Iraqi refugees with force – they’ve been sent to Norway and will get shipped back to Iraq, where they may die. And a large part of the nation is condemning the church for harbouring them – sheltering them from the cruelty of the law, and from death. If it’s not fascist, I don’t know what else to call it.

These things are happening with more and more regularity. A few weeks back a Nigerian in Iceland – fleeing Boko Haram – was sent out of the country by the police, despite a legal decision that had granted him a stay. The police simply acted against the law when they sent him out and in it they were backed by the state as a whole – the fact that the extradition was illegal was just ignored. By the time such a case has gone through all the pipelines he’ll be long dead.

We’re not a big nation and we’re not exactly central – except in our own minds – and we don’t get a lot of asylum seekers nor do we accept many refugees. We’re a rich nation and stingy – we neither take care of ‘our own’, as they put it, nor anyone knocking on the door.

I started writing about the extreme right in Europe in about 1995 – I was seventeen and the Danish People’s Party was just starting to get going. And every year since then the situation has been getting incrementally worse. First they enter the parliament, then they become normalized, then they enter the government – as of yet they’ve not led a government in Western Europe nor had a president, although in the east, not least Hungary, they’ve gained more ground. Hofer of the FPÖ just barely lost in Austria the other day and now I hear that the election result has been cancelled and they’ll vote again.

These aren’t big steps and they’re not as related to the crisis of 2008 as many people claim – although it helps. It seems to me that the left is just so crippled while the extreme right – which represents many of the same groups, or at least claims to do so and gives voice to their complaints – is organized and smart. I’m not nostalgic for a pre-identity-politics left, like some people, but there eventually needs to be a focus on some sort of empathetic cohesion – solidarity – which doesn’t resort to polarisation of the disenfranchised through either racial slur or blaming the world’s chauvinism on ‘white trash’, hicks or hillbillies (while the world is governed by the ultra rich).

The new president – history professor Guðni Th. Jóhannesson – is in many ways promising. Iceland being the small country it is, I taught his daughter creative writing. She’s totally righteous and a good writer. He sort of disappointed many people on the Brexit question – he spoke of it in rather positive terms, when asked. I guess maybe he was being diplomatic – he’s had this whole thing of being ‘everybody’s’ president. For example, if I remember correctly, he said that he’d be president for the environmentalists and the non-environmentalists. The president that’s leaving was very controversial, but Guðni Th. wants to be everything but that.

Today, however, is a day for football. Since we spoke last Iceland has beaten England at the Euros – and today apparently we’re supposed to beat France. The French newspaper Libération interviewed me about the game and I promised them that Iceland would meet Wales in the final game. So far so good. It’s certainly no easy game for ‘us’ but the team has had good games and they have even better games in them. I’m in Helsinki, Finland, and I’ll be watching the game at a sports bar with a bunch of Icelanders. Which will be fun. I’ve watched most of the other games on my laptop or phone – except for the England game, which I watched on the ferry over here. It was a karaoke pub and the sound of the game was turned down; half the screens were showing karaoke videos with drunk Finns onstage singing 50s tango hits. Football should always be paired with karaoke; it’s the perfect duo.


Northern Lights.

Northern Lights over Isafjordur.


Paul Ewen:

I was sad to see Iceland go out of the Euro 2016 tournament. By all accounts, they were bloody marvellous. I don’t know if you heard this, but I read in the Guardian that their stellar run has also helped the Icelandic publishing industry.

So maybe you owe the team some beers.

Things are less bright in England at the moment, as you might imagine. For half the population, the Iceland defeat against England was like the icing on a shit cake. Hate crime has escalated by 42%, Romanian shops are being petrol-bombed, racist messages are being sent to Islamic centres. It is, as you say, the stirrings of fascism and it’s getting ugly.

I’ve been writing this email over a matter of days, and I’m constantly having to update what I wrote the day before because the political world is changing so fast here at the moment. It’s a good incentive to just get it sent off as soon as possible, because I doubt I’ll ever keep up.

Theresa May, the only ‘stable’ candidate for the next British Prime Minister, is about to be signed into the position. She is currently offering no assurances to European migrants already in Britain about their future here, thus adding to the general fear and uncertainty. Prior to Brexit, as Home Secretary, she was also pushing for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, something Winston Churchill pushed to get established after the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Her views on immigration are known to be ‘hardline’. And yet, worryingly, she was the best candidate in the running.

The last week has also confirmed the news that Tony Blair officially misled the British public. Ironically, Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader, vehemently opposed invading Iraq at the time, and now his party are trying to replace him with a ‘stronger leader,’ who’ll probably be someone like Tony Blair.

I’ve started staring at my New Zealand passport, pondering my own Brexit.

I’m not completely up to speed with New Zealand’s current immigration policy, but from what I know it’s pretty strict. A quick look at the government website reads: Our immigration policies have been developed to support New Zealand’s economic growth. Not the most open-arm welcome you could hope for. People with capital, it seems, are encouraged. So that obviously rules out most authors, for a start.

My mother had a stroke earlier this year, possibly caused by years of aftershocks following the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch. My parents’ neighbours had their homes flattened, and Mum and Dad lost a few walls, including one that fell across their lounge sofa. I mention this, because it’s another disadvantage of being remote from a remote country – having access to loved ones, particularly in times of crisis. I haven’t seen my brothers in five years, nor my nephew, and I have a niece I’ve never met. Returning to a remote place can also be expensive. But absence makes the heart grow fonder, I can certainly attest to that. When I do return to New Zealand, I don’t take anything for granted. Everything and everyone are savoured.

Britain, on the other hand, has just chosen to isolate itself, to distance itself from its European neighbours, and even its US partners. It has voted, supposedly, for self-rule, but in fact, according to the wishes of most Leavers, it has voted to keep foreigners out. To make itself more remote.

It makes me very angry and very sad.

I better send this off before Big Ben collapses on the Houses of Parliament, or Theresa May turns into a vampire, and I’ll have to start all over again.


Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl:

I’ve tried writing poetry about football and found that it is burdened by its own light weight. Anything written about it just turns so banal – it never transcends small-talk. And yet it’s so emotionally enthralling during the 90 minutes plus that the games last that one feels almost embarrassed afterwards, naked and stupid. Am I too merely a hooligan, when I’m stripped of conditioning? Maybe watching football and having sex share the quality of rendering us uncivilized. Reading or writing about sex is also awkward (I do, in abundance sometimes, but then I enjoy being awkward). Politics are also awkward to write about, but they’re even harder to avoid than sex or football. Do you write about sex, football or politics?


Paul Ewen:

Apologies for all the politics I’ve been spouting off about. But it is such a tumultuous period in the UK at the moment it is very difficult not to get embroiled in it all. Particularly when it isn’t going your way, and you need an outlet to vent your displeasure. In the past twenty-four hours, for instance, Boris Johnson has been appointed foreign secretary, which, in my mind, is incredibly insulting to the British public, and to every other nation on earth.

There I go again.

I haven’t written about sport, and don’t have much interest in it, but I have read some great pieces on it. My mother, who is big on her sport, put me onto a terrific book about rugby called The Book of Fame (2000) by Lloyd Jones, who was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for his novel Mister Pip. The Book of Fame is a fictionalised account of the All Blacks’ first European tour in 1905, and their journey by ship. It’s a short but mighty novel. David Foster Wallace wrote some brilliant essays about tennis. And Hunter S Thompson managed to write brilliantly about sport, sex and politics.

Sex isn’t something I have tackled either as yet, but in my satirical work, I do write about politics. Yesterday, in my current novel, two of my characters were talking about killing another human being, and if evil is a necessary requirement to do this. One character suggested it wasn’t if you wanted to kill Donald Trump. He supported this by pointing out that the young English lad who attempted to assassinate Donald Trump in Las Vegas recently has been described by all who know him as warm, gentle, sensitive and kind.

I find it easy to write about politics, because there is usually a viewpoint counter to yours that you can kick against. But my equivalent to your football writing struggle would be writing about New Zealand. Apart from some short pieces about my earlier life there, I’ve mainly written about London, which I can view as an outsider, with a critical eye. I almost feel too close to New Zealand, too impassioned, perhaps as you are by football, to detach myself and write in my normal satirical style. Strangely, one of the most influential critical essays about New Zealand, ‘Fretful Sleepers’ (1952), was written by Bill Pearson when he was away from the country, in London. Personally, I feel like I need to be on the ground to get my teeth into it. Much of my writing follows an almost reportage style, which may explain this.

Maybe you need to abstain from sex and football, and then write about them longingly, from afar.

Useful? I really don’t think so.


Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl:

Politics and the Euros have been hogging my brain capacity for weeks now. Tomorrow Donald Trump will announce his vice-president material – my money is on Jerry Springer. Now that Boris is occupied.

I very often end up writing about Iceland and my troubled relationship to the country. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t write about the Euros, because it’s one of the few times my relationship to the country – and its nationalism – wasn’t really problematic. I thought the team was admirable, I thought the fans were admirable – despite their nationalist antics, which usually get on my nerves – and I thought most of the adversaries were admirable (maybe everyone except Ronaldo). And all that admiration just doesn’t make for good literature.

I have, however, written a few poems that are – in a sense – just pure joy. For instance when my son was born. But those are rare moments and most of the time I find that they don’t ‘work’ for literature. They’re too friction-free. I need there to be something problematic – which is why so much of my writing is political. But I guess then I also find that problematic – I doubt my own politics and I doubt literature’s capability to be political and I doubt that its role is to be political. I find that especially in fiction one is ‘let in’ to people’s psyches – that is how it feels when I myself read – and I’d hate to think that the writers I’m reading are using that space to further a political agenda. In my own writing I’ve tried to solve that through creating (or exposing) as much contradiction and organized chaos as I can handle. In some ways I use literature also to expose the weaknesses with my own politics and how we tend to simplify the world in order to understand it – I get that, it’s a survival strategy, but then we also use those simplifications to bash each other with.


Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl

Eiríkur at the playground after hours.


Paul Ewen:

I understand what you mean about the problems of putting across a personal political agenda in your writing. The character I used for my first novel, and who I am currently progressing in a follow-up book, unashamedly carries many of my own opinions on politics and the world in general. But his justifications for them are often rather ludicrous, and he gets to his own conclusions in less than straightforward or logical ways.

What I found interesting, and more than a bit concerning initially, was that the first broadsheets to review my novel favourably in the UK were more conservative, right-leaning papers. For a few days I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, what have I done? I’ve created a monster!’ Fortunately, the more liberal media soon caught up and were equally positive, but for a time I was worried that I’d somehow been completely misinterpreted, or had simply got my message all wrong.

The satire I write isn’t particularly hard-hitting or aggressive, so I suppose it’s not too divisive. I do have an idea for a play I want to write from the point of view of someone with completely opposing political views from mind, and I already have some sympathy with how they have reached these. I imagine it will ultimately be difficult to keep my own views out of it, but my hope is that the exploration of the subjects and issues through different viewpoints will at least produce something rounded.

Perhaps your piece on Iceland’s Euro success could be told through the eyes of an English fan. Or Ronaldo’s. Someone who can’t help admiring Iceland’s achievement, but whose experience of it is personally tainted. I suspect it will be easier when some time has passed and the euphoria has passed somewhat. And by then, perhaps one of the team heroes will have gone off the rails and robbed a bank, offering something suitably problematic.

Hope you didn’t lose too much money when Jerry Springer wasn’t called up.


Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl:

I like unlikable characters. I like writing them; I like being within them, finding something worth redeeming. It makes the world seem less cruel, maybe; if I can empathize with a Nazi, for instance. It may be absolutely the wrong approach – maybe it’s just to further harm; to make them understandable is maybe to promote their acceptance. Primo Levi wrote somewhere that we have a duty to not understand the Holocaust – a point I’ve often seen in relation to Adorno’s famous quote about poetry being barbaric after Auschwitz. I guess my understanding of both is rather pick and choose.

I tend to remind myself that despite Levi’s philosophy, he himself showed us the insides of the concentration camps in the most brutal and uncompromising manner. And maybe that kind of brutality doesn’t foster understanding or acceptance – maybe it fosters something more along the lines of wisdom, or a clearer sight. Not so that we can admire the evil but so that we can simply gaze at it – eventually maybe staring it down, although that may take some time.

