Defending Mothers’ Day

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Once a year, in mostly the Western (capitalist) world, we are bombarded for a couple of weeks with promotions about what to purchase for our mothers… pyjamas, chocolates, electric kettles or nowadays, maybe even a diamond or two. Many men find themselves not only having to think about their own mother but to consider their wives as mothers, and eek, how to get that balance right!

I grew up working class in the 50’s when working class was pretty much like any other class in New Zealand. The pay gaps between the chief executives and the humble carpenter like my dad, were probably big, but nothing compared to nowadays. We had a home, food on the table and support from the government when my dad couldn’t work. My mum didn’t work.  That’s not true. She cut kindling, filled the coal bucket, cooked the dinner on the coal range, keeping the damper at just the right angle to crisp the potatoes but not burn the meat and did the washing in a copper until she got a flash new Pallo agitator.

mp.natlib.govt.nz       Coal Range

 

So back then, each Mothers’ Day, as kids, we clubbed together with our money earned from picking fruit over summer, and bought our mum something useful for the kitchen… such as one year, an electric fry pan.  It was really a gift for all of us, but we convinced ourselves it was revolutionary for our mum – she could cook pikelets perhaps, or fry a chop without lighting the fire.

Similar to Zip frypan

Then, I married, had a family and moved to the middle classes. I raised middle class intelligent young men and my youngest son began to scorn Mothers’ Day as a capitalist conspiracy. He didn’t stop making me arty funny and heart-warming cards, but he let me know, he didn’t believe in this nonsense.

The same son now lives in Korea and they celebrate Parents Day. He embraced Parents Day and we shared one of these with him and his partner at the time and her family. So, although on the one hand Mothers’ Day was a Capitalist Consumer Conspiracy, somehow Parents Day was a lovely shared family time. This year, he almost forgot Mothers’ Day and now, older, knowing how much it matters to me, in haste, he made a heart-warming video in a shopping centre, in public, declaring his affection for his mum. I appreciated this. He put my feelings above his political convictions.

Some of my Facebook feed in May had comments from feisty younger feminists disparaging Mothers’ Day, scorning it in fact. And I found myself yet again, interrogating my own attachment to this day (the way I once interrogated my attachment to Anzac Day).  And I’ve come to a similar conclusion, although I’m sure many will find it faulty.

I work with migrants and refugees from a wide variety of countries and I’ve watched the joy as a group of my Nepalese students celebrated Shiva – fasting for the health and prosperity of their…wait for it… husbands. Then seen photos of them dressed in their finest red saris having fun when the fasting ends.  I don’t ever intend to fast for my husband’s health and prosperity but I admire and enjoyed their enjoyment of this ritual. Should I, as a feminist denigrate their fasting for their husbands?  I did joke when do their husbands fast for them, and they laughed with me, joyfully.

In our secular society we have so few rituals.  I used to go to Mass and that was a Sunday ritual.  My life as a middle class, secular, older woman, is bereft of ritual in many ways.  Mothers’ Day for me is a ritual from my childhood, which I enjoy.  I like that my sons, even if they secretly think it is a consumer conspiracy, will still contact me, knowing it matters to me. Usually, nowadays, I share this day with my granddaughter and her Mother. Sure, we share other weekends together, but it is still somehow a special day, a ritual, small gifts, maybe just a card, but I would feel sad if it wasn’t acknowledged.

I recall many years ago when I finally ‘lost my faith’.  My mother was deceased but I had a beloved single aunt who was a devout Catholic. When I first returned from overseas, all grown-up, having abandoned Catholicism, I refused to attend Mass with her when I went to visit my hometown. I didn’t want anyone to think I still believed. I think this hurt her, but I didn’t care, because my convictions were much more important.

But then I had children and settled into family life and began to see that what mattered more than my convictions, was my affection for my beloved aunt.  So, I compromised and went to mass with her when I was in town, but refused to genuflect.  That was a step too far.  Looking back, I can see I was foolish – what harm for me to genuflect and enjoy the ritual and share this moment. My own personal beliefs would not be tarnished, and too, I knew it irked her.

