Excerpts from a reading journal, 2008
Easter Week: As I read the exercises from my classmates I am falling in love with their writing. Yesterday Bill talked of artists who are like scavengers – taking bits from the world and making something new and extraordinary with those fragments. They then offer it back to the community – a new way to look at the world.
I wish I could cobble together all the qualities that astound me in the other students’ writing – a Frankenstein of writing ability. I would take Rina’s beautiful language, Sylvie’s energy, Rachael’s magic, Heather’s flawless voice, Paul’s humour, Alex’s sensitivity, Briar’s lyricism, Jen’s atmosphere, and Francis’s skill at weaving a tale.
I am reading drips and drabs between packing to move house. At the moment I am reading two collections of short stories, and at least one collection of poetry. I will write more about these as soon as I actually finish something.
…I might have an idea for my portfolio, though it is still so nascent I don’t even know if it is an idea. Just a word I suppose, after thinking about scavenging and collecting: A treasury! Reminiscent of those childhood compilations (bumper annuals) of poems and stories and images. But I s’pose I still need a theme to draw it together? Gotta keep thinking…
I really enjoyed Briar’s workshop about locating where we stand in the circle, in terms of our projects. Are we outsiders writing about cultures or people that are unconnected to us? Are we ‘crossing over, creating new worlds’? Should writers attempt to write outside their culture or should we only write about what we know? These are really hard and interesting questions.
I think I stood within the circle of my project when I was a kid and the memories are still pretty clear of that time. The harder question for me is whether I need to indicate that my characters are Māori (because some of the stories are semi-autobiographical some of the characters are at least part-Māori) and what happens if I do…would the stories become more political, and would race become the main reason the children are outsiders (ousting reasons such as personality, social tics, family upbringing, poverty etc)? Should I be writing stories that reference Māori culture when it wasn’t an obvious issue as a child when these stories are set? What about the stories I have already written…do I need to go back and make them ‘more Māori’?
Anyway, I read Skins: Contemporary Indigenous Writing, edited by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and Josie Douglas. It is a decent book, and includes stories by our own Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera and Briar Grace-Smith! The story I found most engaging was by über-clever Native American writer Sherman Alexie, called ‘The Farm’. Earlier this year I read his YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and found it be incredibly funny, ironic, and hard-hitting. This is a writer who isn’t confused about what he wants to say or how to say it. He isn’t afraid of revealing the particulars of Reservation life, the alcoholism, the bullying, etc, and he does it in such a humorous way – it’s like he tickles you under the arms and punches you in the guts at the same time. ‘The Farm’ is a sci-fi tale about the cure for cancer being found in the bone marrow of Native Americans. It is a layered story, told through multiple POVs and through both prose and poetry. This is an excerpt from one of the characters taken to ‘the farm’ to breed (in order to supply the cancer fighting marrow):
5. Charlie the Cook
We have developed a highly complex and subtle sign language. Through slight gestures, such as brushing the hair from our faces, we can talk about the past. The volume of a cough can change the tense of a sentence. A woman can sit up in bed, scratch her cheek, stand quickly, shuffle across the room to the water fountain, take a big drink, swallow loudly, and we’d all know she was telling a joke. Indians always find a way to laugh, though each of us laughs in a different way. I laugh by crossing my arms. I cry by tapping my left foot against the floor.
Alexie’s stories are gut wrenching, but they are the kinds of stories that need to be told. They make us think and help us feel.
I was tremendously excited when Shaun Tan himself told me that he planned to put out a book this year that combined his short fictions and imagery (okay, I have to admit I’m not on chummy terms with monsieur Tan, I asked him in nerdy fashion when I had him sign a book at the Storylines festival). I bought Tales from Outer Suburbia and totally devoured it in one sitting like a delectable confection. At first I was disappointed, it isn’t as mind-blowing as The Red Tree or The Arrival, but after putting it down and picking it back up, I rediscovered some real gems in the collection. Tan has this amazing ability to juxtapose wondrous and magical elements with the everyday. He anchors the strange inside the ordinary, and this makes his marvellous characters seem much more powerful and real. There is no shortage of magical realist stories here – a large sea creature turns up on a lawn in a suburb far from the sea; the unfurling of a strange prenuptial journey; a palace garden is found inside the walls of a depressing house; and a water buffalo dishes out advice from a vacant lot.