Adorno on the other hand – I see him as talking about the exact opposite. Poetry being shorthand for the beautiful, the divine. For so long our ideas about beauty were about cleaning out the aesthetic dissonance – making sonnets that kept perfect time, whose metaphors cut like a razorblade. This is an idea of purity which was translated into romantic no-holds-barred nationalism – or ethnocentrism – an idea of the world (or at least the nation, the country) as a monoculture with no blemishes, no side streets, nothing outside the mainstream, no avant-garde, no religious or philosophical disparity. A world as pure and dissonance free as the sonnet. I see him as meaning that the holocaust was beauty taken to its absolute limit; it was the cost of our idea of beauty.

So maybe I like unlikable characters like one likes the ugly – maybe it’s a kind of punk aesthetic, a defiance against beauty and understanding.

My last novel, Heimska (Stupidity), had thoroughly unlikable characters. Perhaps the least likable characters I’ve written – I’ve written several Nazi mass murderers who were more sympathetic than the pair in my last book. And what is it that I apparently find less empathetically appealing than Nazis?, I hear you ask. Loud and clear.

Writers. But of course.

Áki and Leníta Talbot are a pair of self-obsessed sexaholic sadistic and incestuous writers in a not-so-distant future where privacy is only a semi-nostalgic idea. We already have the technology for it – facial recognition and cameras everywhere (on walls, phones, computers etc.). We even have search engines that can pinpoint the location of certain smart devices (for instance, a baby monitor that you could pinpoint to find sleeping babies) – and in the age of Facebook, Google, Amazon, #freethenipple and amateur porn etc, no one can sincerely claim to be interested in their privacy any more. Like Áki and Leníta, and everyone living in their not-so-distant future, everyone is first and foremost interested in being seen. We will forego the private space for a few ‘likes’.

I’m not sure why I thought it appropriate to have the protagonists be writers – maybe because it’s the vanity I know: as writers we are stuck in a wheel of perpetual self-promotion (just look at us now!). Even the books – the literature itself – is a way of undressing in front of the world, which is simultaneously liberating and enslaving. But fame is no longer, of course, only for the famous – or for those who strive for recognition, to be able to promote art or justice, if I’m to try and bypass my cynicism. Fame, or being famous, is something that everyone is more or less constantly doing.

I think all my books – even the cookbook – are about what it means to see and what it means to be seen (and what it means to be seen seeing, to see someone be seen seeing etc. etc.) And Heimska is that on anabolic steroids, which is probably why the protagonists are so unlikable, and, I’d dare say to a certain extent – and this of course is absolutely forbidden in literature – hard to relate to. They’re petty and spiteful and they’re not half as interesting or intelligent as they believe themselves to be. That may be one part cynicism for the world in general, one part a disdain for the profession and one part self-loathing for consciously taking part in both – for being vain and wanting to appear I’m smarter than I am, for wanting prizes and attention and, lest we forget, cold hard cash. We all want to believe we’re above that – and maybe some of us truly are. But I’m not, and that disappoints me.


Paul Ewen:

We both have cynicisms about literary world pretensions – how can this be?

Áki and Leníta Talbot sound a bit like Roald Dahl’s The Twits. The Twits of the future, with added sex and (and books).

I think writers perfectly epitomise the fame obsession and the stripping away of privacy. Of course, I would say that because I’ve explored similar themes myself.

My last, and first, novel, Francis Plug: How To Be A Public Author, is a kind of self-help guide to surviving as an author, where you’re expected to be, as you rightly say, ‘in a wheel of perpetual self-promotion.’ Francis Plug, while annoying, and slightly deranged, isn’t exactly unlikeable (although some readers didn’t find much to like about him, or the book itself). Hilary Mantel, who he meets in a fictional construct in the book, afterwards wrote of him, in the real world:

One thinks of Goethe: one thinks of Shelley: one thinks of Plug. He is a force of nature, he is sage, bard and prophet: he is in addition a random menace, and at all times you need to know where he is. They say that there are no statues to critics. But the fourth plinth awaits Francis. Perhaps he can be chained to it.

It is his unbalanced and naive yet honest nature that helps expose, I hope, some of the many pretensions in the literary world, and the world in general. In the course of the book Francis meets over thirty actual Man Booker Prize-winners, a task I completed in the real world, getting them to sign their real books to Francis Plug – these signed title pages start each chapter. Some of the real Man Booker Prize-winners were more unpleasant than others, but I was interested in depicting the circus that they are a part of, which runs counter to the idea of the lonesome, solitary hermit, shut away in a locked room.

Despite revealing the grim nature of being an author in the present day, and despite his huge reservations about it all, Francis still gets caught up in it. And as his creator, so have I. What’s been interesting post-publication is that he has been invited, in the real world, to do lots of public events. He had his own invitation to the Booker Prize Shortlist party last year [photo]. He was invited to do a talk at Shakespeare & Company in Paris, which I ended up doing, along with a spare seat on stage, specially reserved for Francis. Recently he was billed to do a talk as part of the Dulwich Festival, a ticketed, one-hour slot without an interviewer. Along with the audience, I waited for him to turn up before finally reading his speech myself, which he’d left strewn on the floor prior to running off to the pub [photo].

When it comes to public engagements, authors are expected to be compliant, often not even being paid in order to fulfil the needs of publishing house marketing departments, or, as you say, their own vanities and egos. Through Francis, I suppose I’m trying to face up, like you, to my own vanities, and also my own disdain for the profession, by putting forward an author/character who is not prepared to sit quietly in the spotlight.


Francis Booker Shortlist Invite





'Does historical fiction allow an escape from reality or promote a confrontation with it?' - Thom Conroy

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Photo credit: Matt Bialostocki.

Conversation/Kōrero: Julian Novitz and Jasmin B. Frelih

Julian Novitz

Julian Novitz                                                                                                                                                                                    

ANZL member Julian Novitz was born in Christchurch in 1980 and lives in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of three novels: Little Sister (2012), Holocaust Tours (2006) and My Life and Other Stories (2004), which won best first work of fiction at the 2005 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Julian’s short stories have been widely anthologised in Australia and New Zealand.


Jasmin B. Frelih.

Jasmin B. Frelih.

Jasmin B. Frelih was born in Kranj, Slovenia, in 1986. His first novel Na/pol (In/Half) was published in 2013: it won the best literary debut award at the annual Slovenian Book Fair, was shortlisted for the novel of the year and book of the year awards, and was showcased as the Slovenian entry for the 2014 European First Novel Festival in Budapest, Hungary. His short story collection Ideoluzije (Tiny Ideologies) was published in 2015. He spent five years as a prose fiction editor for the literary review I.D.I.O.T., and his own short fiction, essays and translations appear in SodobnostLiteratura, and Dialogi. His translations of Slovenian poetry into English have been published in Banipal, Versopolis, and international anthologies of I.D.I.O.T. In 2016 he was one of the winners of the European Union Prize for Literature.


This conversation took place via email in June 2016.


Julian Novitz: 

I’ve just had about 70 odd student short stories to mark, and I’d had this great idea that I’d be able to power through them all in two days or so, but it wound up taking me more than a week. I thought I might use all this marking as a hopefully not-too-dull starting point for our discussion. I don’t know if you’re one of the growing legion of writers who teach as a full or part-time day-job, but I found my students’ responses to dealing with the form of the short story quite interesting this semester. I’d been away from undergraduate teaching for a while, and by-and-large returning to it was enjoyable and refreshing; the students were smart, engaged, imaginative and a good number demonstrated genuine writing talent.

Many of them struggled with the short story, to some degree, however, in that it took them more time to arrive at the precision and focus demanded by the form than I remember from classes that I taught in earlier years. It certainly wasn’t that they were less talented or capable than my former students, just that they took to the short story less naturally, coming up with initial concepts that were often too broad in scope to do justice in a piece between 2000-3000 words, or compositions that felt like segments from longer narratives.

Most of them produced good work in the end, but it felt like finding the right style and subject matter was a more cautious and tentative process than I remember from a few years back. Most students didn’t leap into the writing with confidence but had to take some time to figure out what a short story was, what it could be used for.

Of course there’s a lot that can be gained from working within the constraints of an unfamiliar form, and I think (or hope) that many students got a lot out of doing so, but this made me think a bit about the short story and how it is currently situated. Many of the students who came to my classes with fiction-writing experience had been writing principally for online mediums: blogs and forms of personal websites, online writing communities and fan fiction groups. The particular demands of short stories, as I see them, the need to focus on smaller moments or movements and imbue them with larger meaning, are perhaps more closely associated with print culture than those of longer forms of fiction, which may translate more easily into a digital environment.

Possibly the focus on the kind of short story that fits into the 2000-6000 word category that can easily be published in print journals and magazines is declining along with those types of periodicals (at least in Australasian context), and when writing for an online platform the exact length of the piece is no longer such a driving concern – the work can be as long or short as the writer deems necessary.

I suppose a lot of fiction writing education (at an undergraduate level) still focuses very much on the short story – as a kind of complete work that a student can realistically complete in a semester or so, and can be easily assessed – but perhaps working with it is (or will be) less of the practical route to publication that I’ve always thought of it as being, and more of a way of the writer testing themselves through their engagement with a slightly archaic form.

I suppose I’ve gotten a little hung up on questions of length lately and its shaping purpose or effect on fiction as I’m currently working on an essay that deals with the novella as a somewhat neglected form in Australia and New Zealand, asking whether the rise of digital publishing might change that. It was also something that I found when I was writing a review for a print publication recently and had to work within a restrictive word count after becoming used to the relative freedom of reviewing for an online publication: there was the sense of not just having to mount an argument but the enjoyable puzzle of finding a way to express it in just 400 words.

Anyway, as I understand it you’ve been publishing short fiction for a good while now and your first collection came out last year, and of course you’ve also been working as the fiction editor for a magazine, so it would be interesting to hear about your understanding of the place and purpose of the short story as a form and perhaps also your experiences of working with it. Some Croatian and Serbian friends of mine have remarked on the relative thinness of print culture that they found in New Zealand and Australia, the dearth of magazines and journals and the lack of a sense of genuine conversation around them, and though I know embarrassingly little about Slovenian literary periodicals and culture, I imagine that they might be similarly strong. So perhaps short fiction holds a more central place?

Also, congratulations on the European Union Prize for In/Half. Something I would like to talk about at some point in our conversation is your sense of the readership that you’ve found personally (and perhaps also for Slovenian literature more generally) in Europe. Finding international publication is often a challenge for NZ writers, and I suppose that often reinforces a sense of smallness and distance, that our literary culture is in some ways floating adrift, cut off. Would be good to get a sense of how that compares with your experience as a writer from a small country within Europe.


Ventspils. Photo credit: Paula Morris

International Writers’ and Translators’ House in Ventspils, Latvia. November 2015.


Jasmin Frelih:

There is graffiti on a wall near the national library in our capital city, Ljubljana, which says: ‘Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.’ Supposedly a quote by Albert Einstein, but more likely an evolved variant of Theophile Gauthier’s: Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he does not want to sign.

While I am not particularly religious, I remember exclaiming to myself ‘Oh my god!’ (whether with the upper- or lowercase G I cannot be certain) when a few weeks ago I saw Paula Morris walking down a busy Brussels street. I had the good fortune of spending a week with Paula in the writer’s residency in Ventspils, Latvia last November, and our chance reunion in Brussels has, by way of two large cups of coffee, led me to this conversation with you. Is it superstition now to wonder why would He prefer not to leave His signature under this arrangement?

I speak in jest, of course – I am very happy for the opportunity to discuss literature with a distinguished writer and professor halfway across the globe, even though it does seem that physical distance does not carry much weight in our global republic of letters, since your thoughts regarding short stories are easy for me to follow.

Over here I think that we are grappling with very much the same issues, and within this debate I occupy a strange place where I, mostly thanks to my studies in literary theory, freely admit that ‘the need to focus on smaller moments or movements and imbue them with larger meaning’, as you so eloquently put it, is what a short story is supposed to be doing, whereas in practice I more often than not go off the deep end and try to cram a novel’s worth of ideas and emotions into a few thousand words. I could not exactly guess why, but I’m truly not yet one for literary subtlety.

