Tag: Issue 13

Dealing With Not Knowing

An Absence

We wrap up our Issue 13 blog series about ‘absent characters’ with some thoughts from Laura Borrowdale on writing the unseen characters in her story ‘The Wasps’.

Laura is a teacher and writer based in Christchurch New Zealand. Her work has been published in Turbine, Sport, and Takahe, amongst others. She is the founding editor of Aotearotica.

 

Dealing With Not Knowing

I remember reading Emily Perkins’ ‘Story About My Wife’ when I was younger, and being thrilled by her portrayal of a man’s experience. I loved that idea of playing with inside the head of a narrator whose experience is so different to your own. We are so used to men’s voices being used to tell female characters, but for me, it felt a bit transgressive to inhabit the narrator of The Wasps.

As a writer, I habitually explore female experience, and this seemed like a chance to do the opposite. In fact, all the female characters in this story are fairly unknown. Usually in my writing I identify very strongly with the main character, but this story was different. I felt as though she was very like me, even though she is defined by someone else.

Part of what I found difficult to write about in the story was the lack of something.  The partner in this story is an absence, and that was deliberate. The narrator can no longer see his partner and defines her by what he doesn’t know, or what he guesses, which is what allows him to treat her the way that he does. By being a blank space, she becomes a projection of his thoughts and feelings, and by extension, the reader’s. Part of what I wanted was to actively create that space in the text.

I’d love to think that the narrator’s partner does exist as a character in her own right, that she might feel real, and if she does, I think it is likely because of her absence, rather than presence. The narrator can never be sure what she is thinking, which is such a  common experience. We all want to know what people think of us and, particularly, our partners and our partners’ thoughts about our relationships.  We all have to deal with not knowing. Like the narrator.

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We love how Laura evokes the long hot hot Wellington summer (remember that?) in this story.  Read ‘The Wasps’ and 11 other gems in Issue 13.

Current Issue

“They’re All Dead Now”

There, and yet, not

Some reading to start your week off right, from the talented Becky Manawatu from Issue 13. We’re examining how absent characters work in stories, and how writers make them feel real to the reader, despite their non-appearance.

Becky Manawatu talks about the absent character that helps shape her narrative in ‘Abalone’, in our latest issue.

Becky is a reporter for one of the smallest independent daily newspapers in New Zealand, The News, Westport. She gained a Diploma in Writing for Creative Industries from the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and now teaches fiction writing at NMIT part time. She was shortlisted for The 2018 Surrey Hotel Steve Braunias Memorial Writers Residency Award in Association with The Spinoff, and has had work published by The Spinoff and NMIT’s literary journal, Kiss Me Hardy. Her novel, Pluck, is to be published by Mākaro Press in May 2019. Her short story published by Headland, ‘Abalone’, was long-listed for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

“They’re All Dead Now”

You’d be hard pressed to find a novel, story or song that isn’t shaped by a dead, absent, or missing person. It is an imitation of life, really, or your coffee cup. Where would your long-black be without that empty space? You wouldn’t chug it, scalding hot, right from the machine. You’d go without.

One of the characters in my story ‘Abalone’ is a dead father. Not necessarily his death, but his no-longer-being-alive helps drive the narrative.

Most of these books in the shelf beside my bed have dead people in them. And hardly any of those dead people would do absolutely anything for anyone.

I wrote ‘Abalone’ directly after reading Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall at your Knees, which begins: ‘They’re all dead now.’

That is the entire first paragraph: ‘They’re all dead now.’

Ok. Great… If they’re all dead, why the fuck should I care, right?

But of course I did. I just had to know why, just had to know how, just had to know where and when.

But most importantly I just had to know who. Who is dead? Because knowing who is dead, is understanding the space that they’ve left behind.

And it is human nature to want to know that space. We might be secretly choosing the song that should be played at our funeral, and we might secretly hope that more than a few people will shed more than a few tears as that song plays, and we do these things partly because we are often denied a chance to understand.

I once took a selfie in the toilet following a funeral. I don’t know why, in fact I am almost embarrassed by myself, and yet here I am sharing it. I’d been sad, and I had cried, and in the bathroom mirror I had wiped away some mascara which had run a little – but then I smiled a little bit, just a little bit, and I went back out and drank a beer and ate some pāua, and doing those things when someone I’d held dear no longer could felt both very heartbreaking and very good – almost luxurious.

I wiped away some mascara and took this selfie in the bathroom after a funeral

We are interested in the space we’ll leave ourselves. This interest compels us to read, write and watch movies, and we are most attracted to those which include both loss and laughter.

