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Extras: ‘The Mississippi Pulls You Under’

Extras: ‘The Mississippi Pulls You Under’

“This really is Memphis – built on the wreckage of pain and dismemberment, building beauty slowly from abandoned places we can’t help but revisit.”

One the stories from this issue that we cannot not get out of our heads is ‘The Mississippi Pulls You Under’ by talented U.S. writer, Aasiya F.M Glover. She is an Asian-American raised in the American South, currently residing in New York City and working as a lawyer. She has published one story in the now-defunct literary magazine Damazine, which was then published out of Syria.

We were so intrigued by her story (a work of fiction), that we asked her to tell us more. If you haven’t read Aasiya’s story, get it now on Amazon in Issue 12.

1. The setting in your story feels like a character too, as it seeps into every paragraph. Can you tell us about your decision to choose Memphis as the setting?

I’m glad to hear that. It was important to me, when writing this story, to render the personality of Memphis, as I see it, as vividly as possible. I remember sitting down to write the first paragraph of the story – it wasn’t even a choice really, just an outpouring of emotion. I was staying at my parents’ home, in the country outside Memphis, while on vacation; the night was thick and it was raining. There is almost nothing as oppressive and as loving as a summer night rain out there. It was necessary, an act of compulsion, to convey what this place — this comforting, suffocating place — means. And ultimately, to tell this story, it had to be in that place – where poverty and wealth, country and town, death and life, are so intertwined. It was important, too, that the narrator have something clear and constant and concrete to reference when reporting about the tragedy – I think the narrator finds meaning through locating the crime in a place like Memphis.

2. Perhaps we’ve been listening to too many true crime podcasts/documentaries, but your story unravels at a perfect pace and feels so real, we had to double check you hadn’t submitted creative non-fiction. How did the story flow you for when you were writing it. Did you set out to write a piece of fiction that focuses on the build up to an horrific crime?

I remember having to leave the story several times, waiting to come back to it with another piece. I knew what I wanted to say about Memphis, and social interactions there, but it was more difficult to order the Inez’s story.  I knew the ending at the beginning; I knew where I wanted to end up. The question I couldn’t figure out was how and why such an event would happen; what pieces would lead to this exact crime on this exact day, at this exact time? When we hear about crimes, especially murders, we can sometimes accept the events as somehow inevitable. I wanted to convey the confusion of looking back on a single moment in time that has such irrevocable consequences, when something as final as death is created by the most tentative, uncertain interactions.

3. Inez Cooper is such a vivid character. You portray her with a fullness and sense of agency that her mother and others around her lack. She stands out for her differences, and total unselfconsciousness compared to her peers. Is this something that I’m assuming as reader (that she doesn’t care) or do you think she’s genuinely uncaring of what others think of her? Can you tell us more about her as a character?

I think Inez is fighting not to care. She grew up around people who cared deeply, about social norms and achievements, about conventions.  Her mother, while ultimately apathetic, still performs the conventions of her role, and in that role dissolves away. She goes about her daily life as she wishes, with knowledge that that agency is truly better than the lack of agency she sees around her.  Inez rejects these norms, sees through them, but cannot help but be pained when she brushes up against them. Often difference and rejection of norms and conventions requires a rejection of routine, of pattern. Even if Inez’s difference is ultimately empowering, it is also painful for her — a little like life is out of joint — to live perpendicular to the stability (both in life and in relationships) that norms and convention taught her to expect.

4. The boyfriend is a shadowy figure in this story. When the reader first clocks the age difference, we feel a sense of foreboding. No good can come of a teenaged girl with a significantly older boyfriend. How did you decide to build tension in this story?

I wanted the threat from the boyfriend to be a slow burn. I wanted the reader to question the initial feeling that the age difference would harm Inez in some way.  Inez has so much agency, seemingly in contrast to those around her, that the reader could be forgiven for stepping back from judgment at her choice of boyfriend. The reader should slowly come to terms with how problematic the boyfriend is, even as the reader learns to appreciate Inez’s own self-awareness, so that when the ultimate crime happens, there is no suggestion that Inez walked blindly into this, or could have prevented it, or should have done anything different. I wanted this to be a story of a strong, intelligent woman who became involved with a man who would eventually kill her, so that, even though the reader sees signs of danger, the reader doesn’t try to make such a sad story make sense, or fit it into a calming pattern by calling Inez stupid or crazy or “lost” or “in a phase”.


