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

The simplest words

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For Christmas, I bought myself a copy of Alex Miller’s memoir ‘The Simplest Words’, a series of sometimes quite short personal essays. I’m only part way into reading them but was struck to the core by his essay about the death of his elderly mother. He begins with a low-key description of a week they spent together when she was 86 years old. Indeed, he points out, that she pointed out, that this was the first time the two of them had ever spent a week alone together. He lives in Australia and left home aged sixteen to follow his Antipodean dream, and then became a writer. This essay-vignette, one week, ends with Alex and his mother walking home arm in arm from a pub after polishing off a bottle of Spanish wine, ‘Bulls Blood’.

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I was reading this sitting at a café overlooking our beautiful local bay. The water unusually calm, one person swimming, a grandmother towelling down her granddaughter, and a motor boat noiselessly edging towards the beach. A woman beside me was talking loudly on her mobile. I frowned first and then decided I would eavesdrop (I’m a writer), but she stopped before anything useful was uttered. I returned to Alex Miller.

Tragically, after spending this memorable week with his mother, a few weeks later when she was dying, he had to choose between returning to the United Kingdom to see her or his commitment to a new job at La Trobe University, Melbourne, teaching creative writing. He explains that he chose to stay with his students who had given him the gift of their unpolished first drafts – and to abandon them would be to betray that trust. He then goes on to say that it took six weeks for his elderly mother to die and when he returned some time later and caught up with his sister, she told him that his mother had been waiting for him to come. It’s quite brutal to read as her death was horrible, her spirit fighting to hang in beyond her physical pain. The sister tells him “It’s all right, you know, Mum understood that writing meant everything to you.”

It revived my own memories of my mother’s death. I was living in Sydney at the time and my aunt phoned to tell me my mother had suffered a heart attack and was in hospital. I’d just moved to a new flat on the North Shore and gone through an emotional romantic break-up. I stayed put. My Aunt phoned again three days later telling me I should come quickly. Reluctantly, I packed up my flat and job in one day and flew home. It took my mother a couple of weeks to die. She wasn’t in a lot of pain as far as I know, but she was very tired. A few years earlier my eldest brother had committed suicide. The last time I saw her, a nurse urged me to stay, but I had a bus to catch and a dinner date, so I said I had to go. I know now that the nurse knew my mother was dying, but she didn’t tell me. I made my dinner date and my mother passed away less than an hour after I said a cheerful goodbye to her. I often revisit this moment and wish the nurse had told me but too, I regret my own callow youth – I was impatient with her – she’d disrupted my adventures, I was anxious to be on my way.

So now there was just my Dad and me. One sibling was dead and the other was missing. As the hearse pulled up outside our modest Jerry-built post war weatherboard house – I was standing in the hallway with a view through the open front door – the phone rang and it was the missing child – not in a position to attend the funeral. I was used to life being askew, and this was just another permutation. We were a small team, my Dad and I and my Aunt and it took me motherhood, teenagers and becoming a grandmother to really know what happened that day. My grief came in unexpected moments over the years, tinged with regrets, and I was grateful, when my father died, that I was encouraged by the hospital to stay close, to sit still, to be there, and I was.

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.

Old friends and Cape Foulwind

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Old friends and Cape Foulwind

When you’re from Wellington, travelling to Cape Foulwind holds no concern. After all, it’s the West Coast of the South Island, New Zealand, renowned for its weather. You share a bad reputation, it endears you to each other. But, we arrived at our accommodation, the dramatically appointed “Steeples” Cottage, on a calm sunny day. Our splendid front lawn runs right out to the cliff edges overlooking the sea. There’s a garden seat of driftwood under a wind-shaped macrocarpa. There’s also a darling garden of chaotic colour, old-fashioned flowers in full bloom, which belies the wind-shaped trees. And a fence and a child-proof gate at the perimeter, as our hosts have local grandchildren.

View from the cottage

Our modern and well-equipped cottage is named Steeples, because of the superb view from the cottage of the limestone steeple-shaped rocks jutting out of the sea in front of us. The hosts feted us with freshly collected mussels, the fattest, sweetest, we have ever eaten. And then we head to the local pub, just along the road and everyone there appears to be related in some way, either by marriage or birth. We’re served freshly rarely cooked and tender venison morsels, as almost tapas with our beer. Where else? Our fish, when we order it, is grilled Turbot, shaken in flour and crisped just a little with oil and lemon pepper.

