Monday, July 18, 2011

Mana Waka - a piece of history

Trisha and I went to a screening of a new print of Merita Mita's 1990 re-visioning of Mana Waka, a film documenting the felling, carving and floating of Maori waka (canoes) by Tainui, in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi, in 1940.

Aside from its historical significance the film is notable for a few interesting filmic variations. The use of voice-over (bi-lingual) was sparing, filling in detail only when it added to what was shown on screen. Much of the running time was filled with scenes with no spoken words, but relying on the sounds of the bush (axes, timberjacks, yoked bullock teams, the birds and insects of the forest.) Because these sounds were primary, they were in fact dialogue, in the way that another film might use spoken words. The sounds had an ebb and flow, a dynamic range. The audience responded to moments (when the waka base was being transported down a steep gully it almost upended - and the audience gasped) as they would to any other filmic dialogue. With intensity, with intimacy.

The film was a reminder of the giant of NZ cinema that was Merita Mita, and it was a privilege to be in the presence of her whanau and iwi in the theatre.  

Waka on the Thames

Here's a link to a short article and other links about the historic floating of the waka commissioned by Toi Maori Aoteroa (The Maori Arts Council) on the Thames in London earlier this month. I have to say, with an eye to history, this image has a mischievous edge that makes me smile.

There's certainly an Alternative History novel in there somewhere.

Katerina Mataira - Groundbreaker

Sad news on Saturday of the death of Katerina Mataira at the age of 79.

Katerina was a groundbreaker in the field of writing for children in Te Reo Maori, both as a writer and a translator. She was born in Tokomaru Bay in 1932 and trained as a teacher and art educator.

Katarina had nine children and leaves behind 50 grandchildren and great grandchildren and one great great grandchild.

In the few times I spoke to her I always found her wise and very progressive in her thinking, while retaining her feel for roots. She had a strong sense of the linking of past, present and future and of language and the arts being a living thing, constantly changing but always born of the past, of whakapapa, of those who have carved their paths before us.

A tangi will be held on Tuesday at Ohinewaiapu Marae in Rangitukia, 25km north east of Ruatoria. Farewell to a great lady.

Legacy Writing and Self Publishing workshops in Whangarei

The Story Bridge ran 2 days of Legacy Writing workshops in Whangarei last weekend. We had around 30 attendees over the 4 workshops, including several people repeating seminars. Some took the Intro to Legacy Writing, then the Advanced the next day. Some took either of the Legacy workshops then the Self Publishing workshop on the Sunday afternoon.

Whangarei city library is a modern, glass walled building with great light and a real feeling of space and airiness and had a real feel of community. Reminds us of the centrality of libraries in communities, especially in the smaller centres. Trisha and I headed out to Whangarei heads the afternoon before the workshop. Man, it was cold but, I think the term is 'bracing.' Beaches are awesome in any season, in any weather, with the earth showing you her different faces, different voices.

Most of the attendees at the workshop were from the Whangarei area.Some were well advanced into their writing projects, and a few were just starting out on theirs, so we had a great mix of students.

Participants learned how to approach their legacy/life story project as a writer would - using storytelling approaches to engage the reader in your story - including:

  • description using Show/Don't Tell
  • use of metaphor and motif
  • how to layout dialogue to ebb and flow and contain a sense of place and landscape
  • how to bring your dialogue scenes to life (to give the reader insight into the people in your legacy story - even though they never met them)
  • how to structure the narrative, including flashback technique to capture moments from the past in immediate time
  • how to think of your writing in terms of both the horizontal (plot and sequential event) and vertical axis (resonance, meaning, character insight)
Jocelyn's Self-Publishing workshop was an intensive introduction to the field, including comparisons with traditional and self-publishing options, and the whole process mapped out from finalizing the writing, to book production costings, print/e-book comparisons, down to writing your back-cover blurb and arranging book launches.

Many thanks go to Paula Urlich and her dedicated team at Whangarei Library for making us all welcome. 

The next legacy writing workshop series will be in Auckland, likely early next year. Will keep you posted.

Jocelyn and I are running a couple of workshops at Auckland University Continuing Education in August, on self-publishing and blogging (aimed at writers looking to develop an online presence). Here's a link to more info.

