Telling our stories to ourselves, Chris Else

Jerome Kaino: My Story
Jerome Kaino
Penguin, $40.00, ISBN 9780143573562

Brando Yelavich
Penguin, $35.00, ISBN 9780143573159

The Good Doctor
Lance O’Sullivan
Penguin, $38.00, ISBN 9780143572510

How Bizarre
Simon Grigg
Awa Press, $38.00, ISBN 9781927249222

Lydia Bradey: Going Up is Easy
Laurence Fearnley
Penguin, $38.00, ISBN 9780143573234

Art, according to Camus, is a form of rebellion. In an age when an obligatory stage on the road to being a writer is an MA in creative writing, one might feel that this spirit is a little more mealy-mouthed than it used to be. Nevertheless, there remains a sense in which the business of making and the things that are made stand outside diurnal assumptions and confront them. The best fiction, poetry, drama and reflective prose provide an experience that delights and challenges because it is open in its effect and resonates beyond itself.

Against such an ideal, we might set the current state of New Zealand literature. The audience for our fiction is declining and has been for some time, and although poetry and drama seem healthy enough, they are still minority interests. Despite this, our politicians and our arts bureaucrats constantly remind us how important our writers are. Telling our stories is vital to our culture and our national identity, they say. Such service to community is not quite what Camus had in mind, but maybe it is symptomatic of where the current scene is at. This handful of Kiwi tales illustrate the point.

All five books are written in the first person. Four are from our biggest publisher, one from one of our smallest. Four are about men, one about a woman. Three deal with Māori or Pasifika subjects. Four are ghost written, although all the “ghosts” are identified; three are women. Four books describe battles with drugs or alcohol. Three involve hard physical activities that are sometimes dangerous. Each book begins with a narrative hook, a flash forward to the middle or, in one case, the end of the story, that encapsulates its point. Four are tales of success against the odds, while the other has a cautionary message of how momentary fame can lead to miserable failure.

Ghost writers have an ambiguous role, somewhere between editor and biographer. They must find a voice close to the subject’s own and shape the narrative into a coherent whole. They might prepare themselves with research: diaries, letters, newspaper articles, interviews with friends and colleagues, social media posts might all play their part. However, the available time for writing may well be limited and, although the writer may prompt and chivvy the subject to expand on certain points, the first duty is not to their own vision but to the subject’s version of what happened. Exploration of psychological development and motives – the how and the why of a person – are limited by the subject’s own reticence and capacity for self-analysis. The result can sometimes be a text that feels smoothed over with all the insights smudged.

In Jerome Kaino’s story, an easy-going lad from a hard-working, devout Samoan family discovers that he has the size and talent to play rugby. From somewhere comes a drive to succeed that sees him a man-of-the-match All Black at the age of 21. Fame and rugby’s booze culture trip him up, however, and he is at risk of losing it all. A pregnant girlfriend brings him to his senses and he goes on to triumph as a major contributor to the All Blacks’ victory at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Kaino is a great player and, no doubt, a fine young man, and is frank about his failings and his disappointments, as a good All Black should be. If you are a young Polynesian lad looking for a role model, there is a good one here. But if you are curious about life among “the boys”, as the All Blacks invariably call themselves, you will have got more insight from the speeches at Jerry Collins’s funeral than from this book.

Brando Yelavich was a kid on the skids. Dyslexic and diagnosed with ADHD, at odds with his parents, smoking dope and absorbed in the dope culture, he decided he had to change his life and so, after a couple of months training, he went up to Cape Reinga and turned left. Six hundred days and 8,000 kilometres later he had walked, swum and kayaked around the coast of New Zealand, living off land and sea and the charity of a few friends and many strangers. In the process, he talked at dozens of schools and inspired enough interest to raise $30,000 for charity. This is a remarkable story, but it suffers from its attempt to give value to every stage of the journey. The text feels like a long string of Facebook posts skilfully sewn together, but with the sharp edges of daily mood swings ironed out. Brando comes across as a likeable and admirable young man, full of enthusiasm, but his book was frustrating to read.