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We’re running away. It’s what you do when life serves up parcels of grief. How lucky are we? We could have stayed home and wallowed, but we chose to travel instead. The spirit cannot help but be revived in this rugged landscape. I’d spent five days in Kaikoura with my sister on the trail of family secrets, stunned yet again by the jewel-like aqua of the East Coast sea. It was the first time probably in perhaps 50 years, that we had spent this much time together. We ate scallops as fat as your fist (almost) but missed out on the crayfish as it was the end of the season and the last of the crays were especially expensive. We met a first cousin for the first time. This adds to our collection, having recently found two aunts and an uncle we never knew about and who didn’t know about us either. We talked as sisters do, about our one successful family holiday in Kaikoura, where we hid in the hawthorn hedge and threw plums at passersby. We found the old house, almost unchanged on the corner, parked our car and sat and reminisced.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura

Then, my sister returned to Thames and John joined me. We visited old friends in Nelson, and Lake Brunner, saw the night sky in Tekapo and visited Christchurch. There’s something grounding about old friendships. People who know your story and whose story you know. Friends who forgive you your faults as you forgive them, and the comfort of familiarity. As for Christchurch, I was blown away on the sunny Friday by the sense of renewal and spirit of optimism down by the container shops, and then Saturday dawned grey, cold and sad and I saw the central city spaces in a new and sadder light.

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The beautiful church at Lake Tekapo

The beautiful church at Lake Tekapo

View from inside the church at Lake Tekapo

View from inside the church at Lake Tekapo

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The cliffs at Cape Foulwind

The cliffs at Cape Foulwind

John takes a great photo. So, I’ve decided to share some of his best with you on my blog. While I was travelling, I was reading a very good novel by Coral Atkinson, soon to be launched called ‘Passing Through’ which I am going to review for Beattie’s blog. There’s nothing like a good book to keep you company on a road trip. I also read the short stories of George Saunders, ‘The Tenth of December’ – a much heralded American short-story writer – it took me a while to ‘get’ the voices in his stories, but once I did, I was hooked. ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries’ both startled, surprised and wowed me. And on my bedside is a new collection from Vincent O’Sullivan that I’ve already dipped into – delicious.

Siem Reap – where I left a part of my heart

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Recently, I spent three months as a volunteer ESOL teacher in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’ve left a part of my heart behind. Some people said, before I left, what a grubby little tourist town Siem Reap was and that I wouldn’t like it. How wrong could they be? I loved it. I love the red dusty roads that erupt whenever the rain falls; the smell of the Monsoon and dust, the sound of motos, the choreography of traffic, tuk-tuks, motos, cyclists, pedestrians and the occasional big black Lexus.

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I love the resilient spirit of the people of Siem Reap, their optimism, in the face of endless rejection – from the girls on massage lane to the tuk-tuk drivers – always hopeful, up for a chat, and the cries of ‘teacher-teacher’. Where else could I possibly find so much (possibly undeserved) affirmation and respect? I can’t imagine being embraced so affectionately at my local coffee bar back home, nor having my eyes wiped by an attentive waitress (who just happens also to be my student), when I choke on a chilli over dinner. Or to go out alone, and find each time I enter a café, that one of my students is waiting tables there and I’m suddenly the most important customer.

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I loved the one dollar out-door foot massage where I watched endless reruns of the story of Angkor Wat on a large open-air screen… the foot scrub for two dollars, the pedicure that ended up a brighter pink than I chose, and the nail polish that was very poor quality, so the finish was less than smooth, but the effort and focus gone into painting my toes far outweighed the less than perfect outcome.

The people of Siem Reap put their hearts on the line for the tourists. They offer up a piece of themselves for a small price. They work long hours for little return and the tuk-tuk drivers spend more time waiting for customers than they do actually driving anywhere. In the heat of the mid afternoon they sling their hammocks and rest. They are waiting for the balmy evening when the tourists will begin swarming down to Pub Street and maybe they can nab a newcomer and sell them a trip to the temples tomorrow… always tomorrow … the locals here believe in tomorrow in a way that is heart-warming and admirable.

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Madame, you want tuk-tuk, maybe not today, maybe tomorrow, maybe the temples, not today Madame, but tomorrow maybe, you call me, you have my card, tomorrow, tomorrow, I take you to the temples, Madame, Madame…

It’s one sentence, because they anticipate your rejection and already they’re moving with a smile to the next potential customer.