Colum McCann wrote in his book of practical and philosophical advice, Letters to a Young Writer: ‘Never forget that art is entertainment. It is your duty to reflect the world, yes, but it is also your duty to bring a bit of brightness to it too.’ As Nietzsche says, we have art, so we shall not die of too much reality.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a novel, story or song that isn’t shaped by a dead, absent or missing person.

Furthermore, you’d be hard pressed to find a successful novel thick with loss and not lightened by a writer’s touch, lightened by humour – even in the tiniest detail, a flicker, a fleeting image.

The deaths of fictional characters, and their grieving survivors, are the most accessible (and abundant), because when real people die, the space they leave is quickly covered, quickly sanitised. It gets filled with words like, as Sunday Star Times Magazine editor Emily Simpson comically mused in a recent editorial, ‘He would have done absolutely anything for anybody,’ or ‘She was happy-go-lucky, bubbly, life of the party,’ and ‘She was so kind, so thoughtful.’ Dead people are most often the very, very best people that the world is so much worse without.

We can be shunned from the space by terms: ‘the investigation is ongoing and the family requests privacy.’ And, yes, that privacy must be respected.

But, it is still another closed door. It is another door that we can’t help but imagine, and wonder what is going on behind it.

Wonder would drive us to madness if it weren’t for fiction. Even if you only watch movies, it is my guess those movies – in fact all the stories that have shaped society- might have saved you from overstepping a line, from knocking on a door you shouldn’t knock on.

I mean, we’d be barbaric without stories. We’d be barbarians driven mad by wonder.

Fiction waits patiently, to answer every question and satiate any curiosity (to an extent) the real world denies us. While real doors shut, art lets us in. To listen to the aching echo, to feel how deep and desolate it might be – to watch a relative acid trip through a funeral, or to see the Happy Birthday song Bella sung for Ricky Baker before she keeled over, as she was hanging out the washing. That’s art. That’s story.

When I wrote ‘Abalone’ I wanted to explore the space a man’s dead father leaves, and exploit the way his mother tries to fill it. Her extravagant over-compensation. The compulsive way she bears down, fills the space with her excessive presence and intrusion, and desperately tries to protect her son from falling into the void his father left.

I wanted to expose that dark space, but as it is stark reality that will kill us before we’re even dead, I hoped to write something to counter it.

In ‘Abalone’ the mother fills and fills and fills the space her son’s dead father left – until the earth literally cracks at their feet.

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Read Becky’s story ‘Abalone’ in Issue 13.

Current Issue

Writing Black Bird

Extras: Issue 13

Extras is our special feature accompanying each issue, offering insight and a peek behind a story. For lucky Issue 13,  Breton Dukes tells us about the process of writing his story ‘Black Bird‘. If you haven’t read it yet, get thee to our Current Issue page! It’s a good ‘un.

Breton is a Dunedin short story writer. His two collections were both published by VUP.

By Nick-D – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27673722

Breton Dukes: Writing ‘Black Bird’

Last year my family and I travelled to Auckland for a holiday and stayed in Devonport, very near Cheltenham Beach. I like swimming and I’d go down once or twice a day, when the tide was right, with my son Hector. He was about two then. We’d sit in the sand and dig with sticks and then wander the beach, looking at bits of seaweed and plastic.

We live in Dunedin now, but I’ve lived in different parts of the North Island, so the beaches there – pohutukawa, warm water, native birds – are very familiar. I reckon beaches lend themselves to drama: wildlife; things in the water; heat; waves; and people doing personal things – getting changed, sunbathing, screwing – in a public place.

So that was my setting, but what would I write about?

My  last collection of stories was published in 2014. Back then, I thought fiction was easy. I’d published two books, had good reviews, and secured loot from CNZ. So, when thinking of my next project, I thought big. A sprawling novel – my guiding light was Infinite Jest – that would capture this country, that would capture Aotearoa!

Christ.

Not long after I started, Hector was born.  I was working at a shitty government call centre. I’d get up early and write, then help with Hector, then go to work. Quickly the project got out of control; tons of scenes, tons of shifts in point of view, and no coherent story. But no matter, I thought, at the end I’ll pull it together. I got obsessed with word count. I got further and further into my own arse. At one point – having read about pre-historic false-toothed pelicans in one of Hector’s books– I decided to write a prologue set in pre-human times…

Three-quarters finished, I sent it to my publisher. He wasn’t impressed: Did you know that in the first twenty pages there are eighteen scenes and twelve different points of view?