5. Can you tell us about Orange Mound and the condemned children’s hospital?  

Orange Mound and the condemned children’s hospital in the story are fictionalized versions of real places in Memphis.  Orange Mound is one of the more impoverished neighborhoods in Memphis, where, like many cities in the South, neighborhoods of poverty and wealth sit in checkerboard squares next to each other. Also like many towns and neighborhoods in the South, it has a storied history of self-reliance and resilience, overshadowed by decades of job loss and physical disrepair. It’s also a physical marker of Memphis’s shame – its long refusal to engage with and revitalize its communities, especially communities of color. I wanted all of Memphis to be present in the story, and I wanted it to be clear that Inez was part of Memphis, all of it.

The condemned children’s hospital is a reference to an old hospital in Memphis that sits on the land owned by the Ornamental Metal Museum just on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi. To get to the Metal Museum, you have to drive through deserted and broken down buildings coming out from downtown, and then (usually) down West Illinois, past the abandoned Marine Hospital. The brick buildings are enormous and beautiful – almost like a castle – but they are surrounded by fence overgrown with ivy and kudzu. They have been abandoned for over 50 years, with signs still standing and lights still hanging, even as the inner walls peel and the wood decays.  (To get a look inside without traveling to Memphis, there are amazing websites with gorgeous pictures, such as this one) It’s harrowing to walk by them on your way to what should be a candy-fluff day of education and ornamental metal – but it’s also a supremely Memphis experience to be able to climb into or through such an old, beautiful building with ghosts standing under every broken light.  This really is Memphis – built on the wreckage of pain and dismemberment, building beauty slowly from abandoned places we can’t help but revisit.

6. Speaking of shadowy figures, your narrator is entirely oblique. Talk to us about the way you structured your story. I like very much that the telling feels like you could be hearing it from a kid in her class. Gossip seems to be a significant currency in this story.

This is a technique I use often when I’m writing about the South – telling a story through the voice of an unknown (or unknowns), who conjectures. The narrator is someone who has a vested interest in the story but is on the outside of the group with all the information. She has to take what pieces she can, what memories she has, to understand. She relies on gossip, and knowing the incompleteness of her knowledge, tries to build in the rest based on what she wishes, or wants, or believes. Perhaps especially when writing about the South, an outsider narrator who relies on gossip and myth and legend seems to me to be the best way to communicate the truth of uncertainty.


7. Is there anything else you would like to share about this piece? If you were to sum it up in a sentence, how would you describe it?

I truly love this piece – it was a personal effort at working through a horrific tragedy at a time when I was leaving the South and trying to understand what I was there, and what I was leaving behind.

In one sentence: It is the story of young woman struggling to understand loss, and to make that loss have meaning.

___

Read Aasiya’s stunning story ‘The Mississippi Pulls You Under’ in Issue 12.

Where I Write

Just Use What You Have

Here’s the final piece in our inside look at a Headland writer’s space, part of our Issue 12 series; three authors share where they wrote their piece in the current issue. We recently posted Carly Thomas’ piece about her “very own room just for writing in.” Last week we shared some thoughts from Isabelle McNeur, author of ‘Holes’, about her “three main writing spaces”. This weekend we’re giving Nat Baker, author of ‘Animal Life’ the last word.

Nat is 36 years old, a mother and public servant. She completed her MCW at the University of Auckland in 2007. She has published short stories and essays in HER, Bravado and Art+Money.

 

Where I Write 

 

I try to write whenever I can because, like most people, I have limited ‘free’ time. This means I end up writing when I’m commuting – on the bus, and in airports and hotels when I’m travelling for work. I have numerous notebooks full of scribbled-down ideas, images or sentences (for this reason, notebooks are one of my favourite gifts to receive). However, my best writing (or my least ‘bad’ writing) happens for me when I’m at home, after dark, when my daughter is asleep (or at least not ‘calling out’… I am often interrupted when writing).

Having a designated space helps me focus, and get in the headspace of writing, but at the same time I’m very aware it’s not always possible for that to be my desk. I’ve had to learn how to be flexible and write in less-than-ideal circumstances – it’s just how it is. If I waited for a completely uninterrupted day, or my own writing room/personal library, then I would never get anything down.

I wrote ‘Animal Life’ in the corner of our living room, tucked in beside our dining table, with children’s art supplies stacked up behind me. I try to keep my writing space ‘sacred’, but this isn’t always possible.  Before I sit down to write, I clear away anything non-writing related (or at least hide it from view). My computer is one that my husband no longer uses, which was bought second-hand on TradeMe ten years ago; the big screen is wonderful for reading back over my work even if the hardware is a little dodgy (I’ve learnt the hard way that I must ALWAYS back up my writing). I find that standing up and reading out loud is a great way to get a sense of where the story is going, and also great when editing. I love to use ‘Focus’ mode in Word, both when I am writing and when I am reading my work aloud.