Even as a reader I sincerely love it when a writer pulls off a low-key motive which reverberates with unspoken meanings (Carver, O’Connor, Joyce …) but I still consider it a sort of a selfish pleasure, something I keep for myself that gives me the ability to smile knowingly at our humanity when things get rough (which is absolutely a priceless thing), but on the other hand a round of Borges keeps my head spinning and my mouth running for days, and this is also something that I don’t want the short story as a form to be without. Then again, one of my favourite short stories is Coover’s ‘The Babysitter’ – mostly because it is simply insanely fun. Or consider David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (thinking in particular of #6 – Wallace is as unsubtle and elaborate as they get (not a single thought escapes unspoken) but it still works, there are still depths and layers of meaning that stay with you when the story ends.

With that said I truly feel for anyone trying to mark 70 novella-length short stories written by a class full of Borgesian post-post-modern new-sincere-new-authentic hyper-politically-minded smartass know-it-alls. There must be some method to this madness and I am quite sure that guiding students into a precise and focused narrative (with length as a perfectly valid creative constraint) is the only way for a short story to be taught. With the knowledge gained in this way any literary endeavour will be strengthened, even if the students then go on to flex their muscle in more outlandish and sprawling narrative modes.

To take a look at Slovenia – my editor for In/Half, Andrej Blatnik, teaches the short story and he takes the same approach. His book, You do understand?, is a collection of really tight miniatures, and they work splendidly. But he draws on a lifetime of exploring the form, of understanding what makes it tick, and I think it’s only with this kind of confidence that you can set out to do something like it. Whereas for now I try to make up in force what I lack in experience – when I find myself taken up by an idea, or an emotion, or a problem I need to explore, I gather up all my strength, let it simmer for a while, and then try to pack as much violence (in the broadest possible meaning of the word) as I possibly can onto the page in a controlled outburst.

I am still very much in the business of trying to get into the reader’s head and just raising all kinds of hell, mostly because that is the business of all the authors that I have been most drawn too throughout my reading life. Wallace was in this regard fond of quoting Cesar A. Cruz: ‘Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’

But I see now that I am perhaps trying to frame the conversation in a way you did not intend. I do agree with you in your assessment that the digital/print divide absolutely leaves an impact on the way we think about, read and write the form. I do not know much about the print review situation in New Zealand, but Slovenia is infamous for its love of magazines; I believe we have the highest number of print publications per capita in the world and literary journals are thankfully no exception. In 2009 one of my first op-eds for our literary journal Literatura had the title ‘This paper is infinite’, where I fired some salvos about the changing situation in publishing with regards to the internet and what it could mean for the future of all participants in the literary circle.

Back then most magazines did not even have a webpage worth mentioning, while today Facebook and its ways of engaging with the audiences already reign supreme. But short stories still do have many venues for publication here, even if on the whole they are rather neglected compared to the novel (of course) and to poetry, which are both more naturally allied with the internet due to their shared protean nature.

It could quite possibly be true that a 2000-word short story is by itself the least well equipped to handle the environment or the competition of an average internet surfing session. Too long to be gulped down in between clicks and still too short to create a lasting impression apart from all the surrounding noise. Which is perhaps also why it is so important that it is taught in a university setting – it is still a unique form that is positively sublime when mastered and it would be a damn shame if we simply allowed the indulgent brute to pluck it out of existence. (This reminds me of a fascinating painting by Mark Tansey – Triumph over Mastery II.

Well, hopefully by now I already wrote something that you would find interesting to respond to and I am looking forward to your reply. Just one more question before I sign off – what do your students read? I am imagining every literature class must have at least one Nietzsche-Celine-Artaud glorious weirdo, a couple of Russian fanatics constantly bickering over which Karamazov is the most humane, an aloof paranoiac who lies about having read Gravity’s Rainbow while secretly devouring everything written by Stephen King, a group of girls trying to come to terms with The Second Sex without becoming huge downers in the process, and at least one person who came there to study with the sole intent to prove that a hugely popular work of fiction of which he or she is a number-one fan is actually a true literary masterpiece also in academic terms. Joking aside, I am really interested in what constitutes the unofficial ‘cool’ canon of students in New Zealand.


Julian’s desk, with marking.


Julian Novitz:

I was delighted  you mention ‘The Babysitter’ as one of your favourite stories, as I’m a big fan of this one as well, though I only discovered it a few of years ago. I taught the story  in a course on emergent approaches to story-telling and knowledge in new media and networked culture, and I tried to use it as an example of a text that in some way worked to resist the linearity imposed by print (alongside extracts from Tristram Shandy and Ulysses, Vanevaar Bush’s speculative 1945 article about the memex  and another short story, ‘The Brain of Katherine Mansfield’ by Bill Manhire), serving as an antecedent for our contemporary use of hypertext to navigate and structure information and narratives.

I’m not sure if I entirely convinced the students (or myself), but we had a good time with the material, and I think their final assessment was to create a website using Xavier de Maistre’s Journey Around my Room as a template for open-ended personal exploration and reflection, which is probably about as far from the discrete, contained idea of a short story as you can get.

But, anyway, looking at ‘The Babysitter’ once again I do agree that it can be a little too easy – particularly in writing education – to think about the short story only in terms of precision, craft and economy (all the Hemingway iceberg stuff) and ignore its potential for wildness, experimentation and play. In an essay by Michael Chabon, that I read many years ago (‘Trickster in a Suit of Lights’), he suggested that writers and publishers were focusing too exclusively on what he termed the plotless, moment-of-truth short story, and overlooking other approaches, which could include the genre fiction short story (as Chabon was arguing for, I think), Borgesian games, or even the exhaustive (sometimes gruelling) detail and clarity found in the longer stories of a writer like Richard Yates.

Minimalism, sparseness, and the clever, deflective kind of subtlety can all be as problematic as heavy-handedness and bombast in short fiction. I remember the discovery of that clean and lean approach in my teens and twenties and perhaps becoming a little too fond of the elliptical jump, the hint of significance, neat and tidy structures over real narrative. I remember a comment in a workshop at some point, ‘another of these not-a-word-out-of-place stories’, which I took as a compliment at the time, but probably wasn’t. The danger, as Robertson Davies put it, is for the writers ‘.. who leap from their chairs crying, “By Gum, that’s it! I’ve been a minimalist all these years and didn’t know it!” — and henceforth are increasingly minimal (if you will pardon the contradiction in that phrase) until finally they achieve total nullity. ‘

Anyway, in recent years there’s been, perhaps, a gratifying lack of students trying to write like Hemingway and Carver, who used to make up a solid percentage of the classes when I first started teaching, and while my current students initially seemed less confident working within the restrictions of a short story (specifically the restrictions of how much their tutor could realistically read and mark at the end of semester), the stories they produced were often a little more daring in terms of the subject matters and styles that they tried to stretch the form to fit. As the character of Garth Marenghi says in the excellent parody show Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace: ‘Subtext is for cowards.’

To come back to the subject of print culture for a moment: the wealth of publications in Slovenia sounds wonderful and utterly alien. I remember my response to a friend telling me about the range of magazines produced in Croatia – ‘You mean you have magazines that don’t just cover theatre, but are devoted to theatre? The visual arts even? Good God!’.

While I haven’t lived in New Zealand for a while, and so I can’t speak authoritatively about the current state of affairs, when I was growing up the pickings were slim and I doubt things have improved all that much. Where other countries of similar or even smaller populations seem to support a host of periodicals, the New Zealand attitude seemed to be more or less, ‘yeah, one magazine’ll do it’, and that was the Listener, which everyone seemed to read (grudgingly or happily) and which contained a bit of everything: political/social commentary, investigative journalism, reviews, TV and radio listings, even the occasional short story (though not anymore, sadly).

Of course, I’m exaggerating slightly. There were also a few glossier magazines that no one I knew ever seemed to bother with, some special-interest publications, an assortment of small literary journals – some long-running, some short-lived, all invariably struggling. There’s more going on in Australia, of course, (and recent years have seen the emergence of some interesting new publications), but still not all that much considering the population. Print has a difficult time taking root down here, and generally the publications that I turn to for literary commentary – the Spin Off  (in New Zealand), Sydney Review of Books  (in Australia) – are all purely online.

As I’ve been living mostly in Melbourne, Australia for the last eleven (God, eleven!) years, I can’t properly answer your question about the ‘cool canon’ for young New Zealand writers, but it is probably not too different from that of young Australian writers. (There is, of course, a collective game that we play where we pretend there are vast differences in terms of culture and personality between the two countries, but no, not really).

At the start of every semester I always ask my students what they like to read generally and what they’ve read most recently and take notes as it helps me to remember names and faces and get a sense of what they might want to write, and perhaps who they are (I’m one of those arseholes who gravitates to the host’s bookshelf at parties, thinking I can divine their character by scanning the titles).

I’ll dig out the notes when I’m back in the office and try to see if there have been any general trends that I can discuss in my next email, but it’s usually a pretty eclectic mix: a solid whack of science fiction, fantasy and horror fans, perhaps a handful on their 19th-century Russian literature kick, obsessive Jane Austen readers, passionate Salinger lovers, equally passionate Salinger haters, some who haven’t read anything apart from the texts assigned in high school, and always, without fail, at least one (though seldom more than one) David Foster Wallace devotee, and they are usually trouble (though often of the best possible kind).


Library Under the Treetops in Ljubljana. Photo credit: Claire Squires.

Jasmin Frelih:

Oh my, now I am sorely tempted to beg you to let me edit out this oversight on my part, or else the reader might think I do not distinguish between Australia and New Zealand (especially damning for me, since we share our northern border with the former. Or was that Austria? Eh, geography is for the unimaginative anyway). I did not do my proper research, but rather than employing the almighty Google to get to ‘know’ you better (by the way, have you read Franzen’s Purity?) I counted on our conversation to do that for me. Sorry for the faux-pas.

It is really interesting that you would link linearity in narrative and a print culture, because here in Slovenia literature has been implicated (in many theoretical texts by our scholar-politicians) as the prime carrier of our national political project through the ages when we did not have our own state. The claim is somehow too dubious to be taken completely seriously, but it does have the consequence that writing in Slovene language is valued beyond pure market considerations (there is always some systemic support), and could also be linked to our love for magazines, if you think of them as physical artefacts and containers of language that mark, like a thousand little daily, weekly and monthly ‘flags’, the space of our particular culture.

It is likely that I am reading too much into it (also drawing on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities), but it is one of the possible, if far-fetched, explanations of why print culture is just not seen as such a necessity on an island, where there is no need to mark your dominion over and over again, whereas the historical flux of peoples and cultures on mainland is always a source of some anxiety for any community trying to stake a claim in space and time.

Sorry for this pivot into sociology, but I just cannot escape it this week. Thank you for the links – ‘The Brain of Katherine Mansfield’ has murdered my parents and my dog because I, in keeping with the grand May ‘68 tradition of not trusting anyone over 30, chose not to accompany a weird old man; I have nicked Darkplace from the internet; I now know where Georges Perec got the inspiration for his absolutely wonderful Life: a User’s Manual, and I will definitely be reading the Davies lecture when I find the time – the opening pages are fantastic.

But I am writing this to you on the 25th Slovenian Independence Day. It was so weird watching the yesterday’s celebrations of this historical moment for our nation, all the grandstanding of our politicians, the unanimous praise of the ‘courage, conviction and pride’ of a nation determined to take the reins of history for the first time solely into its own hands – after spending the whole day confused, somewhat angry, but mostly hurt about the stunt your Majesty’s most loyal subjects just pulled on our community of nations. Everyone is now focused on the British – understandably some are now filled with hope, some with despair – but nobody seems to care how us ordinary folk on the continent feel about the whole thing. We just lost seventy million people from our larger community, together with all the opportunities that United Kingdom could offer to some of us, and surely we are allowed to not be simply completely casual about the whole affair.

Which then strangely mirrors into my understanding on how the people of Yugoslavia must have felt when we chose to leave the federal republic (I was four-years-old at the time). Of course there are huge differences in the context, historical situation and hopefully, the end result – I am, for instance, quite positive that if the vote on our referendum for independence was 52% for and 48% against (as opposed to 88% for, 4% against, the rest undecided or not valid), there wouldn’t be much left for us to celebrate today, 25 years later.

But I just got the European Union Prize for Literature and I am pretty happy about that. Should I think less of it now? Gast Groeber, my fellow winner from Luxembourg, reached out to me yesterday, saying that this was quite a punch, but that a writer’s work always by design advocates for peace and dialogue between cultures and that in this regard nothing has changed. He is right, of course, but the peculiar thing is that my novel In/Half is set 25 years in the future, in a setting some have called dystopian.