I did, but, well… Isn’t it edgy? Don’t you see the great sweep of the thing?

No.

I did CPR on it for 18 months, but it was gone, living in the stairwell of some inner-city building, slurping meths from a Fanta can.

So, what next? Back to short stories, quick! To save face, to make up for the three years I’d spent on the novel, I’d dash out a new collection. This time staying close to the ground; I’d focus on stay-at-home dads, the relationship stress of new parents, the anxiety, the depression. I wrote ten stories in about six months and shot them off to the publisher…

Too dark, he said. Exhausting to read. Too much the same. No thanks, he said.

He was right. My wife and I found parenting hard. We’d been selfish, ambitious, hedonists. Now we were up before dawn, blending overcooked pumpkin with mince and spinach… We were sleep-deprived and grumpy. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. It was a struggle. My bleak outlook and those struggles were too present in my writing – it was gloomy, repetitive and unpleasant, like being hit around the face with a dirty nappy.

Around this time, Trump came, and I couldn’t look away. I got a subscription to the New York Times so I could follow every flick of his tail. With Trump in power I feared for Hector’s world. I still do. Trump and his toads are finger-fucking the planet… Anyway, Trump got into that failed collection,  not personally, but in the form of overt pessimism and excessive anxiety.

But then things got better. My wife and I grew into parenting. We bid a fond farewell to our old lives. Claude arrived, shining, and – holy shit – we knew what to do! Hector started making jokes, doing duck walks, and dancing to Elton John. Labour won. I didn’t renew my New York Times subscription.

Not long before that Devonport trip, I was talking to a friend who’d been talking to the writer, William Brandt. William had said to this friend that he thought most writers basically repeat the content of their first books – they just get more deft at the writing part. He thought readers liked that, liked the familiarity. In my two failed projects, I’d tried to impose elaborate structures on my work, I’d tried too hard with point of view, and I’d made the stories bleak and unforgiving. On thinking about what William had said, I decided to return to what I knew.

Long ago, I did a degree in Physical Education. The first thirty years of my life were devoted to sport, games, and training. And my first collections reflected this. So, on Cheltenham Beach, I decided three young boys would be playing beach rugby. I like sex in writing, so I had a couple cannoodling. I like humour in writing, so I had Raisin. The fisherman is the dark part of my mind. The protestors are there because of #METOO and what I’d read about those resisting Tump.

I laboured terribly over the ending, but I always like stories that get you into the future a bit, so I had a go at that. Lots of seagulls, no false-toothed pelicans, and, I hope, instead of relentless misery, a lighter, more optimistic read.

 

 

Kehua in the Text

There, and yet not there

For Issue 13 we decided to get a couple our contributing writers to tell us a little about their absent characters. The ones that play a role in the story, are even pivotal to the story, and yet do not appear.

Vaughan Rapatahana kicks things off with some musings about the kehua in his story ‘He pahemo’:  Vaughan is widely published across several genre. His poetry collection, Atonement, was nominated for a National Book Award in Philippines in 2016, the same year he won the inaugural Proverse Poetry prize. His most recent collection, ternion, is published by erbacce-press, Liverpool, England. Currently, he is writing a further series of commentaries on Aotearoa NZ poetry, for Jacket 2 (University of Pennsylvania, USA), while he was also included in Best New Zealand Poems, 2017.

 

 

Kehua in the Text

In my short story one of the key characters is never seen, but is a nexus individual because he is a prime influence on the action. A key way to make such invisible characters somehow extant is to describe something about them quite vividly: their habits; their behaviours; or their effects on other individuals in the story, to the extent that they actually influence what happens.

In this particular tale, the character is still around, even though he is never visible. He is a kehua or spirit; someone who does not realise he is dead; someone who still seeks a form of release to depart once and for all. Thus, here, he can be felt as a presence and – more – as a sound. He strongly influences the main character, his ex-wife, even though he is deceased. This is because for us, kehua are in fact existing entities –  they are between worlds, if you will.

For us, it is no surprise that kehua are around; we accept them and attempt to place them at rest. Other characters in this story, because of their cultural belief, also induce their reality – thus the wife’s father and aunt, who both  express the requirement to karakia.  Again, the interface with others brings about the ‘reality’ of a never visible character, a character who is in many ways the ‘main’ protagonist.

 

 

 

 

Read Vaughan’s story and 11 other amazing works in Issue 13.

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