Pedestrians share the roads
tea houses have given way
to every sort of latte
gutters run with rain
in the monsoon
Sundays are an avalanche
of cigarette butts
trash collectors come at dusk
to separate the plastic
in the alleys, chopsticks sing
at night, the neon lights
bedazzle, ragged roads
transform to enchant
every doorway beckons while
our phones translate the menu
our seduction is complete
Sundays are for bing-su
Saturdays for steamed mandu
on any day a scooter will
turn up at your door with food
depending on your mood
fried chicken's pretty good
but mostly we love spicy broths
meats falling from their bones
and every sort of banchan
the complimentary kimchi
our Kiwi kitchen's far
from here, we wonder
how we'll cope, back home
to cook each night
a knife and fork, a spoon
starting from scratch
I walk my granddaughter
up the hill to Daycare
over grates, cigarette butts
past plastic trash bags
she finds the asphalt
every glinting thing
with perfect purpose
We wave to the lady with
the dog wearing boots
on all four paws and she
stops and waves back
people respond to a one
year old who cares that much
about them and they break
into wide happy smiles
Later on, I board the bus and
become angry at the teenager
head down on his phone
in the seat for the elderly
I shame this young man
when someone even older
than I am, boards, but all
I do is shame myself
the old woman doesn’t
want this young man’s seat
she’d rather stand than
lose her dignity to rage
At the pedestrian crossing
I am the only one fuming
as a man in a white sedan
edges over the painted lines
I swear at him, actually
out loud but no one hears
or cares least of all him
as he roars to the next lights
As a visitor in this city
I am the elderly anomaly
carrying the luggage of
my own petty prejudice
I’m learning to contain my
expectations of others, to
tilt my parasol to the sun
ride the bus like a local
an eye out for the glinting
The women of Yeonsinnae. I wrote about them last year when we were visiting for a few months over summer. We are back. Our granddaughter has turned one year old. Indeed, here in Korea, that is considered to be two. Confusing but true. So, we are back in our old stomping ground enjoying the contrast between our quiet (possibly sedate) life in the bay back home, compared to the teeming liveliness of this place.
It’s not difficult to imagine the contrast when you consider the population of New Zealand and the concentration of people who live in Seoul alone. Population of the wider metropolis of this area is estimated to be 25 million and the concentration in Seoul city around 10.5 million. Yeonsinnae is about 15 minutes on the metro from downtown Seoul. We love this place. I can’t find up to date population statistics for this area, but it is in the wider area of Eunpyeong, an upcoming and rapidly expanding district of Seoul.
What I have observed since our visit last year, is the constant change happening here. Our favourite café or restaurant might still be here, but it’s menu will have changed, or it has new owners, or the time of opening and closing is now different. It feels like a small wave of ‘gentrification’ beginning as new apartment buildings are springing up.
But Yeonsinnae street market, in the heart of this place, is the same. The women who sit on the pavement, some on cardboard and some on more comfy chairs, are the same. I recognise them. There is one, tall, elegant older woman who has the loveliest smile. She is near to the station. I’ve now become embarrassed by my privilege of being able to walk past her so frequently, footloose, fancy-free, going where I wish, as she sits day after day in the same spot. I’ve taken to taking side streets now to avoid having to smile at her, as it has begun to feel patronising. I’m not assuming she’s unhappy, but I am made uncomfortable. In contrast, there are older women, more doubled over, less able, and sadder looking who I observe with less guilt, because I haven’t made a personal connection.
The thing about being in a thriving, ostensibly ‘working class’ area of Seoul (compared to downtown where glamour abounds) is you are confronted with both the glorious immediacy of human activity as well as many of the tragedies. I’ve come to notice more and more the extraordinary tenacity of the disabled in this community. It’s inevitable in a community with such a wide cross section of people from grandmothers to young families to working executives, that too there will be the less able. A city this size does not bend for the less able, they bend to it. I am always amazed at the extraordinary resilience and independence of the less able negotiating this busy place. In particular, the metro takes no prisoners. Nobody waits should you stumble and the rush to the elevators by young mums and the elderly is a stampede with no regard for age or infirmity.