Am I right, or am I wrong… I saw one smart young woman on Facebook say she thought she’d forgotten Mother’s Day and would probably get a passive aggressive text from her mum – I wanted to say, just pretend for your mum – what harm can it do, but imagine how happy it will make her?  I’m all for a bit of sentimental ritual, and honouring Mums if that’s what they would like. My own mum never met her grandchildren and I’m glad we bought her an electric fry pan. I even dare to say, that the divide between those who believe and those who don’t is often socioeconomic.  And I hear the scoffs already. The system, the oppression, the Patriarchal tree, but you can’t overthrow all these things by being scornful of less informed people who enjoy buying chocolates or pyjamas for their mother…

A postscript to this essay, as I am about to go to print… with great joy last week, I attended the Auckland Writers Festival and my first session ‘Portholes to the Past‘ was listening to 99-year-old Lloyd Geering in conversation with John Campbell.  What a treat. I’d never heard Lloyd Geering speak before and to add to that, he spoke with such eloquence about the lack of ritual in our secular society and mentioned both Mothers’ Day and Anzac Day in discussing the importance of ritual.  He told us how he became a Christian and it was more about fellowship than faith it seems… which I found most interesting.

 

 

 

Common girls and empanadas

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Common girls and empanadas (or flash pies).

It’s my day off.  I slept late and followed the RoguePOTUS twitter account from my surface pro in bed. I need weaning from this addiction. Lies, lies and more lies from the realDonaldTrump. How very unreal. So, what nicer than to meet a friend for coffee late morning.  I could offload about vertigo to a sympathetic ear, sip my soy latte, and chill in the company of real friendship.

On the way home, I realise, after all that talking, I need food, so I slip into a local café and queue.  Behind me in the queue is a woman of a similar age to myself.  I hear her asking me in a loud voice.

‘Were you a ballet dancer?  I’m only asking because of the way you are standing with your toes pointing.’

I’m flattered of course.  I’d always wanted to be a ballet dancer. I turn towards her and say ‘No, I was a marching girl.’

And, predictably (to me anyway), she responds, ‘Oh, I always wanted to be a marching girl, but my mother wouldn’t let me.’   She goes on ‘My mother told me only common girls marched.’

I’ve heard this many times before. It’s a middle-class cliche.  It’s said with total recognition of the snobbery it implies and yet gives an authority to the very same thing.

‘Yes, that’s me, I was a common girl,’ I say loudly but laughing too at her and myself.  Then shamelessly, I go on…‘There’s a book called About turns written on this very topic. It’s about marching girls and book clubs… are you a reader?’

‘Yes, I read…. Can I get it from the local library?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘You can.  I wrote this novel.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Maggie Rainey-Smith’.

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There’s a chuckle from her friend, who says they will remember it, after all, Maggie Smith is hard to forget.

And then we view the food cabinet together like old friends.  The woman whose mother said only common girls were marchers invites me into their conversation about the food in the cabinet. We’re all looking now at a filled roll really but they want to know how one should say ‘Brie and Cranberry Pide’ – was it Peed or was it Pied?  We all agree, it looks very much like a Panini and wonder why it is called a Pide.  I never do get to hear how to say it because out from the kitchen, steaming and fresh from the oven, comes a plate of Empanadas… looking exactly like a pie or Cornish pastie.

 

empanada-dough

‘Yum,’ I say, loudly, possibly too loudly, possibly overly self consciously and mischievously. ‘I’ll have the pie. We common girls love pies.’

Unperturbed, my new friend asks if I am still marching and I laugh and explain that no, I’m not. And here I have to check myself for my own snobbery, as goodness me, of course I’m not!  Hoist on my own petard so to speak.

My new friend confides…She recently saw a group of older women who were still marching and goodness she tells me confident I will laugh… they were so fat… she jokes that she thought they ought to be marching faster. Followed by a hearty chuckle (both of us – for what else should I do with a new-found friend from the queue by the food cabinet).

I do hope my new friend manages to find the novel About turns in the local library… and that the Librarian realises Maggie Smith didn’t write About turns…. but I do fear, that all those clichés that I tried to gently nudge when writing the novel, might very well float right over my new-found friend’s head.

