An interview with Patricia Grace

My aim has always been to write about ordinary people and their ordinary lives.

Since becoming the first Māori woman to publish a book of short stories in English in 1975, Patricia Grace has always made a commitment to tell the stories of ordinary people and their ordinary lives. That just happens to be a political act when those people haven’t had a voice in literature before, and a revolutionary act when their ways of telling stories push the boundaries of conventional literary form.

Grace’s 2015 novel, Chappy – her first in 10 years – tells the story of a Japanese stowaway who finds himself integrated into a small Māori community before running away from his family to avoid capture as an “enemy alien” in WWII. It’s warmer and gentler than her earlier work, but no less political in its expectation that readers see Māori communities for what they are: strong, loving, resilient.

It’s shortlisted in the fiction category in next week’s Ockham Book Awards. Ahead of the ceremony in Auckland, I interviewed Grace from her home in Hongoeka Bay, Wellington. You can read it on The Spinoff.


After Birth by Elisa Albert

It wasn’t until I picked up this book that I realised how little fiction even begins to approach birth and motherhood with any degree of emotional honesty.

In After Birth, Elisa Albert seems to have made it her manifesto to “go there” with as little filter as possible, and I fucking love her for it.

A year after her first child’s birth, Ari – a procrastinating PhD student in a quiet university town in upstate New York – is still processing a traumatic birth and slowly emerging from the fog of boredom, terror and existential angst of mothering an infant. She’s angry – at the birth experience she didn’t want, at the inane conversation of mothers, at her inability to make friends – and suffering from post-natal depression and anxiety. A poet called Mina Morris is in town, heavily pregnant, subletting a house that Ari is managing for the owners, and Ari is desperate to be her friend. Mina represents lots of things Ari wants to be and is not: she is empowered, free, and genuinely doesn’t give a shit what other people think.  But Ari also has some power over Mina as an “expert” a year into this parenting business already.

What follows is as much an exploration of female friendship as it is a treatise on birth, breastfeeding, and motherhood. Ari reflects on the other significant female friendships of her life, which have all ended badly somehow, and determines that this one will be different, this one will last. Despite Mina and her baby moving away again at the end of the book, you get the feeling that – thanks to the emotional trauma having a kid has forced Ari to confront  – this might actually be true.

Surely every new mother has to go through some sort of processing and reckoning to come to terms with her new identity after having a kid. You would think so, but sometimes it seems like the masses in the coffee groups and daycare pick up lines don’t spend their days in an agony of conflicting emotions like me (and Ari). My strong suspicion is that everyone is struggling to adjust, and we experience considerable relief and recognition when someone like Elisa Albert is prepared to open up her head and be brutally honest about the reality of the experience.

If the book falls short, it’s in equating too much of that feeling of being turned inside out to having a traumatic birth experience. Ari – if not Albert herself – seems to think that if she’d just been able to have a natural birth and a village of mothers and aunts surrounding her in the post-partum period, everything would have been okay. I had a straight-forward home birth and a relatively easy breastfeeding experience, and I still feel, two and a half years later, like I was taken apart and put back together in a not altogether better way by the experience of having a child. The strength of After Birth is the radical honesty with which Albert is prepared to depict this experience. It’s not always comfortable, but it sure as hell rings true.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I finally finished My Brilliant Friend. I was expecting to love it, because of all the hype, and the precise way it was hyped seemed to fit my exact interests, but to be honest, I found it a bit of a slog. It took me almost a month to read (up until I started it, I’d been reading a book a week since the start of the year), I had to keep referring back to the list of characters at the front to keep track of everyone, and until maybe the last 50 pages, motivation to keep going was a struggle. In fact, the main factor in the end was that it was a Book Club book – my choice no less! – so I was pretty much obliged. (I’m now stressing about whether my Book Club members will like it. I’ve only been going for three months, and this was my first pick, so I hope they don’t kick me out.)

What I did love about it was the way it painted a total and authentic picture of the interior lives of girls/young women. Those themes are universal, even though the actual time and place setting is very specific. And I liked that too, it was very evocative, and I felt I learned a lot about a place and time that was previously totally unfamiliar.

I will carry on with the quartet, because it had such a cliffhanger ending, and I’m pretty invested in the characters by now. I’m guessing that as they start to navigate more complex adult relationships, I might start to find it a bit more compelling. I love the way the character of Lina is drawn – she’s so flawed, complex, and real. To others – especially the boys and men of the neighbourhood – she’s a bit of a caricature, but to Elena, and us the reader, she’s incredibly complicated, implicated, and – yes – brilliant.

So, I’m reserving judgement until I’ve read the rest of the quartet (and heard what they think at Book Club), but I’ll take a bit of a break first and hopefully get up to my preferred reading speed again.

American Housewife by Helen Ellis

This review first appeared on The Spinoff on 16 March 2016.