We have often chuckled as we are elbowed out of the way at the elevator (my daughter-in-law and me) by feisty old men and women, only to find when we finally squeeze into the tiny space left, that these aggressive old people, turn into clucking loving chucking under the chin baby admirers… who feel free to practically pinch the cheeks of my granddaughter (although her mother is certain they will not)… our eyes meet across the baby buggy in delightful recognition of the dichotomy.
The sky here is not the bright blue of home, and the air at times questionable. But what is not in question, is the pulsing, lively, fascinating hum of humanity. We’ve been watching a Korean political drama about the gentrification of districts, removing local markets, and indeed, we were visiting Hongdae the other day (now quite gentrified)…. It’s sad to see big shopping malls with generic labels and big glass shopfronts, repeating themselves…. Whereas the colour and vibrancy of Yeonsinnae and nearby Bulgwang markets are unsurpassed.
Daughters of Messene (now in translation and for sale in Greece)
I’ve talked about this before. The tricky balance between self-promotion and total modesty. As a writer, total modesty probably no longer does the trick. It’s a shame. It would be amazing if our work stood on its own merit. And indeed, it should. But it also needs a little push/shove along. The trouble is, if you shout too often, people become averse to your shouting. And if you don’t shout out at all, your writing achievements (however modest in the scheme of things) may not reach all their possible audience.
So, here I am to bask once more in the glow and delight of having my third novel, a story with a strong Greek flavour, that sprang out from a not very well known true story of the migration of young Greek women to New Zealand in the sixties… now translated and on sale in Greece through Kedros Publishers Athens (to whom I am most grateful).
One of the lovely serendipitous moments researching this novel in 2007, I have written about before. It was my lucky encounter with Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor at his splendid home in the Mani on his Name Day. To be there, with the ‘local’s and to share this magical moment, was unforgettable. On that day, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, generously signed my copy of his book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. I had found and read the book while in Greece and was bedazzled by his magical flights of language and historical observations, the marvellous segues. He signed my copy of his book with his usual motif of a small flock of flying birds.
A reader of my blog, Diana Wright, managed to decipher the inscription as I was unable to. It says ‘with all goodness’.
To my great delight, the cover for the Greek translation of ‘Daughters of Messene’ includes a similar flock of birds. This is pure coincidence and a lovely one at that. Indeed, my novel includes a moment of migrating birds, so these links are quite perfect.
So, here is the very splendid cover for you to admire and hopefully if you speak and read Greek to tempt you to buy the book. Plus a picture of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s inscription in my copy of his book.
Who is that lady
in the mauve felt
hat telling me
that the arsonist
who set her house
alight, is like
all of us
searching for happiness
but he will find more
grief than happiness
and we view her
coffee cup blue
on a saucer
in the front room
she was sitting
in, unable to sleep
and so still alive.
a thirty-seven year
old they tell us
searching for happiness
can be hazardous.
(I wrote this poem several years ago after watching a Sunday evening news item on the telly about a woman from Gore who had survived an arson attack).
Prufrock knew about the face I’m looking for today
I had it on last week, or even yesterday and I must have put it away
I can’t find it, it was cheerful, and quite clean, I’d washed it twice
It’s the one that I pull out when I want to appear nice.
I’ve looked in my handbag, but although my wallets there
the face I’m looking for just will not reappear…
It’s not something that I lend so no-one else has got it on
and in my wasteland of despair, I need this face to call upon
to impress the faces that I’ll meet
Upon those sad deserted streets
and so into the room I will come and go
are those my tears their melting backs upon the window pane?
All my indecision, would I, could I, ‘Do I dare’
put on my coat, turn up my collar
face them – faceless
this is my overwhelming question
impossible my nerves
I’ll walk upon the beach
I daren’t look back
My face, my face is out of reach.
Outrage on Twitter
I like social media. I know the pitfalls, but I love the positives. Many young people are abandoning Facebook, leaving it to the boomer generation it seems. I want to stay connected with young people, and politics, so I am on Twitter too. (I’m also on Instagram, but only to follow my two darling granddaughters).