Everything is here except Elvis

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‘Everything is Here’ by Rob Hack

 

I really like the profile on the Escalator Press website that says this about the poet…

Rob has lived in Paekakariki  since 2005, after a third attempt to live across the ditch. He has been an insurance salesman, greenkeeper , builder, personal trainer, gym owner, factory hand, gardener, shop assistant etc and currently works as a handyman, to buy second-hand poetry books, and petrol so he can visit his grandchildren each week.

There’s a nice anarchy here, the poet as an insurance salesman, which grabbed my attention immediately. And then there is the interesting fact that Rob was born in Invercargill but spent his childhood in Niue. It’s hard to imagine such a striking shift in landscape and indeed, the landscape is preeminent in his poems.

 

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Everything is Here’ is the title of his collection, a series of poems. The poetry is freighted with an emotional energy connected to family, milieu, place, and displacement. It speaks to a New Zealand childhood that I recognise. The poem ‘Canons Creek Four Square’ could easily be my home town of Richmond, but then there is disconcerting twist, the poet as an outsider.  The boy from Niue sent by his Mum to buy a tin of peaches. Innocuous, but powerful and nicely underplayed where racism is mollified with a lifesaver lolly.

The collection resonates with a spiritual thread from one sea to another across the Pacific and as far as Europe. It is a poetic memoir traversing connections to the two sides of his family.  They are snapshots into a life, or lifestyle, at times cinematic, but often leaving the reader wanting to know more. An example is a poem ‘High Noon in Avarua’ which feels like a second-hand local myth retold, handed down, and turned into a poem. And yet I wanted more, I felt I’d only glimpsed ‘Te Kope, the adopted son of the late Nui Manu’. At times, I was reminded at times of Tusiata Avia’s ‘Wild Dogs Under My Skirt’. ‘Blue Laws’ a list poem with fines for misdemeanours including, my favourite ‘If a man cries at the funeral of an unrelated woman $10.00’.

Another poem I really enjoyed with a fabulous long title is ‘James Cook couldn’t land and Elvis never sang on Niue’… which ends with a great three lines

Dad said, Elvis would’ve come to Niue

if he saw your mother dance

but he’d have to leave his hips at the door.

The poems have warmth and humour, they are easy but not light, warm and heart-warming. There is darkness written lightly.  Rob is a true bard. I’ve heard him read now twice (the first time at open mike at the Writers Symposium at the National Library) and then at Litcrawl. He has a strong presence as a performer and these poems lend themselves to the oral tradition. They have an anecdotal conversational air about them.

 

Love as a Stranger

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Love as a Stranger

9781775538578

This is vintage Owen Marshall. A contemporary novel about a baby boomer ménage à trois (although that might actually be an exaggeration and perhaps affaire is more accurate). It begins in a cemetery in Auckland where we met Sarah and Hartley, total strangers, who engage in a conversation about a fascinating inscription on a small headstone for a grave that has collapsed in on itself. Emily Mary has been shot on her way to bible class.

Sarah, is a woman in her late 50’s, who hails from Hamilton but who is temporarily domiciled in Auckland in an apartment with her husband Robert while he is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Sarah has time on her hands and as a result, she bumps into Hartley again… and again.All three key characters, Sarah, Hartley and Robert are very ordinary, leading fairly un-extraordinary lives and this is where Marshall shines. He knows how to unwrap the ordinary and show the reader the interiority of what could otherwise be quite banal lives.

The story unfolds gently, the circumstances of how Hartley and Sarah begin a sexual relationship. It seems quite natural and unspectacular. Robert is sick, Sarah has time on her hands, Hartley is widowed and looking for company. It’s not the be all and end all take your breath-away sex, it’s companionship with sexual benefits. But here is where Marshall takes risks. He writes of the whole messy business, details that writers often skip over, and it’s not sordid or prurient, it’s quite charming instead. Or does that mean it is believable?

As always, Marshall’s keen observation of the human condition and people shines through. My first laugh out loud moment came early in the book when we are introduced to Hartley’s ex mother-in-law:

‘Her mother kept the conversation going by listing the features that made Devonport unique, and then the superiority of her own part of Auckland. It was an indication of the sort of woman she was – preoccupied with the instruction of other and the emphasis of her own significance.’