I have a couple of things that are special and inspiring close to hand: books I am currently reading and love; printed out emails from a writer friend in the US; and an artwork by another friend that I bought at an exhibition a couple of years ago.

 Every fortnight I have a Friday off work. After dropping my daughter at daycare, packing away the groceries and doing some housework (I try not to overdo that – the place is clean enough), I sit down with a cup of tea and some cookies from the supermarket (I often end up eating the lot). I like to write in near silence, with just the sounds of birds and traffic outside, although sometimes when I struggle to ‘get into it’ I will play a song or two out loud and just start putting down words, so I can get past the horror of that first blank page and having no idea where to begin.

I feel lucky to have the writing space I have now – it’s a massive improvement on my former writing space, when I was writing in our garden shed. The shed was quiet, but it was absolutely freezing on winter nights and was crawling with bugs and full of weird smells.

If I was to give writer friends advice about choosing a spot to write in and ‘getting down to writing’ I would say: don’t wait until you have the perfect amount of free/uninterrupted time or the perfect space/desk/computer/pen/notebook… just use what you have, but do try and make it a special place for you. There are oodles of drool-worthy writing spaces on Pinterest but none of them look like they’ve ever been used (at least to me).

I would also suggest trying to write every day – even if it’s only for half an hour, just a sentence. If you can’t write, then try and stay connected to writing in a more abstract way: subscribe to newsletters about writing (I have enjoyed: The New York Book Editors e-newsletter and am currently enjoying BookFox); listen to podcasts (Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert, and The New York Public Library podcasts are always special); and don’t forget the radio (I love Radio New Zealand’s Short Story Club). Of course, reading is always the most obvious way to stay connected with writing, but I find that these other options keep me in the mode of reflecting on my own work whilst giving me some new ideas about writing and how I might take my work forward.

Lastly, I would strongly recommend that you write with the intention of suspending judgement over the quality of your writing as much as you can, at least for the first draft. I find this almost impossible at times, and I have made a rule for myself that if I can agree that my writing is not completely sh*t then I will keep going until the story is finished and re-assess later. Suspending judgment is essential if you’re going to get anywhere (and not just spend what limited time you have writing and deleting your work over and over).

A friend sent me the following quote which I keep close to hand:

It can be found on Brainpickings, which contains all sorts of wonderful content for writers.

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Read Nat’s story and ten other gems in Issue 12!

Want to join our Headland family? Submit your work to us for Issue 13! You’ve got until 1 June to share your work (wherever you’ve written it) with us. Get writing, and submitting.

 

Isabelle’s Writing Space 

Writing Space #2

Welcome to our second peek into a Headland writer’s space, part of our Issue 12 series; three authors share where they wrote their piece in the current issue. Last weekend we posted Carly Thomas’ piece about her “very own room just for writing in.” This week we’re sharing some thoughts from Isabelle McNeur, author of ‘Holes’, about her writing spots, and getting the work done.

Isabelle studies at Victoria University of Wellington, where she has completed several IIML courses and plans to complete more. In 2015 she won the Margret Mahy Award for Best Folio at the Hagley Writers’ Institute, and in 2017 she won the Prize for Original Composition in at the IIML. In February she was a recipient of the 2018 NZSA / Hachette Mentor Program. Her writing has been published in journals such as Starling and Aoterotica.

 

Isabelle’s Writing Space

I have three main writing spaces; one in my flat and two at my university campus. In all three of these spaces, there’s no chance that someone is getting a look at my screen – in my university spots, I sit with my back against walls, and my apartment spot is in my room. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing on my laptop, the idea of someone watching my screen makes me twitchy.

Writing spot number one, the spot in my flat, is my room. It came already set up with a lovely writing space – a desk big enough to fit my laptop, my tea and the miscellaneous things I fidget with (nowadays it’s a USB or a pair of nail clippers).

As for my spots two and three, at university; one of them is inside the library entrance, off to the side so I don’t get caught in the flow of students. The other is one floor up, in a row of cozy chairs, and I usually go to this spot when there are too many people in my first spot. In both of these spots, I pick a place that’s a comfortable distance away from people and close to a power outlet. The second is a preference, the first is law.

