Te Taonga

Transcendence

Author: John Moffatt
Length: short
Publication Details:  Huia Short Stories 1995, Huia Publishers, 1995.
Setting: The site of an old pa, coastal New Zealand
Character(s): Pipito, Nga Puhi, old lady, Hoani, sister, father
Narrator: Hoani
Keywords: taonga, hideaway, drought, defences, battle, tales, ancestors, mere, loss, whanau, heritage.

Whatever your meaning or definition of taonga, be it treasure or possession, it most certainly means that the item or object is of significance and the value of it is priceless. The title leaves us guessing as to what is taonga? A place, an object or a person?

Te Taonga’s two plot lines follow the lives of Pipito and Hoani. As two different generations merge, two time periods merge when at the beach. It is a contrast of ‘then’ and ‘now’ and of a battle and peace.

From the outset, we know the young narrator, Hoani, is hurt down at the rocks on the beach whilst spearing cray and this provides a connection, “You have the same wound as your ancestor Pipito.” Further connections develop between the old lady and Gran (kuia)

It is one of nature’s ways that we often feel closer to distant generations than to the generation immediately preceding us. ~Igor Stravinsky

The opening description points to the course of nature, that is to say that everything has its time. Life passes. Book pages become sepia coloured, highlighted text turns dull and bodies groan when we stand up.

The location where Hoami collects crays is an area of conflict:  “fluted by the tides” and “sculptured by the wind”. The story transcends the present to the past The young narrator, Hoami, interweaves his present with his past through an injury in the bay where for the briefest moment both stories intersect at a crossroad. It is on this exact spot that Pipito battled with his foes, Nga Puhi. With the help of his gran, he becomes connected to his lineage sensing a bond with Pipito. The story opens: “There is a place where the beach and the cliff meet, a small secret place…” The meeting is between two generations. The secret place literally means the family spot on the beach but, in fact, this is foreshadowing the cave which follows.

“You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.” – Frederick Buechner

Thematically, the story illustrates …

“For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.”
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene

I first read this in 2014 when flicking through one of the many Huia collections of Maori short stories. It struck me as a very sweet story.

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Theme(s): Grandparents need you, just as much as you need them. As something/someone departs, another arrives. You never really appreciate something, until it is gone (and found again). “Family is not an important thing, it’s everything.” (Michael J Fox).

Stones

Heat, dust and flies

Author: Ann French
Length: medium
Publication Details: TBC p. 17-22
Setting: Coober Pedy, Australia
Character(s): Duffy, Nell, McCauley
Narrator: Duffy, a stockman
Keywords: mining, love at first sight, walkabout, stubborn, domestic violence, luck, greed, embarrassment, trickery, stereotypes, justice, twist in the tale.

Stones follows the ups and downs of an Aboriginal stockman, Duffy. Returning from a walkabout, he notices changes which are difficult to accept. As a 13 year old he had proclaimed his love for Nell but years later she has married another man.

The story illustrates the changing relationship between old flames which is shown by Nell’s reaction to a chance re-encounter with Duffy in the local supermarket. “She spins round and sees me but instead of falling into my arms like I’d imagined, she looks terrified and walks backwards, her arms out to push me away.” Why would she behave in such a way?

French sums up the setting as “heat, dust and flies.” The initial description of the setting, places the reader firmly in Australia: “You step out of the car or plane at Coober Pedy and it’s like being hit in the face with a frying pan. Heat sizzles your eyeballs and the sweat makes you look as though you’ve stepped out of a shower.”

Stones infopic

The real fly is a greedy opal miner who is not going away any time soon. He is Duffy’s nemesis and introduces one of the messages of the story:

As long as greed is stronger than compassion, there will always be suffering. – Rusty Eric

How long does the suffering have to last?


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Theme(s): Greed is never satisfied. The path of greed always leads to downfall. Treat others how you expect to be treated. Sometimes it’s up to you to set the record straight. Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands. Sometimes wrong helps us find the right.

Ann Patchett says…

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“When well told, a story captured the subtle movement of change. If a novel was a map of a country, a story was the bright silver pin that marked the crossroads.”

SOURCE: Goodreads AUTHOR: Patchett

A Perfect Murder

Author: Renate Yates
Length: short
Publication Details: Chatfield, H and Williamson, J, A Twist in the Tale, A Collection of Stories, Longman, 1996. OR Knight, S (ed), Crimes for a Summer Christmas, Allen & Unwin, 1990, p. 141-143.
Setting: a children’s playground in an Australian park
Character(s): a mother, two small figures and a victim
Narrator: third person
Keywords: murder, necessity, protection, devotion, motherhood, child welfare, innocence, familial expectations, responsibilities, risk, caution, courage, twist in the tale, survival.

What is the most common motive for murder? If you have watched the news this month, it would be safe to say that the 21st Century is littered with ideology, or hate crime. In the literature world, we would envisage some kind of plot of revenge due to greed, jealousy, or a dispute. In essence, one might argue there are only ever three motives for anything: greed, survival or revenge. According to experts, Drawdy, Myers and Myers (“Homicide Victim/Offender Relationship in Florida Medical Examiner District 8”) there are two:

instrumental homicides are motivated by gain (i.e. money or similar forms), whereas expressive homicides are emotionally-based, namely fueled by anger, and may be impulsive.