I have always considered dystopian to mean an environment where the measure of human control is such that it hinders the human spirit to an unacceptable degree, whereas the larger world of In/Half is built on the opposite of such an environment. Its world reflects the ontological uncertainty and existential isolation of an individual, and is actually just as crappy a place to live in as the average totalitarian state. Umberto Eco has nicely shown how the paranoid mind-set is a perfectly natural response to a world without God, but what if in our desired escape from the world imagined as a grand conspiracy we are necessarily severing our bonds with humanity, leaving all of us even lonelier in the end?

Overly dramatic, I know. But In/Half was written with this concern in mind – that our environments will become simply too confusing for our societies to handle and we will respond by withdrawing from the world. And I also tried to show that this will not in any way lessen our confusion, only make us less capable of dealing with it.

And this maybe also somehow, in some way, points to my problems with minimalism. It can always speak to me as a human being and offer a sense of very satisfying closure to a myriad of my emotions, but it just cannot address me as a creature of history and give larger form to, for example, the impossibly particular experience of celebrating and lamenting an independence on the very same day.

All my best to the Commonwealth!


Julian Novitz: 

There is a long and proud history of failing to make a meaningful distinction between Australia and New Zealand, so no worries on that front! I’ll admit to having long ago lost much appetite for that particular battle: we both exist as awkward postcolonial islands in the Southern hemisphere, we both speak with broadly similar and easily mocked accents, Her Majesty the Queen still graces both of our currencies … and anyway this doesn’t feel like the right time for any more obsession over national/cultural boundaries.

Thank you for your last message, though I’m sorry to hear that you and your family met with such an unfortunate end in ‘The Brain of Katherine Mansfield’. If it’s any consolation, I recall that an early decision to fly to Christchurch (my home town) results in an equally abrupt, fiery demise. Can’t help but feel there’s some commentary going on there …

So, as you discussed, some pretty tumultuous history has played out in the space between our last emails and it was good to hear about your own response to it, coming in the wake of the anniversary of Slovenian independence and your own recent success in winning the European Union Prize for Literature. A lot of the commentary that I’ve been getting down this end of the world (via the usual mix of news sites, blogs, and social media feeds) has certainly focused very heavily on the UK experience in the wake of the referendum: the outrage, the short-sighted celebrations, the dumb-founded surprise, emboldened racism, political chaos and morning-after regret. It does appear that the reaction from the rest of Europe is being largely neglected at the moment, at least in Anglo media, particularly in terms of how this will potentially effect the future of the EU and the continued mobility and support that its institutions offer to its citizens.

The focus remains resolutely on the UK and the terrible damage that it has almost certainly done to itself, its continuing decline, the hardships that will be faced by its citizens, rather than considering or acknowledging the damage that it will cause in other spheres, and as Alice Te Punga Somerville points out in an excellent blog post on the subject, this neglect is part of a long historical trend.

So, like almost everyone else it seems, I woke up (I am using ‘woke up’ for rhetorical effect here: due to time differences I think I found out about the result in the afternoon, but I was busy and distracted and it certainly didn’t sink in until the next day) after the referendum puzzled and frightened and not really sure how to respond (or whether renewing my UK passport would now be worthwhile). My first instinct was to make a joke, because I am annoying that way, and I had a number of decent ‘Brexit’ puns lined up to deliver on social media, but then my whole awareness of the referendum had begun with jokes, and now I couldn’t see how another one would help. I had probably read a few articles on the subject in the past few months, but it was mostly the memes and videos circulating on social media that really solidified the sense that this was a real-thing-that-my-god-could-actually-happen, first the ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ scene from Life of Brian cleverly rearranged with subtitles referring to the EU and later fully re-enacted by Patrick Stewart when there was talk of withdrawing from the ECHR within the conservative party, a type of escalation in humour that should have made me take everything more seriously. I noticed that not too many other people had anything funny to say either on the morning after either.

Maybe that’s because the whole situation feels like a joke of a certain kind (I hope you don’t take that in anyway trivialising the likely trauma that has and will result from what has occurred), and one that wouldn’t work so effectively if its subjects were all busy winking, rolling their eyes, or making wisecracks of their own as the chaos ensues. With its abruptness and complete lack of sense, the UK’s decision to exit feels like a pratfall on a vast political, historical and economic scale, something that belongs to that particularly cruel and very British form of humour, where everyone seems to lack an appropriate sense of perspective and large-scale disaster results from petty rivalries, vanities, misunderstandings, and misdirected blame and always results (as you note) only by the very slimmest of margins, with defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

It’s the kind of rolling, escalating, nasty humour that inevitably drags everyone’s worst nature out into the light: the joke that no one is clever enough to be in on, or to control, even if they think they are. This is the comedy that the British perform so well, made all the crueller by never completely extinguishing sympathy for the parties involved, in that you can always follow and understand the logic that has brought them to painful absurdity. The people who had generally been forgotten by both the governments of the centre-left and right, who had borne the brunt of Cameron’s austerity, were suddenly given the opportunity to voice their discontent with a spectacular, self-destructive own-goal.

It’s the stuff of classic farce: the forgotten plot thread returning with a vengeance at the finale, the unexpected back-swing of the door into the faces of power (though, of course, if I find myself becoming slightly too clever and self-congratulatory in drawing all these ironic parallels, I just have to hop online to read some more about the likely economic fallout and the horrifying racism that this exit result appears to have legitimised in the UK and further afield in Europe, and how it has also blown plenty of wind into the sails of racist nationalists down this end of the world, so as to be reminded that there is no wry, detached perspective to be taken here, that I am the butt of this punchline along with everyone else).

Anyway, you asked if I’d read Franzen’s Purity. I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Franzen as a novelist. He is often compelling and perceptive, but just as often seems kind of clumsy and simplistic to me. I haven’t got to Purity yet (but I will, and from the sounds of things I’ll love and hate it in equal measure) because I haven’t quite forgiven him for the denouement of Freedom, where the minor character Lalitha is clearly sacrificed to reunite the annoying conservationist and his slightly more interesting ex-wife, ground up between the heavy gears of Franzen’s narrative. I’ve been re-reading Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates recently,  and one thing he describes the writer (often drunkenly) railing against is a ‘condescending’ attitude towards characters in writing, where they are presented too simplistically and with a lack of clear sympathy, worked like puppets to make a point or to move the story along.

It is hard to see how any writer can escape the charge of condescension (Yates certainly can’t, in at least some of his novels and stories), but it seems particularly important to consider with a novelist like Franzen, who determinedly committed to character-driven social realism. He’s a fantastic novelist in many respects and I’ll probably continue to read everything he writes, but in Freedom especially it felt like it was a little too easy to see exactly where his sympathies lay and how deeply they ran, to distinguish between the characters that were allowed some genuine life and consideration on the page and those that were simply disposable. Would love to get your thoughts on Franzen, if you are inclined.


Jasmin's Bookshelf.

Jasmin’s Bookshelf.


Jasmin Frelih:

Since I’ve already been ill-mannered enough to shoehorn my novel into the broader socio-political narrative (I have a mean associative streak with regards to literature and its context; you’ll see when we get to Franzen), I am just going to add that ‘the unexpected back-swing of the door into the faces of power’ is the main theme of a bunch of my short stories. I just cannot get over the fact that modern societies deliberately leave so many people on the side-lines and then act completely shocked when those people grab power wherever they can get it (instead of facing utter powerlessness like adults and becoming writers).

I wrote about a scheming student who foments a revolt to get into politics, about a man so distraught his country joined the attack on Iraq that he instigates a refugee crisis (five years ago; it most definitely did not feel good seeing it actually happen), about a kid who will deliberately sabotage his own family just because he doesn’t have a job, and I even did a true crime terrorist tale – but a scenario where a right wing government first cuts access to mental healthcare, then runs a political campaign that exploits a vicious nationalist fantasy which prods a lunatic into murdering one of the nicest politicians imaginable, and where at the end of the day both the lunatic and (a part of) the government still get what they wanted, is somehow too much even for my taste. The crumbling bridge from the very poignant text you’ve linked is a nice metaphor – but while a base part of me would enjoy every manner of calamity now befalling England (oh, how I’ve cheered for the Iceland side in the Euros), I nonetheless cannot bring myself to actually wish for the bridge to be burned. For every Nigel, there is still a Jo there.

Which brings me to Jonathan. Namely, is he a Nigel or a Jo? I’m referring to his excellent essay on William Gaddis (Mr. Difficult – adding here the equally great response by Ben Marcus) where he divides writers based on whether they write for the audience – the Contract writers – or for ‘art’ – the Status writers.

Franzen wrote the essay after The Corrections was published, after dealing with the whole Oprah fiasco, and the essay marks the turning point in his movement from a writer trying to please his literary idols to a writer coming to terms with his actual qualities. He embraces the Contract model, but not before having a very ‘sour grapes’ kind of moment and firing one last missile towards the thing he is turning away from and never managed to quite reach.

But you do not have to engage in some special sort of mental gymnastics to see that the Contract model is very akin to populism. I could very well imagine a sort of literary Michael Gove reading the latest experimental tome and venting his frustration with it on Twitter: ‘You know what, I think that the people in this country are getting very tired of experts.’ Franzen claims that literature needs populism, since it is in direct competition with other forms of entertainment, but Marcus dismantles this claim pretty thoroughly. Nothing competes with literature when it is at its finest. Nothing even comes close.

But Franzen has every right to do what he does best – write social realism in tune with the zeitgeist. The main problem is, as always with populism, that in negotiating with the zeitgeist the latter always wins. There is always another concession to be made, another group of people to draw into your argument, another descent into inanity to be greeted with the screams: ‘Hear, hear!’ There is a place for synthesis of the multitude of voices of our society in the novel – but the strongest voice in the compendium must be the author’s own, otherwise what’s the point. There is a great quote by Ken Kesey in Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: ‘I am tired of being a seismograph, I want to be a lightning rod.’

And I am not just saying this to disparage Franzen based on some elitist conception of literature. There are actual problems with the way his novels have been developing. The weird sacrifice of Lalitha is not jarring only in literary terms, it could also be read (strenuous, I know, but I am still going to say it) as Franzen saying that Walter (a conservationist who is actually campaigning for a world without kids, which is possibly the only politically correct way to argue for the reduction of the world’s inhabitants) has to end his infatuation with a minority (and isn’t an accident just a welcome coincidence) before he and Patty can finally have the freedom to enjoy the world as it is supposed to be.

Surely a needlessly vicious assumption, you might say, but then Franzen actually goes on to write a novel with the title – Purity. I blame his work on Viennese modernists – having studied the development of both the Austrian bourgeoisie class and the Nazi party in-depth (the German nationalists first began developing their abhorrent policies in the conflict with the politically emboldened Slovenian nationals in the Kärnten region of today’s Austria in 1890s, before unleashing them with full force on the Jewish aristocracy of Vienna), I think that Franzen is unconsciously channelling some very, very weird vibes from the places he self-professedly loves. So whether he wants to be a populist lightning rod or is merely an accurate seismograph (or, in the end, just another writer-misanthrope) is beside the point – with Trump’s America on the horizon, and Brexit well underway, things do not look well.

Admittedly this is a recent reading of mine, which possibly speaks more about me as I currently am, than it does about Franzen and his work. The first time I read Freedom I had a very distinct feeling, which Purity has deepened, that Franzen’s principal trauma with regards to his writing is centred on the work and person of David Foster Wallace (a big fan of Gaddis!). Franzen’s essay Farther Away is illuminating – and an excellent read – but after I read that Franzen had problems with Freedom, but then wrote it in one fell swoop after Wallace committed suicide, I was for a time completely convinced that the love triangle of Patty, Walter and Richard was actually about literature – Patty has to decide between the loyal, realist, somewhat boring but ultimately safe Walter and the irresponsible, tobacco-chewing, sexed-up, angry and self-destructive Richard. She can have her doubts and her flings, but for a fulfilling future she has to end up exactly where Franzen wants her to. Right in his lap. (I won’t spoil Purity for you, but just keep in mind this tension between the two writers when reading it.)

There is still much more to be said about the whole thing, but I am sure I have already drawn up enough dubious connections for one conversation.