Lance O’Sullivan and his wife run a medical practice in Northland where they give free healthcare to people who can’t afford to pay. He is a man of huge energy and dedication, working 70 hours a week in his practice and in his role as a champion of the underprivileged. In 2014, he was Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year. His book is imbued with the passion of his mission. It provides facts and figures and personal anecdotes about the national shame of poverty, especially as it affects Māori health. Important as this message is, though, I felt there was another story that was only hinted at.

O’Sullivan is the son of a hard-working Pākehā solo mother and an alcoholic Māori father. The tension between the two sides of his family define his life. In one incident, he recounts his terror as a nine-year-old being driven by his father over the Newmarket viaduct with the car veering from one side of the road to the other. Yet, despite such experiences and despite his mother’s fear that he would be drawn into his father’s family and their dissolute ways, it was discovering the Māori side of his heritage that saved him from the fate of so many of his fellows, turning him from a troublemaker and academic failure into a young man determined to become a doctor. He found in his Māori identity the source of his energy and passion and he embraced it so thoroughly that at one point he wanted to change his name to reflect it. There was no impediment to this; according to his birth certificate, he had always been Lance Watene. However, his mother got upset at the idea and, after thinking it through, he moved in the opposite direction and changed his name by deed poll to O’Sullivan, the name he had always been known by. Somewhere in these experiences is a fascinating story about the psychological tension between the two cultures and the forming of an individual. It is a story I would like to read.

All of these three books claim to have been written for the same conscious purpose: to show other people that, with determination and a little luck, they too can succeed against the odds. Thus, they are intended as inspirational examples, rather than as explorations of the human condition. Despite all three dealing with exceptional individuals and, in O’Sullivan’s case at least, standing firmly against the establishment, they are all conformist in the broadest sense, drawing the reader into the service of an ideal of individual success. Perhaps these are just the stories that the politicians want to encourage, but they are no substitute for a literature that invites us into an alternative vision of the world and challenges us to make of it what we will.

How Bizarre is arguably the most successful pop-song to come out of New Zealand, rivalled only by Lorde’s hit Royals. Simon Grigg recounts its rise and the sad fate of its lead singer Pauly Fuemana. Grigg is both an experienced writer and an insider – he was the song’s producer – and he tells the story without recrimination or overt judgement of its central figure. Fuemana was an exasperating mass of contradictions, subject to violent mood swings and the grandiosity of a fragile ego and unaware of the strengths and limitations of his own talents. The book’s blurb suggests that he was a vulnerable man who was gobbled up and spat out by a rapacious international music industry, but this is only one reading of the story. Grigg’s even-handed account opens up intriguing questions. Was Fuemana’s failure to go on to a stellar international career a consequence of commercial greed, failure to manage a difficult individual, insensitivity to Polynesian culture, or the arrogance of a multinational company that thought it knew so much more than little old New Zealand? Was Fuemana a victim of the world or of his own weaknesses? Grigg gives no answers, but he lays the story open with sufficient detail to leave the reader in fruitful reflection.

In 1988, Lydia Bradey climbed Mt Everest without supplementary oxygen, the first woman to do so. She did it alone and was later accused by some of her male team members of lying about it. Her story evokes the beauty of the mountains, the technical difficulties of climbing, the dangers of storm and avalanche, the camaraderie and the sexual tensions that arise from being a woman in a man’s world. This, too, can be read as an inspirational, girls-can-do-anything tale, one with a feminist moral, but it transcends and subtly subverts such a limited agenda. Bradey’s ghost writer is novelist Laurence Fearnley, whose instincts and, I suspect, literary pride, won’t let her get away with a once-over-lightly account. She also benefits from having been Bradey’s friend for 30 years. Fearnley is aware of the limitations of her project. She describes it not as a biography but as “a profile”. It is a complex portrait of a woman so dedicated that, at the age of 26, she had herself sterilised because children would compromise her motivation and her ability to climb.

Five books, then, all of which, in a superficial sense, are our stories. Three, though, set out to inspire and to enlist our enthusiasm; two are written more for the story’s sake and thus confront and challenge us in subtler ways because, like Everest, they are there.

Chris Else is a Wellington writer.

Bradey’s ghost writer is novelist Laurence Fearnley, whose instincts and, I suspect, literary pride, won’t let her get away with a once-over-lightly account.

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Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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