Is it Fiction?

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Is it Fiction?

I was confronted with an extract from my second novel recently. The husband of an old friend who recently died, had just read my novel. He noticed a cameo appearance by his wife. We were out to dinner and he presented me with the extract, photocopied onto a plain piece of paper. Alone it stood, a piece of fiction, and he had a quibble with but one word.  I’d used the word ‘hefty’.  She wasn’t hefty, he said with a touch of regret or perhaps chastisement. He looked across at someone else at the table who knew my friend better than me, almost as well as he. She wasn’t hefty, was she, he asked again? No, she wasn’t hefty, and for a moment I had to interrogate myself as a friend, and then as a writer.

What had I done?  I’d written about a femme fatale, a woman who fitted physically (apart from hefty) the deceased wife. I’d also used her Baltic State ethnic origin, so that if you knew her, which most of my readers would not have, you would have known who it was.  The thing is, I was using my friend to disguise a completely different woman, who once again none of my readers would have known.  Indeed, a woman I barely knew myself, but not wishing to use a ‘real’ person, I’d stolen the character and looks (apart from hefty), of an old friend… not ever thinking I’d be held to account.

And there it was, more than ten years after my novel was published, the paragraph or two (a cameo character only), was placed before me, not accusingly as you might think, but with great delight and recognition.  But I was being held to account.  She wasn’t hefty.

How to clarify that I was using my friend, to disguise a woman I hardly knew, to create a fictional character?  Better still, my cameo character’s name seemed far from the name of either my friend or the woman I hardly knew. But that didn’t matter.  Her bereaved husband, decided, that the name was close to the spelling of his wife’s name backwards.  And I looked, and wondered, and perhaps it was… maybe inadvertently I’d done this, without realising. But my memory tells me that I simply googled the Baltic State country my friend had originated from and looked at possible names… attempting to disassociate the actual from the fictional.

The good news is that I haven’t offended anyone, as my friend’s husband loves this description of his wife. The scenario in which she appears is entirely fictional I say. But I realise this isn’t entirely true. It is an event that I have recreated, fictionalised, and reimagined, giving it more weight and intrigue than there ever was in the actual. But the truth is, his wife wasn’t part of this event.  Why this event stayed in my mind from the 1970’s until the new millennium and emerged as a fictional truth, I’ve no idea. But it has reminded me of my first novel, when a neighbour told another friend after reading my novel ‘well, that never happened’… the thing that never happened, was me the author having an illicit sexual encounter with the neighbour…   It seemed hilarious at the time, that the neighbour assumed my protagonist was indeed, myself, the author and another character was… goodness me… himself.  But too, I know an old school friend wrote to my publisher after my first novel came out to say he knew me and many of the characters (oh goodness me) in my novel.  Err… what to say.

After the publication of my third novel ‘Daughters of Messene’, I was stopped in the street by a neighbour who told me ‘I’ve just read your book.’  It was said in an ambiguous tone that implied ‘can you believe it, both that I’ve read your book and that you’ve written one’.  And then the best part. ‘I couldn’t find you anywhere in the novel… you really are a good writer.’

I’ll take the compliment and be glad that he hadn’t found his wife, or himself…

 

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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.

 

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

A cracker day

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Wellington turned on a cracker day for us. We migrated outside early with our glasses of bubbles and festive spirit. The birds were cheerful, the wind was in abeyance and our harbour sparkled. We had family home from Seoul. Our tree was lit with new LED pretty-coloured lights, the colours a nod to our granddaughter, the lights a nod to our daughter-in-law who is a climate change campaigner with Greenpeace, Korea. We all played our part nicely. The foot of the symmetrical, but authentic Christmas tree (we travelled 28 kilometres to purchase this ‘real Xmas tree’) was strewn with beautifully wrapped presents – too many for certain but chosen with love and affection. It seemed to me that the most fun our granddaughter had, was reading the labels on the gifts and handing out the presents. She was our centre. She was our Santa.
It set me to thinking about what Christmas meant to me as a child. I’ve dredged my heart for memories. Interestingly (and somewhat affirming), it is not the gifts I got that I recall, but the moments when Christmas went a little awry, or wasn’t quite as the script predicted.