Julian Novitz: 

It is great to hear more about your stories and I really regret not being able to read them. I will have to hope for an English translation, sad monolingual that I am. I did really want to talk more about your novel as well, which sounds fascinating, both from your own description and the short translated extract that I’ve been able access online, but I got carried away with the Brexit. I did wonder if the advice given by Zoja to the guitarist in the opening of the extract (‘Don’t sing to the people. Sing to that empty space. There’s nothing there, just your sound.’) offered an exploration or encapsulation of the theme of isolation in your work, in that artists of all kinds, are just as often exhorted to create for themselves as they are to think about their audiences, and there’s something both desirable and dangerous in the space where we individually frame our own rules for engagement, for success or failure, irrespective of how the work is received or whether there is an audience there at all.

The links that you posted to Franzen’s article and Marcus’s response made me think (though admittedly in a fairly vague, half-arsed, Friday-afternoon kind of way)  about how rigidly his idea of ‘Contract’ writing draws up these lines, implying ultimately the success of literature rests in how well large-circulation social realist zeitgiesty novels jostle with other forms of media for their due market share. If the novel, or prose fiction more generally, no longer occupies the position of cultural and commercial dominance that it has enjoyed for the past couple of centuries then that doesn’t necessary extinguish its value.

I have a sense that Franzen sees himself as fighting for the novel’s traditional sphere of influence and relevance as it existed in some ideal of mid-20th century print culture, and that might now be a very small hill to die upon, in that it involves both a rejection of the innovations of the past and the demands of the present, holding onto an essentially static view of what literature can and should be doing and where it should be placed. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that there is something limiting in the idea that all forms of entertainment are necessarily competing for the same mass audience; there are smaller spaces where literature will survive and flourish, because, as you say, nothing can compete with it, at least in certain ways, for the delivery of particular pleasures and observations.  I’d hoped to bring this conversation to a close with some more definitive observations, but now I am running out of time and steam, so will have to settle for some half-connected spluttering of thought.


The Friday night book bus, Slovenia. Photo credit: Claire Squires.

The Friday night book bus, Slovenia. Photo credit: Claire Squires.








'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell

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Photo credit: Alison Wong

Conversation/Kōrero: Alison Wong and Aimee Phan

ANZL member Alison Wong is a fourth-generation Chinese New Zealander living in Geelong, Australia. She haswritten a novel, poetry collection and been widely published in a multitude of journals and anthologies. Her debut novel As the Earth Turns Silver won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Her poetry collection, Cup, was shortlisted for Best First Book for Poetry at the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.


Alison Wong. Photo Credit: Nitch Photography

Alison Wong. Photo credit: Nitch Photography


Aimee Phan is the author of the story collection We Should Never Meet and the novel The Reeducation of Cherry Truong. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies by the National Endowment of the Arts, Hedgebrook, MacDowell Colony and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Salon and The Rumpus, among others. She currently chairs the Writing and Literature program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, California.


Aimee Phan

Aimee Phan. Photo credit: Julie Thi Underhill


This conversation took place via email over March and April 2016.


Alison Wong:

I was reading Beattie’s Book Blog  – it’s one of the ways I keep in touch with what is happening in the New Zealand and international literary worlds – which lead me to this feature on Literary Hub and this one in Brooklyn Magazine and I was thinking of you and your perspective and experience of diversity or its lack in the US literary world.

I wonder how this compares to New Zealand and Australia. I am aware of how small New Zealand is – its entire population is maybe 4.6 million, not a lot more than the population of Melbourne or of Los Angeles. I grew up in Napier – a small provincial city – in the sixties and seventies when New Zealand’s population was not particularly diverse. New Zealand’s indigenous peoples, the Maori, were and are accepted as tangata whenua, their language and culture inseparable from the sense of New Zealand national identity and their rights enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi and legislation, something I am acutely aware of because of the contrast with Australia’s first peoples. And New Zealand’s culture feels very much part of the Pacific with many Pasifika peoples, particularly in Auckland and Porirua. When I was growing up the Asian population was small and largely Chinese or Indian, already with a long history of living in New Zealand. Within the Chinese community it seemed like everyone knew each other.

My generation was the first where large numbers of us had the chance of university education. So there was the expectation that we would make the most of that education with respectable high-earning careers, such as in medicine, dentistry, accountancy, business … the arts were not on the radar. We had no mentors or exemplars. It took me until my mid-thirties to realise that the reading and scribbling I had done as a child pointed to where my heart really lay.

New Zealand is behind the US, Canada and Australia in terms of a body of home-grown literature by writers of Asian backgrounds, but I think this is because for so long there were so few of us and because the racism that my great grandparents, grandparents and even parents faced made the previous generations of Chinese New Zealanders keep their heads down, work hard and assume the role of conservative ‘model minority’. Immigration from Asian countries really only got going in the eighties and nineties and now New Zealand’s Asian population is much more evident, especially in Auckland. As writers we are just beginning to blossom. And we are now very diverse. I realise that my experience as the descendent of some of the early Chinese settlers is very different from that of newer immigrants.

But my experience has not been of being marginalised as a writer or of being dismissed as unmarketable or being of no interest to New Zealand readers. Probably publishing is dominated by white people or, as we say in New Zealand, by Pakeha – I wouldn’t have a clue about the stats – but we do have fine Maori, independent and university publishers and, I think, the big publishers are also interested in diversity. After my novel, As the Earth Turns Silver, won the Fiction Award at the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Awards [now the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards], the chair of the judging panel, Stephen Stratford, wrote in Quote UnQuote  that his ‘wife observed that the winning authors and books represented four of New Zealand’s major ethnic groups: Maori, Pacific Island, Chinese and Southern Man.’ And I do wonder whether having a slightly different story to tell is an advantage.

Many fine Maori and Pasifika writes are published in New Zealand, several of whom have just been shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Chris Tse’s debut poetry collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, has also been shortlisted, along with Coming Rain, the novel by Stephen Daisley, an expat New Zealander living in Australia. (Given that perhaps a million New Zealanders live overseas and more of them in Australia than anywhere else, does this make Stephen and myself minority New Zealanders? Ha ha.)

Gregory Kan’s first poetry collection, This Paper Boat, has just been published and I’m looking forward to getting hold of it when I get back to New Zealand. Renee Liang writes plays, poetry and essays and her sister Roseanne has written, directed and produced various films and TV shows. I’m waiting for Mo Zhi Hong’s next novel. (His first won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book, South East Asia and South Pacific.) There’s fiction writer Ann-Marie Houng Lee, and Sandor Lau who works in many media. Lynda Chanwai-Earle writes poetry and plays and works for Radio New Zealand. Helene Wong is a film critic, memoirist, and scriptwriter/script consultant. For some years the book editor of the New Zealand Herald was Gilbert Wong; we have had columnists, Tze Ming Mok (also an essayist, poet and fiction writer, now overseas) and comedian Rayon Kan, and self-described ‘book junkie and armchair critic’, Karen Tay – so it does not appear that there are gatekeepers keeping ethnic minorities out of journalism. Nina Powles (half-Chinese, like my own son) has put out a chapbook, Girls of the Drift, and I look forward to a full collection. And there are writers whose ancestry is from the Indian sub-continent, including Jacob Rajan, whose plays are fabulous and hugely popular. I see Chinese and Asian names being mentored through NZ Society of Authors programmes and on the shortlists for school poetry and writing competitions, which makes me optimistic about the future.

I don’t know much about diversity in children’s publishing. I know the School Journal, which goes to schools, does try to include diversity. And Scholastic New Zealand put out the My Story series which included Eva Wong Ng’s Chinatown Girl, but I don’t know how many children’s books are published in New Zealand with diverse characters. I wonder whether when I was young, if I had read books with Chinese characters and seen normal Chinese characters on TV whether it would have made a difference growing up, whether I would have felt more comfortable in my own skin. I agree that there are not enough roles for ethnic/minority actors, that they should not have to only play characters that are ‘ethnic’, but be able to also portray mainstream characters where ethnicity/ancestry is irrelevant.

In Australia, as well as the national non-commercial TV channels (ABC), I enjoy watching the multicultural TV channels (SBS) and the indigenous channel (NITV), where I also get to watch New Zealand/Maori programmes. I enjoy the cultural diversity, even though I know that only a small percentage of the Australian public watch these non-commercial channels. I am seeing a growing number of TV programmes here with indigenous and ethnic characters, including the recent and very popular mini-series based on Benjamin Law’s memoir, The Family Law, and the comic mini-series, Maximum Choppage, (about a nerdy Chinese budding artist whose mother thinks he’s a great martial artist, much to his detriment), many of the episodes written or co-written by our very own New Zealand novelist, short story and screen writer, Duncan Sarkies. There are many crossovers and relationships between New Zealand and Australia.

About New Zealand publishing, though, I wonder what would happen if/when we suddenly had half a dozen or a dozen excellent novels or poetry books submitted to publishers by Asian writers. Would they be considered differently from a dozen novels or poetry books by Pakeha writers? Would they still be marketable? It reminds me of a woman in a liquor outlet here in Geelong who upon looking at the shelves of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, said to her partner that she was tired of Sav Blanc, that it was overrated and she wanted something else. I’ve got to admit I felt like defending my home country!


Alison Wong: Books I like.


Aimee Phan:

This issue about diversity and creative writing has become a prominent, and at times, ugly debate here in the United States, which I suppose is better than what it was before. Writers of colour feel justifiably discontent and frustrated with not only publishing opportunities, but critical reception and recognition. They want to move beyond tokenism, which has been happening for some time now, where only a few writers of each ethnicity seem plucked out of the pile to represent an entire community. They want diversity that feels more meaningful and complex and layered.

More literary organizations and writers are starting to take count. VIDA regularly keeps track of women writers in media outlets compared to male writers, and the results are dispiriting, but not surprising, Weneeddiversebooks is calling for more diversity in children’s publishing.

This is not to say there hasn’t been progress. When I was an undergraduate at UCLA twenty (!) years ago, there was only one Vietnamese American novel published by a mainstream New York publisher. Now there are many more Vietnamese writers publishing in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, playwriting and screenwriting. I think this flourishing has happened for many other communities of colour, who previously hadn’t been represented in literature.

But the way we, and other writers of colour, are received in the literary world can be upsetting. I’ve heard many stories from fellow writers about getting pigeonholed by literary conferences and workshops, often expected to only speak about their experience as “the other,” and rarely asked to speak only about their writing as a craft.

What I find interesting is that writers are choosing to speak up about it more, to call out organizations and writers who are not being inclusive, and challenging them to do better. I wrote this piece for Salon a few years ago about the critical response to writers of colour, and I think it still applies today.

Alison Wong:

I am very aware that we can be pigeonholed. Because I was one of the first Asian New Zealand novelists, the first to win the national book award for fiction, and probably the first to be read so widely by Asian communities and the wider public – because what I wrote about was so different from what had gone before, then that difference was often what received the most attention.

I chose to write As the Earth Turns Silver more or less equally from Chinese and European/Pakeha perspectives because, with such a long family background in New Zealand, I identify with both cultures and because in the time period of the novel (late 1800s to early 1920s) Chinese most definitely had no mainstream voice and were generally viewed either as exotic or with prejudice. So I wanted the generations of my great grandparents and grandparents to have a voice and to be portrayed, not as stereotypes, but as real characters that mainstream audiences could care about.

I have always felt that I could easily write a novel with no Chinese characters at all because I am completely comfortable in the Pakeha world – it is also my world. None of the partners/boyfriends in my life have been Chinese New Zealanders, though one was mainland Chinese. In fact my husband, who is Pakeha, is an old family friend and of all the men I have been with he is the one I am most at home with in every sense of the word, including culturally.

There is a sense in which I feel some responsibility to write about the worlds which few other New Zealanders can write about as an insider, but I do not feel limited to this. Probably As the Earth Turns Silver, because of its historical setting, will be my most Chinese novel. Though the memoir I am writing about New Zealand, Australia and China does have strong Chinese New Zealand and New Zealand content. Some of my poetry has a Chinese influence; most of it doesn’t. Mostly my poems are about common human experience.

Interestingly, living in Australia has reset my coordinates. Growing up in New Zealand I chafed when I felt limited by some people’s perceptions because of my Chinese appearance. I could be identified as Chinese rather than as a New Zealander by those who did not know me. But when I moved to Australia I moved straight into my husband’s existing world, and because he is also a New Zealander (he’s a dual citizen and longtime resident of Australia who has always gone back to New Zealand frequently), I am almost always perceived here as a New Zealander, including by Maori. There are a lot of New Zealanders here and a lot of Chinese New Zealanders. My strong accent always gives me away. Only occasionally do people, at first meeting, marvel at a Kiwi accent coming from the mouth of a Chinese.

