Thursday, 28 July 2016

Nigel Cox (13 January 1951 – 28 July 2006)


It is hard to believe that it has been 10 years since my friend Nigel Cox died. I think about him often, and I am enormously proud to have had a hand in publishing these half dozen essential books:
 



Below we post a piece Nigel wrote on 28 June 2006. We will never have Nigel’s vapour novels, but I know he wouldn't mind someone else having a go at writing Backyard Oblivion or Half Time at the Woburn Pictures.   

Tonight there will be a gathering at Unity Books Auckland at 5pm.

Thanks to The Spinoff for David Larsen’s NZ Herald review of The Novel That Must Not Be Named and a giveaway. [links coming!]

Thanks to Elizabeth Knox for her thoughts on Skylark Lounge

Fergus
 
Nigel Cox

What I Would Have Written 


We all have days when it seems the rain might not stop falling and for me this is one of them. So I thought I’d just get a few things down, see if it cheered me up.

                   
All going well, I’m about, oh, two weeks from the end of some kind of a first draft of my next novel, The Cowboy Dog. With luck, I’ll be able to follow through with my plan to tidy it and then—well, the usual things—more work, publication, and the world keeps turning with one more speck added to its burden.

                   
However, I love my books and no matter what anyone else thinks of them, I for one will be pleased to see it.

                 
With luck that’ll all happen: The Cowboy Dog. Then there’s quite a well-developed plan, between me and Fergus Barrowman, my publisher and close friend, to put together a book of some of my short pieces, most of them published before, that might be made together into a coherent whole. No name for this yet, but a first cut has been made. If he’s forced to, Fergus might have to put this together by himself—no worries.

                   
And then ...

                   
That’s when it gets interesting, for me anyway. Obviously I’ve had lots of time to stare out the window over the last few months. And at night: so many ideas, as though they all want to get their oar in. One that has been stinking around for a year or two is ‘a big family novel’. This is called Half Time at the Woburn Pictures, and consists mainly of smoke and the vaguest of thoughts. The idea is that this one wouldn’t be (too) weird, though I don’t seem to have much control over that; they get weird.

                 
Then there’s a plan to write a novel set in the Masterton of my boyhood. This one has also been around for ages—stinking. Reeking!—and for some reason the title has the word Backyard in it. Backyard Oblivion?

                  
That’s a couple of weeks’ work, easy.

                  
Then you come to a different category of thought. No plot, no location, no shape, no name, but I always wanted to invent my own superhero. It’s a childish notion, and the existing ones from my boyhood—Superman, Batman, etc—have all been thoroughly postmodernised. But I always had a huge amount of time for The Phantom, Captain America, etc, and anyway I just want to—a figure modern and real, a genuine character, in a serious novel (I regard all my novels as serious). Same goes for an alien novel. I know I had a flirtation with aliens in Skylark Lounge, but that one kept itself very well within ‘acceptable’ boundaries. My desire is to go further out.

                 
Some of that sounds a bit immature, and it is, I accept that. But there was a point where I decided not to be too constrained by the notions of what I thought I should be writing, and my writing got better.

       
But what I’m also thinking about here is (ta-dah) Nigel Cox at sixty-five. At eighty! I always thought I would live until I was seventy and in my mind I’d get better as a writer and become mature (ha!). But definitely improve. And know more and know how to write it. Contemplating it, it’s such a fantastic idea that I have to laugh out loud. But it would have been inevitable, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t everyone? I guess, looking at some writers, the answer is, not necessarily. But I was in hope.

                  
And I still am. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I do expect to get these books written. I can see them sitting on my bookshelf, my impulse to write played out.

                   
In the computer industry they call it vapourware. So, when you think of me (and do it often) please think of my vapour novels. Thank you.





Monday, 11 July 2016

Kerrin P. Sharpe – 4 Questions

Kerrin P. Sharpe is a poet and creative writing teacher who lives in Christchurch. rabbit rabbit is her third collection of poetry.





Your poems often seem to exist in what I think of as a dream space and a time-travelling space; where your mother’s Astrakhan coat is remembered as ‘the angels of stillborn lambs’, or in ‘the mary blanche in situ’ where she builds a ship in her stomach. The descriptions do seem to reach beyond metaphor into a strange wonderland. Can you explain this?

Yes, I suppose they do, though I don't think I have ever thought of it in that way! My poems often seem to me to have a life of their own; I'm a bit like a midwife coaxing and nurturing them into the world and then I'm a little surprised at what has arrived!