As for ‘Holes,’ my piece published in Issue 12 of Headland, I got most of that done at university in the first spot (spot two) when I should have been doing readings for class.

All of my writing spots are quiet, isolated and controlled. If they aren’t, then I make it that way; sitting as far away from people as possible and putting my headphones in, so that even if it’s loud, I get control over what I listen to. If you’re one of those people who can lose yourself in your writing in a loud, crowded room, then I’m both envious and confused. Tell me your secrets.

The bottom line is to tailor your writing space to suit you. If that’s not entirely possible, tailor it as much as you can – obviously you won’t get a lot of control in a public library, but you can choose where you sit, what you listen to, and what surrounds you.

_____

Read Isabelle’s story in our current issue. 

Want to join our Headland family? Submit your work to us for Issue 13! You’ve got until 1 June to share your work (wherever you’ve written it) with us. Get writing, and submitting.

Stay tuned for the final instalment of this series next week from Nat Baker, author of ‘Animal Life’.

A Space of My Own

The Writers’ Space

“Sadly, the writing life doesn’t always come equipped with an idyllic woodland cabin in which to pen profound prose. For all the authors profiled below, they figured out how to be massively effective no matter the setting. They did the work.” We love this quote from a recent piece profiling the writing spaces of 100+ great writers on The Writing Cooperative by Jared A. Brock.

In this vein, we decided to revisit one of our earliest blog topics – where were some of the stories in our current issue written? The writers’ space is often far over-idealised. In this Issue 12 series we asked three writers to share their own spaces with us. What works for them and why. After all, that what it’s about; work.  Not a Pinterest or Instagram-worthy spot in which you imagine you might write – one day. These three writers wrote great pieces in these spots, submitted them. They did the work. Let’s take a look!

First up is the talented Carly Thomas whose story ‘Dirt’ appears in our current issue. Carly’s story is based on the truth: she owns Nancy’s crazy old house in rural Manawatu, which she inhabits with her three kids, husband and three horses.

A Space of My Own

I am very lucky. I have my very own room just for writing in. When I put down words, I am surrounded by them; there are books on every wall and I hear whispers from the past. This room is old – my study was built in 1884 and I am not the first to have loved it.

The walls are panelled with rimu, the bora plays dot to dot on my desk and I even have a fireplace that spits warmth from logs split small. It is a truly incredible place to be; a wonderful space to create.

 

 

And I know I am lucky, because I haven’t always been. My writing spaces before include: the inside of a wardrobe (as a kid); on the top bunk of a noisy flat in Lyttelton; on the underground commuting to a shitty job in London; and then, when I became a mum, wherever my kids were not.

I write stories that are true for a living and that happens in an office where the light has no ebb and the air has no flow. This room is for the not-true, the fanciful and the lyrical. And it’s a place to hide my posh chocolates from the kids.

 

 

I am very thankful. I now have a room that is just for this; putting one letter in front of the other, making space for the next word and catching them in my backlit screen as they fall. It is a room for dreaming and retreating. It gives the stories in my head a place to breathe.

The carpet is from the fifties and my books are from every era imaginable – Maurice Gee sits next to Agatha Christie and Michael Chabon elbows Sylvia Plath. There are old maps on the walls, there are lists that remind me that if I sit idle they will rebel into long form, and there is tea, always tea.

 

 

What is outside this room matters too. There is a fuchsia bush that threatens to overtake me at any moment; it is Jurassically proportioned and to see beyond it I have to stand, which I do often because I’m not very good at sitting. I check the kids are still alive, pat a horse, a dog, and a cat, all with their differing elevations of comfort. I often find that I write about this house, with its vast, voluptuous garden. I write about the people who might have been, could still be and probably were not.

 

 

And then I make another cup of tea and scoff a soft centred chocolate while no-one is looking. And I begin.

 

Read Carly’s story in our current issue. 

Want to join our Headland family? Submit your work to us for Issue 13! You’ve got until 1 June to share your work (wherever you’ve written it) with us. Get writing, and submitting.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of this series next week.

 

It’s nearly that time again

It’s nearly that time again

New Zealand writers! A gentle reminder from your friendly Headland editorial team that our submission deadline for Issue 12 is fast approaching! Where did December and January go…? If you’re polishing up a story or just starting one, keep Friday 9 February in your mind/diary/list/phone/heart/whatever-place-you-use-to-keep-track-of-this-stuff and send it us. We’d love to read it, and you know that we’d give it a happy home. If you’re like us and sweltering in the New Zealand ‘heatwave’, you’ll be familiar with this list. We hope you have #1 and #7 on yours too. Click here → for our full guidelines.  We recommend you have a good read of them.

