This story is completely devastating but in the most beautiful of ways. I had an argument with my mum in the weekend where she was telling me she hoped I’d be writing “nice stories.” She said all the writing she loves from me is when I’m writing about something joyous and amusing, like surfing, or going on a coast to coast motorbike ride. She’s referring to first-person pieces I’ve written as a journalist. She’s never been as interested in the investigative work I’ve done; I think she almost feels like I seek out the darker topics? I’m like, mum, the world is going to happen with or without me, I’m just trying to write about it in a way that will make people see it. So I don’t know whether she just doesn’t like reading about it, or worries about the impact on me writing it. I think it’s the latter.
This wasn’t meant to be a personal therapy session, but I do think there’s some correlation – maybe? – between the themes I am wanting to explore in the stories I’m writing and my work as a journalist. Because in a way I’ve narrated this stuff for years, listened to other people talk about it and tried to understand the impact it’s had on them. But also a lot of the things I want to write about are just exploring what it is to identify as a girl and then a woman in the world. And a lot of that is unavoidably dark. That doesn’t mean it has to be a horrible reading experience. I personally don’t know if I’d know how to write a story where all the characters are happy and then it’s just a happy ending. I don’t think there’s much tension in happiness.
I think one of the things I’m struggling with at the moment is thinking about middles and endings. That sounds really basic. I can think up characters and situations, but then it’s like: what do I want to happen to this character and would this be what would really happen? I feel like part of the issue is that what really happens is sometimes hard to believe; the whole “truth is stranger than fiction,” so maybe it’s less about trying to put an exact event in a fictional story than trying to create the feeling that the event elicits.
Red Christmas is a story about child abuse and neglect. But it’s not set in a home where kids are cowering round the whole time and violence is everywhere. Clearly that does happen but the action of the story itself is set around three kids – Ani, Tama, and Henry – borrowing their Uncle Suli’s van to go collecting inorganic rubbish late at night – getting too late for kids to be out, really, as Uncle Suli says when he gives Ani the keys. There’s such a beautiful and palpable sense of love between these older/younger siblings which Morris creates so well, often by little observations of touch: “They clambered into the passenger side, Tama hoisting Henry up by the shorts” and “She reached out a hand to stroke Tama’s hair, but let it fall on his shoulder.” It’s so cleverly done. We care about these kids so much by the end of it; they’re out so late, they’re young and vulnerable, they’re poor, home is a dangerous place for them.
The actual violence at home is sort of drip-fed throughout the story. There are suggestions of poverty and neglect from the second paragraph and the mother comes in for her first direct mention on page four: “Their mother might be up when they got home, staring out the back window and dropping cigarette ash into the kitchen sink, or she might still be in bed, her face turned to the wall, one fingernail picking at a spot in the wallpaper where she said the pattern made an ugly face.” But there is no mention of actual physical violence until page 7, and then the last paragraph – on page 9 – is pure devastation, describing an attack on all three kids with a smashed glass bowl they’d bought home for her as an offering of love.
I love Morris’s writing. I think it’s so evocative and creates feelings in the reader in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative. The biggest joy and magic for the kids stuck in this awful situation is the Christmas lights. It’s simple and so sad. But the mum is a complicated character too, clearly suffering from some kind of depression and a legacy of violent relationships of her own. I wonder if Morris thought up the characters first, and then had them go on a journey? Or wanted to tell the story of the mother through the kids? And I wonder how she decided on the inorganic rubbish collection as the framework? I’d be so interested in the genesis of this story and the twists and turns it took before it got to this stage. Maybe we can ask all great writers to share every version of their drafts for us? HA.
Oh one other thing: the passage of time. There is an effortless integration of Ani’s thoughts (this story is all told in the third person, from Ani’s perspective) and sometimes she’s thinking about what’s happened at home, or their absent father, and all the responsibilities she has to take on as the older sibling, while also telling the story of what’s happening that actual evening and describing Auckland and the lights in a way that evokes the mood of wanting to escape, and using dialogue as well. How. Just how.