I generally begin a poem with an initial idea or image that keeps recurring in my imagination; often it's some memory or image from the past which grows on me or alternatively it may be a story or news item that takes hold of my imagination until I begin to feel I need to write about it. From then on I follow the rough path the poem offers me into that 'dream space'.

When I am writing a poem I often ask myself, 'What is this poem telling me?' I allow the poem's arms to lure me in until the poem suddenly jumps into something else. It is almost as if a new life has emerged and it has become a different poem from the one I first started out with.

My mother did have an Astrakhan coat during the war, and years later she replaced it with a more up-market black one but she still loyally kept the brown Astrakhan one stored away. When she died I remember looking at her old Astrakhan coat and thinking sadly to myself that it had somehow lost the early significance it once had for me, and it was out of those memories that my poem ‘when a crayfish could feed 6 men’ was written.


Many of the poems seem to be different characters speaking—is this how you think about voice in your poetry?

That’s true and I'm rather pleased that you picked that up from reading my poems. I like to think of different characters speaking in my poems with different voices. I want my poems to be faithful to themselves so their individual voices—their characters, if you like—not only need to be authentic but they also need to change, move and adapt as they interact with the main idea or theme of the poem.

For example the woman in my poem ‘the mary blanche in situ’, who builds a ship in her stomach, has a very different voice from the woman who describes her mother's funeral in 'the morning of my mother's funeral her cup is sober-minded', and they are both very different from the voice (or lack of one) of the redundant blacksmith in 'why talk to the bellows' boy when you can speak to the blacksmith', who no longer speaks at all.

The overall theme in my latest collection of poems, rabbit rabbit, is of poems telling stories, and I hope each poem speaks of the power of language and translation. The poems rabbit on, if you like! 

Images of the human body (especially the lungs) recur or are used for metaphor in rabbit rabbit, which give the poems a sense of being ‘earthed’ or at least contained. Can you explain your poetry’s fascination with the body?

I'm very interested in medicine; in fact my husband jokes about my taking a medical health diagnosis book to bed with me for a little quiet reading before I go to sleep! A bit weird, I suppose.

Yes the lungs do often occur in my poems in rabbit rabbit. But when you think of it, lungs are so important to us as human beings and of course we need our lungs for the breath that enables us to talk. As you no doubt have already guessed, rabbit rabbit is a play on the term we often use for someone who is a great talker, as in 'rabbiting on'.

I had a good friend who used to say something like, 'She went rabbit rabbit all day long,' of a mutual acquaintance who she disapprovingly believed talked too much. The phrase always used to make me laugh—I could just imagine these rabbits talking their heads off.

Many of my poems in rabbit rabbit share my fascination with the body and how it works, and I think this is because they too are thinking about and interested in how our bodies work


You’ve put out three collections since 2012—what is with this sudden burst of creative energy?

It was Bill Manhire who originally inspired my love of poetry as a young student in the 1970s. He welcomed me into his creative writing class 'Original Composition' at Victoria University and in doing so he lit a fire that flamed and has never died. Over the following 35 years as I married, had children and focused my life on bringing up my family, the creative writing flame continued to flicker, but as I concentrated on other priorities the flame hibernated (to mix metaphors) over that period.

Eight years ago, with family leaving home and more time for writing, that original flame has roared back into life, and I love my current life of writing and teaching creative writing. I feel as if I am once again fully awake and alive, with lots of memories, ideas and new experiences all clamouring for me to think and write about.

To complete the circle: it was a chance meeting with Bill Manhire in 2011 at my daughter's Victoria University graduation that led to the publication of my first book with VUP. He told me it was time I put a manuscript together for submission, which I did. Fergus Barrowman then accepted my first book and encouraged me to carry on—and I haven't looked back since!


Kerrin P.  Sharpe's third collection of poetry, rabbit rabbit, was launched last week in Christchurch. You can buy it at good bookshops or through our online bookstore here.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Elizabeth Knox's launch speech for Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley



I thought I'd start by reading a little list of some of the professions people have in The Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley. Apart from the practical, everyday photographer or novelist, there’s an illiterate Archival Assistant, a Sufi Soup Cook, and an Imaginary Languages Poet. There are Cartographers — but they’re cultists. Druids officiate at funerals. There’s a Sheriff of Te Aro, to which I say 'Yee-Ha!'  There's differential topologist, which I think is like non-computational geometrist, and has to be real since my niece is dating one. And there is my favourite character, a dog. A very professional dog, who offers a comprehensive description of the tasks and duties of a dog.

