Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fast food reading

How we, in the age of Twitter and a rampant internet, are losing the art of sustained reading and contemplation - lit blogger Mark Sarvas discusses this with the help of the erudite visitors to his blog who throw in a host of insightful comments at the foot of the post. Ironically enough, reading this [total time - 8 minutes?] gave me a lot to ... contemplate. But in fact it's not ironic at all. There is a lot to think about on the net, as Sarvas says, it's just that it's there in bite-sized portions that we grab at like fast food [I guess I could have eaten a Big Mac in those eight minutes]. Deep contemplation is harder to find time for, he maintains, and some, like Philip Roth, say novel readers will become as thin on the ground as readers of Latin poetry are now. In fact, I have Jude Morgan's The Taste of Sorrow beside me on the table as I write this. It was there as I read the Sarvas blog. If I'd opened it instead, I could have read a few pages of the book at least [it promises to be rather wonderful but I am not as yet fully engaged with it]. However, now I have to go out and invade the day [grocery shopping, dropping children off, walking the dog]. The Taste of Sorrow will have to wait ... maybe later when I get home... after I've sampled my emails.   

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The whaler, the book and me

It was one of those nights you dream about as an author. Seventy-five people turned out to the Marlborough District Library to hear me talk about The Blue and one of them was Johnny Norton, a former whaler, who  helped me with my research five years ago, and I hadn't seen since. Johnny (above right) was one of the whalers who sat up at the Lookout on Arapawa Island in 2004 as part of the first DOC whale survey team. And I was there too, all those years ago, watching the whalers watching the whales, and taking notes for my novel. Johnny and the other whalers with their binoculars, and the groovy young DOC scientists with their laptops and theodolite, were wonderfully welcoming to a wet-behind-the-ears novelist. Another whaler - Ron Perano - came along last night, but he headed off before the photo opportunity. He joined the DOC survey the year after I was there.

There were other whaling families at the event, too, and people who live on or nearby Arapawa Island. I found myself rolling out all my stories about my research on and about Arapawa Island and the whaling : the marvellous and funny things I discovered, and the wonderful people like Johnny Norton I met on the way. And - feeling a little nervous with real whalers in the front row and not able to put it off any longer - I read a whaling scene.

As I read it I felt glad to be reading it and glad I'd written it. It felt like the words gave life to what these men and their families knew and loved and endured in their lives - elevated it all somehow, put it up there with the epic and elemental stuff of the myths and legends that informed my choice of whaling as a setting for the novel in the first place. It sounds a bit grandiose I suppose - but language is what I know and whaling is what they know and it's as if, without realising it, we'd given each other a gift. As I said to the crowd, I do believe fact is stranger than fiction, and often more compelling and more wonderful, but I believe it's fiction's job to take us there, and allow us to properly hear and see those people and places and events, and to feel empathy, but not in the way you always expect. As artist Francis Bacon said about art, ultimately fiction is about deepening the mystery.

Here's the beginning of the extract I read:

The sky was the colour of barely beaten egg, and the sun newly emerged from behind Arapawa Island streamed clear yellow on Lookout Hill and the men who waited there. Little else was lit at that early hour. A hundred yards below the Lookout the sea was still dark, and the hills behind were in shadow and crisp with frost. Each man on that hilltop felt privileged to be there on the edge of, the very edge of, the waking world.
It wasn't all that serious! I picked this extract because it is the best translation of what I saw and heard up the Lookout when I was there myself - the things the whalers knew, the way they talked and joked with each other, the way they did their job.

By the end of my talk, Johnny and Ron were up the front with me talking about whaling then and now, and the reason for whale conservation - it was rivetting stuff. One man came up at the end and said he'd been dragged along to hear me speak but he had to tell me he'd had a fantastic time. Well, I have to tell you, so did I.

Huge thanks to the Marlborough District Library - to Glenn Webster and the Friends of the Library especially - for looking after me so well and putting on such a fantastic event as part of their 150th celebrations, to NZ Book Month for supporting it, to Blenheim Bookworld [Peter and Charmaine] for selling my books, and to Blenheim for turning on an exquisite 22 degree-day yesterday and giving me such a supportive crowd.

