The Bag Lady’s Picnic
Shoal Bay Press, $24.95,
Creative Juices. New Writing
ed Emma Neale
“We want more Kiwi dialogues,” my advanced ESOL class told me. I toyed with the idea of reading them a story from The Bag Lady’s Picnic by Frankie McMillan. Great colloquial dialogue and loads of idioms, I thought; but when I looked closely I realised it would take me an entire afternoon to explain one page. It’s not so much what McMillan says, but what she doesn’t say: the underlying tone and cultural overlaying that are so difficult to explain to foreign speakers. Consider this sentence picked at random: “I’ll tell her I did my washing and that my bras are shot and the government will have to do something about it because I’m bloody broke.” Apart from the “shot bras” and “bloody broke”, I’d have to explain the whole welfare system.
Interpreting poetry provides the same challenge. McMillan combines the poet’s love of conciseness, and the old-fashioned stripteaser’s determination not to reveal everything. Readers are allowed small glimpses into an unfamiliar seedy world before the writer seems to decide “that’s enough” and rushes off stage to don another outfit, assuming the role of yet another character to dazzle the audience.
The outfits are not resplendent, however. The characters in these stories wear shot bras, cheap tracksuits, stiff yellow skirts and striped rugby socks, but not for playing rugby. Fitness is not a priority when you are struggling to survive. McMillan’s characters are the dispossessed, the ones who used to live somewhere else, out of sight, but who now shuffle along city streets and sleep in parks or in damp, depressing flats. The ones we avoid eye contact with.
Strangely and refreshingly, these stories are funny, not sad. So in “Filthy Habit”, Val is broke and on medication, her counsellor is a dyke, and the key worker is screwing her or fondling her, she doesn’t seem sure, but she still laughs and consumes half a packet of doughnuts in bed. The “Marshmallow Queen” is 38 and wanting a change, so she goes into business with a younger lover. Cliff does the talking while the Queen makes the marshmallows, eats them to keep going and puts on weight. Then the mice come and the lover leaves and she gets a job packing dried pig’s ears, but she still has “big plans” for her life, “maybe overseas”.
In my favourite story, “Bad Friends”, an unnamed child makes poison and spells. Her baby brother is dead. She is confused over whether it was the poison she fed him or the car accident. Her mother has had a breakdown and only comes home for weekends. The child is about to taste rat poison for herself, but her partner-in-crime Joey comes over, wanting to be friends again. It is friends and family who make all the difference to the characters in most of these stories. Not that the friends or family are perfect, but they provide some sort of antidote, a way of surviving against the odds. It’s loneliness that’s truly depressing, but I have no sense of that in The Bag Lady’s Picnic. Nor is McMillan judgemental: she simply allows her characters to speak in their own voices, revelling in all their glorious idiosyncrasies.
I did wonder if “Ships in the Night” owed something to Joy Cowley’s well-known story “The Silk”. In both stories, characters say a goodbye of sorts to dead loved ones. And the final sentences both contain the same phrase, “he was beckoning to her”. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but McMillan is an original voice and I look forward to the novel she is writing.
Creative Juices features 24 stories selected from participants in three writing schools, Owen Marshall’s at Aoraki Polytech, Witi Ihimaera’s degree paper at Auckland University, and courses run by Harry Ricketts and Bill Manhire at Victoria University of Wellington. Editor Emma Neale’s introduction is elegant and thoughtful, and there is not a “bad ’un” among all the stories.
One of the criticisms levelled at writing courses is that you end up with a bunch of writers all sounding the same. I’m relieved to report this not the case with the stories in Creative Juices. Indeed, I was struck by the diversity and wide variety of backgrounds. The writers are not all white, middle-class kids from Kelburn or Epsom. Portugal, Southland, America, Japan all feature,
What does worry me a little is where all these writers are heading. We seem to have a burgeoning industry of writing courses that may not be matched by an increasing demand for New Zealand novels or short stories. Certainly, there are many more New Zealand novels being published now than a few years ago, but how much more room is there? I also wonder whether it is almost compulsory to have completed a writing course to gain attention. Writers I know shake their heads and say, “Another one from the factory.” Are we jealous of their youth, good looks, articulateness and the prizes that seem to fall in their laps, or just concerned that there may be other original voices out there whom we ignore because they have not gained automatic recognition by graduating from an “approved course”? It is hardly in my interests to denigrate writing courses (I teach myself), and these stories do show that courses can speed up the process of learning to write, but let’s not forget that good writing is not just in the training.
Clearly, not all the contributors to Creative Juices will go on to become professional writers. It is difficult and unfair to select a few stand-outs based on the evidence of one short story. It is also meaningless, because in the end it is the writer who possesses something more than talent – such as determination, discipline and drive – who will go on to succeed.
But some stories remained with me, days after. Perhaps I’ve been in Dunedin too long but the scene in Rachael King’s “Next Stop Antarctica”, where the sight of homecoming penguins effects an emotional closeness between father and daughter, struck a chord. Old-fashioned, maybe, but it was a rare moment of truth. Humour was not altogether absent either. I enjoyed Cheri Pinner’s “Just A Little Moonshine” and Sandor Lau’s view of cycling the country in “It’s Not Downhill If You Have To Pedal”. Some of the experiments with form resulted in particularly satisfactory stories. Rebecca Lovell-Smith’s “Two Dozen Cheerios” offers glimpses of a disintegrating family in 24 linked sections, each exactly one hundred words long. Order is imposed, therefore, but the story is closely observed and tender. Quite a few of the stories are written from a child’s point of view. Perhaps this indicates the relative youth and inexperience of many of the writers, but such stories worked well. I liked “Wolfie Man” by Lottie Wotherspoon, for instance, and “Morning Talks” by Jackie Davis. There are strong mature voices too. “Let It Go”, by Maggie Rainey-Smith, deals with the pain of a woman saying goodbye to a son off to university, who is already practised at shedding “tears for others, as a sort of down payment, an instalment against her own grief”.
There is no doubt that all these writers are capable of teasing with a shapely ankle or a muscly forearm. It remains to be seen, however, whether they will go on, like Frankie McMillan (a participant in both Owen Marshall’s and Bill Manhire’s courses), to produce anything more substantial and satisfying.
Diane Brown is a Dunedin writer.