I loved the Old Market, the Night Market (there are several Night Markets) and the food – the food loved me too. I ate the juiciest mangoes I’ve ever tasted, sweet pineapple, longans, dragon fruit, and I never tired of the Khmer vegetable curries and the chilled 50 cent Angkor beers, not to mention the one dollar Margaritas on Soksan Road.

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I found French pastries at the Blue Pumpkin, a designer cupcake café and the New Leaf Book Café where they make the most delicious banana blossom salad while selling second-hand books. And too, minus the food, D’s bookshop (both second-hand and new).

D's Bookshop, Siem Reap

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I admired the ‘flower girl’ as I christened her. The same girl every night, plying her flowers along Pub Street, her witty patter, her sassy street-smarts and who knows, she looked fifteen, but perhaps she was older. I admired too, the young man (whom I decided ran away from the circus), who ran his own one-man-band sort of circus, swallowing fire, and juggling outside the cafés in the balmy evenings, his shiny naked skinny torso and the young boy who made the chocolate banana pancakes with such flair, one hand wiping, the other hand swiping, cooking and cleaning at the same time.

And yes, I stood with all the hundreds of other tourists at dawn, waiting for the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

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But it wasn’t so much about the temples for me, as the local people. I enjoyed a cycling alone to the temples on the school bicycle. The first time I’ve ever cycled close to an elephant or a monkey for that matter. I tried to imagine a quieter time, when the temples were abandoned and overgrown but not with tourists, the eerie mix of nature and man-made stone grandeur, uninhabited.

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One of the highlights for me wasn’t the temples, but the evening I rode pillion on a student’s moto into the balmy late afternoon-straight-into-evening – along the canal to Road 60 for a Khmer-style picnic with one of my classes (barbecued chicken with yummy seasonings from the local roadside stalls) and being one of only a handful of barangs.

As for the circus. If you never do anything else in Siem Reap, go to the Phare Cambodian Circus which describes itself as uniquely Cambodian, daringly modern. Be startled and astonished by the amazing acrobatics, the sheer energy, talent and something else… delight at its best, in its best form – delight from the performers and delight from the audience. This is what I found in Cambodia – you think you’re giving when mostly you are receiving.

But most of all I loved waking at 5.00 am to chase the frogs from the kitchen after the Monsoon and once too, a cheeky rat ran out from behind the portable gas hob. I would make porridge and drink black tea in the make-shift outside dining room. I’d feed the school cat in the hopes she would keep the rat at bay. And then, after gathering my lesson plans, at around 5.50 am each morning, I would pull the shiny yellow curtains in my bedroom open and see my always-early student Phanna, on his moto heading towards the school gates. He never failed me. And soon after, the rest of the class. At 6.00 am the Elementary One class would begin, with the fans going and the doors wide open. I would watch the dawn break as I taught. That moment between dawn and morning, the shifts in colour. Magic. But more than that, the amazing energy and affection that my students rewarded me with. There was no ‘class management’ required, I had rapt attention from hard-working, motivated, interesting and hugely admirable young adults. What more could a teacher ask for?

What I most admired is the extraordinary spirit of my students and all their golden hopes for tomorrow. I felt humbled by their resilience, their hard work, their generosity and their humour. It is hard to imagine a country with such a recent tragic history, where there is such a spirit of optimism.

I’m not forgetting though, there is much more to Cambodia than Siem Reap and my students. I saw the poverty between Siem Reap and Phnom Phen when I took the Giant Ibis bus journey between the two cities the weekend of the water festival. The way people live with their rice crops drying at the side of the road, no fresh running water or electricity, relying on oxen and water buffalo instead of modern-day farming methods. I was reminded of Cuba. I know the Government is corrupt, the recent elections weren’t fair and that people live in abject poverty. I read Joel Brinkley’s ‘Cambodia’s Curse’ before I left for Siem Reap and while I was there. It is without doubt a very sobering account of Cambodia’s history. I know it’s time for Hun Sen to go and democracy to have a fair chance. But somewhere in my heart, I have great hope, if the young people I taught, are an example of what lies ahead.