Photo of me and Johnny Norton by Glenn Webster.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Blue in Marlborough and Fiona Kidman a double knight?

Two exciting pieces of news:

The Blue is having its own NZ Book Month event at the Marlborough District Library, 33 Arthur Street, Blenheim tomorrow night - Wednesday October 28 @ 7.30 pm [do ignore the websites that declare the event is on Thursday, it absolutely isn't]. Exciting because Marlborough is at the heart of my novel set on Arapawa Island in Tory Channel and I love taking it back to that part of the world. So far, my South Island events have been in Christchurch and Nelson, but this is my first sortie to Marlborough. I will talk about the research and writing of The Blue, and why I think the story of these 1930s whalers and their families lay in wait for me to write it. Then I read for a bit.

I have my notes ready and in big letters on the first square of card are the words Epic and Elemental. Every talk is different because I work from two note cards scrawled with notes and key words, but I nearly always start with Epic and Elemental. The epic stuff of the life of the whaler in Cook Strait on fast, two-man boats with explosive harpoons, and the elemental world they and their families inhabited. Their families. Well that sends me off in a whole other direction. For this was a time when men were men and women waited... well, they didn't just wait did they? There was washing and sewing and minding the children and feeding the chooks - and sometimes there were secrets too deep to remember and losses too deep to repair. Do come and hear more in Blenheim. It's so much more fun speaking to a crowd.

Speaking of Arapawa Island, one of my favourite NZ authors, Fiona Kidman [author of The Captive Wife also set on Arapawa and one of the reasons we are friends] was tonight presented with the gong for the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres which makes her officially a knight. The French Ambassador announced she'd received the honour at a function earlier this year to launch her memoir Beside the Dark Pool. Well, tonight, after pinning Fiona's honour onto her appropriately red jacket, the deliciously mischievous ambassador Michel Legras opened another slim box and pinned on a second medal - this time the highest order in France: the Legion of Honour. Which from my reading of wikipedia makes Fiona Kidman a double Knight as well as a Dame.

Sounds like a fancy chess move... ! But this time, Fiona wasn't going to be outsmarted. She was reduced to silence by the first knighthood surprise but tonight she had a speech prepared - albeit for one knighthood not two. It ended with some rather lovely poems, especially one about her husband Ian and a perfect time they had at a village in France. You get the feeling that Fiona Kidman, like Katherine Mansfield, might have a bit of poker work on her heart ....

Needless to say Fiona, and her assembled family and friends [some of them going back to her childhood] and colleagues were delighted by the Legion of Honour, and we all took turns to admire the enameled brilliance of both medals and tried to read the tiny French words. I recommended to Fiona that she wears them on a daily basis, and overlapping so they clank gently together as she walks, and she said she would definitely think about it, and as a start she would wear them to breakfast the next day. She agreed it was so much better to enjoy the honours than hide them away in a dark drawer. As fellow blogger Denis Welch said, over the divine fingernail-sized canapes and bottomless breasts of champagne, the French do the best medals.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

'How Ted Hughes Became' and the fine art of mutating the literary lecture

Following on from my post on the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture, for which I have been rapped over the knuckles by some attendees who thought it the best lecture yet and my reference to 'lashings of water' exaggerated (perhaps it was, my apologies), I happened upon a report on the Ted Hughes Memorial Lecture in the UK. It seems this lecture is not the sort where the writer's name blesses a presentation about a general literary theme [the Frame lecture is on the state of literature in NZ], but rather it's based around an aspect of the writer's body of work.

And 'based around' is what it says - outgoing poet laureate Andrew Motion, who delivered the lecture in July, indicated his theme How Ted Hughes Became had mutated and taken on a life of its own, estranged from its source.