And this
‘Irene was thin and always well dressed, but age ravaged her and although she kept out of the sun her skin darkened and loosened until it seemed as if she wore stockings over her limbs. Towards the end there was so little of her that she appeared in the process of mummification, with only her dark, jewelled eyes glinting from the wrappings.’

My next chuckle came when the author builds a picture of the lovers as they might be observed by an outsider.

‘To others they could pass as husband and wife, except perhaps to the more insightful observer of the close attention they paid each other. A tall, slightly heavy woman in what might tactfully be termed late middle age, well and casually dressed, the colour of her thick brown hair salon reinforced.’

And so an affair begins with Hartley and Sarah that seems to some extent benign in its simplicity and almost inevitability. Sarah’s husband Robert is in the shadows at this stage, as a vague figure who is being treated for cancer. Hilariously, as Hartley becomes more besotted with Sarah, he wants to buy her a frivolous gift and says:

‘I’ll buy you French undies.’ But Sarah is having none of this. ‘Like hell you will. You can buy me slippers. I need a pair. All grandmothers do.’
Hartley becomes curious and wants to meet his ‘rival’ Robert. ‘Robert was a large, intelligent, self-centred man who had run down into needy dependence.’ They do meet, and Sarah doesn’t know they have and Robert doesn’t know who Hartley is either.

As the story progresses, Sarah has to balance the joy of this new affair against her responsibilities as a wife, mother and grandmother. In contrast, Hartley recently widowed with a son living in London, has no such constraints and he begins to imagine a future with Sarah. Hartley begins texting Sarah when she is at home in the apartment with Robert. Sarah is disturbed by this new insistence and it amplifies the deceit as she has to rush to another room to read the text and then to lie about who is texting.

Marshall very cleverly deconstructs the mechanics of a love affair. The various components ‘there’s always an element of vanity in love’, the competing personal imperatives as to why and how an affair might happen and then, the other lives that will be impacted.

It’s a terrific story and builds to an ending that is both gripping and in some strange way on reflection probably inevitable, but I doubt many readers see it coming. I certainly didn’t and I think it is a masterstroke and takes the novel into the literary thriller genre.

Highly recommended.

Did you like my novel?

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‘I like your novel. I enjoyed it.’ She says this plainly, a mere fact, but there’s no mistaking the rising inflexion making joy into a query… a statement of surprise.

‘I’m reading your novel.’ Nothing more. Just what should be a reassuring statement. But what does it mean? Has she finished the first chapter, where’s she up to? She doesn’t say.

‘I loved your novel,’ with a notable circumflex. But that’s over the top and you don’t believe her. It’s gushy, can’t be true. And a noted circumflex indicates there’s more to be said, but she says nothing more. What is it she won’t say?

Then there’s the silent friend, who came to the launch and never mentions your novel, ever again. Her silence more potent even than a notable circumflex or rising inflexion.

‘I liked your novel.’ The past tense. You feel robbed somehow. Only liked it.

Then a good friend goes on Goodreads and gives your novel four stars. You’re delighted and then you think… why not five stars? You check other books they gave five stars to. You try not to feel aggrieved. Now the distance between four and five stars becomes the distance between friends.

At last, a critic. You pay careful attention. Someone who read your novel and didn’t like it. They tear it apart skilfully, piece by piece, analyse its flaws. The flaws you already knew about and hoped no one would notice. You are riveted, you read every terrifying thing they write, not once, not twice, but over and over and over. You become greedy and Google your own novel become convinced that none of your friends know half as much as this really negative woman on Amazon. It feels good, you know you deserve this.

Praise is overrated.

In praise of editors

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In praise of Editors

Inspired by Stephen Stratford’s recent article ‘The Book didn’t sell…’ I decided to write about my experience of editors from an author’s point of view.

My first novel ‘About turns’ was published by Random House. I had the great good fortune to be assigned Jane Parkin as the editor (arguably NZ’s best editor). I was totally new to this process. Although, most gratefully, the manuscript had been somewhat tamed and shaped through the generous mentoring of Barbara Else of Total Fiction Services, before being offered to Random House.