My half-Chinese half-Pakeha son does not see himself as either. He is not interested in ethnicity. It is irrelevant to him.

Aimee Phan:

I believe that your motivation to give voice to your great grandparents feels very similar to what I tried to accomplish in my own works – the need to articulate and put down in print the experiences and perspectives of the people who are important in my life, and deserve to have their stories told. Even if my books never get a huge readership, at least there is a record of my effort, along with other writers who spend their lives doing the same thing.

There was an interesting essay in Buzzfeed a few weeks ago (it had a strange, misleading title) that observed how easy it is for readers to consider the American Caucasian perspective to be the blank norm. Everyone can relate to this perspective. But to read a person who is non-white (or even non-heterosexual male) is to constantly be reminded of this difference. I assume I could write about white characters, but that is honestly not my interest, at least not in my past projects nor in my current ones.

My first book, We Should Never Meet, was inspired by my interest in Vietnamese foster children in southern California. My mother had worked as a social worker, and had been preoccupied with most of her career with their welfare, so I in turn, thought about them for many years. For my second book, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, I wanted to explore a multigenerational Vietnamese family  resettling in America and France.

Both books employed multiple perspectives that allowed me to inhabit as many voices as I could fit into the narratives. I remembered as a child watching my grandparents watching us kids play, often silent, because we couldn’t understand Vietnamese, and they didn’t speak English. And I wondered, speculated, on what they’d say to us, if they could speak to us, which I think is the motivation of why I love writing about older Vietnamese characters.

I have two children, a seven-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. They both go to a school that has a lot of mixed children, so they don’t see their mixed race as anything odd, which I love. They are taught by their teachers and family to be proud of it. I don’t know how long this will last, but here in the liberal bay area where we live, I’m optimistic. They both know they are half-Vietnamese, though what that means is still up in the air. They don’t speak the language. They eat a little bit of the food, but not on a regular basis. They stare at my parents curiously, as I stared at my grandparents. They love getting their red envelopes on Lunar New Year.


Auckland Lantern Festival


Alison Wong:

Unfortunately, I didn’t really know my grandparents. Three of them died when I was very young and I did not see my maternal grandmother very often as we did not live near each other. I remember once visiting her as a child and there being so much frustration that we were unable to communicate. She suggested that I go to live with her so that I could learn Cantonese. There were other elderly relatives I saw more often, but again I could not communicate with them.

When I was researching my novel I interviewed one of them with my parents interpreting. I would ask a question and she would give an answer of several minutes but my parents would only give a sentence or two of translation. Sometimes even they struggled to understand what she was saying.

Part of my motivation to write from the perspectives of that generation and earlier was not necessarily because I was close to them but because the little that I read about those generations, whether in newspapers or in New Zealand literature (including in the stories of New Zealand’s revered writer, Katherine Mansfield) was so ‘other’, and more often than not, very negative and stereotypical.

My son’s perspective on his ethnicity and heritage has changed throughout his life and mine has as well. Whether one is of mixed or minority heritage, we all have our individual take – whether we embrace our heritage or feel limited by or even resentful of expectations.

Sometimes I am amused/bewildered by commentary/analysis of my work which presupposes that everything I write is a deliberate political act. Yes, in my novel I consciously chose to write from multi-ethnic, multi-generational perspectives, but much of what I write is intuitive and arises out of experience or what is important to me, or out of a sense of beauty or form or the music and complexity of language – this, especially with poetry. I have read people discuss why I wrote As the Earth Turns Silver as a love story rather than some other kind of story.  I did not choose a cross-cultural love story as a political act. It is what came upon me from my own experience as well as stories I heard, some of which may or may not have been true, but which I knew could make a compelling novel. I write about what I care enough about to write. And I have to care deeply to go the distance with a novel because everyday life’s busyness, distractions, relationships and urgent and important matters – often life and death matters – make it difficult to sustain the focus of the writing over the days, months, years.

Aimee Phan:

I also didn’t know my grandparents very well. Even though they were present at family functions, we went to church every weekend together, the language barrier was huge. Most of our communication was through our eye contact and the occasional hugs and kisses, but it was incredibly limited. Now that I’m an adult, I imagine it must have been frustrating for them, to have these grandchildren who only spoke English, and who showed no interest in them, or their language, and culture.

I imagine my children will go through the same spectrum of interest in their heritage. Right now, my seven year old daughter is interested, because she is interested in everything. She’s such a sponge. She has not yet experienced any shame or embarrassment from any perceived difference. I have no idea how long it lasts, but I remember being a teenager, and wishing my parents were more Americanized like everyone else in our neighbourhood and school.

Since my children are the products of two writers, I’m also hopeful they will also love literature and writing. My daughter loves to pretend to write books, and my son always wants us to read to him. They find such pleasure in books, and I hope this feeling will last for both of them.

I’m always fascinated by interpretations of my writing, similar to your experience of being amused/bewildered by various commentary of your work. I think readers pick up on the social and political themes much more acutely than we are aware of when we are in the act of writing. I think I come off much angrier and forceful in my writing, so that when readers meet me in person, they are a bit surprised at how cheerful I am. And perhaps I am channelling a part of my personality into my writing that I normally repress with people when I meet them face to face.

And I absolutely agree with your need to care deeply with your writing in order to the distance. We remember these matters, process and write about them, so that they can last, so they can have a record of importance.

It reminds me of one of my favourite books that we read to our kids, called Frederick. It’s about a mouse who seems to be daydreaming while his fellow mice are busy collecting food for the winter. They think he’s lazy. They think he’s not productive. But in the deep of winter, when everyone is hungry, cold and feeling dispirited, they ask Frederick to tell them what he remembers, what he sees, what he thinks about. And Frederick’s words comfort them, and they call him a poet. This is what I think we, as writers, hope to do.

Alison Wong:

Your daughter could very well become a writer, just as I used to write as a kid and I presume you did as well – though our children may or may not choose the same media/art forms to express their creativity.

My son’s father is also a poet and his stepfather, my husband, is a great reader of books with a library just as extensive as my own. My son adored reading when he was young, he has a very good sense of story and he is very creative. He is a very different person from me with very different tastes and interests and he’s of the tech-savvy, social media-oriented generation. Despite having been an early reader and having come up with excellent characters and narratives for stories and scripts, my son, who is now eighteen, is absolutely not interested in being a writer. Instead he’s interested in producing his own electronic dance music.

New Zealand has a highly influential and successful young singer-songwriter, Lorde, whose songs I am told are usually shaped by her lyrics, which are in turn influenced by the short fiction narrative. Her mother is a fine poet, Sonja Yelich, who encouraged a love of words and reading.

Whether it is with our own children, other people around us or our readers, I hope we are able in some way to encourage, inspire or contribute something in this world. For some reason I see a ripple among many ripples moving across water.

Aimee Phan:

My daughter loves Lorde, as do I. It’s great to know she is the daughter of a poet.

Last week was also my college’s spring break and I was supposed to be writing, but instead I did more reading. I am currently reading the final book in the Neopolitan series by Elena Ferrante, which I have really enjoyed. Many writers have already been raving about her so I’m a little late to the party.

But as I try to talk to colleagues and friends about her, I’m also surprised by the reading preferences and choices of my friends who are prolific readers/writers. Both women and men seem to enjoy her but I’ve had several friends who said they stopped reading because they were not interested in the characters’  struggle (young women growing up in Naples, Italy.) My friends said they are more interested in reading about characters dealing with ethnicity issues rather than gender issues. I’m not articulating this as well as I’d like, but basically, if they had to choose, they’d rather read stories/novels about ethnically diverse characters, rather than simply female. But for me, I find the issues, characters and choices equally compelling. And I find many aspects of Ferrante’s depictions of misogyny and femininity to cross over ethnic and racial lines, so that her characters’ concerns and struggles do feel truly universal and fascinating to me. I understand my friends’ perspectives, since here, the literary discussion has turned to being more racially inclusive and diverse, and that means choosing to read works that have in the past been neglected.

Alison Wong:

I hadn’t specifically thought about reading in terms of gender or ethnicity issues. Are all your friends who want to read about ethnicity issues from ethnic minorities themselves? Of course I am interested in reading and getting to know Chinese and Asian and other ethnic writers – there are certain commonalities and also aspects where we are very diverse – but I am probably more interested in books with other key qualities. And the qualities I particularly appreciate are personal to me.

Language is very important to me, whether poetry or prose. I want to appreciate the actual language and style of the writing whether poetic or idiosyncratic/idiomatic, spare or fulsome. I don’t want to feel as I read that I am constantly editing in my head. I love to be astonished by the power or beauty or imagination of the writer, by a turn of phrase or a passage that transports. With poetry there is wonder, landscape, place, relationship, exploration and discovery.

I want to read stories I care about. Some of your friends care deeply about ethnic issues. I guess I want to care for or feel engaged with the characters, whoever they are and whatever their situation. I can appreciate an intellectual or technically clever book, but if the characters don’t move or engage me then it will not be satisfying. Perhaps this is like a steak that has been perfectly cooked but which is served without salt or pepper or any condiments or flavour.

Perhaps what you are talking about is related to character and the human condition. I want what I read to be meaningful – to matter. What matters to me – and I think you are also saying this – is much wider than questions of ethnicity. I want the whole gamut of humankind to have a voice, to be heard. That being said, I know that I am not personally interested in reading every voice – e.g. I’m not particularly interested in reading books championing money, materialism, power and self-interest …

I agree that it is a problem if the normative situation is seen to be the white male heterosexual or the white female heterosexual or the American or the Brit or anything else. But when I read beautifully written books by a white American mostly about white Americans (Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, for instance – yes, I know there are black characters and issues, particularly in Home) it doesn’t occur to me that these books are not ethnically diverse enough. I just love and admire the writing. Just as I love Louise Erdrich’s novels and Michael Ondaatje’s and Robert Hass’ poetry and Li-Young Lee’s. And the poetry of New Zealanders Bernadette Hall, Dinah Hawken and Hone Tuwhare, and Australians Anthony Lawrence and Mark Tredinnick … I could go on and on.

I am partway through reading the latest novel by a friend of mine. Stephen Daisley’s Coming Rain. Stephen is also originally from New Zealand, but has lived in Western Australia for more than 20 years. His first novel, Traitor, won the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction and this second novel is shortlisted for the upcoming Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. We met at the Byron Bay Writers Festival in 2011 and we’ve kept in touch.

This is his Australian novel. As I read it I’m struck by how much he knows about Australian flora and fauna and landscape, whereas I am still struggling to identify so many trees, plants, bird calls. But then I’ve only lived here just over six years and I have always been a city person, even if a small city person, whereas his has been a much more rural life – he has a more intimate understanding of the land and of working on it. Even when we write fiction and we research and create a world, we are still so influenced by our own experience.

The novel I read prior to this was A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. He’s American and the novel is set in Chechnya during the war – 1994–2004. I have just opened it again at random and I read, ‘At the kitchen table she examined the glass of ice. Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this is how a loved one disappeared.’ This is what I look for when I read. Recognition of something I did not know before. It does not matter where or when a book is set and who it is about, we all share the same joys and sorrows and struggles, just with our own characteristics. (I laugh to myself as I write this. There’s a phrase I heard way back in China – ‘with Chinese characteristics’.)

The last poetry book I read was How To Be Dead in a Year of Snakes by Chris Tse (AUP), also a friend and shortlisted for the Ockhams. [Note: this book went on to win Best First Book of Poetry.] It’s about Joe Kum Yung, an elderly lame Chinese man who was murdered in Wellington in 1905 by a white Brit as protest against Chinese immigration. (The murder is also a minor story in my novel.) Chris’ book is wonderful. It begins: ‘No one asked me to speak, nor took the time to fill a moment with my presence. We cannot hide from ourselves in the dark. I crouch down in the damp void and listen as they pass words about me between themselves like borrowed scandal. The loudest, hungriest voices drown out all reason.’

I am looking forward to when I can get back to New Zealand this year so that I can buy books, including Gregory Kan’s poetry collection Paper Boat (AUP) and John Dennison’s poetry collection, Otherwise (AUP/Carcanet). John’s also an old friend from way back whom I’ve lost touch with. As you can see, I love poetry. And I’ll be buying Helene Wong’s memoir, Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story (BWB). And I’m waiting for your novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong.


