A Natural Utterance for the Era
Lawrence Patchett explores the riches of creative nonfiction in New Zealand
The sheer force is bringing the walls down. That’s how Witi Ihimaera describes the pressures that are driving the vitality and change in creative non-fiction. One of New Zealand’s most celebrated novelists, Ihimaera is now also a prize-winning memoirist. He’s the author of Māori Boy, winner of the General Non-fiction category at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
That particular category was arguably the most diverse and hotly contested, including Rachel Barrowman’s landmark biography of Maurice Gee and Fiona Farrell’s The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, a response to the Canterbury earthquakes that, like Ihimaera’s winning memoir, travelled far into the past and abroad to contextualise the present’s shuddering impact. The quality and diversity of the leading contenders sparked a call for a separate award. ‘Creative nonfiction is enjoying a flowering in Aotearoa at the moment,’ wrote Lynn Jenner, author of another shortlisted book, Lost and Gone Away. ‘How about making space for that?’
And, as ever, beyond the realms of such prize lists were yet more works of thrilling innovation, in both books and other forms, some of which will soon be reprinted in the annual anthology Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction. With some major new essay collections also about to emerge, and a stream of essays appearing from BWB Texts, it’s an exhilarating time to write nonfiction in New Zealand, and to read it.
The first Tell You What was launched in the Civic Theatre in Auckland and a Wellington pub. As I remember it, the Wellington event was rowdy and close, a gathering of some of the most active and exciting writers then working in creative nonfiction. For some time the short nonfiction of such writers had been breaking new ground, in print and blogs and elsewhere, according to the anthology’s co-editors Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrews. But it was at risk of being lost in the moment or, as they put it in the 2015 introduction, disappearing into the browser cache. It was time to collect and celebrate that work.
Few publishing events have done more to raise the status of such a range of contemporary New Zealand nonfiction. Shortly to appear in its third edition, Tell You What has the power of a major publisher behind it, Auckland University Press, to endorse and expand the reach of the work it collects.
‘Tell You What has been great,’ says AUP Director Sam Elworthy, ‘at taking a new generation of writers who might be known in some blogs, newspapers, magazines, etc, and putting them together in one package. I think that most readers are impressed with the liveliness and creativity in the short nonfiction that’s going on out there and the number of great new voices we have.’
Jolisa Gracewood sees ‘our project as part of a growing nonfiction ecosystem’. Encouraged by the success of Tell You What and other new anthologies, she now feels as though ‘our intuition was spot on, that New Zealanders (and beyond) are as hungry as we were for access to well-told true stories about how we live, what we’re thinking, what’s happening around us.’
A month after the launch of Tell You What, another event intensified the sense that, as Cherie Lacey puts it, creative nonfiction is ‘having its day’. At Massey University’s campus in Wellington, Lacey and her fellow essayist and critic, Ingrid Horrocks, gathered some of the most prominent writers and critics of the form, including long-time nonfiction writer Martin Edmond and former poet laureate and essayist Ian Wedde. Published in July 2016, Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand (VUP) includes a critical essay that discusses the current ‘upsurge’ in the personal essay exploring place. In one of those telling moments of zeitgest, soon it will be followed by another essay collection, this time edited by academic and writer Thom Conroy and published by Massey University Press, that also explores questions of place and belonging.
Horrocks sees daily evidence of ‘huge interest’ in creative nonfiction in her university classes. ‘There were 80 students from all over the country in the creative nonfiction paper I taught this year,’ she says. ‘Massey’s papers in life writing and travel writing have also been consistently popular with students for years.’ The form attracts students by offering them ways to investigate and understand the world without having to arrive at neat or logical solutions. ‘Creative nonfiction seems to me to not provide answers,’ she says, ‘but open out questions.’