While we were at Whangarei Library we checked out the model of the proposed Hundertwasser Whangarei art centre. Frederick Hundertwasser is intrinsically linked with the north, and this would be a great addition to the region's public buildings.

I love Hundertwasser's playful pragmatism. A grass slope leading up to the roof of a building is a classic of the guy. Reminds me of all the unused roofs in Auckland City. When I look out from my office at AUT and see all the great spaces just left for air conditioning exhaust towers and roof tilings. We need more green, grass, trees. Even if it's seven floors up.

Friday, July 15, 2011

We give thanks - a visit to Whangarei library

On the back wall of the ground floor of Whangarei library there’s a painting (created in 2003) by a group of local intermediate students. These young artists acknowledge the influence of Nigel Brown and their work reflects his iconic paintings which tell stories and myths using a mixture of images and words.

Around the outside of the painting are the words: we give thanks for the invention of the handle without it there would be many things we couldn’t hold on to. Inside the painted frame there are images of hands grasping saw handles, rose stems, a garden spade or fork, the handle of a ghettoblaster, the woven flax of a kite, a carving, and the elegant, flowing lines of (what to me looks like) a seahorse. Beside each image the students have written their names.

Looking at the painting I thought of cups, teapots, scissors, door handles, the smooth bone handle of an engraved knife I bought in Spain in 2009; the way my hand curves around things, that useful opposable thumb that allows so many things including the ability to grip a pen in order to write; the way a child’s feather-light hand held mine as we crossed a busy road.

Then I thought of how we hold on, hold out, hold forth, hold down, hold back, hold up, how we try and get a handle on things, how we say, ‘get a grip’ if we think someone’s losing the plot. I thought about how porous and flexible and metaphoric language is, yet how it’s rooted in our sensory experience. I thought about how metaphor is a handle, how it opens connections between my physical and emotional senses and my imagination, how making connections is a way of creating meaning.

I took a couple of photos of the painting on my cellphone because by then I wanted a copy so I could go back and re-read it.

When I look at it again now, I think about how some paintings, like some songs and movies, work on me like a really good short story - how the artist/writer/actor/singer creates spaces for the reader/viewer to enter; how being able to transform objects into texts makes them alive and three dimensional and how powerful and pleasing that is.

For all of the above, we give thanks - without them there would be many things we couldn’t hold on to.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Short Review: 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize Shortlist

For those of you who like to keep up with short story collections here is a link to the shortlist of one of the most prestigious international short story competitions. I see that New Zealand author Sue Orr, who was longlisted for her latest collection, didn't make it to the shortlist.

The Short Review: 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize Shortlist

Monday, July 4, 2011

Continuing Education...

I just finished teaching a week's intensive course on Writing the Novel, at Auckland University's Continuing Education department's, Winter Writer's week.

It was a good course, spread over 5 days. Keep an eye out at their website for upcoming courses in short stories, the novel, life writing, and freelance journalism and non-fiction.

In other course news Jocelyn Watkin and I are running a two day workshop this weekend (July 9/10) at the Whangarei library, on Legacy Writing (writing personal narratives using the new multimedia technology). Only $25 per workshop.

You can check out the info and book here.

New biography of James Joyce

The new biography of James Joyce by Ian Bowker, has received a lukewarm review in The Guardian. Here is a link to the review. I had to smile at the reviewer's (Adam Mars-Jones) point about the biography's use of cliches.

Joyce loved cliches, but only for the purposes of taxidermy. Ulysses in particular is full of them, stuffed and mounted. What would he have made of: "Unknowingly, Nora Barnacle from Galway had made a date with history"? Or: "Little escaped the voracious mind of the observant epiphanist"? Such formulas are a challenge to parody.

The first example comes close to my my most hated cliche in all writing: Little did they know... Such phrases should attract demerit points, even an instant fine.

 Ulysses was originally published by a 'group of friends', led by Sylvia Beach. Beach was an extraordinary supporter of writers in Paris in the 1920's including Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. I recall reading in a bio of Hemingway that Beach was in fact the only friend Hemingway ever had whom he never 'fell out' with.