Alison Wong: Books I am reading.


Aimee Phan:

I’ve just been attending the AWP [Association of Writers and Writing Programs] conference. Fourteen-thousand writers, four days. It was pretty overwhelming. I go for my school, but it’s also a chance to catch up with friends, classmates and colleagues I’ve met over the years. The first day is fun, but by the last day, you are tired and just want to go home. It’s hard to be in the company of thousands of writers. You feel like a tiny fish in a very very big aquarium, drifting by people you vaguely remember, or think you remember. It’s a hard event to get over actually, because you’re reminded of so many versions of yourself in the past: who I was in grad school, who I was as a teacher in other cities, so that by the time I get home, I have to remember who I am, and then I am glad.

I’ve been a writer for almost twenty years and it’s already felt like such a rich journey.

I only have a few friends who make the intentional decision to focus on ethnic writing, and yes they are writers of colour. I do know of other writers who’ve made the public initiative to read only women for a year, or read only writers of colour for a year.

I agree with your attraction to reading engaging characters. I think there is this drive to read about engaging characters who can be both diverse and compelling. So the best of both. I know I do try to write characters who have more to them than simply their ethnicity. It can be central to their character, but so can many other things.

Alison Wong:

It’s ironic isn’t it? So much of writing itself is quite solitary, that is writing fiction and poetry (research may or may not be solitary) – not so much scriptwriting or playwriting – yet attending conferences and festivals, doing readings, interviews and other publicity is the opposite. For those of us who are more introverted and/or intuitive, it can be very stimulating and exciting to meet and/or catch up other writers and share together what we’re passionate about, but there can come the point where we are exhausted by the social and/or sensory overload.

I have been thinking about your question of what I have been reading. I realise that since I have been in Australia I read quite a bit online – poems, articles, interviews, essays, news. Partly this is because this is the way the world has gone and also it is so much easier with broadband, which I couldn’t afford when I was in New Zealand. It is also one of the ways I keep in touch with New Zealand (and the rest of the world.)

I think because New Zealand has such a small population far from most of the rest of world, we have our own community in a way that perhaps larger nations like the US don’t have? If there are six degrees of separation between people in the world, it feels like in New Zealand there might only be two. Or maybe three. So while we read a lot of American and British literature and varying amounts of other literature from other English-speaking countries and of literature in translation, I do tend to read quite a lot of New Zealand literature. And living in Australia I am becoming more familiar with Australia writers and literature. Perhaps this is a bit like American or British writers reading more ethnic writers or female writers or LGBTI writers…

There is a real sense of pride when one of our own does well on the international stage – like Eleanor Catton or Lloyd Jones or Anthony McCarten, or Keri Hulme before them – though New Zealand culture likes heroes/role models to be down-to-earth and understated, someone anyone could easily share a beer, wine or latte with. And I think, if a New Zealander does well on the world stage – golfer, Lydia Ko, for instance – then they embraced. I must admit I rather like the fact that Lydia has Korean heritage. She gives a broader public image of what a New Zealander is.

I am encouraged and excited by all the new voices, including from quite diverse backgrounds. I first came across Ya-Wen Ho in the New Zealand-themed Pacific Highways Edition 43 of Griffith Review. I was struck by her translation of Li Po’s poem, a transformation into the New Zealand landscape. I am reading her essay, Dear You, which she wrote as a result of receiving one of the Horoeka reading grants set up by Eleanor Catton.

I can only read a very small number of Chinese characters, and the ones I learned were the simplified ones now used in China, not the original ones used in Taiwan and elsewhere – so I cannot read much of the Chinese script she has mixed together with English in her essay (not unlike the struggle with the Chinese language I explore in my poem Autumn, Shanghai (in Best New Zealand Poems 2015), but I find her experimentation and exploration interesting and those of us from ethnically diverse backgrounds will certainly find resonance.

Your novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, has arrived. I know that this is fiction and that this is not your own family, but I wonder, given that the story is set within the same general time period and history of your own family’s migration from Vietnam (when so many people fled Vietnam, including a huge number to Australia), did you have any difficulty with your family/community about writing the story? Did people worry that you were telling their personal story or that others would think that you were writing about them? That you were revealing family or community secrets or portraying them in an unfavourable light? Did any of these considerations influence how you wrote the novel or affect you as you wrote?

I am curious because I am very aware of these issues as I work on my memoir and on my second novel. My first novel was made much easier by being sufficiently historical. But for quite a while I was concerned not only about my ability to write a novel – and yes, I know there are things I could have done better – but also specifically about my ability to write a historical novel about the Chinese in New Zealand and about how it would be perceived by the community. But then I thought, what the heck, just do to it.


I have finished your novel. It’s a wonderfully complex intergenerational story exploring the fallout of war and family dysfunction; the impact of the choices we make; issues of duty, loyalty and love; and our sense of identity, belonging and home. Relationships suffused by bitterness, grief, anger, disappointment, sadness, but also tenderness and some kind of hope.

As I read about refugees escaping by boat and ending up separated in different countries, I thought about our four ‘boys’ – asylum seekers here in Australia – who have become part of our family. Their families have also been scattered across the world. Australia resettled a huge number of Vietnamese after the war. They are a much more noticeable presence in Melbourne and Sydney than in New Zealand, many having become very influential and successful. (I read in the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (Te Ara) that by 1998 a third of those who settled in New Zealand had moved on to Australia for better work opportunities and to become part of the bigger communities.)

What continues to resonate with me, two days after finishing your novel, is the longing to understand the past and how it has shaped us – particularly when others may have tried to forget – and the need to belong. To find home.

Aimee Phan:

These boys of yours – is this part of your husband’s work as a minister? How their perspectives must open you up to so many different backgrounds and stories of new beginnings.

Alison Wong:

I am amazed by our boys. Despite everything they have been through they are so good-hearted and gracious. There isn’t an iota of bitterness in them. And they work so incredibly hard. I call them our ‘boys’ but they are actually young adults. We are now their Australian family (although all of us – me, my husband and my son – come from New Zealand.)

And yes, my husband’s work as a minister and his involvement in the community here, does bring with it exposure to the whole gamut of human experience. Late one afternoon nearly two years ago, we got a phone call from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne asking if we would take in four asylum seekers for the night. Otherwise they would be on the street as all refugee accommodation in Melbourne was full. They now have their own rental flat, but that phone call was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Now I cannot see advertisements on TV for charities in Africa without putting very personal faces to them. I have seen our boys’ cute baby photos. And I have a much more personal understanding of the plight of asylum seekers and refugees.

Not so long before we met our boys, there was a young Sri Lankan asylum seeker who lived not far from us. He was not in detention or in one of Australia’s highly controversial off-shore detention centres (where many New Zealanders and other foreigners with prison records totalling a year or more have also been sent before being deported – many of these deportees have lived in Australia almost all their lives, all of their families and friends are in Australia and they don’t know anyone in the countries they are being deported back to, but they don’t have Australian citizenship.) Anyway, this young asylum seeker was not allowed to work, though he did volunteer work, and people have told me he was a lovely person. But he had been waiting so long and despaired at being deported back to Sri Lanka like so many others before him and ended up killing himself. His family were refused visas to attend his funeral.

I do think that getting to know people from other cultures, countries, ethnicities, backgrounds, abilities, sexual orientations, etc – becoming friends with those different from us, is the best way to break down prejudice. As long as we don’t take the common attitude that these kind of people are no good, oh, but you my friend, you’re OK, you’re not one of them.

My residency with the Shanghai Writers’ Programme in 2014 was invaluable not just for its literary value and for my writing, but also because I became friends with writers who came from countries where I’d previously had no close personal contact. So for instance, when I hear Donald Trump say something racist about Mexicans, I am not only outraged because I theoretically value all human life, but also because I can replace his polemic with the face of friends.


Ai Weiwei Mao Zedong. Photo credit: Alison Wong


Aimee Phan:

I’m not sure if this controversy has made it your way yet, but it has many Asian American writers speaking up. An established New Yorker staff writer Calvin Trillin published a poem that was meant to satire the trendiness of Chinese food. It’s called ‘have they run out of provinces yet?’ You can read more about the controversy on NPR and The Guardian. Many Asian Americans, especially Asian American writers are frustrated, and have written an array of response poems such as this at the Establishment. Writers are coming out on social media with a range of responses: from criticizing the poem, rebuking the author for cultural ignorance or straight up racism, to defending the author for his attempt at satire (he is 80) and accusing his critics of overreacting and being too sensitive and politically correct.

My position? The poem is terribly written, groan-inducing, racist, and disheartening since it is published in the leading literary publication of the country. I recognize that the poem may be attempting satire at the American cultural trend to find the next best cuisine, but the poem also is produced in an atmosphere where Asian culture is easily/readily ridiculed, and the people are largely ignored. I am proud of the clever and smart response poems of my fellow writers, and disappointed in the response of some older, more established writers have been.

Alison Wong:

I hadn’t heard about the Calvin Trillin controversy and thought I hadn’t heard of the man, but after a little investigation I realised I had heard at least one of his humorous quotes. I find the whole affair rather sad and the publication of his poem problematic, not least because the poem isn’t well-written and doesn’t work as good satire. Which could suggest that editorial decisions are sometimes made because of who the author is rather than because of the quality of the writing. Given the frustration of so many American writers of colour at being marginalised, tokenised and ignored, I understand why the poem has angered so many – especially Asian Americans.

I have never been to America, but it does seem to have more serious problems with prejudice than New Zealand. When trying to understand a country or organisation it is insightful to look to its beginnings. The traces of the original DNA. New Zealand, Australia, Canada, America, Britain – none of them can be proud of their historical treatment of the Chinese (you will see something of this when you read my novel), but both America and Australia’s treatment of their black/indigenous peoples have been shameful. Trump’s popularity and divisiveness only showcases how different America is to New Zealand.

The closest New Zealand gets to Trump is Winston Peters and he pales into insignificance, without a show of ever becoming Prime Minister. I think New Zealand has a more unassuming, low-key approach than both America and Australia, but as I say this I am also very aware that due to its geographical isolation and ‘relative unimportance’ in the world, New Zealand does not face the same migratory and refugee pressures. I say all these things as a way of explaining, that although in New Zealand I occasionally face minor racism and I am acutely aware of historical and also contemporary prejudice, I don’t feel marginalised as a Chinese New Zealand writer or as a Chinese New Zealander.

Having read a few old interviews/articles about Trillin and a few of his quotes, he appears to be a nice guy who is often very witty and funny, who enjoys food and is knowledgeable enough to distinguish and enjoy the many varieties of authentic Chinese cuisine; and as a reporter for Time in the early sixties covering the Freedom Rides and desegregation, he does not come across as racist. I found a quote of his online which seems to wittily put down the racist and commend those who are being excluded: “The food in such places is so tasteless because the members associate spices and garlic with just the sort of people they’re trying to keep out.” After reading this in the Washington Post  and Debra Spark’s response to the controversy in the Huffington Post, I think Trillin is probably more naïve than racist. Yes, his usage of ‘we’ and ‘they’ in his poem is problematic, but I think he is a product of his time. The world has changed on him.

In a 1995 Paris Review interview , Trillin was asked if there were any subjects that the humourist should avoid. He replied: ‘It’s not so much that certain subjects are out of bounds because of rules set down somewhere or because of a policy that a writer has decided on. It’s that writing about certain subjects wouldn’t be funny. I think that if the goal is to be funny, the subjects sort themselves out naturally. Also, the passage of time makes some subjects OK.’ I think the subject he chose in this case wasn’t funny, or at least his execution of it wasn’t funny.

I also think the passage of time can make some subjects not OK, or at least certain ways of handling them can become controversial. We no longer think it’s OK to use corporal punishment in schools and in the home; we don’t accept domestic violence; we don’t judge people for leaving unhappy marriages (I hope.) Despite a persistence of problems, discrimination by reasons of gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, etc, are no longer considered acceptable.

There are risks for any writer or commentator covering material where they are not insiders. I don’t think that only insiders should write about those worlds and characters, otherwise all books would only have white characters or only Chinese characters or whatever. And there are many great works of literature written by outsiders or people who have had contact with the people they write of without being one of them. However, an insider writes differently from an outsider. The perspective, the details, are different. An Asian American would not have written Trillin’s poem.

