Headland Alumni: Where are they now?
The Headland team love to watch what happens next in the writing lives of authors we have published – we find out through Facebook updates, tweets, emails letting us know that their Headland story will now be published in their first book, or exciting new additions to their author bios the next time they submit.
But we thought it would be fun to find out in a more formal way, and to share the news with the rest of the Headland whānau. So over the next couple of months, we will be sharing a series of interviews with Headland alumni, called ‘Where are they now?’
In our second interview, Headlander Theressa Malone catches up with a long-time friend of Headland, Nod Ghosh.
Content warning: The following text discusses sexual assault.
Theressa: Kia ora, Nod! Your first short story in Headland was called ‘Forty-One Years’, in Issue 3. Where were you in your writing career in 2015?
Nod: I was half a year out of finishing year two at the Hagley Writers' Institute in Christchurch, still meeting with classmates for mutual critique, and had also found a critique partner in Auckland: prolific writer Eileen Merriman.
I'd completed a second novel, The Iris Tattoo, and was working on it with Norman Bilbrough through the New Zealand Society of Authors mentorship scheme. Flash fiction, short stories, creative nonfiction and poetry were being published in Aotearoa and overseas. (See website: www.nodghosh.com)
My work had also been placed in a few competitions, and ‘Janus: A Path to the Future’, a creative nonfiction essay, was published in the Love on the Road anthology (Liberties Press).
Theressa: Incredible. I wonder, did the city of Christchurch itself, in the midst of a complicated rebuild, impact your writing at the time?
Nod: Your surroundings can impact in many ways on your writing, even if you aren't directly writing about them. And your environment can push you to your limits too. During my first year at Hagley Writers' Institute in 2012, several staff and students experienced trauma with earthquake repairs and disputes, etc. Then it happened to us. Sixteen months after the most destructive quake, we were asked to leave our own home and never come back. The experience wasn't conducive to putting together a great portfolio, but you received a certificate of completion just for handing one in.
A year later, we'd moved from temporary accommodation to our new home. There's supposed to be a ghost across the road. He's Indian too, so I thought we'd better become acquainted. I read about local history to discover how the ghost came to be amongst other things. That's led to the most recent novella-in-flash I've written, Throw a Seven, which is currently seeking a publisher.
The sense of place about a piece is very heavily influenced by where you first visualise a story. Some things I write are set in places located on Google Maps, embellished with imagination. However most are set in real places I've been to. For example, some stories are set in the UK, where I'm from. The one I wrote today was set in Christchurch, and I still have to remind myself occasionally about the length of the days during different months.
Theressa: How beautifully the ‘ghost across the road’ fits into the idea of starting from scratch: after the catastrophe of the quakes, history remains. The next piece you published with us was ‘Bubbles’ in Issue 4. Both it and ‘Forty-One Years’ are rich with texture, image, repetition. Do the two pieces work together?
Nod: There are similarities that can be drawn from both pieces. ‘Forty-One Years’ is non-fiction, based around visiting my 'homeland' for the first time at the age of thirteen. ‘Bubbles’ draws heavily from the reality of growing up in a migrant family in the Midlands of the UK. As a child of migrants, you might be drawn to the mythical beauty of your parents' homeland. Their nostalgia for the place they left behind is tangible as you grow up. This was in the 1960s, and racial isolation was a reality, abuse an everyday occurrence. People like Mrs Atkinson kept us sane, with their hospitality, but all the time, there was a longing for what had been lost. I think we caught that longing from our parents as kids.
Theressa: In a way, that nostalgia is translated into the hyper-sensory experience of your writing. You write with a sense of rhythm and atmosphere akin to actually being outside. Do you ever take notes on the street?
Nod: There has been the inevitable red notebook for jotting down observations that might serve my writing when I'm out and about. As handbags have grown smaller, and cell phones more capable, we record things differently.
Although I was writing awful poetry in 1973, when the 'past' portion of ‘Forty-One Years’ takes place, I didn't have the crafting skills of a more mature writer. So although there are notes in the skinny black diary mentioned in the text, the redolence of the heat and odours from that trip to India are drawn from memory.
I remember Anne in the story was a capable writer. She was always having stories published in the school magazine. Anne will have made notes that enhanced her writing. I try to find Anne from time to time, but perhaps she's changed her name. And maybe she's not drawn to social media.
What is it that draws us to find people from our past? With K, the 'you' in the story, it was in order to un-break a promise. After I sent that letter in 2015, I received a reply. I was surprised and delighted to hear from her. People don't write letters anymore. She didn't do social media except for Viber. I upgraded my phone so I had Viber, and we kept in touch for a short while. I bought her a copy of Headland.
And then we drifted apart again. Now I can't find her. That's nothing to do with the question, but it's the conclusion of the story.
Theressa: Sounds like the story might not be finished yet. At least, social media offers the hope of reconnecting. Do you ever write literature on your phone?
Nod: Yes, I've been searching through files and folders all day to see if I can locate K again. It would be a shame to lose her after having found her after so long. I've never written a story on my phone, but I know people who do.
I recently wrote a story sparked by a conversation with someone at a party. I was discussing the work I was doing on casual sexual abuse, and how important I felt it was that we had those conversations.
This person relayed an experience they'd had decades ago where they were coerced into sex, through the situation, through a power imbalance. It wasn't rape. Or that's how it will have seemed to the other party. There was consent, wasn't there? Yes of course there was.
But it was the middle of the night, and where else was the person going to go? They'd inadvertently ended up stranded somewhere. The host was offering a bed, but it was a bed with benefits.
It was only when we had that conversation that I realised I'd been 'around', when exactly the same thing had happened to a friend of mine decades ago. There had been three bed spaces, and one of them offered 'extras'. She'd ended up in that one. I wanted to apologise to my old friend for not helping to protect her.
It only took half a day to find her on the Internet. But what I found was her obituary. Too little too late.
Theressa: You know, I noticed the way you pay attention to timing, and intimate, almost private details in your writing: the feeling of running your tongue over a stamp, standing in a flock of pigeons, or the timbre of a character’s voice… as a reader, I feel incredibly involved in your work. What influences your style?
Nod: That's a hard question to answer, Theressa. The obvious, but unseen influences will have come from what I've read over the years, though I can't name specific authors whom I can attribute the intimate style to.
When you are totally immersed in the story, feeling what the characters feel, running in their shoes, flowing with their thoughts, you can slip into a lateral viewpoint so you taste their sky, hear their abandonment, smell their anxieties. When you make oblique observations, you sometimes evoke the exact truth of their lives.
Theressa: I’m intrigued by that notion of “exact truth”, which is important in art and writing, given that readers are reading from different locations, mindsets, platforms. On that note, are you working on anything new right now?
Nod: Currently I'm working with my publisher at Truth Serum Press on a novella-in-flash called Toy Train. This book arose from the online FlashNano event hosted by US author Nancy Stohlman. The initial stories were written to daily prompts posted in November 2019. The series of linked flash fictions look at casual sexual abuse that occurred over a protracted period. The individual pieces alternate point of view between the perpetrator and victim.
Theressa: That sounds endlessly timely and endlessly complex. We’ll keep that on our radar. But finally, I have to ask: What are you reading today?
Nod: Yesterday I started reading Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam. This novel is a finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. It features sexual abuse in the context of the world of sport. The work has been described as a surefooted novel that examines heavy subjects.