The characters are busy in this book, they’re hellbent, but the book isn’t busy, noisy, crowded, or antic — even in the midst of brilliant descriptions of antic antics! It is lively and forceful, but also deftly plotted, strongly real in it’s evocation of the world of the senses; it is thematically shapely, and purposeful in its transmission of the author’s feeling for life.

On a cold winter night, Danyl, the perpetually pantsless hero of Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, having fled a mental health institution, returns to the valley on a bus. Danyl wants to find his girlfriend Verity. He wants something to eat and a place to lay his head. But the Valley seems more deserted and desolate than even midwinter rain could make it — and it’s not just atmosphere, it’s plot, more plot than a cemetery, right from the start. Danyl is the hero of the moment and, in Danyl speak, the moment has plans for him, no matter what other plans his brain might be entertaining, and it should be noted that Danyl’s brain is a distinct entity from Danyl himself — which I know is an experience we all share. Danyl’s brain might zap him, prod him to pay attention to things, but tends to fall ominously silent whenever he's having a good idea. That’s a bit of a theme, people having good ideas, congratulating themselves about it, and heading off energetically into calamity.

Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley is a novel of ideas. All arcane thrillers are novels of ideas in that this is the genre whose engine is the deep, indelible pattern of beliefs on human history. Many of the ideas in this novel are quite respectable, or recognisable. Notions people have about, for instance, the mathematical nature of the universe; or the best way to manage an archive, balancing the need to preserve materials against the needs of researchers; or how to run a local body election, and the proven strategy in our politics of a candidate presenting himself as sensible and friendly. In every instance the author is interested in the idea itself, and the process of the implementation of the idea. Then he sees the satirical possibilities, and then he takes it all a step further, beyond the boundaries of satire.  He uses the idea, the pursuit of the idea in the world, the logical absurdities of the pursuit, to generate a story. I am filled with admiration at Danyl’s ability to to go beyond type, the type of book this is. Not just to use exotic or complicated ideas as plot, or to use the absurdities generated by a situation then taken to a logical extreme as plot, to not just move in one direction evolving his story from esoteric idea to plot, but to be able to keep moving back and forth, building energy in the narrative by laying observation upon learning, upon satire, upon byzantine plotting and have the whole thing keep moving not like a machine, but like a well turned compost that’s fertile with humour, and mood, and drama, and character byplay, and warmth.

Danyl McLauchlan's feeling for place and space is spot on. The novel's streets, buildings, and weather are all recognisably Aro Street. But when the flooded stormwater drains of the Aro Valley flow away into a culvert and old drain inspection hatch, the reader follows them to an underground river, and of course the underground river has its own secrets and dangers. And the flow of real to speculative feels as natural and logical as water running downhill.  

Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley is an admirable advance on the Unspeakable Secrets, which was a delightful, engaging, and charming book. But this book is a mystery, a comedy, a work of speculative fiction; it is gripping and enchanting, it has that definitive quality of an arcane thriller (a genre that Danyl and I are both very interested in) of making human life and history seem larger and more magical, more full of portent and jeopardy, and more purposefully patterned. None of the novel’s types and tones undermines the other. It’s all of a piece. It’s simultaneously exotic, and close to home. It looks with proprietorial affection upon the Aro Valley as a kind of a microcosm of Wellington, and of New Zealand, and various New Zealand qualities like getting stuck in, and stuck, and keeping your head down, and running into unseen obstacles.
        
The novel achieves a tenderness for people, for ways of thinking about things — enthusiasms, obsessions, wounds — a tenderness for a neighbourhood, for human organisations, and human aspirations. Danyl said to me yesterday was there one rule of comedy he’d absorbed, that something was funnier if you remove most of the jokes. Just about every very funny bit in the book could have been played for more laughs, but Danyl has other fish to fry, he wants to tell a story, and he doesn't want to dilute what will matter in that story to the characters or to the reader.

So, in conclusion, read this book. Find out whether Danyl will be reconciled with Verity and his brain. Meet Steve, the Aro Valley’s Jack Reacher, see the election night bonfire, the orgy, the giant sponge. Touch the spiral. Test the reality of your universe. Spurn your loved ones and your bedtime and laugh like an Aro Valley drain.