One notable NZ book published in a similar way was The Bone People by Keri Hulme, only brought to life as a published book by a group of friends, when publishers had dodged it. Those who seek books of significance have much to thank such passionate supporters for. 

Looking at the photo of James Joyce and Sylvia Beach reminds me of going to the modern incarnation of her famous bookstore in Paris, and enjoying the history of it, then realizing it isn't the original store nor on the original spot. I believe the original spot is now a $2 junk store. Kind of sums up so much of the modern world, really...

Controversy: A Publisher's Dream

There is a biting article by Paul Little in today's Herald on Sunday about how the controversy over Ian Wishart's book on Macsyna King will in fact likely generate more sales. There are many angles to come at this deeply troubling case and its aftermath, including who gets to benefit.  I like (and cringe at) Little's description of Ian Wishart as a 'controversialist.'

Some of the aspects of the media's role in this case are beginning to remind me of the dark satire Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre, about the aftermath of a school shooting in the United States and the frenzied selling of the story as commercial artifact. In that frenzy all emotional traces of the deaths (and lives) of the victims became fainter and fainter.  

Here is a link to Paul Little's full article.

This whole issue opens up enormous questions of how we illuminate and investigate tragedy, and the processes by which we can actually learn something. When thinking of this case I always think of Pita Sharples' response when asked if the Kahui twins (at their tangi/funeral) looked peaceful.

He said simply, 'They looked dead.'

The banality of evil

Thinking about my post below about Franz Kafka and noting Trisha's reference to the 'banality'  of criminals we prefer to disassociate ourselves from reminds me of Hannah Arendt, the influential German Jewish philosopher and her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. She observed at close quarters the trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, kidnapped from a Buenos Aires street and taken to Jerusalem to stand accused of his crimes in the Holocaust.

Here is a link to some biographical and educational material about Arendt's life and work. Her notes on Eichmann and her subsequent book (revisited and reviewed here at Steve Reads) spoke of how easily a figure of such evil fitted into the world, how he seemed too ordinary to be evil, and in many ways the difference between he and we who think of ourselves as being outside of such capability are never as great, or as concrete as we think. It is an uncomfortable read, and resonant and disturbing in far wider contexts than war crimes.

Misuses of power and the exploitation of uneven power relationships are all around us. We stand righteous against bullying then watch reality television shows that ridicule people perceived as weaker than 'us' or just different. We ask how bullies are created then back politicians who exploit existing prejudices against the vulnerable (unemployed, beneficiaries) for electoral gain. We talk of our collective generosity then try to drive down the wages of the lowest paid among us, for the 'good of the country.' I'm also puzzled by our revulsion of violence against children, then our championing of it with all sorts of euphemisms from 'disciplining' to 'teaching hard lessons.' Language is such a malleable tool, it can wrap acceptability around almost anything.

After all, Eichmann believed he was one of the righteous.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Franz Kafka

Today is Franz Kafka's birthday. My first encounter with Kafka (as many people's probably was) was in being asked to read Metamorphosis, as part of Intermediate School English class. My first reading took it at face value, thinking about it as surreal fiction. Later readings saw it as metaphoric, with it being more a story of prejudice, applying a searing lens to the characters and how they spoke of the world at large.

Subsequent reading led me to his novels, namely The Trial, with its main character 'K' lost in the most labyrinthine processes of legally driven oppression.

Kafka had nothing published in his lifetime and in fact asked his friend Max Brod to destroy all his manuscripts on his death. Thankfully, Brod did not do so. I always liked Hannah Arendt's famous quote about Kafka's 'later' success.

"during his lifetime he could not make a decent living, Kafka will now keep generations of intellectuals both gainfully employed and well-fed."

Here is an interesting site devoted to Kafka with many resources and articles. Great to see people keeping at it, keeping the names of authors alive, as part of our living whakapapa as writers.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Story of the week

The recent media attention (on Facebook and elsewhere) about the release of a book about Macsyna King's perspective on what happened - and why - to her two children (the Kahui twins) has highlighted the problem that comes from having a simplistic view of what constitutes a 'good/proper' story and one that therefore should be published.