My first memory is second-hand and cemented through retelling. It’s the moment one of my siblings woke on Christmas eve and disturbed Santa placing presents on the hearth. To authenticate the moment, our parents knocked the fire screen over and told us that Rudolph had raced away up the chimney in fright.
A second memory, I’ve written about before, but it is a cherished memory. A maiden aunt (such a quaint term but one applicable to the era), who worked at the St George Hotel in Wellington as a waitress and lived in (for almost 40 years I think), gave me my first proper swimsuit. It was covered in pink bon-bons and had a bow that sat neatly at the back where the swimsuit flared into a skirt.

There’s the memory of sunlight, minted peas, roast chicken, or pork, the coal range belching plumes of smoke into the still summer air. My mother barely raised a sweat as she toiled with the back door open, manoeuvering pots from boiling to simmering, checking the crispy roast potatoes, moving her cigarette from lip to stove and back again. The roll your own would rest on the enamel perimeter of the Shacklock. She deftly opened one window and shut one door depending on the oven’s temperature and the meat’s progress.

There was always Mass of course early morning and although I’m not religious now, I can see that going to church brought something bigger into the picture with the gathering of our like-minded community in our finest summer frocks to celebrate the birth of Jesus – the manger always centre-stage. We didn’t have a car, so we would follow our mother in her high heels through the Anglican churchyard, past our primary school to the one true church, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
Even then, before we ate our festive midday dinner, there would be neighbours and friends dropping in to say hello and I often wonder how my mother coped, cutting her Christmas cake, dusting the mince pies (flaky, not short pastry) with icing sugar, while my Dad probably sipped from his flagon, sharing a glass or two with whomever appeared.

The thing is, I don’t remember presents. I know I always got a book. The School Friend Annual was my favourite. And one year I bought my father a bicycle bell from Woolworth’s. I even hold the memory of the moment of purchase. Woolworth’s and McKenzie’s were the two big department stores in Nelson where you took your pea-picking pocket money to purchase presents.

And lastly, I remember Pixie town. It came around at Christmas time and I’ve just googled it to be certain and it seems the first ever Pixie town was created by a Nelson man, Fred Jones in the 1930’s. So, it must have been a long held tradition and one that has obviously faded with the advent of holograms and more sophisticated entertainment. Pixie town was a mechanical animation that intrigued us and all the more because it was only once a year.
This year, my favourite gift is a journal from my husband, with the first page inscribed with love, urging me to write another novel. (If you know how much he suffers when I write – the ups, the downs, the angst, the rejection and the fear… you will know how generous this journal is).

The Virgin birth and a faux Chinese chest

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The Virgin birth and a faux Chinese Chest

Christmas. It used to have a religious significance for me. But that was a long time ago, the fifties and sixties when I believed almost everything, anyone told me. And I was a dutiful sort of person, obedient, willing and looking for a story that would explain the strangeness of ‘being’, human.

Then I had a family and Christmas was nostalgia and the creation of my own new story, a family story. It was sewing Christmas stockings that we still use, in spite of my limited skills as a sewer. Each year, I bring out the stockings for a brief cameo and then I stow them away in a faux Chinese wooden chest where we keep newspaper clippings and the Christmas lights.

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A virgin birth. It never occurred to me as a child how odd this was. How could a child be cynical about the Angel Gabriel arriving on a beautiful cloud? Mary so pious (in various versions, possibly a little startled), but attractively compliant. You have to remember, I was a Catholic girl who read her Catechism and could recite the Apostles Creed in English and possibly parts of it in Latin. The Angel Gabriel arriving at the annunciation was a powerful fairy-tale.