But perhaps it’s not in formal institutions or even in published books that creative nonfiction is flowering most vigorously. ‘Some of our freshest writing is definitely to be found online,’ Gracewood and Andrew contend in the introduction to the first Tell You What. One frequently anthologised example is essayist and poet Ashleigh Young, winner of the prestigious Landfall Essay Prize and author of the blog Eyelash Roaming. Her first book of personal essays, Can You Tolerate This? (VUP), will be released later this year.
‘Writers from the new blogging, tweeting internet communities are creating the pressure by bringing new structures of delivery into existence,’ says Ihimaera. ‘They are creating new kinds of practitioners, new perspectives, and just as important, new audiences. It’s a migrant compulsion, allowing a greater democratisation of all previous art forms.’
Chief among these innovations, according to writer John Summers, is a turn towards the personal essay, ‘writing where the author plays a more visible part.’ Summers is the author of The Mermaid Boy (Hue & Cry Press, 2015), a collection of nonfiction stories that read like a series of carefully crafted autobiographical fictions. But he’s careful to make sure they’re not fictional. Being faithful to personal experience, or at least his remembered version of it, forces him to write something that is ethically and technically better than ‘thinly disguised fiction.’ Dealing with the truth, he says, ‘forces me to see how things actually are part of a story, rather than simply make up scenes that would more obviously progress the narrative.’
Summers isn’t alone in identifying the trend inward. Writer and critic Harry Ricketts points out that Tell You What is made up predominantly of the ‘personal lyrical essay.’ But this use of ‘the self as instrument’ doesn’t mean, as Martin Edmond states in his contribution to Extraordinary Anywhere, that the self is the only focus of the inquiry. Far from it. In fact, using ‘the self as instrument’ can allow writers and readers to find out, among other things, about the volatility of the self, ‘its provisional nature, its multifariousness’.
Even when the writer explores dream and memory, it can reveal something about the mind itself, about consciousness. Edmond’s own work often takes this turn, examining the nature of memory as well as what it recalls—in The Dreaming Land (Bridget Williams Books, 2015), for example, and Chronicle of the Unsung (Auckland University Press, 2004), which touch on his childhood and early adult life, and its complex layers of lived and literary experiences.
The ability to explore such connections without oversimplifying them, says Lacey, is one of the reasons why New Zealand writers are turning to creative nonfiction in such numbers. ‘I think the essay form allows non-Indigenous writers—Pākehā, settlers, migrants—to claim a relationship to place, a deeply felt relationship to place, in a tentative, personal, and questioning way.’ Similarly, it offers Māori writers, she says, a way to explore a relationship to place that can be much more complex than others might assume.
For example, novelist and essayist Tina Makereti’s piece in Extraordinary Anywhere, ‘By Your Place in the World, I Will Know Who You Are’, uses the essay form to explore her own disconnected experience of childhood and home. Her experience of tūrangawaewae and papakāinga has been limited by parental and cultural conflict, making her ‘a Māori who doesn’t come from any place in particular’. The essay is an investigation of family and cultural disruption, the notion of ‘home’ complicated – for Māori and Pākehā – in a colonised country.
Arguably there’s been no greater recent rupture of human connection to place than the Canterbury earthquakes. As Philip Matthews illustrates in his feature about contemporary writing in Christchurch, in the aftermath the form’s agility attracted big-name novelists and new bloggers alike. But for essayist and fiction writer Nic Low the earthquakes were only the most recent disturbance in a place already layered with the shock of colonising displacement. Republished in the 2015 Tell You What, his 2011 essay ‘Ear to the Ground’ refigured the earthquakes as a deep rupturing sound, one that could signal a renewed place in the city for the Māori people who lived there first.
His new project explores the South Island trails his ancestors followed in search of pounamu. It’s an experience that forces experimentation, a departure from the romanticism of some overseas walking books. ‘It’s hard to run an argument,’ he says, ‘about walking as reverie and meditation when you’re up in a Fiordland swamp. It’s impossible to maintain a discussion about walking in nature in New Zealand without considering Māori history and questions of whose land you’re walking on.’