 
Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley is available for purchase at all excellent bookshops at through our online bookstore. p/b, $30

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Interview with Danyl McLauchlan


 
Danyl McLauchlan (Robert Cross, 2016)


Your new book, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, returns to the familiar territory of your debut novel, Unspeakable Secrets – a main character down on his luck called Danyl. How important is it to you to base your fiction in the local environment? Why name a character after yourself? And why return to Danyl and the Aro Valley?

It’s not important to me to base my fiction in Aro Valley. It’s just a great setting for comic novels and no one else is using it, so I might as well take advantage of it. And I named the main character after myself because he was originally just a fictional version of me and I think it feels fake when obvious author surrogates are hidden behind fake names.  (Although sometimes it can be funny. Philip K. Dick called one of his surrogate characters ‘Horselover Fat’ because Philip means ‘lover of horses’ and ‘Dick’ is German for ‘fat’.) Sometimes I feel like novelists make fools of themselves when they have these very loosely disguised versions of themselves running around inside their books. They make themselves brilliant and brave and witty and attractive and, if the novelist is a man, irresistible to women. So giving the character my own name keeps me honest but also hopefully stops me from inadvertently embarrassing myself. I returned to the character and Te Aro because I liked writing the last one and people liked reading it. But my next book will be very different. New characters, new settings.


Mysterious Mysteries like Unspeakable Secrets deals with the occult, conspiracy theories, and the people that get obsessed and drawn in by them. What is the attraction for you in the occult?

The first book had occultists in it and I find the subject interesting because occult leaders are usually just writers who have convinced a group of people that their stories are true. Many writers like to think that stories are important and that they change people’s lives and mostly, I think, they don’t. But with occult leaders they do change lives, but the change is usually destructive. In this book the conspiracy is centred on several mathematicians, which might seem like the opposite of occultists. Mathematics is widely seen as a science; something very practical. But if you look closer at it and learn a little about the philosophy, it is very mysterious. What are mathematical objects? Are they real? Are they created or discovered? What is their relation to reality? Are there problems that are unprovable or incomputable? Cults of mathematicians can be just as sinister and mysterious as cults of occultists.


Are there books you’ve read or admire that helped you set a tone or find a way of writing your two novels?

My favourite writers are genre novelists who transcend their genre. Patricia Highsmith and Philip K. Dick are well known. There’s a less famous but, I think, just as brilliant novelist called Donald E. Westlake who wrote a number of thrillers under the pseudonym Richard Stark. They’re masterworks of minimalism and plot structure. Also a British medieval Arabic scholar called Robert Irwin who wrote a novel called The Arabian Nightmare set in 15th century Cairo against a backdrop of warring cults and otherworldly conspiracies. That book had some of the tone I was going for; this idea that the characters had stumbled upon plots and counterplots to bring about outcomes that were almost incomprehensible.


What is the attraction of plots and counterplots? Entertainment value?

I think so. I started to write my first book during the golden age of TV, when you had shows like The Wire and The Sopranos and Lost that were doing all of this complex innovative stuff in terms of storytelling. They were the first time I really paid attention to plot structure on a technical level. Like asking, ‘Why did this story work?’ ‘How did they achieve this effect?’ There’s also this quote from, I think, the film critic Pauline Kael who said, ‘A movie should be a machine built to surprise and delight the audience.’ That’s very much my philosophy to plot. And, of course, delight doesn’t mean a movie or a book has to be trivial. You can delight the reader with ideas or emotions.


One of the joys of your writing is how funny it is. I hoot with laughter as I read it! Is the humour a natural consequence of writing about conspiracy theories? Their ridiculousness? What writers do you admire for their humour?

Thanks! Umberto Eco died a few months ago and he wrote the classic comic conspiracy theory novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, which anticipated and satirised The Da Vinci Code fifteen years before Dan Brown’s bestseller was published. I like the mid-century English comic writers Evelyn Waugh and Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Graham Greene wrote comic novels – Our Man in Havana, Travels with My Aunt - that he didn’t even refer to as novels; he called them ‘entertainments’, to distinguish them from his very serious important work like Heart of the Matter or Power and the Glory. I think the entertainments have dated a lot better than the novels have. Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm was a send-up of a lot of serious literary books published in the 1920s that have mostly been forgotten, but her satire abides. It is also, bizarrely, a science-fiction book set in the remote future of the late 1940s in which people have television phones and Mayfair has been reduced to a slum. Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is another favourite. I went for years without reading that because the covers always made it look very serious and grim.