Happy summering (and wintering if you’re joining us from the Northern Hemisphere – we’re sending you some of our high temperatures), and reading and writing too.

(Oh, and if you’re looking for some excellent summer reading, it would be remiss of us not to point you to our newest Issue 11, and our awesome back catalogue also).

Guidelines

 

The Young Country

New Zealand-ness?

The final word in our series about what makes a New Zealand story, well, a New Zealand story goes to Andrew Stiggers with his own take on this tricky question. You’ve heard from R.L. Nash and Stephen O’Connor already. We’re delighted that Andrew was able to share his thoughts on this, and we thought his perspective as an immigrant to this country offered a really interesting angle.  Andrew’s story ‘The Book Parade Prize’ appears in Issue 11.  Andrew lives in Auckland. His short stories have been published, or are forthcoming, in various anthologies and literary journals, and his achievements include being the winner of the 2017 Global Ebook Awards (Short Stories category) for his historical-fiction collection: “The Glassblower’s Daughter and Other Tales from Southwest Germany”. He was also the winner of the Trisha Ashley Award 2017 for best humorous story, and a finalist for the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2015. More information about his writing can be found on www.andrewstiggers.com.

Thanks for reading our Issue 11 series, we’ll be back for Issue 12 with a brand new curly question.

 

The Young Country

Without a doubt there are far more capable writers than I who can provide an informed insight into understanding “What makes a New Zealand story feel like a New Zealand story?” And so it is with some trepidation that I offer my thoughts…

I think the answer lies in delving at the heart of the question – feeling. And how the writer conveys feeling connected to New Zealand and New Zealanders across to the reader using storytelling elements such as setting, style, character and theme.

That’s my safe answer. Objective. One which I could expand further by examining use of each element and making reference to our literary heritage.

My alternative answer is more personal. Takes courage. And involves facing the truth, as Katherine Mansfield once wrote.

I believe it’s about writers, from all walks of life and backgrounds, to open up, bare themselves to the world, and share their experiences and emotions as Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika, Asian and other New Zealanders. And yes, this includes us blokes (for whom I know emotion is tough to share, to express), and us immigrants too, often seen and treated as an outsider in global society, particularly more so at this troubling time. I still can’t shake my accent even after twelve years living here in Auckland.

It’s about recalling what we have witnessed or have been told about or imagine could be – from the many nuances to the more stereotypical make-up of New Zealand and New Zealanders, of our way of life, the good, the bad, and the in-between. Footprints in the sand along the deserted beach and memories of childhood spent by the pohutukawa tree. The worshippers gathering outside the Tongan church, dressed in white and grass skirts, all smiles in the sun. The veteran plumber providing free advice to the young couple about what really should be fixed. Fish and chips and ice cream on the weathered lakeside jetty.

The discovery by the boy of the ancient waka on the muddy riverbank and his fight to save the canoe from the elements. A family who have lost everything in the earthquake, and are now starting again, brick by brick. The smirking thieves – loaded with pies – being chased out the shop by the fierce old owner who’s hurling drink cans at them with all her might.

Tin toys gathering dust in the rundown bach. The teenager in the hoodie giving up his bus seat to the elderly widower. Whānau sleeping rough in a convoy of parked cars during the long, cold winter. Traffic held up by the fireman who is rescuing ducks trapped down a drain. In the darkness of the bedroom, struggling to say your final goodbye. The meth house explosion that’s destroyed the neighbour’s motorbike he’d spent years restoring.

The tramper lost in the nearby bush and the herculean effort spent by the local pub regulars to find her. The city worker who complains about the restaurant that only displays signage and menus in Chinese but admits the meals are the best he’s ever had. The childless, third-generation farmer who has toiled on the family land all his life but has no one to pass it on to.

The crumbling façade of the Masonic lodge in the middle of nowhere, and the hidden mysteries within waiting to be uncovered. The Aussie-born builder who takes a ribbing from his mates about the rugby until the most recent match result…

It’s about searching deep within oneself for the raw essence of what it means to be a New Zealander – what drives us; our values and beliefs – and shaping it into an emotional, cohesive force that pervades the story. And in my case, as with other diverse immigrants across the generations, this story concerns a new beginning, a new life in this “young country” (as described by the government minister in my story from Issue 11, ‘The Book Parade Prize’). It’s a story about belonging, embracing the place and its people, becoming one of them, adding my background and upbringing to the mix. Understanding what they, we stand for.