Lately, I’ve become disillusioned with Twitter. I love all the links to clever political analysis, to satire and literary links. And as a writer, it is a way to promote achievements, post links to successes. But more and more, my thread is filled with people, crying over the cliché level of spilt milk. I don’t care if your bus is late… I don’t care if your latte isn’t perfect… I don’t care that you are locked out of your house briefly. But yes, you can tweet about it, and maybe your friends do care, and that’s cool too.
But then there is another level. This is more problematic and has been causing me to pause. I am fascinated that people feel free to tweet personal information, not about themselves, but blow by blow accounts of actual private interactions with their children. Do they seek permission before doing this? Now, as a writer, I can see I’m heading for trouble, as we writers, plunder, plagiarise, copy and steal in the name of fiction. My defense is that as fiction, people are not recognisable (although of course people do see themselves, even when it’s not them).
But, if your child, teenager, young adult, is going through a rough patch, do you tweet a blow by blow account of this? Is this fair. This child, teenager, young adult, will have a life beyond their mistakes hopefully… but will these tweets about their mistakes, outlast even their achievements as they mature, develop, and change. There seems to me, to be a narcissistic quality to the cries of ‘poor me’, from parents seeking support and affirmation, sharing all these troubles. At times, I have wanted to respond, with ‘stop tweeting and start mothering’… but indeed, I wasn’t the perfect mother and I also know the anguish when a child (no longer a child), goes missing for days and you are desperate with worry. Back then, without Twitter, we networked with friends and our children’s friends for answers. Twitter seems such a random way to seek solace and support on serious matters.
On the other hand, I love the political traction. I loved it when Mona Eltahawy tweeted non-stop and eventually the young Saudi woman she was supporting, found asylum in Canada – this was real-time activism and it worked. And too, this was about a ‘run away’ child as the young woman was a teenager. But the difference as I see it, is this young woman was seeking help via Twitter, using it as a tool for her own benefit.
And too, the tribalism. Twitter seems devoid of nuance and compassion at times. It’s not the place for reasoned debate. The very platform requires complex issues to be reduced or drip fed in threads where reason seems to dwindle.
We all seem to enjoy being outraged… I’m beginning to think we might take some advice from Prufrock perhaps, prepare our faces to meet the people we will meet – not to be two-faced, but a chance for more understanding.
Of course, I’m writing this because, I’m outraged… but in truth I laugh a lot as well, following some of the fabulous political satire both local and international…whew!
I’m in Nelson. It’s Easter. The radio is playing songs I’ve not heard in years. An earworm becomes a memory weevil, eating its way into my flesh, under my skin, disturbing the carefully packaged emotions, that I wrapped and tied so long ago.
Russell Morris is singing ‘Rachel’s Coming Home’ and I can’t believe the lyrics. I know them all, but I’d forgotten them long ago. It’s an anti-war song, and when I loved it, I was dating an American draft dodger who was on the Icebreakers for seven years. We met in Wellington at the Downtown Club. Now, I’m visiting my old home town, driving to meet a friend for coffee, I am wiping tears from my freshly applied make-up. Gentle tears, that are about nostalgia, about the state of the world, about this, my home town, the memories unwrapping. I don’t want this. I have tied steel bows around these nicely packaged emotions. I’ve labelled them and I know them by their wrappings, but the tight steel bow means I don’t wish to unwrap them. I think about the Red Cross Nurse from New Zealand, lost somewhere in Syria, and the tears fall freely. I don’t know her. Is she an excuse for my unravelling?
I stop in the middle of the road, indicator flashing, to turn sharp right up the hill to Toswill Road. There’s a driveway to the left off this road, where my in-laws lived in their stylish stucco home with awnings. How I loved those stylish awnings. They were above the road looking out towards the sea. The garden would overflow with flowers and vegetables, fuchsia in abundance at the back door. Beans staked and abundant. I recall Earl Grey tea with home-made lemon shortcake. The delicate balance of flavours remarked upon by me and my mother-in-law, as something to savour and admire. She was a wicked stepmother to my husband. We admired each other. The house looks more modest than I remember.
And then we are cycling. We grew up here. He was from Nelson and I am from Richmond. We take the new cycle track on the old railway line through Stoke. We climb the hill to Bishopdale along the old railway path. I recall my maiden Aunt who caught the train to school, telling us how the train would slow down on the hill climb and students would jump off and race it up the hill.