What do you do in your day job at Victoria University? How long have you been here? Is there ever any cross over between your day job and your writing?

I’m a computational biologist. So I work in a lab and do some research but mostly support other researchers and biologists. I’ve been here for just over ten years. There’s some crossover, in that I like to have characters who are scientists or who argue about scientific points. But mostly my writing is something I do very early in the morning when it’s very quiet and there’s nothing else around to distract me, and my day job is the opposite of that.


What time do you get up? And do you like to hit a word count? You seem like a writer who can produce work quite quickly.

Usually I get up about five or five-thirty. When I’m really deep into the book it is a bit earlier. I don’t try and hit a word count because almost every word I write gets rewritten or cut, so counting them would just depress me. I think I am a quick writer on an hourly basis but the rewriting slows me down. I do write every day though and you get so much done that way, even if a lot of it doesn’t end up in the final book.



Have you always wanted to write fiction? Have you done any of the popular writing courses, and do you have an opinion on these?

I have always wanted to be a writer, but it was only really when I reached my late thirties that I acquired the ability to commit to a book and rewrite and rewrite it, which is what you need to do to make it any good. Before that I’d just write a short story and not even revise it, just give it to friends or a girlfriend and expect them to lavish me with praise. They’d have to clench their teeth and tell me how it had potential as an idea, maybe. I’ve never done a popular writing course. I’d like to, it’d be nice to have all that time just to write and to have someone very wise give me feedback but it’s just not compatible with my job.


What made you realise you need to revise? And what caused the shift from short stories to novels?

I stopped writing short stories sometime in my twenties and I didn’t do any creative writing for maybe ten years. Then I wrote a screenplay with a friend of mine, Andrew Brettell, who used to lecture in Film at Victoria University. The screenplay never got made. We came up with this great idea, wrote the script and it wasn’t commercial so we just couldn’t get any interest in it. Anyway, Andrew knew a lot more about the actual hard work of writing than I did. Originally I went away and wrote all this comic dialogue, which I thought was hilarious, and I showed it to him. He basically tore it all up and said, ‘That isn’t how you write.’  So we went back to the beginning and figured out the structure of the movie, what the function of each scene was supposed to be, what was at risk for the characters, and all of that basic storytelling stuff. And then I went away and wrote the actual dialogue. We revised it and revised it, and the end product was just so superior in every way to what I’d originally written. So much funnier. So much more interesting. So I learned a lot about writing from that experience, but also that film wasn’t for me. You could put all that work into a screenplay and produce something really good and nothing would happen to it. At least when you write a novel you have a finished product you can take to publishers.


You have a popular following for The Dim-Post, your political commentary blog. Does that come out a desire to write also? Is writing partly a desire to have your voice heard (politically and fictionally)? Is it hard to get your voice heard, both your political and fictional voice?

For me, the desire to write is more of a compulsion. I get ideas or dialogues or arguments or scenes in my head that won’t go away unless I write them down. It’s very similar to the experience of rehearsing an argument with someone, or reiterating a debate in which you think of really great points you wish you’d made, except it can be directed. I can say, ‘Hey brain, figure out a way to make the opening scene in my book more interesting,’ and off it goes. And if I’m writing it down, I might as well try and publish it. With the blogging about politics, I see it as more of a hobby. It’s what I do instead of watching sport, or trainspotting, or whatever. And I try to be accurate and insightful but I don’t take it too seriously. With the novel writing I feel more of an obligation. People are going to pay for the book and invest their time in reading it, so I invest a lot more energy and work into it. Ironically, the political commentary is far more widely read and discussed. That’s fine. I should be grateful any of it is read. But hopefully the books will have a longer shelf-life.


Danyl McLauchlan's second novel, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, is published on Thursday, and his launch will be held at Unity Books next Tuesday 14 June, 2016. 

Monday, 23 May 2016

Interview with Tracey Slaughter


Tracey Slaughter's Deleted Scenes for Lovers is already gathering rave reviews at The Spinoff, 'note-perfect, plentiful', and in NZ Listener, 'self-assured, forceful'. Deleted Scenes for Lovers will be launched at Art Fusion Gallery, Waikato University on Thursday 26 May, 5.30pm.