Art to Heart with Edvard Munch, Gustav Vigeland, El Greco and Picasso

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All of my art experiences, well the ones that have touched my heart, have been more or less accidental. I think it is this stumbling into art which has had the most impact on my life. I didn’t grow up with a specific artistic or literary education, but one of the biggest influences was of course religious art, iconic images from my Catholic childhood. It was astonishing for me as a young woman travelling through Spain in the seventies to step into a chapel in Toledo and find the original El Greco’s which I knew intimately as a child from the Columban Calendars that hung in all good Catholic homes. I had the very good fortune that day to be travelling in a group that included a young Australian priest in training, on temporary leave from the seminary, who took me on a guided tour of the El Greco’s. And, confession, it was many, many years later, in Kalamata, Greece in 2007 that I finally realised, attending a movie on the life of El Greco, that of course, he was ‘The Greek’, and not a Spanish artist after all.
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It is a very fine thing I do believe to uncover these secrets accidentally, rather than academically.
A friend recently emailed me a link to two beautiful images by the artist Edvard Munch… ‘The Madonna’ and ‘The Voice’ and

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Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

interestingly, the poems written by Munch about these paintings (from a book by Bente Torjusen – The Words and Images of Edvard Munch which is copyright, or I’d include the poems on this blog). The poems are exquisite – unnecessary you could say, for what is art, but a visual not verbal experience… but beautiful as well, because the lines of the poems are expressed in different colours (the mind of an artist). It reminded me of my first encounter with Edvard Munch, in Oslo, January 1973. I was on my way to taking up a job as a waitress in the Haukeli Mountains and staying in Oslo at a youth hostel. I found Munch and Vigeland. They’re pretty hard to miss in a small city the size of Oslo. It was snowing too, that much I remember. I was in love then with all things Norwegian and still hold huge affection in my heart for that time in my life. It was here I first learned to ski and to haltingly speak snippets of another language.

Gustav Vigeland sculpture

Gustav Vigeland sculpture


In Paris in 1997, with my youngest son who back then was just fifteen, together we literally stumbled upon the Picasso Museum. We had just previously laboured our way through the great halls of the Louvre in search of the Mona Lisa, almost running through a room of Rubens – so overwhelming was the art experience that we couldn’t take it in.

This delightful accident, the Picasso Museum, remains an unforgettable art experience both the intimacy of the setting, the sharing of it with my son and the lack of expectation enabling a true heart to art experience. I purchased this poster advertising an exhibition which now hangs in our bathroom and the other is a print which hangs in our bedroom.Poster from Picasso MuseumPrint Purchased from Picasso Museum

Years ago, when my children were preschoolers, and we didn’t have a lot of money to decorate our humble Edwardian villa in Brooklyn (not New York, but Wellington), I used to drive my olive-green Mini down to the Wellington library and fill the boot with art for hire. It was a lot of fun and a cheap way to dress our house and the great advantage being you never got bored as you just took the picture back and got another one. These were reproductions such as Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Bedroom in Arles’ but oh the joy racing through the Louvre to see the Vermeer original. I know, I know, they’re practically clichés, but they looked lovely on our wall.

At primary school in the fifties, one of my most humbling experience was being part of a team in class where you had to run to the front of the room and draw something – my task was to draw a hand – all I had to do was place my hand on the blackboard and draw around it to get a fairly reasonable image – but I didn’t have the confidence or imagination for that, and instead I froze at the board mortified, unable to even decide how many fingers a single hand held. It’s one of those frozen moments of life that you never forget. My own version of ‘The Scream’. Nowadays, I teach English as a second language and I find being unable to draw a big advantage – I have no shame and I attempt to draw and the students laugh and through their laughter they name the object that I have so poorly tried to represent – you see my lack of shame unlocks their language.

My friend has reminded me of my introduction to Edward Munch, my astonishment and attraction to ‘The Scream’ before I knew it was a famous painting, and too, of the joy of Frognor Park, my very first up close encounter with stone brought to life. Coming from New Zealand in the early 70’s I was too, a teeny bit startled by so much public nude abandonment (even in stone)… I loved the girl with the flying hair and now I am a grandmother, and I see my granddaughter, her plaits flying as she dances for me in our garden.