I’m excited as the cycle path takes us down below the road to an old, but once new subdivision. It’s where my older neighbour Beryl moved after she married. I was invited to stay one night in her brand-new home. I’d been to her wedding. I was in love with the Groom’s younger brother. In the morning, I was asked to do the dusting. I duly played my part only to be chastised for my inadequate job. I have dusted the surface of a nest of tables, but not the legs. The ignominy of this, never forgotten, for how could I expect to marry if I didn’t know how to dust the table legs.
I glance at the now ageing and less than impressive homes, where Beryl once lived and wonder if she’s there somewhere tucked behind the overgrown shrubs, dusting. She’d be over eighty by now and I speculate her soft brown curls will be going grey, or indeed that she may have died.
The emotion weevil worms its way through my core. I imagine, remnants of me, along the roadside, skins I shed, small memorial mounds of flesh. The Black cat dairy in Stoke. How can it still be there? The red and yellow Suburban bus would wend its way along this road towards the city. Each landmark, every corner, crossroad and oh no, there are roundabouts everywhere. They were not here back then these highway interlopers.
We’re cycling at the back of Bishopdale, looking into the back doors of houses I once only knew from the roadside view. I recognise a city of two halves. These humble State houses, grey and gloomy, have remained, they’ve aged, but back then they didn’t seem so gloomy, so very tired and cold.
The Post Boy hotel holds the history of my husband’s family. His grandfather and his grandmother ran this pub. And too, an old school friend of mine, lived with her Uncle who ran this pub. Our memories are merging.
There’s Anzac Memorial park with the almost out of place exotic palm trees. Legend has it an uncle of mine, in the Islands during the war, met his wife, my beautiful Tongan Aunt and showed her a postcard of either the memorial park or the Queens Gardens and claimed they were his family garden… She was an amazing woman who married him despite his extravagant untruths, and she never came to Nelson, instead living on the south coast of Wellington with a beautiful view of the roaring sea and out to Cook strait.
We visit the cemetery in Richmond, where all my recent family lie. Grandmother, Grandfather on my mother’s side. My mother, my father, my beloved Maiden Aunt and a much-loved Bachelor Uncle who as it turned out, was in fact a cousin. I know the cemetery intimately. As kids we walked up our street to the cemetery for something to do. We explored every inch of it. And still, the saddest grave, is the one I always look for as we drive down to the cemetery roundabout. It stands out because it has a white chain link fence. Jenny is buried there. My parents knew her parents. She was 21 and had cancer and had a leg amputated. After her leg was amputated, she got engaged (or this is the story I recall, the utter romance of it all). I must have been ten, or eleven. I feel a pang whenever I pass Jenny’s grave. It looks like the grave of a young child. There’s a headstone too, further on, for the 18-year-old daughter of a local politician, who took her own life.
My husband’s mother and my brother are buried within cooee of each other, having died the same year, within less than two weeks. They lie two footsteps apart. They are in the lawn cemetery at Marsden, in Stoke. He took his own life, barely 22 and she was 47 and too young to die of cancer, having endured long journeys to Christchurch for cobalt treatment and two mastectomies… At the time, my husband and I didn’t know one another and now we are surprised that we were both within a week or two of each other, were grieving for people we loved so dearly.
On our cycle trip back from Nelson, around Tahunanui, near to the airport, we pass the back of an industrial area. It is here, somewhere across from where I cycle, that my father found my brother’s body. It’s a long time ago, but still there lurks this visceral attention to the location, the unwrapping,
And then we’re off with glee to explore Monaco, to find the A-shaped house that our friend David built, back in the 70’s. It is tidal and we can see the muddy shore in front of this landmark house is more a seashore than a road. Remnants of a high tide obvious in the boulders washed up. This house holds a special memory of reuniting with friends we shared time in London with. Eating Nelson scallops out of a scallop shell, placed on a mound of mashed potato. The 70’s dinner party.
Robinson’s Wine is now a large outlet, bringing back memories when it was famous for Cider and hubby’s first ever hangover. We know the girl who married the boy from Robinson’s. We know the bridge before the corner at Brightwater where their car crashed and the scar she wore after a tracheotomy. Both now dead, but not because of the terrible car crash.