The Rabbits, The Lost Thing and The Arrival were about immigration, outsiders and colonisation, and one of my fave stories from his new collection, ‘Eric’, continues these ideas but in a fairly light-handed way. I used Shaun Tan’s books as my main example for my reading programme workshop to demonstrate the symbiosis that can happen when text and image are given equal consideration. ‘Eric’ would be a straightforward tale about a foreign exchange student if the text stood alone, but the images add another layer to the tale, so that the foreign exchange student becomes a strange miniature creature that sleeps in a teacup.
Tan is one of the most gifted contemporary children’s book creators, and the beauty about his books is that they can be read and loved by people of all ages. He is a treasure.
I think that I may have left the best for last. I read parts of Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cryand The Lagoon and Other Stories and wish that I read her stories earlier in the year because they are absolutely stunning. Her stories are filled with heartache, loneliness and longing. Her child characters are outsiders – shy, sad, awkward, insecure, lower class and full to the brim with the pain of childhood. With pared back language she cleverly captures a Kiwi childhood, the dynamics that exist between friends, siblings and child-parent relationships, and she portrays with precision the random thoughts and dialogue of children.
There were several stories in the The Lagoon and Other Stories that I adore, including ‘Keel and Kool’, ‘Child’, and ‘Swans’ because they depict children in an unsentimental, realistic, yet tender way. There were a couple of gems that struck me as having similarities to my own collection in terms of theme (not in writing ability of course). These were ‘Dossy’ (a sad little ditty about a motherless girl and her imaginary friend) and ‘Treasure’ (about a child who imagines that she has access to unlimited amounts of treasure – rubies and diamonds, but whose reality is a bad behaviour slip sent home from school and the strap administered by dad). The other stories I found heart wrenching were the ones based on her time in mental institutions – ‘The Bedjacket’ is one of the most harrowing short stories I have read this year.
Kate recommended I take a peek at Owls Do Cry so I had a skim with the remaining precious little time I had left to hand this in, and I am so glad that I did. It is poetic and full of acute observations about people trying to find peace and beauty in a hard life. The working title for her first novel was Talk of Treasure!!
–I don’t wanner go to school, Toby said. I wanner go to the rubbish dump an’ find things.
Francie, Toby, Daphne, not always Chicks because she was too small and dawdled, found their treasure at the rubbish dump, amongst the paper and steel and iron and rust and old boots and everything that the people of the town had cast out as of no use and not worth anything any more.
– From Owls Do Cry
Janet Frame herself said:
Pictures of great treasure in the midst of sadness and waste haunted me and I began to think, in fiction, of a childhood, home life, hospital life, using people known to me as a base for the main characters, and inventing minor characters.
Without realising it, I had taken on similar ideas for my own collection. I feel like this is perhaps a good omen – and I will maybe go and sit at the Landfall desk to absorb by osmosis some of J. Frame’s dazzling dreams and writerly knack. I wish I had met her, but I suppose that is what her stories do – transport us to her… through her words we see what she saw, feel what she felt and imagine the places and people that inhabited her mind.
Reading is a life-affirming act. When we read we are joined to other people, some of them long dead. Through reading, the history of the world becomes our own. It is a huge gift to understand someone you don’t know, to have them reach out and touch your heart and mind, by the power of what they’ve written.
– Brigid Lowry, Juicy Writing
I went to see Emily Perkins. It was quite interesting to hear the experiences of a pretty established author who started out at the IIML as a short story writer. I thought it was interesting that she said that these days for her, entertaining the reader has become important. I often wonder what I want to achieve with my writing overall – I know I can’t the change the world with it, but I want it to do something – I just had never thought about the notion of entertainment before. I guess I want to take people away in some way but can I do more?
I find myself frequently these days (perhaps influenced by the oppressive and isolating winter) having gloomy, pessimistic thoughts. What is relevant about what I am doing? Will it mean anything to anybody? How can I remain original? How am I supposed to write and invent characters when my own identity shifts and changes daily? Am I an artist or a writer? Am I a Māori writer? Where do I stand in the circle – where do I stand in this world? Am I writing a YA book? Where is the time to finish this project before November 4?
It is a crazy journey this MA… it is much more than I bargained for…I’m really digging deep to figure out what I’m doing here in both practical, emotional and philosophical terms… it’s like a crazy ride on a rickety wooden roller-coaster in an abandoned amusement park – exciting, spooky and totally terrifying.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelly Joseph is an 80s child, an occasional artist, a fanatical op-shopper, an unabashed Kate Bush fan, and a wanna-be time-traveller. She has a canary called Sunshine and a scooter called Wildfire. She likes pictures and words, especially when they are mixed together.