I had no sympathy for Mary who was to carry this unplanned pregnancy. I was filled with the light of El Greco paintings on Colomban calendars, sermons from a small church in Richmond – Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. And then after abandoning my faith, and travelling for a few years, eventually I married the man I’d been ‘living in sin’ with for almost five years.. and became that very Lady of Perpetual Succour… a wife and mother.

I’m older now, and there are decades between my love of filling stockings at midnight, baking the cake weeks before, writing cards, attending Midnight Mass (merely for nostalgia and now not at all), buying a real Christmas tree, decorating it, making food that will please everyone, and then, finally, realising, that it’s not up to me, and you cannot ever please everyone.

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I no longer weep when Christmas music (Snoopy’s Christmas) comes on the radio. I still dance to the Pogues ‘Fairytale of New York’ because my granddaughter has been dancing to it with me for seven and a half years…

In my life-time, I have celebrated Christmas in Richmond, Nelson, Wellington, Washington DC, Norway (Santa arrived on Christmas eve in the snow), Edinburgh (practically alone), Istanbul (snow again) and Laos.

I’ve experienced joy and disappointment and one of my most memorable gifts was a swimsuit from an Aunt when I was about eight years old – it was covered in Christmas pink bon-bons and had a pink bow placed strategically at the base of the bodice where it flared into a cute skirt – prior to that I’d worn my Mother’s seersucker, over-sized swimsuit (with bra cups that possibly kept me afloat).

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It’s New Year now in our bay. The Pohutakawa next door is flowering. We’re re-united with our son who has been living overseas for ten years. We had a happy Christmas family breakfast and thoughtful inexpensive gifts under the tree. We were almost sitcom material on New Year’s Day with everyone on their best behaviour. Our granddaughter is besotted with her Uncle and we’re all besotted with her.

This year, I want to embrace being human, and to recognise the glorious potential of difference, rather than indifference, the beauty of the individual rather than the duty of togetherness, the magic of family in all its inordinate incarnations.

Kate Sheppard and a tinfoil mouse

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I recently read Penelope Lively’s ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish‘, a thoughtful memoir in which she explores the meaning of memory and links moments in her life to precious objects, not valuable artefacts necessarily, but meaningful and even sentimental. Ian Wedde, too in his recent memoir ‘The Grass Catcher’ evokes memory through objects and the odours of his youth. The main object being the grass catcher. (Some of the odours he mentions are best left to be read about.) Although, I guess there’s probably not a Kiwi kid from the 50’s and 60’s who doesn’t remember the smell of freshly cut grass, and a hand mower with a canvas catcher. Or indeed, who doesn’t recall the whiff of two-stroke petrol when the family upgraded from a hand to a motor mower… and in your over-enthusiasm pulling out the choke, the mower flooded.

On reading these memoirs, I realised that my garden whenever I wander in it, evokes important milestones both happy and sad. It was over Labour Weekend, home alone with a broken wrist, somewhat sorry for myself, that I sat reading on our sunny deck and recalled it was my Aunt’s birthday.   That’s my deceased Aunty who would have been 94 this year. What made me recall her, was not just the date, the 25th of October, her birthday but that she would often come to stay with us for Labour Weekend and we would share her birthday. And that the cherry blossom tree that we built the deck around would be in full flower. Since then, we’ve chopped down the cherry tree – as it was taking up so much room on the deck but the memory of the cherry blossoms and my Aunt are intermingled.

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This prompted me to explore my garden and I found another blossom tree that forms an almost canopy on the lower part of our hillside section. The first year we moved into this house, our youngest son was six (he’s now 33) and we have a photograph of him standing under the flowering canopy with a chipped front tooth – memorable, because that very next day he was going to be page boy at the wedding of friends, fully decked out in matching tail-coat with his father who was the Groomsman. I remember being annoyed he’d broken his tooth. The couple who married, now have a daughter off to university next year. Whenever I look out our bedroom window in Spring and see the blossoms, I see our son with his chipped tooth, and then I remember our friends’ wedding anniversary.