It’s a story about welcoming, accepting others. Having good old-fashioned manners and common decency. Letting everyone have a fair go. Respecting the land, the water, the air around us, one another. Being honest, down-to-earth; realising that our richness lies in the immaterial. It’s about looking up to our older, bigger siblings who have been telling their own stories for millennia but also learning from their mistakes, and stepping up to take our own stand on what really matters. Being innovative, with a can-do attitude. Doing the right thing. Overcoming obstacles together, crossing wide rivers and deep lakes, traversing whole coastlines, climbing the highest mountains across distant seas.

As an immigrant writer I am at the start of my own journey across this young country. I have a long way to go, sure to lose my footing, stumble and fall, but I’ll pick myself up and push on with steeled Kiwi determination. Explore the country as the early Polynesians settlers once did. Ask questions. Discover more about this place, my home, and the people I encounter. Speak about my experiences. Struggle on with my current writing whilst still hopeful of getting my previous work published…

One truth I have already found along my path, and which I have shared in my story from Issue 11, ‘The Book Parade Prize’, is that the future for this young country lies with our children – of all shapes and sizes – and that we must support them to be whatever they want to be in this “white-clouded wonderland,” this New Zealand.

***

Read Andrew’s story and nine other gems in Issue 11.

The Setting

A Sense of Recognition

What makes a New Zealand story feel like our story? Makes it recognisable to you? What does ‘a New Zealand story’ mean to you? These were questions we put to some of our Issue 11 writers. In the previous post, R.L. Nash ruminated in Writing Aotearoa that it’s many things that add up to this sense of belonging  and recognition in the story. For Stephen O’Connor, writer of ‘Red Rock Creek’ it’s firmly rooted in the setting. His story takes place on a New Zealand farm, something he has first hand experience of growing up. Stephen is a lecturer who takes his mind off things by trail running with his border collie.

 

The Setting

 

Do you like to be alone? It’s an odd question to ask and usually prompts negative answers. Growing up on a sheep farm in the Wairarapa, there was a lot of space and time to be alone. The place was big enough not to meet neighbours on a regular basis and many of the ongoing menial jobs like fencing were predominantly solitary. When I consider my childhood, I find myself thinking of the craggy hills and plains that influenced my family in how and what we did. In other words, my values have taken shape and were tested and adjusted by this setting.

I feel that because of our closeness with the landscape, New Zealand literature would be pretty much unimaginable without their settings. It has influenced not only the characters and their actions, but the tone and style of the writing. This would include not only the farm or the bush, but also the suburbs in the cities and towns. I can still remember some favourite short stories and poetry introduced to me while I was in high school that I enjoy re-reading. Witi Ihimaera’s Yellow Brick Road reverberated with me in how central the symbolism of Wellington as Emerald City was to the overall development of the story and effects on the characters. Even though Wairarapa wasn’t Waituhi, it sure felt like it at the time. Katherine Mansfield has many themes in her story The Garden Party, but the Sheriden family’s house and garden paradise helped to shelter and isolate the children from the have-nots down the road. Even with our poetry, Denis Glover’s The Magpies ensured a bitter lesson for all the farmers – the land endures no matter what we do. It is this isolation and its relation to the geography of the land that really sticks in my mind and was the reason that I made the setting the centrifugal force in my story.

Throughout the story of the father and son, I have highlighted certain aspects of the setting in order to evoke the isolation and the enduring power of nature. The kea, rather than just an observer like the magpies in Glover’s poem, acts as the initiator of the farmer’s problem, and it really personifies nature as it appears throughout and endures with success at the end, taunting the farmer, changing the relationship dynamics. I tried to also use other objects in combination with the sounds and the language used to build up a vivid picture of the isolation. The shovel making a ‘dull thud’, the land rover- a workhorse for the rugged country in New Zealand, the twine- a hardy string, and even the shears – portable for usage in isolated places when not in the shearing shed. Even the setting of the late 1960s be-spokes a more simplistic time, without all the technology that can make us feel less remote. The conversation between the father and son is at a bare minimum. The age difference and also the close proximity of working together day in, day out encourages a simple familiarity in their dialogue brought about by the context of isolation.

This father and son relationship on a farm is special. By the end of the story, I endeavoured to show how close the bond can be between the two and how it changes. At the beginning, the landscape and what it throws at them puts obstacles in place that allows us to observe the contrast in character between the sensitive boy and the more pragmatic father. However, by the end of the story, there is a sense of understanding and a shift in the responsibility between the two, brought about by the actions of nature and their reactions in response to it.