For Ihimaera the urgent need to innovate comes from a similar place — conventional Western forms just can’t accommodate a Māori world view. One of the problems of memoir, for example, is that its impulse is ‘centripetal,’ he says, ‘in the sense that the world of the memoir is mainly about the person at the centre of it. Māori thought sees the individual as part of the tribal. With Māori Boy I was constantly fighting these forces, always trying to think from the inside out rather than from the outside in.’ The result is a book that he can’t define as either memoir or autobiography — there’s a tipping between objectivity and subjectivity that balances it between both.
There’s a clear tipping away from convention in the nonfiction of Peter Wells too, a writer noted for his experimental techniques in historical storytelling. The author of several prize-winning novels and nonfiction books – including Journey to a Hanging (Publisher, 2015), longlisted for the Ockhams – Wells lives in Auckland and Napier, and much of his historical writing explores the period of early contact between Pākehā and Māori in Hawke’s Bay. Intimate in their narration, they often seem more like interactions with the people and places of history. ‘It’s a comfort to me,’ he writes in The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso, ‘that Colenso is buried just along the road from where I sit writing …. You could say that, invisibly, he surrounds me.’ Working inside the presence of this long-dead missionary, he delivers first-person digressions on descendants he’s met, theories he’s developed, and even a poem he’s written about his subject.
Eschewing the pose of objectivity, this form seems refreshingly honest in its dealings with the reader. Wells describes it as a meditation on history. ‘The essay form seemed very enlivening to me,’ he says. ‘I felt very free to go where I wanted and I thought it freed me up to actually say “this is who I am, these are my concerns and prejudices and preoccupations – and this is the story I am telling.”’ The book was conceived, he says, as storytelling as much as history.
A poet writes a PhD thesis that becomes a creative non-fiction book. If that seems an unusual trajectory for a piece of higher research to take, consider that it’s happened twice recently. Stephanie de Montalk’s How Does it Hurt? (VUP, 2014) began as a PhD project and combines memoir, poetry and the imagined biographies of thinkers and writers to craft an articulation of chronic pain. That combination suggests the flexibility of the form, precisely what de Montalk enjoys about the personal essay.
‘Given the shapelessness of chronic pain,’ she says, ‘this needed to be a work in the form of a personal journey, so that became quite important — to portray it not only as a personal journey but as a journey with Daudet, Martineau and Wat as my travelling companions. This all blended the attributes of memoir and personal essay, not only reflecting on pain but also easing the weight of those reflections on the reader.’
Similarly initiated by PhD research, Lynn Jenner’s Lost and Gone Away (AUP, 2015) was initially designed to combine critical and creative inquiry in the one document. The finished book deploys techniques of poetry and prose, pastiche and collage. Starting with what seems a straightforward first-person narration of loss in the Christchurch earthquakes, it breaks into short prose sections and poems that interact with lost, broken and reassembled fragments of culture, including Sappho’s poetry and DJ samplings. Given the precise and careful assembly, it’s astonishing to notice how widely the book travels, how expansive its thinking becomes. It’s not surprising to hear Jenner, also an award-winning poet, speak of creative nonfiction’s ‘inclusiveness’ as one of the attractions of the form.
Some argue that in a form so personal in its approach, voice is the key element. Certainly ‘distinctiveness of voice’ is a key criteria for selection in Tell You What. With so many voices now gaining attention, there’s one that has become very recognisable.
Among his many accolades, Steve Braunias won the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Award for Non-Fiction for Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World (Awa), a strangely riveting account of ordinary New Zealanders in unglamorous places, all united by ‘their nothingness, their banal and exhilarating New Zealandness’. Braunias’ narrations seem disarmingly close, the in-your-ear yarning of an intimate friend, who just happens to have met some irregular characters in Civilisation, or attended some intriguing cases in The Scene of the Crime (HarperCollins, 2015).
