The Spit Children
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
There was once this young woman who liked to make up stories. They were the kind of stories you might have made up for your best friend when they stayed over after your mom had turned out the lights. The kind that your teacher told you weren’t really stories at all and rewrote with new beginnings, middles and ends.
They were stories that just said this is this and that is that and stopped when they felt like stopping. Stories that made you laugh and think and reminded you of all the other stories that had stuck in your head. Like the disciples in the Bible and the one by Aesop about the fox who wanted to eat the grapes, but pretended he didn’t because he couldn’t reach them. Simple stories that talked about really important things that you had trouble understanding. Like why the woman down the road always looked so sad and why even your best friend was mean to you sometimes.
The woman used to stand up and tell anybody who’d listen her stories. Some people laughed, some people cried, some people left the room. Some other people scribbled in notebooks.
Then one day somebody important asked the woman to write her stories down. They didn’t tell her they needed beginnings, middles and ends. They smiled when she decided to put words in bold or capital letters. Praised her when she decided to make a sentence jump down the paper into interesting patterns. So the woman wrote some more and the important person made some really good suggestions that made her realise why the person was so important.
The important person knew lots of other important people who all realised why each other was so important. They made lots of copies of her stories so everybody could read them. Then at the end of the stories they put some of the good things the people who scribbled in notebooks had said, so that everybody would know that the book was important and would want to read it.
Lots of people read the stories because one of the scribblers compared the young woman to another woman called Janet Frame (who was very important), even though the stories were nothing like the one most people had read at school called “The Reservoir”. Nothing like the stories of Owen Marshall or Emily Perkins either. In fact, nothing like what you’d been taught stories were supposed to be. Not short stories or short short stories but simply stories that could be short. Or a bit longer if they felt like it.
Lots of people found this rather odd. Many people didn’t understand lots of the stories, while other people giggled, felt sad or nodded their heads and said ah and um in a serious tone about the same ones. Eventually, however, everybody found their own particular favourite stories. Some were so popular in fact that they were passed from hand to hand or put on the wall in the toilet so that everyone could read them, with people saying to each other, “You’ll love this one” or “That’s so true”, just like really good jokes.
Lots of young people liked the young woman’s stories because they knew where she was coming from. They’d been there. They thought that they were the spit children that the woman referred to in the title, even though they couldn’t quite be sure what it meant (it sounded kind of biblical and most hadn’t had religion at their school). It was a little bit odd and they felt odd.
When the woman wrote in her first story, “This is the end of the story / This is where you come into it for the first time / you are the children who grow from the spit”, it was like someone was bothering to talk to them without trying to sell them anything.
They remembered how it felt to be left behind after school, to be bored and angry with the world, to feel lonely and lost, to notice how everybody else is smarter than you, to do really dumb things, think really strange thoughts and to know someone who took too many little white pills because nobody came. It was like all these things and at the same time it was not, and that felt really real.
Most of all, lots of young people liked the young woman’s stories because she wrote how she thought. And whether what she thought and wrote seemed kind of stupid sometimes, or absurd, ugly, clever or funny, it felt honest enough that they could find their own morals from what was written there.
Then one day, at a place where lots of people were gathered who had read the young woman’s book, a person stood up and said that they weren’t really stories at all. Then another person stood up and said that, even if they were real stories, they ended differently to how they began and could have been written better. Then they both said (at exactly the same time) that the stories might be rather clever and kind of hip, cool and now, but they’d be a lot more interested when the young woman put her head down and wrote something serious like a novel.
Somebody else stood up and said that the young woman used the Lord’s name in vain. Another person suggested that the young woman used the Lord’s name because it was trendy. Then somebody interrupted, shouting from out the back that it wasn’t true that Jesus was a nice guy as the young woman had written on the last page of the book.
Then another person stood up and said they simply didn’t like the stories and that they weren’t prepared to say why, and why should they because they were entitled to their opinion, weren’t they?
Finally, when all the people had said what they had to say, the young woman stood up, walked to the front of the room, gave a big smile, thanked everybody for coming and for saying what they had to say, and left.
Mark Amery is a Wellington journalist and reviewer.