The interviewer in the Paris Review ends by asking Trillin, ‘Have the targets, the victims of your humour ever coming knocking on the door?’ Trillin replies, tongue in cheek, I think: ‘That has never happened. Where have I gone wrong?’ Unfortunately for him, victims have now come.

Aimee Phan:

The story you shared about the Sri Lankan refugee, his despair over his situation and his suicide, is heartbreaking. It reminds me that the refugee narrative of dislocation and alienation, continues to endure in this world, despite the many kind people who reach out (especially your family with your strong connection to your adopted boys.) My mother was a social worker in California and worked with many Vietnamese and Southeast Asian refugees, and their stories always resonated with me, and made me value my family and support network even more.

Your thoughtful and thorough research on Calvin Trillin is commendable. I did not take the time to read and consider the context of his past work, though I’d known about it. I wish more writers and readers would do such research before making judgements on writing. With the internet and social media, people tend to react much more quickly, and without the necessary information that would allow wiser, more considerate analysis. I agree that he probably is a kind man, but I think more writers were angered about the context of its publication: the New Yorker editors and staff read it and agreed to publish it. This poem can continue to exist in a high profile magazine and many readers will not bat an eye.

Last night, I went to a burlesque show with a friend. I usually never do anything like this, and I was very curious. It was fancy since the headliner, Dita Von Teese, is quite famous here in America. And it was lovely to watch all kinds of body types and gender perform these sexy, provocative and beautiful dance numbers to an audience that was appreciative (but not leering or predatory, if that makes any sense.) Everyone felt welcome and included, people of all genders and sexualities. But the finale was a disappointment: a problematic Orientalist themed sequence that seemed to mash up the Chinese dragon lady and Japanese geisha fantasies.

And almost immediately, my friends and I felt dislocated from the experience. If any other audience members felt offended, they didn’t show it. And just like that: after feeling so included and safe and excited about the diversity of the evening, we were marginalized. I’m still processing it this morning, still glad I went, but rethinking so many of these ideas of what is considered attractive and appealing, and how Asian cultures can be appreciated without being objectified or exoticized.

But in better news for Asian American literature, Viet Thanh Nguyen, who I’ve known for many years, won the Pulitzer yesterday for fiction. His book is called The Sympathizer, and it’s fantastic: a novel told from the point of view of a half-Vietnamese spy after the Vietnam War. It’s also a scathing critique on past narratives of the Vietnam War and its focus on the American perspective. Asian American and Vietnamese American writers are celebrating: it’s a huge milestone and Viet definitely earned it and deserves the accolades he’s been receiving. I feel like Viet kicked the door open further for writers of colour, so his victory is one we can all feel proud of and share.


Photo credit: Kelly Ana Morey


Alison Wong:

Yesterday we had a funeral. Pat was 2013 Victorian Senior of the Year, and as her children described her life, they remembered her interviewing Vietnamese refugees and being incensed when they suffered discrimination. Afterwards a man asked me if I was Vietnamese as he had Vietnamese friends. Of course, I thought of you.

Today I went to Melbourne to see the Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria before it closes Monday. Interestingly, despite my family having first migrated to New Zealand – a ‘western’ country – almost 140 years ago, I related much much more to Ai Weiwei’s work than Warhol’s. There were photos from eighties New York of someone who’d come to my place for dinner when he held a residency at Victoria University of Wellington – the composer, Tan Dun. And having lived in China at disparate times over more than thirty years, there was so much that was familiar, though of course Ai subverts everything. In the Letgo Room, pictures and quotes of various Australian human rights advocates were constructed from Chinese plastic bricks (fake Lego.) The walls, ceiling and floor of the room were all made from three million plastic bricks and as we walked on these tiny bricks, the movement seemed to make the floor whisper like hundreds of hushed voices.

I am looking forward to reading The Sympathizer. It sounds incredibly interesting, a needed alternative perspective to what has gone before, and I understand your celebration. When I was awarded the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago in 2002, I received letters of congratulation from Chinese I’d never met from all over New Zealand. The same when I won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction. I got letters, phone calls and emails from Chinese, from part-Chinese (including one who completely identified with my fiction because it seemed so similar to her grandparents’ story) and other Asians who had read the novel.

Before the Burns Fellowship I felt like I didn’t quite belong in the community. I felt different and alone. Almost no other Chinese New Zealanders seemed interested in literature. But then I realised that it mattered. That the community did want their stories told. And that they identified with any success I had.

In Australia, Nam Le’s The Boat won the 2009 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction as well as many other prizes. I met him at the Awards when my novel was shortlisted in 2010. Australia has a lot of literary prizes and I do notice quite a few writers of colour who have been shortlisted for and/or won literary awards, including Alice Pung, whose Chinese parents fled the Pol Pot regime. New Zealand has a wealth of literary talent, but unfortunately, few awards. Since the GFC there has been a decline in funding for the arts, but we are very glad to have new sponsorship and funding which has saved our national book awards.

It’s rather ironic that the New Yorker has just become the first magazine to win a Pulitzer. Two in fact, for feature writing and for criticism, with another to a staff writer’s memoir. Yet despite the quality of its writing, it still published Trillin’s poem. I cannot imagine a prestigious New Zealand journal publishing Trillin’s poem. I wonder whether it points to a difference between America and New Zealand, and why writers of colour and minorities might be more frustrated in America than in New Zealand. (Not that I would presume to represent the views and feelings of anyone but myself. I know some minorities in New Zealand do feel aggrieved.)

I was reading a column, ‘The Price of Liberty’, by Bill Ralston in the New Zealand Listener (February 13-19 2016). Ralston says that inequality in the US throws up politicians that, by New Zealand standards, sound barking mad, that even Hilary Clinton sounds far to the right of the most conservative parties in New Zealand, and that Bernie Sanders is possibly the closest thing you’ll find to a New Zealand politician. He refers to David Hackett Fischer’s 2012 book, Fairness and Freedom, which contends that Americans prize liberty and freedom, i.e., the freedom to succeed or fail in the American dream (and if you fail, it’s your own fault), while New Zealanders tend to emphasise fairness, justice and the egalitarian dream.

Viktor Frankl believed that freedom needed to be balanced with responsibility. He dreamed of a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast to correspond to the East Coast’s Statue of Liberty (which I saw referenced today in Warhol’s work.)

Your dismay and dislocation at the Orientalist exoticism in the show you went to is another example of why it is so important to encourage and support diverse artists, to counter stereotypes and assumptions with alternative and more authentic visions. Being marginalised ourselves does not necessarily make us immune to conscious or subconscious prejudices against other marginalised peoples. At the time of my novel for instance, women, who were still fighting for fairly basic rights, did not necessarily have any empathy for the Chinese. Similarly, those advocating for the poor.

And we have recently had the sad case of a young Melbourne mother, Sofina Nikat, reporting that she was pushed to the ground by a six-foot-tall man of African appearance, who then abducted her fourteen-month-old daughter, Sanaya Sahib. When I heard the story I knew something didn’t add up and I was fearful that our boys might be subjected to vigilante attacks. When Nikat was later arrested and confessed to killing her own daughter, I wondered why she had specifically concocted a story of a black kidnapper.

Before I came to Australia I remember hearing about two sets of identical CVs and job applications being sent out to a range of New Zealand companies. The only difference between the CVs was that some had Chinese names; others had Pakeha names. There was a huge disparity in responses, with significantly more offers of an interview for those with Pakeha names. Here in Geelong (Australia) I recently met a Singaporean woman who after graduating from the local university nearly a decade ago, could not get a job. The recruiting agency could not understand why. Then they suggested she replace her Chinese given name with an English one. She immediately got a job.

Although it was only a few years ago that polls suggested that Asians were the most discriminated against group in New Zealand, I suspect that may have shifted. Certainly in Australia, Muslims now seem to be facing strident discrimination, with some people unable to distinguish between ISIL/’terrorists’ and ordinary peaceful Muslims. The Grand Mufti of Australia is now suing Newscorp for defamation.

I think it is possible for anyone to feel marginalised or to feel somewhat like an outsider. Bill Manhire, New Zealand poet and founder of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters, marvellously wrote in the title poem in his collection Milky Way Bar, ‘I live at the edge of the universe, like everyone else.’

Aimee Phan:

The story about your recently departed friend Pat, and your memory of her empathy with Vietnamese refugees and the discrimination they faced, reminds me that the most empathetic and compassionate people hardly ever make the news. We are usually so focused on the transgressors, the offenders, the detractors, and not the people who listen and help.

However you do bring up a good exception with Ai Wei Wei, who also recently had an exhibit here in the SF bay area on Alcatraz Island, which is famous for its now-closed prison. The exhibit used Lego (maybe they were fake, I’m not sure) to build portraits of prisoners of conscience from around the world. We’d taken our kids to see the exhibit as well, and I found myself spending most of my time making sure the kids didn’t trample over the Lego or pull down the art work. Last year, my daughter didn’t really understand what a political prisoner was, but now she is asking so many questions with the upcoming election.

I think you are spot on about the politics of the US, which is currently giving my seven- year-old daughter nightmares. The kids at her school basically parrot what their parents say to them at home, and now she’s afraid Trump may become president and that he will deport all the immigrants. I wish I could say he’s exaggerating, but the man thrives on such vitriolic statements. It reminds me of the 2000 and 2004 elections when I wondered how people around the world thought of the US when we elected Bush. It’s easy to forget, especially where we live where it is pretty progressive, that there are many, many people who mourn the current Obama presidency, who want a wall between America and Mexico, who don’t believe that this is a country founded by immigrants, etc.

I’m gratified to have this chance to talk out these issues that are occurring so quickly around us, and get replaced every day with another distracting media story. With the internet and social media, I feel like I’m always reacting to the news, whether good or bad, and this conversation has allowed me to think more deeply, and consider things more carefully.

Alison Wong:

The US Presidential nomination seems to reveal a country deeply divided. Compared to the US – and also Australia, where we’ve been changing Prime Minister pretty much every year since I’ve been here – New Zealand seems very stable. (Sometimes boring is good.) I think most of the world is watching Trump disbelieving. If he does become President, then we will all have something to fear.

As for your daughter, I suspect that she is a highly intelligent, sensitive and imaginative child, which could make her more susceptible to fears. When my son was young, he also had terrible nightmares. His powerful imagination made him more vulnerable than other children who were completely unaffected by the same events. Is your daughter picking up fears about Trump only through kids at her school or is she also seeing Trump on the news?

I ask because recently there was an article in The Age where Dr Wayne Warburton, deputy director of the Children and Families Research Centre at Macquarie University, said that there had been a huge increase in Australian children’s access to the news, whether on TV, tablet or Smartphone, and that nearly half of them had been upset by it. Half of young adults remembered a news item that had frightened or upset them as a child, with seven percent still affected by it. Dr Warburton has different suggestions for handling the situation depending on the child’s age, though your daughter’s fears seem to correlate with what he describes for children over eight-years-old.

I was thinking about what you say about who makes the news, and realized that fiction writers, poets, playwrights portray people’s lives – and not just the kinds of the people who receive media attention, but also those who are often overlooked or considered insignificant. I see this in your novel. This is part of what we do.

My husband, Kevin, talks about the ‘hidden years’ or ‘hidden time’. This is a crucial period when someone or something is formed. While no one else notices. Kevin gives examples: Jesus living unnoticed in the backwater of Galilee before bursting onto the scene aged about thirty; Nelson Mandela reformulating his ideas in prison before leading his country towards healing and unity; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Human Rights Arts & Film Festival is about the start in Melbourne. One of the films featured is Maya Angelou And Still I Rise, and I think of Maya not speaking as a seven-year-old for five-and-half-years, but at this time reading voraciously and precociously. Kevin says we sow seeds in this ‘hidden time’ that become the forest of the future.

I am not a prolific writer. People may wonder what I am doing – seemingly not writing, not publishing constantly in the journals, not putting out more books. I don’t blog, tweet or participate much in social media. I’m an introverted intuitive – unlike my son who is more extroverted and thrives on social media – and being a minister’s wife with all its demands, if I was constantly, publicly reacting to the latest news, I think I would be overwhelmed. I need my hidden space. To contemplate and process. Then hopefully I’ll have something to write from.


Photo credit: Kelly Ana Morey

Photo credit: Kelly Ana Morey






'Many of our best stories profit from a meeting of New Zealand and overseas influences' - Owen Marshall

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