Jane invited me to her home. We sat at her kitchen table. We chatted like old friends about the characters in my novel. It was a revelation to me. Jane engaged with my characters as if they were ‘real’. She even went so far as to identify one of them as just like her friend from the local tennis club. I was flattered, delighted and excited. The experience was unforgettable. I knew that Jane had worked with the likes of Maurice Gee and Witi Ihimaera and other luminaries. It was my ‘pinch me’ moment.

And then, the edits came back to me, and I was dismayed to see how many things needed my attention – a word order reversal (actually many), a sentence (many sentences) to remove, a paragraph to create, a scene to cut, and queries in the margins of every page. It was daunting and then it was exciting. Jane made me a better writer (well, she made me look like a better writer).
Once my novel was published, I had a coffee with Jane and chatted about the edits and her experience as an editor. Where did I fit on a scale of how bad to how good, I nervously asked? She told me that when she read Maurice Gee, she barely had to touch a thing. She said there were some novels she joked she could have put her own name as author and somewhat hesitantly I asked ‘Where do I sit?’ Perhaps generously, perhaps she fibbed to flatter, but she said ‘somewhere in the middle’… I was relieved – after all, this was my first novel.

Then came my second novel ‘Turbulence’ published by Random House. My assigned editor was in Auckland, so we worked on-line and on the phone. She’d just finished editing the reissue of works of Janet Frame. I felt trepidation that mine was the next manuscript. We developed a working rapport but there was none of the affection and connection to the story or my characters in the same way there had been with my first novel. It felt like more of a ‘technical’ edit. The novel didn’t do so well, although all my male friends preferred it to my first novel and Owen Marshall, who I so admire, felt it was better than my first novel.

My most recent novel ‘Daughters of Messene‘ (7 years in the making) was by far the most stressful and yet the most rewarding editing experience. I had done so many revisions prior to the novel being presented to Makaro, but Mary McCallum, both a writer herself and a publisher, saw where the novel wasn’t working. She pushed me to increase the pace in the first part of the book, to get my central character to Greece where the action would take place. She pestered me for conversation, names of characters, and challenged me constantly. Then work began with the Whitireia students Emma Bryson and Megan Kelly, two very talented young women completing the Publishing Diploma. They became champions for my young character Artemis. They identified with her and took me to task when she wasn’t on track. They pushed me to make her stronger, to give her a backbone. It was thrilling. I revelled in the collaborative nature of this editing – lots of it was on-line and every new query became an opportunity to either stand up for my work or take up the challenge to improve it. Although exhausted, and at times utterly frustrated, it was exhilarating and unforgettable. I always be grateful to Makaro and Whitireia. It is my best piece of work.

Questions about Appropriation – My Greek Novel (The right to write fiction)

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It wasn’t until days before the final print run of my Greek novel that any sense of audacity crept in. Up until that moment, I’d been so focussed on the story, certain of it in the way that only an author can be when in the grip of writing fiction. My novel took seven years to be ready and to find the right publisher. The writing of it, the revising of it and finding a publisher, consumed me as a writer. I believed in the story. But now my book is out and about, it’s not doubt that grips me, but the realisation of what I’ve done. You see, I don’t speak Greek. Yes, I travelled to Greece for three months in 2007 to do my research. I was fortunate. There I was, a woman of a certain age, alone in a foreign city, seeking stories from the locals about the Greek Civil War. It’s only now in hindsight that I can see with clarity, the audacity of this venture. I met with resistance as you can imagine and then too through circumstance and happenstance, I stumbled on opportunities, including an extraordinary invitation to the home of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor on the Mani, to celebrate his Name Day, in November that year.

