The World Where You Are
The 2008 Neustadt Lecture
By way of further introducing myself to you, I would like to tell you briefly about the place in New Zealand where I live, and from there to lead into some thoughts about the work of a fiction writer and a little of what the process may involve.
I come from a place in New Zealand called Hongoeka Bay, which is right by the sea and is situated thirty kilometers from the capital city of Wellington on the North Island. There are about twenty-seven houses in this small settlement, and because we are by the sea we like to spend our leisure time fishing—either from small boats or from the rocks on the shore. We can gather shellfish there when the weather is calm and the tide is low. Or even when the tides are not so good, if you’re the owner of a wetsuit (and if you’re much younger than what I am), you can go diving in much deeper water. When the weather’s rough and the waves are high, the surfers among us pick up their boards and go surfing.
It’s a stony, rocky, and quite rugged coastline but a good place for walking or for family picnics. There’s always plenty of driftwood about that we can gather, make a fire, and cook our fish or shellfish or maybe a few sausages.
It’s the beginning of spring in Aotearoa, New Zealand, at the moment, and after quite a harsh winter we’re all looking forward to better weather so we can get to the water.
The land we live on, the settlement that I am speaking of, is on ancestral land that has been handed down to us through generations, from our ancestors. It is a remnant of land of three interrelated tribal or family groups. Because of it being ancestral land, it means that everyone in our community is related to me or is married to a relative of mine. Some are closely related. For example, we have a son and daughter and their families living there. My brother lives in front of me. Several of my first cousins are close by. Others are more distantly related through common ancestry.
So when I was a child staying there I was among grandparents and other elders as well as aunts, uncles, and cousins. And this was like having several grandparents, many mothers and fathers, and many brothers and sisters. Now living there as an older person I still have my same cousins around me, and our children and their children have grown up together. When Māori people speak of family we include extended family, those related through genealogy. Even those no longer living are considered to be still part of the family.
There are a range of occupations and professions in our community. Among us are builders, drivers, artists, office workers, public servants, health professionals, and teachers. My husband and I both trained as teachers. I left teaching in 1984 to become a full-time writer, and my husband, Waiariki, continued a career in education.
As part of our community we have a carved and decorated ancestral meeting house. Ours is not an old house. It is a house we built ourselves—raising finances, using our own voluntary labor and our own artists. It was a task that took about fifteen years. The house was dedicated and opened in 1997.
This is where we get together for meetings, for cultural and spiritual events, for teaching and learning, and for all sorts of social occasions such as birthday celebrations and weddings. This is where we carry out traditional rituals and ceremonies—especially so when someone dies. Along with the building of the meeting house has come the building and growing of ourselves, especially in the learning and use of the Māori language, our arts and traditions.
Adjacent to the meeting house is a kitchen and dining room facility, so when we welcome visitors, whether they have come to pay respects to the dead or for any of many reasons, they are able to be accommodated—to sleep in the meeting house and to have meals, which we prepare for them, in the dining room. Sometimes we host twenty people, sometimes a hundred or more. This can be a lot of work, but what I like about it is that all generations work together on all that needs doing to make our visitors feel welcome and comfortable.
Because I live a family / extended family / community life, I suppose it is not surprising that this is evident in the writing that I do. Exploring intergenerational relationships interests me greatly. In the writing of my novel Potiki I have drawn very much on the place where I live, in its setting and the type of community it is. Although the characters are all created characters, the issues surrounding land, which give foundation to the story, are ones that Māori communities live with every day.
The issues faced by the family in Baby No-Eyes are firmly based in reality. The characters in the stories “Valley” and “It Used to Be Green Once” lived in communities similar to the one I have described.
What I am doing, then, is writing about what I know.
It is what we know—the touchables, reachables, the experiences and thoughts that we have, that are central to the work of a writer—the things that surprise, excite, hurt, or move us in some way.
I am often asked why I became a writer, and I don’t really know the answer to that. But as a child I did like the written word. I loved to read though I didn’t have many books at all. I could read by the time I went to school. But I didn’t have writer role models, didn’t know anyone who wrote. Except that my mother wrote letters now and again, I didn’t see anyone writing.
Sometimes when people ask me why I became a writer, I tell them that it is because my parents worked in a stationery factory. My father used to bring home paper for us to write and draw on. I sometimes think that may be the true reason I became a writer—that fact that we had the raw material.
My parents both left school during the depression of the 1930s to work in a stationery factory, and that is where they met. Although my parents were not role models as far as actual writing went, they did share stories with us. Quite often these were family anecdotes or snippets about their own childhoods. But sometimes they were even less than that. They were just little one-liners that they would leave us with, that were funny or amazing in some way, and memorable.
For example, my mother told us about a great-great-grandfather who had two sets of teeth—two rows top and two rows bottom—and that they were very useful to him when climbing ship’s rigging. Or my father would say, “You know your Uncle Jack rode on a whale.”
Now the imagination could do wonders with unexplained morsels like that. Less can be more. I realize now that the Uncle Jack who rode on a whale may have done so when the poor dead animal was being towed ashore by a whaling boat. But in those days, what I imagined was that this fabled uncle spent his days riding the oceans of the world on the back of a whale, having all kinds of adventures.
If I was wanting to give advice to young writers (and there are many of you here today—you are writers because you do write), for those who wish to develop the craft of writing, I would say: Write every day. Read every day. Write what you know and push the boundaries of what you know.
You will want to explore how words work—how words can be made to work. You will want to be aware of the job that words, sentences, and paragraphs can do.
It is important for a writer to understand who he/she is and to understand that she/he is unique with a unique set of experiences, and that it is the everyday experiences which are important.
In the past, when workshopping with young writers, I’ve had things said to me such as, “Oh, I don’t have anything to write about, my life is too dull, too boring.” I have to persuade them that writing is about everyday things.
I know that many of you have read my story called “Beans.” It’s a good illustration of what I’m talking about because it’s simply the story of a young boy going to play rugby on a Saturday morning and going home again. He is a boy who loves life. He draws the world in around him through sights, sounds, smell, and taste. He stands on his own two feet and doesn’t need to be entertained. When I wrote the story I was living in a place similar to the one in the story. The story was based on one of our sons. I was writing a familiar, everyday event.
You can write about eating breakfast, a good day, a bad day, a sad day, a broken shoe, an embarrassment, a relationship. There is something happening to us every moment of our lives. None of us lives on a little antiseptic spot with nothing happening to us, around us, or inside of us.
Everything is food for someone who wants to write. To each ordinary day we bring our own individuality, our own style, our own creativity. It is good to remember that even though there is a big wide, world out there, the whole world is not out there.
The world is where you are. Your world is where you are.
September 19, 2008
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