What interests me is how the future speakers will approach the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture.  With three different versions of 'the state of literature in NZ' already out there - intelligently and convincingly delivered by eminent writers Owen Marshall, Greg O'Brien and William Taylor - where else can the speakers go? I hope, whoever they are, they keep Motion in mind and allow their genius with words and ideas to allow the 'theme' to mutate and take on a life of its own. Perhaps in deference to her own peculiar genius, Janet Frame's work should be a natural starting place for the lecture, or at least a touchstone, as the poetry of Hughes is for the UK event.

I certainly felt William Taylor's anecdote about his nodding acquaintance with Frame in a Palmerston North supermarket and his excited purchase of her first book, Owls do Cry, was one of the highlights of the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture this year. And how exciting it would be to use this annual event to give Frame this 'framing' if you like - a new way of appreciating her writing and life in a public forum - of seeing what has come from her, and what has gone off in other, gloriously mutated directions. 

So, yes, not something worthy but something that is driven by the very literature it comments on, something separately alive. Mutated. Experimental even. The report on the Hughes Memorial Lecture, written by leading literary blogger dove grey reader, finishes with an apposite quote by Ted Hughes, which could apply just as easily to the art of delivering a memorial lecture on literature:

 'Maybe all a revealing of something that the writer doesn't actually want to say, but desperately needs to communicate. to be delivered of. The writer daren't actually put it into words, so it leaks out obliquely, smuggled through analogies.'
And then there's the lovely end to Greg O'Brien's Frame lecture last year:

If I have learnt anything in the last 20 years it is this:

That New Zealand Literature is our collective work in progress

That literature is a laboratory

That Literature is a prism through which we see the world—and not a mirror held up to the world

Literature is a beach house

Literature is a pulse

Literature is a field of electrical energy

Literature is a wind of fruitfulness

Literature is a life lived

And I remember the lives of Eric McCormick, Dennis McEldowney, Janet Frame, Michael King, Robin Dudding.

Friday, October 23, 2009

To the pure all things are indecent - William Taylor

Award-winning children's/YA author William Taylor did the honours for the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture in Wellington this year, in front of an audience of 80-plus which included Janet Frame's niece, Pamela Gordon, and a phalanx of children's authors and others in the children's book industry.

A relatively controversial writer in the YA market, Taylor has seen the gently satirical Agnes the Sheep banned [one of the conservative US states], and his best-seller Possum Perkins carrying a 'health warning' in Queensland [due to content] and later rejected for republishing in NZ and elsewhere on the grounds of the same content [what people saw as implied incest between father and daughter]. Hence the line in his speech that is the title of this post.

Taylor is the third writer to give this annual lecture - following on from Owen Marshall and Greg O'Brien. The literary state of the nation is the theme and 70-year-old Taylor did this by focusing on his own 40-year history as a writer [including a stint as chair of PEN] and extrapolating that out to show how it was for writers once and how it's changed over the years. As a young writer in literary terms, I found this historical journey interesting. It's always good to put the present day into perspective and hear from the battle-weary how lucky we are now in terms of writer prizes and residencies, and annual top-ups like the author's fund.

When Taylor's first novel Episode came out in 1970 with Whitcombe and Tombes [it was an adult novel], there was only one writer prize available and it was worth only $2,000. There are now a stack of these things including the $100,000 Menton prize and the mixed delights of Creative NZ funding. As Taylor said, one thing a writer had to learn back then was 'thrift' and, despite the increase in financial support across the board, 'thrift' is still - he believes - the name of the game. For one thing, he believes the percentage of books a publisher publishes from the manuscripts that land on his/her desk has dropped from about 2% to 1 %, and instead of only 600 authors applying for the author's fund [an annual payment for books held in NZ libraries], there are now 1700 [and interestingly half of them are children's writers.]

Taylor pointed out, it was -and still is - hard for anyone to make a living as a writer, but he's done that now for 25 years, after a career as a teacher. His ability to do this is no doubt helped by the fact that his books are published all over the world [even Albania!].

It was also good last night to see the writing world from the perspective of a children's author - the ones who, as Taylor said, earn half as much per book and get less from the author's fund per book but usually sell twice as many. He touched on the way children's writers are deemed to be the lesser species in the writing world despite their huge success in NZ and overseas, and despite the fact that they help create the readers that then go on to buy adult books.