The highways and the hills are filled with the shadows of our childhoods, jointly and then some. We didn’t know each other back then. His mother, my brother, a foot or so apart, link us now as we are linked. Our lads remember holidays down here. The beaches, the bbq’s the rubbitty-dub as their grandfather, my Dad, called the Star and Garter where he drank every day, without fail, come rain or shine. If he ever failed to arrive for his half roast lunch, the owner of the pub would send his daughter on her bike or foot, to knock on his door, to check he was okay.
In Papers Past, there’s a detailed Court Report of an incident involving my grandfather, (my mother’s father) a blacksmith in this very same pub. The offender had made an insulting remark to my grandfather about one of his teenage daughters (my mother’s older sister) and when my grandfather took umbrage, a full glass of beer was hurled at him, smashing on his forehead. The offender claimed to have lost hold of the glass. In a lengthy summary, it seemed there might have been bad blood between my grandfather the blacksmith and the man who hurled the glass. The offender had been caught mistreating a pony by my grandfather and words had been spoken or a stick shaken.
There are memories too, that are too dark to resurrect. Some stories are best left buried. These stories are woven tightly under my skin and the weevil of emotion knows the no-go zones. These are post war stories, a family doing its best, under stress, when the adults were barely coping.
The house where I grew up, is still standing. A few doors down, is the home of my oldest friend, a Dutch immigrant, who arrived in New Zealand aged two. We cycled to college together rain or shine, wearing plastic pleated bonnets over our Panama hats. It was compulsory to wear our Panama hat. In the event of a downpour, where our coats flew open to soak our grey tunics, we would be sent to the sewing room to find an iron to press the grey box pleats into place. Her parents too have died. Both our family homes are owned by strangers. The path across the school paddock to our primary school has grown over and there’s a new and longer route to traverse. We’re both grandmothers and send photos via Viber of the memorable milestones of our grandchildren. Careful not to overdo this, not to compete.
I try to resist all these unbidden not so well-hidden memories. It seems my home town holds my DNA in a way that I cannot ignore. I blame the radio and Russell Morris as I bat away the tears.
I recently attended a Writing Retreat and a workshop run by Mandy Hagar. She made the comment that all writing is a political act. At first, I was perhaps disconnected from this idea, but slowly it wormed its way into my thoughts, throughout the weekend. And eventually, I could see, she is of course, right. The very act of writing is to express a point of view, whether fiction or non-fiction. We write because we feel something and our expressions either overtly or subconsciously reflect our life experience, our class, and indeed, our politics.
I raised the point at my last book club meeting and a fellow book clubber pointed out to me, that all my novels have been political. It caught me by surprise, and then I was flattered. Especially, my first novel which was indeed about the unspoken class system in New Zealand. I wrote about marching girls and book clubs and had the most interesting outcome. I was expecting marching girls to flock to read it (and some did), but mostly book clubs, and as a result, many of them feted me… the fascinating thing about this, was the prevailing theme from these book clubs… they still viewed marching as this very quaint, odd and er… working class thing… and so although they liked my book (some even loved it), in a weird and sometimes confronting way, I was faced with my own conflicting allegiances. Over and over I heard women say ‘Oh, I always wanted to be a marching girl… but my mother wouldn’t allow it’… or something to this effect. It had the impact of expressing a quaint longing, but almost a relief that indeed, ‘their mother’ wouldn’t allow it. They were unconsciously placing themselves firmly in the middle class, with some relief, it seemed.
Too my novel about Greece, was an attempt to write a little about the Greek Civil War, because I knew that many people knew nothing about it, and that in Greece, it is often the great unspoken conversation. I was also fascinated with the burial and unburial rituals in Greece… what could be seen in the current climate, as a very sensible use and re-use of land… so yes, political. And too, the little-known story of the Greek girls who came to New Zealand under a Government scheme in the sixties.
As for my second novel, about a middle-aged man and his step-daughter. I did set out to write about broken marriages, how the past informs the present and the love between fractured families. How friendship can happen when hearts heal.