If the rumours are true, not only do we have another season of The Bachelor and a New Zealand Survivor to look forward to, but soon the Real Housewives franchise will hoist up a gilt-framed mirror in Herne Bay and show the rest of us something terrifying and unfamiliar.

Timely, then, to explore the archetype in the adept hands of a bona-fide society wife. None of this single mother with three children running a business passing as a housewife crap – Helen Ellis, author of American Housewife, is the real deal.

The razor-sharp stories in Ellis’ first collection send up wealthy housewives, the literary world, and reality television. A sinister book club recruits a new member. Neighbours in an upscale apartment block go to war over how to remodel their common hallway. An ex-competitor rescues child beauty queens and re-homes them with barren society wives. In the best and longest story, “Dumpster Diving with the Stars”, a blocked writer competes in a mad reality series with a couple of scientologist A-listers and a frightened Playboy bunny.

Ellis’ housewives are wry, self-aware, and employ their considerable charm to bring the reader onside. In the company of these women, it seems quite reasonable to murder a series of doormen and let their ghosts bring you lunch.

This is probably because they’re all versions of Ellis herself, and in many ways, her own story is just as entertaining.

After her first novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat, was published in 2000, Ellis spent the next ten years writing three more, first fitting them around her professional life, and later accepting her husband’s support to write full time. None of them were published. Crushed, she gave up, and gradually entered an uneasy embrace with her new status as a full time wife and homemaker. She took care of her husband’s every need. She hosted dinner parties. She became a patron of the arts. She acquired a hobby, albeit an unusual one: competing on the national poker circuit, a neat little lady in a twinset and pearls at home among the men in caps and dark glasses. But people kept asking how she spent her time, so she answered with a twitter handle, @WhatIDoAllDay.

Sample: “Inspired by Beyonce, I stallion-walk to the toaster… I pump the salad spinner like a CPR dummy… I weep because I am lucky enough to have a drawer just for glitter.”

The caustic voice was a relief, and with the success of the account, Ellis began to riff on the on the theme with a few longer stories. Several of these were picked off the slush pile by various literary journals, and lo, a collection was born. Now at 45, after a decade of trying to convince herself she wasn’t meant to be a writer, Ellis is topping best-seller lists and earning endorsements from Margaret Atwood.

Knowing this backstory though, you can see it’s been a stretch to build a whole collection out of this material. The opener “What I do all day” is simply a collation of tweets from Ellis’ online alter-ego. “Take it from Cats”, an amusing collection of life advice from our feline overlords (“It’s fine to take a nap on the laundry”), would be more at home as a meme to share on Facebook. These aren’t really stories, they’re flash fiction, and here they’re just filler. Even between the better stories, there’s little narrative variation; the housewives and their misdeeds begin to blur into each other.

In an engaging interview on her sister’s parenting podcast, Ellis (who doesn’t have children) questions the idea that women should ever try to “have it all.” It was only after giving up writing, accepting her husband’s financial support, and letting go of the question of children that she finally felt comfortable in her own skin and found her creative voice again. The successful author as surrendered wife – this is fascinating, uncomfortable territory. But it’s not fully explored in the pages of American Housewife.

Her best stories are dark, debauched, and extremely enjoyable. I tore through them in a single sitting, but was left wanting. Not more of the same, but more commentary, more conclusions. Yes, the world she describes is mad and scary and great fodder for satire – and so what?

The Writers’ Festival by Stephanie Johnson

I’ve been trying to turn myself into a writer for a year or so now, though I still feel like a total fraud whenever I use that word to describe myself. Recently though, I received some very welcome external validation of my new (very part time) vocation in the form of an invitation to appear during Writers’ Week at the upcoming New Zealand Festival.

The context: a few months ago I was invited by the editor, Morgan Godfery, to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming book of essays by “New Zealand’s sharpest emerging thinkers” about the state of the public sphere in New Zealand. The brief was to cover gender and feminism in some way, but I didn’t feel qualified to write about these things in the general sense, so I wrote a personal story about my experience having a child in Parliament and then stepping down, and what I think it tells us about the experience of women in politics in general.

The Interregnum comes out in March, right in the middle of Writers’ Week, so the publishers, Bridget Williams Books, convinced the Festival organisers that a panel discussion on the book’s ideas, with three of its contributors, would be a good idea. I was delighted to be invited, and will appear alongside the editor Morgan Godfery and the brilliant poet Courtney Sina Meredith in a session called “Debating New Zealand” on 13 March. Signing the contract that identifed me as “Holly Walker, Writer,” was pretty exciting.

I was in a tizz of totally nerdy fan-girl excitement about Writers’ Week even before I was invited to participate (Miranda July is coming! I booked annual leave to attend events months ago), so when I walked into my local library to see The Writers’ Festival by Stephanie Johnson (2015) on the “staff picks” display, it seemed fated that I should read it.