Tracey Slaughter (photo: Catherine Chidgey)



Tracey, you’ve been publishing short fiction and winning prizes for many years – but you're only just publishing your book of short stories now – what took so long?
‘Tell me what ever happened to Tracey’? That’s the archetypal tough question. There’s the obvious struggle to reach book-length form in a market which dislikes the intense fix of short fiction, which craves the chunkier comforts of the novel. But the real answer is: I lost some years. In between writing these short stories life was teaching me how to live through long ones – a slow recovery from illness, a car crash, further damage, a harder walk back to health. What that meant was that every story I did manage to finish was oxygen – and when my work did win prizes it was a lifeline, adrenaline, hope. I don’t like looking back on the years I missed, when there should have been more output – but I was forced to spend time turning more human…which has got to help any writer in the long run.
 
The style that you’ve developed through these stories is very lyrical, sensual – sense-based. I think that your prize-winning Landfall essay last year, ‘Ashdown Place’ is an excellent example of how you explore experience and bring the past back through sensory detail. Can you talk about how you’ve developed this style?
I started as a poet, and poetry is still in my bloodstream, narrative can’t wash it out. So the challenge in moving to prose was always to find a style which could unfold a story but still let language be musical, be animal – those are the books I love to read, where the sentences are rhythmic, the sound atmospheric, the language not just delivering story but absorbing the senses, making skin contact. I like writers who use sound and image to make us taste the scene with our bodies. But I’m very aware that the fiction writer can’t afford to let their sentences just swim around after lush sound effects – they have to push ahead, into the concrete action, the forward momentum of the story. The dog has to run after the stick, as the writer Sarah Hall says, describing what she calls the ‘cat-dog’ hybrid of poetic prose. But the cat…well, the cat is a sensual creature, that does whatever feels good to its wayward fur...


Many of your characters are what we sometimes call ‘bogans’ in this country. Where do they come from?
Was I born in a black tee? I guess I grew up in coastal, smalltown New Zealand with its blend of bogan and surfie culture; my first jobs were in takeaways, service stations and pubs watching that waxhead/petrolhead world go by; I play in a covers band now which works the smalltown circuit (sometimes even the same old pubs!), so I still get to see the stories of that world spinning out, hear its voices. But the term bogan brings with it the taint of stereotype, a beer-chugging Holden-revving comedy which limits responses – it’s too easy to cartoon a group, stamp them ‘bogans’ and write their stories off. I think it’s the writer’s job to see past labels and hunt the pulse of the human story dwelling beneath, whatever social group a character might seem to fall into. 
I don’t set out to write self-consciously ‘bogan’ stories – it just happens that the drama of lower decile life often stands out in the sharpest relief to me, and I never turn those stories away because they’re not decent, representative or seemly. Short stories also, have always been a home for the ‘lonely voice’ – it’s a form with its roots in the underbelly, haunted by outsiders. As a writer you don’t chase the poor from your doorstep, I remember Flannery O’Connor saying, because the poor have nothing left to shield them from raw life – and that’s what should interest any compassionate writer.

Your stories often deal with sensitive topics such as domestic violence or sexual abuse; ones that we often struggle to talk about. What’s your approach towards the ethics and angles of writing trauma?
Does anyone still agree with Brasch that Frame’s ‘Gorse is not People’ was ‘too painful to print’? A writer’s job is to say the unsayable – it’s a travesty to call yourself a writer and then refuse to face the full range of human experience. Outcries that subjects are too dark, extreme, personal, risky make zero sense to me – those hard realities of life are what writing is for. And every writer knows their own ‘black block,’ that dark mass under your chest wall that holds your deep material, the stories you must speak of. If you don’t listen to that, your stories might stay clean, but the page will, in effect, be empty.


Deleted Scenes for Lovers is available in good bookshops and through our online bookstore now.
$30, p/b

Monday, 9 May 2016

Interview with Tusiata Avia


Tusiata Avia's new poetry collection Fale Aitu | Spirit House will be launched during the Auckland Writers Festival on Wednesday this week. Tusiata is taking part in a number of sessions at AWF, see their programme for details.


Tusiata Avia ((2016, Hayley Theyers Photography)


 You travel the world in your latest poems – Samoa, Christchurch, Gaza, New York – and your poems are not romanticised, ‘travel’ poems, they’re political and tough. Do you find your work getting drawn into the politics of wherever you travel?

For me the personal and the political are intertwined: the politics of the places I’ve lived in or visited effect me on a personal level in some fundamental way. For instance, the friends I had/have on both sides of the Israel/Gaza wall; I have an emotional connection to them, even the ones I strongly disagree with. I still love them.