Why did a Kiwi author want to write about the Greek Civil War? It started with my father. He was a lad from Kaikoura who ended up on Crete with the 22nd Battalion during the Second World War. I’ve written an essay about this in Landfall. In the 1980’s the Greek Government offered a Greek Medal to Kiwi veterans still living. My Dad was still alive and with the help of my Greek friend Maria I applied for his medal. At that stage I had a young family and we’d just moved next door to Maria. I had no idea of her own amazing journey from Kalamata to Wellington during the 60’s but I was eventually to find out.I’m a writer, so what did I do? I realised very few people knew about the journey of the young Greek girls (most of them from Crete), to New Zealand in the sixties, as part of a special scheme between the two Governments. The girls had to be under 30, unmarried and work in the hospitality industry. The established local Greek community were less than impressed with this sudden influx – the thought of any scandal.And so, using my imagination, I began to weave a fictional account of a young woman who leaves Greece to live on the other side of the world. I’m a baby boomer, born in 1950, only five years after the end of the Second World War. It’s only now that I recognise the very proximity of that war to my own parents’ lives at the time I was born. Back then, ‘the war’ seemed like a very distant affair. I began to imagine what impact not just the Second World War, but the ongoing Greek Civil War might have had on the lives of some of these young women. My story is purely and simply imagined. It is not any one girl’s particular story. Through research and reading, I’ve woven a story which at the heart is a mother and daughter story. It is a story of immigration. It is a story of war and its aftermath.

My local Greek friends have embraced my story and I am grateful. I’ve had generous feedback. The novel has had very good reviews so far. While writing this novel, I had so much help from the Greek community. My intention was to bring the story of these brave young women to the fore, to honour them and to re-imagine the possible circumstances that might have propelled them to travel so far from home. And yes, it is only now, that my novel is out and about, that any sense of doubt has arisen, that a writer who doesn’t speak Greek, has dared to write a Greek-Kiwi novel. Did I have the right? Have I got it right? Who has the right to write a story? During the editing process, one of the super smart young editors working at Whitireia made the observation that I needed to be careful with the use of the Greek language, the insertion of Greek phrases, lest I strayed into the territory of ‘exoticising’, and thus undermining the integrity of the story.

I recall my book group, reading Alex Miller’s ‘Lovesong’, a story I loved. Two of my book club friends were unhappy that within the story, two male characters had appropriated the story of the main character, a woman from Tunisia. Not that the author had written about a woman from Tunisia, but that he’d allowed two male characters to tell her story.

My second novel ‘Turbulence’ was about a middle-aged man from the suburb of Lower Hutt. He worked in manufacturing. He was a stepfather in a new relationship, with a broken marriage, the result of his child who had died in a tragic accident in his driveway with him at the wheel. Did I know this man? I knew aspects of him, but he is a fictional character. I had worked in recruitment for many years in the Hutt Valley and so I felt I knew this man, an ordinary man, the sort of man who doesn’t always make it into fiction – not an artist, a doctor, a lawyer, but something rather more ordinary – a man running a factory.Did I have the right to write with the voice of a man? It never occurred to me that I didn’t. And I was heartened by the first review on Radio NZ by John McCrystal who felt I’d nailed it. Unfortunately, the ensuing reviews from two younger, academic women, did not concur. We bring to our reading our own experiences. Many of my women friends didn’t enjoy ‘Turbulence’, but almost all my men friends did.

My first novel ‘ About turns’ was about book clubs and marching girls. This is territory that I know well. It was about a sixties working-class childhood. Yes, I mined my own experiences and many people who’d known me during my childhood claimed to recognise characters. But the book was also about a transgender character, female to male. Did I have the right? This book is fiction with experiences rendered to represent truths, both my own and other peoples.

I won’t have got everything right in my Greek novel in spite of all the support from native Greek speakers and spouses of native Greek speakers. But I’m hopeful that being an outsider, has enabled me to write with a different sort of clarity, that of the observer. But this begs the question. Did I have the right to appropriate a foreign language, to use it and many of its sayings, without being a speaker of that language? All the mistakes (if there are any and there must be) of history, time, place, language and ideas of what it is to be Greek, and how to express this, are entirely mine.

Links to reviews of ‘Daughters of Messene’
http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/books/75331829/Sizzling-summer-reads http://www.listener.co.nz/culture/books/my-big-fat-greek-family-reunion/ http://www.odt.co.nz/entertainment/books/365679/story-greek-womens-voyage-nz-informs-book