I’ve enjoyed Johnson’s previous novels, especially The Shag Incident, which explored such potent New Zealand territory as rugby, feminism and violence, and The Writing Class, the 2012 predecessor to The Writers’ Festival, and this I think might be my favourite so far. It’s that rare thing – a perfectly executed satire that is at the same time generous and loving towards its subjects. After all, Johnson should know, she co-founded the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival in 1999. I can imagine that her former colleagues, who would no doubt recognise their experiences here, could enjoy being gently sent up while appreciating her wit and compassion (though perhaps that is naive of me, a wide-eyed wannabe of the literary world).

Many of the characters from The Writing Class reappear, two years on. Merle, the teacher, has lost her job and set about writing a new book under the pseudonym of a tough young woman with a “great story” – the writer, apparently, is as much of a product as her writing in the contemporary publishing game. A couple of her students have achieved success, while a third, Jacinta, is flailing around procrastinating on facebook, neglecting her children, and “fucking around pretending to write.” Poor old Jacinta – beautiful and tragically self-unaware – is excruciating to read for anyone who likes to imagine themselves an unrecognised genius on the verge of literary success. The reality is quite different.

The new character is Rae, Merle’s niece, recently returned from New York with a troubled marriage and a couple of kids in tow, to become the Artistic Director of the Oceania Writers’ Festival. I liked Rae – she’s tough, flawed (refreshingly, her marriage is mostly on the rocks because of her infidelities, not her husband’s, although he gets there in the end) and hard-working. I related to her with a stressful job, emotional baggage, but a genuine, tender love for her children, who get palmed off with their iPads just a little too much. Mostly I learned from her that organising a writers’ festival is bloody hard work. Who’d do it? I resolved to be as speedy and helpful in all my dealings with the Writers’ Week organisers as possible.

I’m a bit one-eyed and feminist these days – I was mostly interested in Johnson’s female characters, and she draws them well. They are real, relatable, likeable enough, but also flawed enough to make you quite uncomfortable at times. Just like real women.

I recommend this book to writers and readers alike. I read it half like a kid pressed up with my nose against a candy store window, and half like an adult who knows that sugar isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Still, I’m looking forward to my little taste in March.



2016: still reading dangerously, and now writing too

So my deadline – November 2015 – came and went, and I’m still only reading books by women. Technically speaking, I’m allowed to read work by men now, but I just haven’t wanted to – maybe I’ve forgotten how.

When I started this blog, I thought I would review every book I read, but I think I set the bar too high for myself, and I had a lot going on in my personal life that got in the way. In that sense I suppose you could say that I “failed” in this project, but in every other way, it’s been a resounding success.

Back in October 2014, I had some kind of epiphany reading Lena Dunham write about the real stuff inside her head – I could do this too! But I wasn’t sure how, and I thought reading only women writing would help me identify the space I wanted to carve our for myself, the things I wanted to say. And it worked.

I realised that mostly, I had a lot to get off my chest about my experiences in the last few years – having a baby in Parliament, leaving Parliament, supporting a sick partner, struggling with my own anxiety, coming to terms with motherhood. Slowly, I started sharing pieces about parts of that experience, and offering them for publication, and with each one, I processed my emotions, and my confidence grew.

You can read some of those pieces here.

In 2016, I hope to write and publish a lot more, and I have a few other ideas up my sleeve, like a pocast whose first episode is coming very soon. I thought about getting rid of this blog, since it’s been so infrequently updated, but I do plan to keep reading books by women, and I’d like to share them, so in a very low-key way, that’s what I’ll continue to do.

Short she-book reviews #3: The First Bad Man by Miranda July

the first bad man cover

Genre: Novel

What’s it all about? Cheryl Glickman lives alone, works for a company that produces self-defence-inspired fitness videos, and lusts after one of the board members. When her bosses send their slovenly daughter Clee to stay with her, Cheryl is shaken (literally) out of her comfortable, but pretty miserable existence, into a partner and ultimately a mother

What’s great about it? It’s unlike anything you’ve ever read, and better than most of it. Plus it has one of the best and most accurate descriptions of what it’s like to become a mother that I’ve ever read.

What’s not so great? It’s pretty confronting in its radical honesty, and can be a little uncomfortable, but it’s fine once you get used to it.

What I learned about women’s writing: Women have all kinds of crazy shit going on in their heads, and the world is a better place when they write it down and share it with others.

Someone else’s review: “In literary fiction, male writers who use lightness and humor, who spin wildly in the space between one sentence and the next, who push against what’s expected, are described as ‘wry’ or ‘satirical’ or just plain ‘funny.’ Women are bestowed a tiny, glittering bless-her-heart tiara of ‘whimsy.’ Reflexive condescension absolves us from serious engagement. Miranda July is a woman, and a very serious writer who is also very funny. She’s challenging. Feed ‘whimsy’ to the birds.

Also, you should listen to this Kim Hill interview with Miranda July right now. Two of my heroes at once!