I like the notion that our setting in New Zealand has a strong connection to our physical geography. Whether you were a writer in the 1920s or a flash fiction writer in the present, our physical space here in Aotearoa is extremely enduring and makes it easier for the plots and characters to write themselves into the stories.

 

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Read Stephen’s story and more in our current issue: Issue 11.

Writing Aotearoa

What makes a New Zealand Story, well, feel like a New Zealand Story

“What makes a New Zealand Story, well, feel like a New Zealand Story. Is it setting or style, character or theme? Or something else entirely?” 

This is the question we put to a few of our Issue 11 authors to mull over. First up with her take on this is R.L  Nash. Her story ‘The Porcelain Cat of Bordertown’ is set in Australia, but retains its Kiwi flavour through her New Zealand character, a contractor working long stints away from home. R.L is a Dunedin writer. Her short stories featured in Takahē magazine while she was studying speech and language therapy. She has a novel manuscript looking for a home and is drafting another.  In between bouts of writing, she’s kept busy mothering, working in unglamorous admin, and sewing wonky seams.

Writing Aotearoa

Quite the puzzle and since people have been telling stories in Aotearoa New Zealand in a mixture of ways and forms for a very long time, to attempt an answer I must first narrow my focus. So, in an optimistic bid to keep this meaty topic simple, my context is written NZ stories that are contemporary fiction in English for adults. But I am not good at riddles and my list of ‘to-be-reads’ is always growing. Clearly, I would need advice.

 

 

I started with a quick informal survey of friends, librarians and other random people but after a few strange looks it all played out like some sort of NZ Lit Housie: Have you got: “Isolation”…“Postcolonialism”…“Location”…“Jandals!…“Space – but not as in, like, astronauts” and then: “I have not read one.” Ouch – unhelpful but not untypical.

Well, lesson learnt, I would ask a prolific reader. I’d ask my Mum. I’d be general. I’d ask about the vibe.

“Depressing”, she said

“Charming,” I replied.

“No, not that.”

Bingo, the ever present darkness in all our bright southern light chestnut. Except I read a lot of genre novels written by NZ authors which I’ve enjoyed too much to fully embrace that theory. Then again, there’s an abundance of crime writing and literary fiction from these shores – there’s bound to be stylistic similarities and uniting biting themes beyond the potential mention of custard squares. However, as there are observers and courses a-plenty attempting to sum that up and track social commentary, and since it deserves research, foot-notes and name-checking of people described as eminent, I’ll leave that one alone.

 

 

Location was mentioned (and more than three times) in my survey and it is tempting to say setting is the main marker of a NZ story. It’s a definite contender and can be as broad as our landscapes. Scenic drive scenery, small town dairies, the Auckland CBD at 3am, the way up Bealey Spur, forgotten suburbs – all of that and more. But then does it have to be set in NZ? Survey says: Yes. I’m not so sure.

I identify with the travelling New Zealander and he/she crops up a lot when I write – to the point I’m wondering if it’s high time I confiscated my characters’ passports and made them stay put for a change. Perhaps having a Kiwi abroad character is almost cheating? The nationality they take for granted is suddenly overt, you’ve isolated them and they will think of home, it’s inevitable. My characters are always looking back, one way or another.

But I wonder, does a writer sit down at their desk/kitchen table, crack their knuckles and announce to the curtains/fruit bowl: “And today, I shall write a Neuw Zearlaund story”. I hope not, because I believe whether something feels like a NZ story has far more to do with the reader than the writer, and trying to define what makes a NZ story feel like one is like trying to define a New Zealander. What feels like an authentic NZ story to me might not resonate at all for someone else. Aotearoa New Zealand is a complex, layered nation and our perspectives and stories reflect this. No one reads the same story the same. Luckily, I’m not aware of any rules – if a story feels like a New Zealand one to you then, for you, that’s exactly what it is.

For me, realistic dialogue helps a lot but it really comes down to that moment when I think: I know people like that, or of people like that. I work with them, they’re my whānau, my neighbours. This could be happening/have happened across town or along State Highway 1. When I feel a connection to a place or a piece of history – a flash of recognition of something shared. That’s about now or that’s about here. It’s taken more planning, less whim, but since my resolution to read more New Zealand writers, the novelty hasn’t worn off – whether it’s observations from a new immigrant or someone with history in this soil, from the perspective of two friends struggling to run a Northland café or a pensioner doing the groceries in Timaru, I appreciate these stories more because there’s some little stitch linking them all together, though I’m not entirely sure why.