Having said that, the lecture was a little dry and unspired at times - Taylor seemed to feel more comfortable reading rather than engaging with the audience, and this wasn't helped by his appearing to be recovering from a cold and requiring lashings of water to ease a dry mouth. There were hints of this notable author's  passions and strong opinions about the state of literature in this country - in both the delivery and content of the speech - and it would have been rather marvellous to have seen him toss the written stuff over his shoulder and plunge heedlessly in, with nothing but a string colourful anecdotes to act as life-buoys. 

The censorship of Taylor's books was certainly a highlight, along with an anecdote about meeting with the late Michael King [who rather than talking about his biography of Frame wanted, instead, to discuss Anges the Sheep] and another about how Taylor was on nodding terms with Janet Frame at a Palmerston North supermarket and never spoke to her despite being the proud owner of a precious first edition of Owls do Cry. There was another lovely strand that ran through Taylor's speech and had begun from the introductory speech by City Councillor Ray Ahipene Mercer. Mercer was a student of Taylor's at Trentham Primary fifty years ago, and remembered him with tremendous warmth as someone who'd helped cement his love for literature. Taylor, in turn, had warm memories of the ebulliant city councillor, and pointed out another student sitting in the audience.

I guess, in the end, Taylor himself is the gold in a speech like that. He is battle-weary but he is also marvellously triumphant after forty years as an author with many successes to his name - and so he deserves to be. It was a shame the lecture wasn't supported by more from the wider literary community, and by that I mean leading adult writers and those in the adult writing and publishing industry. Where were representatives from the International Institute of Modern Letters, for example? It just confirms what Taylor was saying about how children's writers are perceived in this country. More's the pity.

William Taylor is on the NZ Book Council site here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


An illustration from Australian author Shaun Tan's exquisite graphic novel The Arrival. And how I feel today now I'm back on the boat of my novel. Every decision about a scene or character offers up another four or five possibilities, sometimes more. There are days when the sky is a-flutter with them. And I am the man in the hat.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Typewriters: the fates and fingers of authors

Oh Olivetti! My Olivetti. I am sure this is it. My first typewriter. I just found it on and this is what they say about it: A worldwide favorite of students, its also the perfect portable for everyone from poets to PTA secretaries. Yes, poets. That was me - tapping poems on those keys with the small dip for a finger tip, just so, and each key pressing a metal arm with two small metal letters on the end [lower case and upper case], or a question mark or colon or quotation mark, and each tap would push that letter or mark into the paper, and leave a small shapely dent. 

Then there was the ower of the 'shift' - push it down and the whole of the key structure would lift like subjects before royalty to make a lower case letter a capital letter. At the end of each line, the lever had to be grabbed and pushed along so the black rubber paper roller [known as the carriage] pulled the page up and along to the start of the next line. Ch-ding. And sometimes the ribbon spool would stop feeding the ribbon through and I'd need to fiddle with a tiny clip to make it run again, sometimes I wouldn't notice and the metal letters would tap on the same spot long enough to cut right through it, or sometimes the ribbon would run dry of black or red ink and need replacing. And to correct mistakes, there was whiteout in bottles or on slips of paper which you put under the key before pressing the letter again.

[You know, I wonder if the second Olivetti is more like mine in fact - plainer, a little heavier?]

There's something about the act of typing, something expressive about it. The whole body wields the arms which push the hands which tap those finger tips, and it's like the fingers push and dig at the same time. They work to get those letters onto the paper. And the act of pushing the carriage along to get to the next line is like being a conductor of an orchestra with all the energy and showmanship it implies. I remember my father - his big hands tapping, his whole body throwing itself behind them, chucking that roller along at the end of a line with a loud and satisfying DING. My mother was more circumspect more compact about it, less ding-y, really.

