Tag: Writers

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

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.

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