 

Detail from a dress by Jill Bowie, made from broken CD cases. The dress won the recycled Category in the 2016 Hokonui Fashion Design Awards. Image used with permission of Jill Bowie.

Another question to end with, but an important one I think – if something is thought to be a New Zealand story does that then narrow its appeal? Should we even care if it does? Well this at least I have a firm answer for – No, because you can only ever be yourself, even when you’re trying to tell somebody else’s story. You can never forget where you come from.

**

Read ‘The Porcelain Cat of Bordertown’ and more in our current issue.  Want to become a Headland alum? Submit your work for consideration in Issue 12 by February 9. Check out our guidelines for more information.

 

 

Announcing our Headland Prize Winners for 2017

We’re thrilled to announce our 2017 Headland prize winners! Our hearty congratulations to:

Conrad Smyth, winner of the Headland Prize for Best Story 2017 ($500) for his utterly compelling story ‘147 Days and Counting’ about a recovering drug addict running the New York Marathon (Issue 11). Conrad told us “Headland is a fantastic publication for lovers of quality writing. It’s extremely gratifying to win the Headland Prize”.

Simon Middlemas, awarded the Frontier Prize for Best Story by a Previously Unpublished Author ($250) for his quietly stunning creative nonfiction piece, that touched us all: ‘Mi Mujer Maravilla’. (coincidentally also Issue 11). Simon said: “Being published for the first time was a great feeling. It was a very personal piece of writing, about my journey through IVF with my wife, and so I am pleased people related to it. Thanks to Headland for their support”.

 

To celebrate, Issue 11 is on sale for a limited time – read Conrad and Simon’s stories for the bargain price of US $2.99. Get it now, and find out more about our prize winners here.

It was a tough choice with 35 high quality stories published in Issues 8-11 this year, and so many amazing previously unpublished writers submitting.

Thank to you all who have submitted, published and read with us this year! We couldn’t do this without you and we love our Headland community.

When The Rain Set In: Rudolph In Conversation With Herself

Issue 11 Extras

Another Issue, another round of bonus content. If you’ve already purchased our latest offering you’ll have spotted the story, ‘Maelstrom’ by Stephen Coates. If you’ve read it, you’ll know why we chose it. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. As Amanda, one of our Headlanders, said “the more I read it, the more I loved it”. And if you haven’t got Issue 11 yet, get to it.

Allan Drew, Headlander and Headland alumnus, chatted to Stephen about his story and Stephen has produced this fascinating coda to his story, a conversation by one of his characters with herself. We get a peek into the mind of Rudolph. Something Extra, if you will.

Stephen Coates comes from Christchurch but is currently living in Japan. He has had a few (very few, OK, three) stories published in Landfall and Takahe.

 

Stephen Coates, author, ‘Maelstrom’ in Issue 11

When The Rain Set In: Rudolph In Conversation With Herself

Are we going to light the candle tonight?

Shrug.

No?

I’m not bothered. It’s not the same, is it?

I guess. So, good day?

No. Yeah. Sort of. Same old.

Snort.

Jeez, tell me how you really feel.

Shut your face. Anyway, you were there.

Silence.

I’m going to light the candle.

Suit yourself.

But you’ve got to promise, no Elton John.

As if.

Scritch of a match, brief flare in the darkness, pale flame wavering in the draught.

Actually, I thought it was fun.

Disbelieving pause.

You? You never think anything’s fun.

That’s not true.

You haven’t had fun since.

Since?

Since.

Since when? Go on, say it.

Bugger. All right then, since this afternoon.

Told you so.

Rustle of plastic, as of a packet of biscuits. Or chocolate. Honey-roasted peanuts. Dried banana.

We had a conversation.

Yeah, I guess we did.

Almost a conversation.

With a senile old man and a drunk guy.

So?

Though he did give us beer.

See? That counts.

I wouldn’t get carried away, though.

What do you mean?

I bet tomorrow will be crap again.

Sigh. And another sigh. Click of bottle against glass. Or perhaps not.

You’re probably right.

I usually am.

You asked for it.

What?

Here it comes. I can feel it.

No, you promised.

And it seems to me.

Shut.

That you lived your life.

Up.

Like a candle in the wind.

Giggle.

 

(235 words)

 

***

Read Stephen’s story ‘Maelstrom’ in Issue 11.

 

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