Blog 21

Two Tūrangawaewae

Exploring Sense of Place – Do We Write What We Know?

In this Issue 4 series, we asked a few of our writers to reflect on whether they write what they know, and share their thoughts on how this applies to setting and sense of place in their stories. Google ‘write what you know’ and a plethora of think pieces and advice articles will come up. To paraphrase, they range from ‘DON’T – your only limit is your imagination’, to ‘stick to your own range of experiences for authenticity’.

In Seeds of a Story, Jane Percival said, “To make it real I have to put myself in the picture and draw from my own experiences.” David Morgan O’Connor took us on a trip to his places and their meanings in Names of Place and Sense. For our final post in this series, Antony Millen, author of ‘The Homeless Men of Mahuika talks about his new setting through the lens of his country of birth, and how this informs his writing.

Antony is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand, having shifted from his beloved Nova Scotia to the storied town of Taumarunui in 1997. He has published two novels since 2013, both of which feature settings in the North Island of New Zealand: Redeeming Brother Murriihy and Te Kauhanga: A Tale of Space(s). In 2014, he won the Heartland short story competition and was highly commended for his entry in the New Zealand Society of Authors Central Districts competition. His work features realistic, intriguing and even slightly mysterious events in rural, small-town New Zealand. Antony is currently completing his third novel. He also writes reviews and blog posts at antonymillen.wordpress.com

Two Tūrangawaewae

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I think a lot about place. I’m an immigrant to New Zealand—an expatriate from Canada although when I think of expats, I think of Ernest Hemingway or Katherine Mansfield in France and it connotes a rejection of homeland which I would never do. However, the concept of homeland is challenged by emigration and immigration. We migrants experience a perpetual duality as we live in two places at once, a sort of bilocation of the mind and spirit. We have two tūrangawaewae—two places to stand—a foot in both camps. Even after eighteen years in New Zealand, I still start sentences with, “A buddy of mine back home…”. I’m aware of how obnoxious it can be, but I am always interpreting my current physical setting through the lens of the former—a life of continual comparisons and contrasts.

There is an advantage for a writer in this. You become an astute observer of human behaviour and language. You notice inflections and habits, and others notice them in you. People who live in small towns naturally do this as well, comparing city life with our rural, remote situation. Small towns are my preferred settings, not only because they’re all I’ve ever known, but because these observations are made on a continual basis by their inhabitants, often to convince ourselves of our lifestyle supremacy over that of city-dwellers. “Parking is easier,” we say and, “If you wait for three cars, it’s a traffic jam here.” We note the stars in the sky after returning from a visit under the bigger urban lights and count our blessings we don’t need to listen to traffic as we drift into our provincial slumbers. In Taumarunui, we don’t live in the middle of nowhere, we live in “the middle of everywhere”.

So, a writer does write what he knows, but, like the immigrant and the small town observer, he does so by comparing it and contrasting it. I write a story about a mother and daughter fishing the Pungapunga stream in Ngapuke, New Zealand but the river resembles the brook behind my grandparents’ place in Nova Scotia and I draw on memories and feelings from there to communicate familiarity and belonging. If I create a scene around a boy ostracised by his peers, I draw on similar experiences from my youth or from those I’ve witnessed as a teacher, though the circumstances, culture and setting are completely different.

In New Zealand, I’ve learned the concept of tangata whenua, a concept our writers here and elsewhere should consider when discussing a sense of place. The famous whakataukī from the Whanganui River area says, Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au—I am the river and the river is me. What does that mean to a Nova Scotian mind? What does it mean to identify with a mountain or a river when you introduce yourself in your whaikōrero? In New Zealand, I have associated myself with Ruapehu or Hikurangi, with the Whanganui and the Pungapunga, for these places have connected with me, surrounding me during my time here. I greet the Whanganui when I arrive alongside it during a bike ride. I acknowledge the presence of imposing trees in Ohinetonga and in other bush walks. In a way, it is not me who has chosen them as significant, but in a form of whāngai it is they who have adopted me, though I am aware of the limited connection and understanding I have compared to those whose ancestors have lived here, inspired and nurtured by them for generations.

But, originally, my maunga is Green Hill in Pictou County, Nova Scotia and my awa is that brook behind my grandparents’ house or Middle River whose shores hosted the field upon which I played softball. They bear less exotic names and exist without the grandeur and myth surrounding the Waikato or Taranaki, but it is in coming to this place and learning of tangata whenua that I feel the connection to the maunga and awa of my Canadian childhood. In his song about Taumarunui, my son writes of the Whanganui and Ongarue, “two rivers that melt into one”. That’s me—two homelands melted into one. I believe it’s also symbolic of the multiple iwi who reside here. It is a mystery rivalling the Trinity really and that is a good thing.

And that is a good thing for writers who are creating a sense of place. Place, like time, is mysterious. Try and describe the place you are in as you read this and you will find the options for doing so are limitless. Do you list all the objects and colours you see? Do you include elements that will appeal to all five senses? What about the history of the place or the background to how you arrived in it? What about its future? What will it be like when you no longer occupy it or when it is inhabited by another soul? What about the souls who have breathed and loved and raged and created in it before you? What place do they still have in the narrative of your place?

In describing place and creating a sense of it for readers, we must be selective and in doing so, I believe we do write what we know, but not always in the obvious sense. It is one thing to set your story in an actual town you’ve lived in, comfortably detailing street names and landmarks, but more often we are selecting aspects of places with which we are familiar for other reasons. Websites and Google Maps are invaluable tools for sourcing details about unfamiliar settings, but that sense of place comes from the author’s familiarity with the atmosphere and significance of another place entirely, from their own experiences or from those they have encountered in books or on screen, comparing and contrasting them. Even the most imaginative world-building must consist of familiarity for the writer and for the reader so they can inhabit the world together—two in one.

 

Read Antony’s story and more in Issue 4.




Antony Millen

Antony Millen is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand, having shifted from his beloved Nova Scotia to the storied town of Taumarunui in 1997. He has published two novels since 2013, both of which feature settings in the North Island of New Zealand: Redeeming Brother Murriihy and Te Kauhanga: A Tale of Space(s). In 2014, he won the Heartland short story competition and was highly commended in the New Zealand Society of Authors Central Districts competition. His work features realistic, intriguing and even slightly mysterious events in rural, small-town New Zealand. Antony is currently completing his third novel. 

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