Immediately beneath the blossom canopy is a very important memorial to our deceased cat Red who just happened to be a almost twenty year old black and white cat. Our granddaughter who adored Red, has made a pile of stones and shells in the garden as a tribute, and this includes a once shiny tinfoil mouse. The cat’s ashes are inside our house in a box, or are they? That’s another story, told in a poem and here is the link.

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Then there are my roses. They bring me both joy and a stab of grief.   Roses enjoy being hacked it seems. The possums last year were feasting on my roses, and so I cut them back savagely to pervert the possums – it seems the roses enjoyed this and they are looking positively radiantly ready to burst into many buds. This includes Kate Sheppard, named after the feisty Kiwi feminist whom we thank for the vote. My Korean daughter-in-law helped me plant Kate – a treasured gardening memory, all the more poignant as this year, she moves on to a new life, away from our family. No-one warned me that as a mother-in-law I could also have my heart broken.

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The Kate Sheppard Rose

The Kate Sheppard Rose

More violent and perhaps funnier, is the silk tree at our gate. One day, some years back now, after a fiery argument with my beloved, in fury and frustration, I attacked the silk tree – it was growing out over the path and obstructing the entrance. I chopped and chopped and snapped and attacked and I’m not sure what my neighbours thought. I felt bad afterwards and imagined the silk tree doomed, but it, like the roses, has thrived – but always to remind me of my tantrum.

Then there are the daisies that were once very fashionable in cottage country gardens. I tried slavishly to cultivate a cottage garden look to no avail. And then when we converted to a more coastal (but let’s keep the roses), suddenly the packet of seed that I sowed decided to grow. And now those daisies are considered weeds, but I allow them their rampancy as it only seems fair that they have tried so hard. They interweave with a beautiful old-fashioned red-leafed creeper with tiny mauve pom-pom flowers. The two fight for supremacy and I keep them both in check.

Too, as you enter out front gate by the almost demolished silk tree, there is a softly delicious smelling jasmine plant that entwines with the wildly fragrant honey-suckle. Both plants are now considered ‘outlaws’ as we live next to a native reserve… but the scent is so delicious of an evening that I cannot bring myself to be rid of them entirely. Inside our front gate are two Daphne bushes bringing their ‘lawful’ luxurious bouquet to our doorstep. Dare I mention my rogue (practically heretical) ginger plants. They look so striking and I’ve tried to strike them out. Alas, they resurge.

The last important memory is about our first day in this house. We inherited a beautiful old-fashioned garden and one of the main attractions were the pink water-lily dahlias. The previous occupant an older couple who had tended the garden for years with love and affection, slyly dug up some of the ‘considered rare’ dahlia bulbs and took them to their new abode. Due to landscaping and renovation, I no longer have any dahlias, but I know where they should be and they remind me of the key to the house, left in a glass bottle under the front veranda by the same elderly couple. And too the note they left us, filled with daily, weekly, monthly chores to be attended to, including the trimming and clearing of the zig-zag down to the road below. There’s a blackbird that comes to sing. We’ve named him after the dear old chap who lived here before us – although we’ve been in the house now for over 25 years, and I’m not sure how long blackbirds live…

Recently I posted a poem inspired by the tuis in our Kohwai tree. This tree was but a wind-blown seedling on the side of a clay bank that I was about to tear out while weeding when we first moved in. Something stopped me. It seemed wrong to not want a Kowhai, even though it was in the wrong place. The Kowhai now is a superstar where in springtime eight or nine tuis can be found feasting. It shades my washing line, something I lament, but the song of the tuis and the sight of the overweight kereru, more than compensates.

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So, my garden is full of birdsong, flowers and my heart’s song, a testimony to loss and new growth.