I suppose the amazing thing is both my parents used typewriters as both of them are writers. The Olivetti was theirs. I inherited it. I tapped my early poems on it, and my student essays. Stories sometimes too. I loved it. It made my poems look like poems and my essays look tidy and formal. It helped make me a real writer.
For some reason, after university when I left NZ to live in England, I bought myself a new typewriter. Had the old one broken? Or did I just want something fancy and new and mine? I bought an Olympia. It's still in the garage in its case. Or I think it's an Olympia. I should just go and check, but it's late. It certainly looked very like this - but perhaps a little smaller and lighter? I like the blurb that goes with it: The writer's typewriter of the 70s. Ever since their introduction, Olympia SM 8 & 9 models have been very closely tied to the fates and fingers of authors and writers. They're dependable, comfortable to use, and nice and solid in feel and function. This machine is probably the most preferred writing tool for anyone prefers a manual and it sure will serve for many years to come.

'The fates and fingers of authors and writers', well who can argue with that? I've just found out on [which has a host of bios of typewriting authors] that Paul Auster got an Olympia in the 70s, not long before I got mine. This is him on the left. But back when I typed on my Olympia in our small London flat not too far from Primrose Hill, I didn't know Auster's work. Back then, I was like Sylvia Plath, angrily tapping angry stuff, enough to annoy the elderly Hungarian refugee downstairs. Except this was Plath's typewriter below [the actual one apparently]: a large, heavy Royal.

Nik, one of my writing students, bought himself a Royal this year - like Hemingway rather then Plath. In fact here, thanks to the power of the internet, is Hemingway's actual typewriter. 

It's been lovely reading typewritten work again. The way it's not absolutely perfect. The way you can see how the letters have found their place on the page, and without too much trouble you can imagine the noise and the orchestration behind them; and then it's no small leap to imagine the brain fitting those letters together to make the words. This is writing as a physical act, a theatrical, memorable act - my father throwing the carriage along so hard I suspected it might part with the typewriter one day, neighbours agitated with the angry clatter of my poems, and Auster - look at him - his fingers are fair twitching with expectation.

Monday, October 12, 2009



by Philip Larkin

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

This poem faces the scribbles and appointments of my week next week inside my yellow, treasure trove of a Faber Diary. I flicked forward just now to write something relatively uninteresting: 'marking' [October 19-23] and something interesting: 'Janet Frame Lecture' [Te Papa, 6pm, October 22], and there it was. After an especially chaotic, drivel of a day, the poem stopped me a moment, allowed calm to pool around my feet, made me smile.

Really, Larkin gets it - the bigger picture: life, death, religion, love, the march of days - and offers to the reader not the whole catastrophe but the exact point at which these things catch the light. That corner or curve or secret niche - caught in brightness and spilling with shadow. 

There, he seems to say. He doesn't dwell, he just remarks, simply, gloomily at times, cynically at others, as if these things have just that moment caught his eye, then he departs shaking his head. More on Larkin and his work here and here.   And a comment on his poem An Arundel Tomb earlier on the blog.

Postscript: Found this terrific quote on the link above which helps dispense with the idea of Larkin as a total curmudgeon. The author is quoting critic James Naremore at this point and later turns to another critic called King.

"...The greatest virtue in Larkin's poetry is not so much his suppression of large poetic gestures as his ability to recover an honest sense of joy and beauty." The New York Times quotes Larkin as having said that a poem "represents the mastering, even if just for a moment, of the pessimism and the melancholy, and enables you—you the poet, and you, the reader—to go on." King senses this quiet catharsis when he concludes: "Although one's final impression of the poetry is certainly that the chief emphasis is placed on a life 'unspent' in the shadow of 'untruth,' moments of beauty and affirmation are not entirely denied. It is the difficulty of experiencing such moments after one has become so aware of the numerous self-deceptions that man practices on himself to avoid the uncomfortable reality which lies at the heart of Larkin's poetic identity."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

The Lost Salt Gift of Blood - such a wonderful title for so many reasons -  and such a book, too - blasted by the northern hemisphere version of the same weather that was blasting us today. Sitting reading by the roaring fire lit by my husband, I am rendered almost invisible as the winds rage and the sea slaps - outside the window, inside my head.

