Same notes, different tunes, Jenny DeBell

The Six Pack: Winning Writing from New Zealand Book Month 2006 
John Campbell (introduction)
New Zealand Book Month with Whitireia Publishing, $6.00,
ISBN 1877192279

The Best New Zealand Fiction 3
Fiona Kidman (ed)
Vintage, $34.99,
ISBN 1869417976

Sunday 22: The Winners of the Sunday Star Times Short Story Competition
Owen Marshall (introduction)
Vintage, $27.99,
ISBN 1869417801

Niu Voices:Contemporary Pacific Fiction 1
Selina Tusitala Marsh (ed) 
Huia, $25.00,
ISBN 1869692543

Myth of the 21st Century: An Anthology of New Fiction
Tina Shaw and Jack Ross (eds), 
Reed, $34.99,
ISBN 0790010984

In a recent New York Times Book Review essay, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami observed that there are only a finite number of words, making it vitally important that when we as writers choose a word, we really mean it, and in that way the word itself, as well as the words surrounding it, take on a whole new meaning. Murakami, a jazz enthusiast, takes his meaning from a quote by jazz pianist       Thelonious Monk. According to Murakami:

When someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: ‘It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!’ I often recall those words when I am writing, and think to myself, ‘It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words. I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.’

 

This notion is particularly poignant in the context of anthology collections, when it becomes painfully obvious that we’re none of us as unique as we might have thought.

Coming of age continues to be a minefield of disappointment, women’s lives within the boundaries of marriage and childrearing are, well, bound, and it turns out that death is imbued with no small a measure of grace and poignancy – for all of us. And yet, as Murakami points out, a measure of well-placed words simply enthrals us as readers, no matter the theme, and we are once again made better for the existence of a small, brilliant short story.

Among these collections, several of the strongest stories are to be found in the slimmest volume of the group, The Six Pack: Winning Writing from New Zealand Book Month 2006. These writers are particularly accomplished and the two youngest stand out with a maturity beyond their short careers.

Phoebe Wright’s “Chasing Fireflies” is a marvellous and complex meditation on fate. After her father’s death, the young narrator, Chaya, winds her way through Europe while considering the unlikely machinations that brought both her parents and grandparents together. “My grandfather believes in everything,” she says. “He believes in ghosts and fairy tales, we once spent weeks planning a trip to Atlantis.” But, despite the fairytale quality of Chaya’s musings, Wright maintains a taut line. Early on, we’re braced for tragedy within the sweet description of dad’s starry-eyed efforts to meet his future wife:

He learned the viola so he could join the orchestra in which she was first flute … . She might have noticed him if he had chosen a louder instrument. She might have looked up upon the flare of a silver trumpet, smiled through the harp strings. Things might have happened sooner. He might not have had to build the world’s smallest coffin ….

 

Henry Chatham’s unusual story “Lung” rings a terrifically dark and creepy and unexpected portrait of Shanghai around the central story of a young man puzzling alone through his brother’s schizophrenia. As we’re ushered into a Chinese herbalist’s dank basement – “ ‘Your brother, he is acute,’ [the doctor] explained as we curled downward” – the psychological terror is palpable, reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein when faced, metaphorically, with so many two-way mirrors.

John Campbell, in a short discussion of modernism included in his graceful introduction to Six Pack, uses the apt term “culturally nomadic”, and what this pair of standout stories has in common with the finest of all of the stories is a keen sense of place, wherever that place may be. New Zealand need not be the geographical reference for these writers. And within The Best New Zealand Fiction 3 and Sunday 22 it often is not. A strong global identity is becoming the necessary future of writing, I think, though plenty of the strongest writers collected here have anchored their characters in the Pacific Islands.

Briar Grace-Smith’s beautiful love story “Te Manawa”, again from Six Pack, makes use of the cultural contrasts of urban/island to introduce Samoan culture, one of several island cultures explored throughout the collections. The Niu Voices anthology focuses primarily on these cultures, explaining the term “Niu” symbolically as “the life-giving coconut of Pacific nations”. Among the standout authors in this collection, edited by Selina Tusitala Marsh, is Taria Baquie, whose rhythmic story “Papa” calls to mind the Dominican/American writer Junot Diaz, as well as the longing and confusion of adolescence in Jamaica Kinkaid’s much-anthologised Caribbean story “Girl”.

The dialect in “Papa”, as well as the narration in Baquie’s companion story “Felicia”, is as fluid and full of life as a Sunday afternoon barbecue. Chastised by mum for slipping her dying Papa a Big Mac – “Why not meet that St Peter with the sweet taste of a cheesy beef patty and extra mayo still in his mouth?” – the young narrator is told, “ ‘No, there’s no better place than God’s Kingdom, but that don’t mean, Mere, that you can start digging his grave now. You should know better.’ And then she’d sigh and frown, and I figured that meant I was being trying.”

The dynamic poets Cherie Barford (“Connections”) and Tusiata Avia (“Nafanua and the Religious Police” and “Wind”) focus sharply on Pacific Island identity, and the racism directed towards indigenous peoples.

Much of the contemporary Samoan writing tends towards finding a way to treasure a fading culture within the temptations of modernity, but many of the writers in Myth of the 21st Century: An Anthology of New Fiction find that their niche is in the more traditional folktale. Patricia Grace’s “Moon Story”, the first story of the collection, sets us squarely in the realm of nature fables, when the foolish Rona is punished for her hasty criticism of the moon: “It was an enormity to look Moon in the eye the way she did and call it a big bowl of boil-up in which its own head simmered and steamed.”

Although most of the other stories in Myth have a beginner’s feel about them as a group, the collection provides an insightful glimpse into origins of Pacific Island storytelling  and the folktales that have influenced the contemporary New Zealand aesthetic.

The Best New Zealand Fiction 3, edited by Fiona Kidman, and Sunday 22, introduced by Owen Marshall, are both strong collections, but with the exceptions of recurring references to the All Blacks, certain unmistakable vocabulary, and descriptions of tropical scenery, there is little that makes these stories recognisably New Zealand. Barbara Steed’s “The Sea as Past” in Sunday 22 is an exception.

This lyrical story about the death of a diver bears out Murakami’s recommendation to really mean the words we choose. As Jacob, the diver, swims beyond rubbish and treasure and into the past itself, floating “down towards the beginning of time, past grapevines and apple trees drifting in the depths, past television sets flickering silently in the mass of light, past wrecks of fishing boats, past a mall with a lotto shop”, he disappears entirely, and the sea itself becomes the story’s central character.

Another strong selection, Justin Eade’s “Apples”, combines the “culturally nomadic” with the loneliness and beauty of the New Zealand landscape, this time focusing on land instead of water.

It is a vastly unfair truth that, faced with a number of collections of prize-winning short stories, the reviewer instantly begins to compare one story with another, as well as one anthology against the next. The books themselves are less easy to compare, being divided among such disparate themes: Pacific Island voices, myth in the 21st century, Sunday Star Times competition winners, Book of the Month Favourites, and the ubiquitous Best of. The flavour of each anthology is clearly linked to differences in editorial voice, which is as varied as one could wish given the size of New Zealand’s literary world.

A stranger to the literature, I am happy to have found a number of compelling writers I’ve not come across before – Sian Daly, Vincent O’Sullivan, Peter Wells, Tina Shaw to name just a few – and am happy to recommend that readers take a long look at each of these collections. Begin with the past, the folktales, and conclude with the most contemporary and perhaps most recognisable, The Best New Zealand Fiction 3.

 

Jenny DeBell is a fiction writer living and working in Boston, Massachusetts. She reviews regularly for Harvard Review.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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