One of the things I’ve learned from all the years of travelling: for me, it is all fairly meaningless unless I am making real connections, heart-connections, with people. Some people expect me to be like my poems in that way – political and tough – I’m not. I often don’t and/or can’t express things (particularly things that upset me) immediately. I’m not quick on the uptake. But I feel things – emotionally and intuitively –  immediately. I often feel much more than is comfortable to feel, I have a very ‘porous’ skin. Writing is one of the ways I have to process and express how I feel about things and then send that out into the world.



Some of the poems in this book make for confrontational reading. I’m thinking of ‘Demonstration’, which I heard you perform in Dunedin. It was hard to listen to, but I also couldn’t help but be filled with joy at how commited you are to not flinching from difficult topics, in this case, rape. Can you talk about the process of writing such a poem and then deciding to perform and publish it?

I’ve only performed that poem twice. It requires the right audience, people who kind of know what they might be getting themselves into. And I have to do some preparation to perform a poem like that. That poem in particular is very confrontational but in an unexpected way – it sneaks its way in and then really slams you. Some times you have to break the wounds open.

I wrote that poem after attending an anti-rape protest rally, it made me think about my own experience of rape as a young woman, and what I’d done with it, how I’d buried it. I was questioning myself during the rally: was it REALLY rape. Then I went home and I had to write the poem pretty much straight away. Most importantly, I had to reclaim a position of strength. I had to find that strength for myself. I guess the invitation in that poem is to consider how we might be with our traumatic, buried experiences. They don’t have to stay that way.

I’ve always the need to bring the skeletons out of the closet (my own and ours collectively, as a society) and bring them in to the light so we can all examine them. As I see it, that’s part of my job as a writer.


There’s a voice in your poems that’s been there from day one – this Samoan/Palangi voice – for which you are rightly celebrated. Is this a voice from your family and neighbourhood growing up? How has this voice developed over your three collections?

I think it’s really hard to pin down your own voice. I think it’s like identity: not static, always fluid, sometimes has its feet on one side of the border, sometimes on the other, sometimes straddling both camps, sometimes in neither, in another place altogether.

I wrote much of my first book, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, in a number of Samoan voices. Sometimes they came from particular members of my extended family and sometimes they came from the voices in my head that (even though they expressed themselves using Samoan vernacular and accents) are universal to the kaliedescope of the human condition: bouncing from love to cruelty to rebellion to humour etc. 

I don’t use that specific ‘Samoan voice’ so much now, I don’t really know why. I’m not trying to consciously use any particular voice. I think I just write whatever is there inside me – it finds its own mode of transport out.  


The new collection is called Fale Aitu | Spirit House – and there are aitu all over the pages of the book. Can you talk about the role of aitu in your poems, are they a character, guiding principles?

Aitu are spirits. And I guess spirits can inhabit all kinds of things and take the form of all kinds of things. Sometime I feel them physically as actual presences. In modern Samoan culture aitu tend to be thought of as scary, dangerous things (like ghosts or demons) and best avoided, but they played an important and less negative role in our misty pre-Christian past. Whether we believe they’re there or not, whether we feel their presence, whether we’ve buried them, they still walk along just behind us.

Fale Aitu | Spirit House is a selection from a much larger number of poems written in bits and pieces over the last 6-8 years. I didn’t sit down with a project or a narrative (like my earlier books) and write a body of work. These are a distillation from poems I wrote when I had no time to write; I had become a single mother and then a full-time-working single mother. Believe me, there is no time to write, let alone write anything cohesive! That worried me when I finally put together a manuscript, it just seemed like a disparate bunch of stuff to me, until I gave it to Bernadette Hall ( a friend and mentor). She handed a bunch of the poems back to me, and said, “Look, there it is.” And then I could see that the book had been there all along. I think my subconscious knew what it was doing all those years;  the aitu knew what they were doing all along. Now I read it and am surprised to see how it works, the shapes it makes and the echos Some shapes are a bit clunky, but then I think I probably am too.






Fale Aitu |Spirit House by Tusiata Avia.
Released Thursday 14 May, in quality bookshops and at VUP's online bookshop
p/b, $25.

A launch for Fale Aitu will be held at Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust, Level 1, 300 K-Rd, Auckland on Wednesday 11 May, 5.30pm–7pm. All welcome.