The book is the first collection of short stories by Canadian author Alistair MacLeod. It came to my attention when reviewer Iain Sharpe suggested the wind-slashed, isolated island life of The Blue might have something in common with the stories in the 1976 MacLeod book, which are set on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and in Newfoundland.

Before you read more - click on this video of  Cape Breton musicians Qristina and Quinn Bachand playing the traditional music that pervades the place and the book. MacLeod talks of 'the near-Elizabethan songs and ballads that had sailed from County Kerry and Devon and Cornwall. All about the wild, wide sea and the flashing silver dagger and the lost and faithless lover' - but the fiddle and guitar music is different from the songs it seems, coming direct from the shores of Scotland and meant for dancing. I found the Bachands quite by accident on youtube last week and was smitten. It's raw, wind-swept, stuff.  

Anyway, since the lovely Sharpe book review which mentioned The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, I've kept an eye out for it ever since. But not until September this year, at the giant book fair at the TSB arena, did I catch sight of it: on my second visit, an hour from closing, and everything down to a dollar a book. The Lost Salt was sitting nonchalently on top of a pile of the overlooked.

I snatched it and then looked guiltily over each shoulder, as you do, to see if anyone else had noticed my greed. The place was pretty empty, but there to my left - less than a book-length away - was Lloyd Jones.

I held up my prize and he nodded amiably. It was his second trip to the book fair, too, apparently. The first trip was to collect up books for a library in Bougainville where Mr Pip is famously set.

I am only a little way into the title story so I can't tell you what The Lost Salt Gift of Blood means yet, but so far I am loving these elemental stories where men's trousers snap in the wind when they pee, and women have to insist the old horse is put down so he doesn't cost children their meals during an icy winter.

All this for only $1.

And I've got a stack from the fair still to go.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Frank Sargeson and Paul and me

It was Open Day at Frank Sargeson's bach in Takapuna at the weekend, and it was my eldest son's 21st birthday. A nice collision of events.

Seven years ago, Paul was inhaling the classics and short stories and NZ lit at the rate of a book and a half a week - some of them massive tomes by the likes of Dickens and Dostoevsky. He had more time for this than most because, for various reasons, he was doing his schooling at home that year. He'd just discovered Sargeson's short stories and so a visit to Auckland cried out for a trip to the writer's famous fibrolite bach [interior photo above].

One afternoon - sunny, I remember - we abandoned the rest of the family and caught a cab to the Takapuna Library where we understood we could pick up the key. I wandered all over the library until I found someone who could help me. She handed the key over as if we were popping in to the feed the cat. Then off we went in the taxi to 14 Esmonde Road. where one of NZ's foremost writers had lived and worked from 1931 - 1982.

The cab pulled up by the hedge. The travel guide wasn't lying, it was truly unprepossessing. We told the driver to pick us up in an hour, and we went gingerly in through the gate and up to the front door. The key slid into the lock and we stepped into - if I remember rightly, I can't put my hand on the notes I took back then - a porch with a daybed where Sargeson slept. The air was the air of a bach left closed for the winter, and at the same time it felt as if we were walking into a home which was still being lived in, as if we should call out, 'don't worry, it's just us!'

There were hats on the coat hooks and books left on tables and shelves. The shelves were groaning with books, in fact. We could hear them.

And there was the kitchen bench where Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame had lunch every day when she was living and writing in a shed out the back [no longer there.] I'm pretty sure it was usually soup made from the vegetables Sargeson grew, and they'd talk about what they'd written that morning and the book they were both reading at the time. Sargeson was - to use a modern phrase - 'mentoring' Frame. So, and again this is from memory, they read the same book and discussed it to encourage her writing.

In the morning, Sargeson would tap on the door of the shed and ask how she was going, and if she wasn't writing, Frame would tap madly on the typewriter 'The quick brown fox..' so he thought she was busy and would go away. Of course I could have that wrong but the story has stuck with me.