But the voice of each book is developed with great care. When he writes, Braunias is conscious of the need to be alert to different voices or approaches for various kinds of writing. So readers may encounter an intimate atmosphere in How to Watch a Bird (Awa, 2007), suffused with the narrator’s joy at becoming a father. But in Madmen: Inside the weirdest election campaign ever (Luncheon Sausage Books, 2014), there is instead a very deliberate attempt at achieving a writerly style. ‘It’s a kind of ventriloquism,’ he says, ‘of Norman Mailer and that whole super-charged, whooping ‘New Journalism’ prose. I’d not written like that before but it suited the subject.’
Back when two of the key publishers set up shop, Bridget Williams Books and Awa Press, the market for nonfiction was limited. Yet they’ve helped build the market and sustain the careers of a growing diversity of authors, and not only by releasing their full-length books. Canny publishing ideas have further stimulated the market they helped to grow. In a panel talk at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2007 on the ‘explosion’ in New Zealand’s nonfiction, Harry Ricketts pointed to the How to series from Awa Press as one example. Its wide success gave writers like Braunias (How to Watch a Bird) and Ricketts (How to Catch a Game of Cricket) the chance to connect with new readers via their most deeply loved pursuits. Another example noted by Ricketts was the Montana Estates Essay Series, twelve titles selected by Lloyd Jones and published by Four Winds Press. Engaging and often funny, these pocket-sized books – including Under the Influence (2003) by Bill Manhire, about growing up in pubs and On Kissing (2002) by poet Kate Camp – have had extraordinary resonance and lasting power.
A decade on, Bridget Williams Books has developed a ‘digital first’ format to disseminate a staggering number of essays at low cost. Publishing ‘short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers’, BWB offer both digital and print texts in a series that includes personal essays and memoir as well as investigations of economics, science, history, the housing crisis and immigration, BWB Texts have the urgency of a TED Talk in essay form. This highlights the essay’s enduring ability to provide, as Horrocks puts it, ‘accessible engagements with questions of urgent public debate’, and, as Fiona Farrelll suggests, it presents writers ‘as citizens, voicing a point of view about life in this country at this point in its history.’
Nicola Legat, publisher at the new Massey University Press, says she doesn’t ‘need to be persuaded that there’s a market for creative non fiction; I started my life in journalism steeped in it. I joined the staff of Metro magazine in its fourth year  and quickly discovered that what its founding editor, Warwick Roger, wanted was the sort of fly on the wall/ check out what’s right down the back of that dark cave journalism that Americans were calling The New Journalism.’
Legat went on to edit Metro herself, valuing both ‘the creativity’ of the magazine’s writing and its ‘bedrock of solid and credible observation and accurate reporting’. Metro no longer the readership of its first decades, and Legat suggests that ‘under the pressure of time and budget constraints, the print media (essentially, the serious magazines and occasionally the newspapers) in New Zealand to all intents and purposes stopped’ investing in creative nonfiction. The work of Steve Braunias, she believes, is ‘one of the rare exceptions.’ (Braunias, a former Metro writer and Listener arts editor, currently writes for the New Zealand Herald and politics-and-culture site The Spin Off).
But readers, she says, haven’t lost their enthusiasm for creative nonfiction, and ‘its power has never diminished’. This is why ‘book publishers have moved into that space’, and why Massey ‘will join the club this November’ with the first edition of its The Journal of Urgent Writing, a collection of especially commissioned long-form essays.
If you’re cynical, says Peter Wells, you can see creative nonfiction as ‘the selfie of the literary world: It’s all about me.’ But these kinds of connections suggest it’s not, or doesn’t have to be. It’s a form that fits in, as he puts it, ‘with the contemporary mood of jumping all over the place, collapsing hierarchies, attacking formalism, rearranging time and place and meaning. It is a natural utterance for the era.’
With additional reporting by Kirsti Whalen.
Lawrence Patchett is the author of I Got His Blood On Me: Frontier Tales (VUP 2012). He was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing (Victoria University) for research into biographical fiction.