From Maleme to Mapua

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I was inspired to think about this seemingly random link after reading a poem. The poem is called “Alive together” and it is by Lisel Mueller. The poem begins thus:
Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun,
The poet goes on to imagine being a woman in a different time, married to different men, the idea of who we are being both random and minutely specific to a multitude of histories. I like this poem and I have recently been reading ‘Crete – The Battle and the Resistance”’ by Anthony Beevor. It is a very good account of a fearsome battle for control of the island in Greece during the Second World War, told from many sides of the story, the Germans, the New Zealanders, the British and the Cretans. My Dad was in the 5th field Regiment, a gunner, in the New Zealand 22nd Battalion defending the airport at Maleme, the point at which strategically the battle was lost, when it should have been won.

The German graveyard at Maleme

The German graveyard at Maleme

Stone crosses on the hillside among the graves at Maleme

Stone crosses on the hillside among the graves at Maleme

The graveyard at Maleme of German paratroopers killed in the battle of Crete

The graveyard at Maleme of German paratroopers killed in the battle of Crete

If, they say, General Freyberg had not been so hell-bent on the idea of a seaborne invasion… if Colonel Andrew (according to Beevor), “had gone forward before nightfall to observe the coastal trip and the western slopes of Hill 107…” … so many ifs. I imagine too, if they’d all had I phones, perhaps a few texts to and fro with some pictures attached… but then too, it seems Freyberg was very concerned about revealing to the Germans that the Brits had cracked their code, and so I guess I phones can easily be hacked . And too, imagine instead of young men dropping from the sky (like Icarus) in their parachutes, if instead, the Germans had used drones. The account of hand to hand combat between the Germans, local Cretans and the Kiwis is fierce and brutal. It seems that the Geneva convention did not apply as far as the Cretans were concerned. They were civilians defending their own patch. Oddly, the Germans imagined that the Kiwi soldiers would not fire upon them as they descended in their multi-coloured parachutes. But of course they did. And I have it first hand from my Dad, how extraordinary it was, to be firing at such easy targets, but too, how sickening. I read in Beevor’s account, how the gunners were told to aim low at the falling body because of the rapid descent, thus ensuring an accurate hit.

New Zealand graves at Suda Bay

New Zealand graves at Suda Bay

Suda Bay cemetery where the Kiwi soldiers lie

Suda Bay cemetery where the Kiwi soldiers lie

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But in spite of this, the battle was won by the Germans, although they suffered extraordinary casualties. The paratroopers were young men (the German elite), some as young as sixteen and thousands were slaughtered in the first two days of the battle. So, what brings me to me Mapua? What is my connection? It is really rather random as I mention at the start (but then you see, don’t you, how random all of our histories really are).

Mapua wharf with the ferry that crosses to my favourite childhood beach, Rabbit Island

Mapua wharf with the ferry that crosses to my favourite childhood beach, Rabbit Island

Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay

I was reading about the Battle of Crete, perched on the seafront at Ruby Bay (a hop skip and a jump from Mapua where I drank my morning coffee and had these thoughts) and I realised that if the 5th Field Regiment had held the airfield, I may not have existed. The defence of Maleme would have required a further battle – my Dad instead of retreating might have died in the ensuing violence – or so I told myself under the hot Tasman sun. That he survived to be taken POW and then shipped on cattle trains to Poland to spend four years as a POW – not to mention the subsequent 600 mile march in snow at the end of the war … well, that is neither here nor there, because this is what happened and so I know he survived all of this. But too, at each step along the way, there are a multitude of ifs to consider.

And as a result of my father’s war experience, I am fascinated with Greece, with the Battle of Crete, and too, I am ‘alive together with you, and you, and you (my family, my friends, my readers)… and there’s something both thrilling and fateful about this very being alive. If the chance came, would you change your life, be an entirely different person? As a child I used to look at people and try to imagine what it might be like to be them and then be terrified that I had wished too hard and what if I did become them and I didn’t like it and then I couldn’t get me back. Whatever befalls us, we may wish it had not, but do we ever really want not to be ourselves? Perhaps some people do (and here one can imagine a child in the slums of Mumbai). I am currently reading ‘Behind the beautiful forevers’ by Katherine Boo. Yes, perhaps if I was atop a rubbish dump, scavenging for a living, I may well be happy for my wish to be granted… but thankfully in my own fortunate life … it is enough to be ‘alive and together’ …
the poem ends thus:

alive with our lively children
who — but for endless ifs —
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.

Isn’t it just a grand poem? I have Diana Gilliland Wright of Firesteel to thank for her blog which alerted me to this beautiful poem and of course, if you wish to read the entire poem, click this link to Firesteel.