We admired the kitchen bench and the books and the relaxed clutter and disarray. Then feeling like Goldilocks, we sat in the chairs - the exact ones in the photograph above. And we sat. And we talked about Sargeson and talked about Frame and talked about their books. And the dust we'd disturbed drifted in the watery sunlight. And we talked some more.We had an hour, remember.

I had no camera to take photographs but I remember it so clearly. It was one of those perfect times when everything coheres - when the stuff of us and what we've done and are doing, and who we are and where we are, and all those dusty ghosts thronging the windows, come together and say in a ridiculously loud whisper: 'this.' This.

For this is us - my son, Paul, and I. It's books and talking and thinking and writing. And music, too, and, recently, films and philosophy. He taught me as much that year as I taught him I think.About a host of classics I'd never read and those I had. About the joys of rediscovering writers I hadn't read for years. About how reading is simply in some people's DNA. How making time for reading and writing can be as natural as drinking water - you just have to claim a place - the whole length of the couch, a desk with a chair - and do that thing you were meant to do.

How well Paul fitted into Frank's chair, and into that cosy little room with all the books. We didn't want to leave. We talked about how astonishing it was that we could just let ourselves into a national treasure like that - how New Zealand it was. And so we sat and talked until the taxi came.

In seven years, we've never been back. Well not back back. We still do it, all that talking and reading and writing and sitting in chairs and disturbing dust. And soup. We both love soup.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Samoa once


she steps into the garden
on slender feet
under a hat of brimming whiteness
a startling face of teak

and round her skirts
a hundred blue butterflies rise
their wings
snippets of sky

                                              Mary McCallum

We were in Samoa 12 years ago. We stayed for six weeks. We stayed on Upolu where we swam in the deepest bluest pool with secret chambers inside the rocks, ate palusami and papaya, saw a church with an enormous round window without glass that framed the sky, and swam with schools of iridescent fish - one of which, a trigger fish, bit our son. One night an enormous beetle flew inside the shirt of our friend Leo as we sat outside in the moist night air drinking whisky. In the evenings, we drove past the matai in their shirts and dark lava lavas flanking the road. 

Every day I would try out the Samoan my friend Lualemana Tino Pereira had taught me long before that: Oamaioi? Manuia fa'afetai. I read Albert Wendt and Sia Figiel and that got me inside the fales, inside the minds of the locals, just a little bit. When we took the ferry to the 'Big Island' of Savai'i, a young woman on the upper deck told me she wasn't allowed to read Figiel because the author told stories she shouldn't about what went on inside the fales. The young woman saw the way our boys didn't always listen to what we said. She asked what my husband would do to them when we got home.

On Savai'i, we saw the blue butterflies at a place run by a family of Samoan Italians. Our younger son climbed trees with the grandson of the woman in the white hat; he picked up enormous beetles and held them in his hand. On Savai'i, we swam in a pool with giant turtles and saw one wrap its flippers - surely, lovingly - around the man who cared for it. We climbed a secret 'pyramid' that could have been built as a tower to watch for Tongan invaders. We jumped off rocks into waterfall pools and slept in a fale on the beach and watched our chubby baby daughter carried around on the hips of young Samoan women as if she weighed nothing at all. 

Back on Upolu, we stayed a few nights at a smart resort to end our visit. It was called Coconuts. It rained nearly every day but it was always hot - a hot wet heat that didn't allow things to dry properly. It was like we were always swimming. When the rain cleared, the sand was white and the water blue, a kind of perfection. One morning we woke to the news that Princess Diana had died.

Every night at Coconuts, an older Samoan man sat outside our fale to guard the baby while we went to eat. I would sit with him sometimes after we got back and we'd talk in halting English/Samoan. He told me where all his family had scattered to: New Zealand, Australia. Like many Samoans, he told me these things with pride. The children were making money and sending it back. They were doing well, achieving things. We managed to exchange a lot of information despite the language differences - so many Samoan words are similar to Maori, with an 'l' where the 'r' is. So many words for family don't need translation. Each night he would ask me, Oamaioi? And I would reply, Manuia fa'afetai, oamaioi? Manuia, he would say. Just fine.