Some of those who have expressed their views on Facebook have suggested not just protesting about, or not buying, the book but banning it. Why? Because the author (s) are unpleasant and want to make a buck about an awful tragedy? Perhaps some are motivated by annoyance or even disgust at that possibility.

However, my reading of the demands for a ban is that its an easy way to create an 'us and them' stance about child abuse. There are good people like us who would never do such a thing, and then there are monsters like Macsyna King that we can righteously hate and despise. In other words, the 'story' being told by many of those who have commented on Facebook is that this is a good old-fashioned tale of goodies and baddies, heroes and villians and we all know - even before we have read it - who is wrong and who is to blame. Sounds like Hollywood to me, not the real life complexity, banality and misery of child abuse, or the fact that as a community we are all guilty of turning our faces away from the neglect and abuse of the vulnerable, and of protecting bullies and abusers by our own silences.

Whatever the truth is about the awful tragedy of the Kahui twins banning the book won't make a jot of difference.

Two other stories being 'published' this week have much more complexity and depth: the interview with Rob Hamill on National Radio by Kim Hill this morning on the release of a documentary about the capture, torture and murder of his brother by the Khumer Rouge, called Brother Number One, and the release of Waitangi Report Wai 262 today in Northland, which has taken two decades to see the light of day - I wait with baited breath to see the public response.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Hollywood loses its nerve...

I didn't think last year's hit movie Inception was an exceptional film, as this article from GQ Magazine online says, but it was at least a rare attempt by a Hollywood studio movie to explore a story with intelligent ideas and some range of psychological depth. I felt the creativity of ideas in the film's first act got taken over as the film went on by the usual over-reliance on special effects. But it was an attempt to get away from - (to quote from the article)...

 ...the menu for this year: four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children's book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon...

Article author Mark Harris posits that Hollywood's terror of producing any movie not aimed directly at the youth market can be traced back to the 1980's hit Top Gun, an awful piece of schlock if ever there was one. Films, encompassing that grand old word - stories - have been superseded by brand management.

Such an unrelenting focus on the sell rather than the goods may be why so many of the dispiritingly awful movies that studios throw at us look as if they were planned from the poster backward rather than from the good idea forward. Marketers revere the idea of brands, because a brand means that somebody, somewhere, once bought the thing they're now trying to sell.

To keep us sane there are still decent Indie movies coming from places other than Hollywood. Check out Mike Leigh's superb character study film Another Year.

MM - Personal

The New York Review of books has a very well written article/review by the Western writer Larry McMurtry of a new book of photographs of Marilyn Monroe. The article is worth collecting by itself. There is a touching moment when it mentions a correspondence between Marilyn and the great writer Somerset Maugham.

Here is a link. 

Reading the article reminds me of a piece the film critic Roger Ebert wrote about Marilyn taking a walk, holding her shoes in her hand, with Truman Capote in downtown Manhattan after a funeral of a friend they'd both attended. Monroe had worn an elaborate black veil, not just because it was a funeral but to try to escape the attention of reporters. It worked, and she and Capote were able to escape out a back door.

Ebert is an interesting critic who thankfully just reviews the movies he watches, and doesn't give us a lecture on every subject he knows and holds dear, and in that particular article he achieves the sort of poignancy that would grace a novel. I'll hunt it down.

Seeing the cover shot of Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil reminds me also that an excellent film version of the novel came out 3-4 years ago, one of the more successful book-to-film adaptions I've seen.

Scripted to oblivion

One of the more worrying trends in political communication in recent years has been the very obvious scripting of politicians to 'stay on message.' The hand of the scriptwriter is all too obvious, and we run the risk of never hearing our politicians tackle questions with frankness and honesty.

Consider this appalling example from British politician Ed Miliband. If you saw only a brief 'made for television' soundbite, then you'd get one impression. But the BBC here have put the entire entire charade online. Watch how he says his scripted piece, then faced with 3-4 other genuine questions, says exactly the same thing each time.

This is non-speak, and because the writing itself is likely just a catch all cry to his support base, it's non-writing too. I'd guess most fiction created is more honest than this.

(Nb: at least the Maoi (statues) on Rapanui (Easter Island) have symbolic power.)