Then, on Twitter this week, I got into a bit of to and fro about reviewing. I posited the idea that a book review is also political, neither right nor wrong, just a point of view, imbued with the reviewer’s bias, and life experience. Of course, of bias there should be none in the perfect review, but that’s impossible, perhaps. Readers and reviewers alike, bring their past and present to the page. It’s why we engage. To find something of ourselves we recognise, or to know more about others. Someone commented that readers like or dislike a book, but a reviewer must be more objective and support their opinion with research and reasons for the book’s failures or achievements. It’s all true, but still, the reviewer’s life experience is the key informant of their response, just like any reader… who likes or dislikes. But too, in book group, I find, the more flaws a book has, the more discussion it generates. So, it seems, imperfection, allows our political responses to creep into the cracks and we share our responses. This way the book continues to have an impact beyond the written word, often in a way, that a book we all agree to love, does not.
I’ve not read ‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver, but at my book group meeting which I hosted recently, everyone else had, and they all really liked it (they saw its flaws, at times didactic) but they loved what Kingsolver was doing on the page, the two stories, the one house. I see on Goodreads that many fans of Kingsolver are not so enthused. My book group is full of feisty, clever, intelligent women and I trust their judgement… so of course, I will now read this book. I will ignore the reviews. 😊
Which books win prizes, which books make the best seller list, and which books get a lot of publicity is also inherently political. And yet, as writers we all know, that even just the one reader that a writer touches (I’m quoting Mandy Hagar again), can make the writing of the book worthwhile.
Poetry with Brownies
You probably have to be a Kiwi to catch the lovely pun in this title. It’s Waitangi Day here Downunder in New Zealand. To celebrate, I went to a poetry reading at our National Library. The ‘brownies’ were both real in the form of delicious squares of home-made chocolate and more importantly, Maori poets. There was a formal line-up of established guest poets and an open mike. I had gone with two books slipped into my handbag, in the event, that it had become appropriate for me to take my turn during the open mike. I soon realised, this was not my time or place to read.
I arrived as the readings had begun and there was standing room only. Stupidly, I’d worn sling back heels (pretty yellow shoes), and thankfully, some generous person, perhaps noting my grey hair, offered me a seat. Imagine my shock when after sitting down, I looked up and at the back of the head of a rapist. This man had once been a sort of friend. We were not close friends, but he was a friend of a friend. This man is a poet. He is tall, handsome, wears kaftans and wrote poems about Vietnam. I know him, but I also know he’s been in jail as a convicted rapist. I’m ashamed to know him. I’m ashamed of my shame. I’m uncertain what is the right reaction. I don’t want him to know I’m sitting behind him. I try to make myself smaller. I remember how I used to love encountering him – the larger than life and lavish kiss on both cheeks as he bent in his tall handsome way, expansive in kaftan and greeting. I gave away his signed poetry book when I read about his conviction. The thing is, it seems he was guilty not once but twice of rape.
So, here I am, to celebrate Waitangi Day. In my handbag is a poem published in the ‘Friday Poem’ publication with a line about my first sex having been ‘technically’ rape, but that I’m from a generation who knew how to take half the blame (along those lines). This poem is burning a hole in my handbag. This is a poem I had planned to read at open mike. This man in front of me is confronting me, my poem and my beliefs.
Should I offer him compassion? Is he the sum of these rapes, or is he more than that? Has he served his time, and should I forgive? All of this is swirling around inside my head, but then thankfully, I am seduced by the poetry. It is raw, it is political, it is passionate, and it is visceral. I forget my misery at where I am seated and lose myself in the best poetry reading, I’ve ever attended. I’m reminded of poetry readings in the past, where people contain their emotions, control their voices, insist that the words themselves should speak as if the words need no encouragement or timbre from the owner. But this is different. These poets do not care about that. They read with a force that emanates from within. The words fly out carried by their emotions, their life force, their humour. These are mostly young Maori with stories to tell, some of them for the first time ever. I am overwhelmed at the beauty of the readings, the impact, the rawness rendered into such lovely language, the anger and pain transformed by poetry, but not diluted.
I am unable to live inside my head and listen to the poems and have surrendered my heart as well.
I slip away, unnoticed by the rapist (once a friend), slyly, and somewhat ashamed of myself. I catch up with two friends I am happy to see, and we marvel at this beautiful morning of poetry. I think about my own poetry still inside my handbag, safely within the book covers.