Yates’ title implies we will get inside the mindset of a murderer, rather than a victim, who would not be either aware of their imminent end or would not be around to tell their story, given that it is “perfect”. What’s more, this murderer is so good, he or she does not get caught. The addition of the word, “perfect”, speaks volumes. Could it also imply that it was efficient? Carried out with little manpower? Well-timed? Without any hiccups? Without witnesses? It is declared that “Murder was a solitary business, or ought to be.”

The reader approaches A Perfect Murder like the board game Cluedo, trying to figure out the murderer and any accomplices, the victim, murder weapon and location. True to the conventions of a ‘twist in the tale‘ short story, this is revealed in the final paragraph.

From the outset we know “she” is the murderer but then we are introduced to her family “the two small figures by the window” for whom she cares dearly as a mother should: “her ways with the two of them were invariably loving, always gentle and tender.” However, the words “with the two of them” imply that she is not so kind and caring to others. Conflicted by this dichotomy (and aware of a generalisation that most murderers are male) we read on. “…in certain situations, she could be utterly heartless, at times even merciless” which seems to confirm things. Yet how can someone so caring and loving become a murderer? Under what circumstances? The author positions us to feel a certain way towards her by way of techniques such as characterisation and point of view.

Thematically, the story illustrates a mother’s obligation to put her children’s needs ahead of her own: “their mother gave them a drink but ate nothing herself.” Furthermore, it examines the protective nature of parents towards young children in particular, “…no harm would come to them while she was there.” It also highlights the lengths a mother is willing to go to for her family. She sheltered them from learning the truth too soon. The murder was a risk she was willing to take:

Risk

The quote above, from the text, reminds me not only of the imminent danger in various sports we enjoy but continue to do, but of active play at Swanson School in Auckland. Here, the principal, Bruce McLachlan, rid the school of playtime rules as part of a successful university experiment. “We want kids to be safe and to look after them, but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when in fact they should be able to fall over.” The study found that learning to deal with danger was necessary. Therein lay the reward.

Auckland University of Technology (AUT) professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the research project, said there are too many rules in modern playgrounds. “The great paradox of cotton-woolling children is it’s more dangerous in the long-run.” Society’s obsession with protecting children ignores the benefits of risk-taking, he said.

As the story’s setting shifts from night to day and from indoors to outdoors, the author introduces several double meanings raising questions about what is really going on. Yates appears to take a dig at us, commenting at how observant the murderer is, “…she looked about her, missing nothing.” Whereas we are invariably, and ironically, missing some vital clues.

According to an FBI report on Serial Murder, such murders involve strangers. An offender selects a victim, regardless of the category, based upon availability, vulnerability, and desirability. How does this apply to our story?

Availability is explained as the lifestyle of the victim or circumstances…that allow the offender access to the victim [in this case the park]. Vulnerability is defined as the degree to which the victim is susceptible to attack by the offender [in the story, the victim is unsuspecting]. Desirability is described as the appeal of the victim to the offender. Desirability involves numerous factors based upon the motivation of the offender and may include factors dealing with the race, gender, ethnic background, age of the victim, or other specific preferences the offender determines [“the small plump figure thrilled her”].

To appreciate the surprise ending even more, read it again and note how the author builds suspense by withholding information or creating ambiguity: “two small figures”, “small sleeping forms”, “the little ones.” Note also how the narrative is crafted so that foreshadowing exits only in retrospect: “she was upon her quarry.” Her choice of verbs create an illusion, developing the extended metaphor.

I first read this in 2011, my first year of teaching and taught it to a Year 9 class (the first year of secondary school). Students do not usually deduce the details to be able to make a solid accusation prior to the final paragraph which serves to bring the game to an abrupt end. I admit that the twist eludes me too, but at least it makes me laugh.

Is she really a murderer though? After all, she is merely attempting to fulfil the first two tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. First, she is spurred on to supply physiological needs followed by safety needs. She reaches self-actualisation too because she accepts the facts – that this was “a simple, necessary murder.”

Maslows-Hierarchy-of-Needs

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Theme(s): For mothers, families always come first. One must do what is necessary to survive. Protect the innocence of childhood, once lost it cannot be restored. Have the courage of your convictions to follow through on your dreams/goals. Plan first. Some risks are worthwhile.

Connection(s): This short story can be studied in conjunction with: The Foal by Mikhail Sholokhov located in The Fate of a Man and Early Stories by Sholokhov.

Writing: Decisions and Difficulties

OCT 2013 The New Yorker senior editor, Willing Davidson, talks to writers, Junot Diaz and Karen Russell, about the difficulties of writing short stories. I have drawn on aspects of their discussion which reverberated with me or linked to what I teach in the classroom. The full interview (1.5 hours) is available on You Tube.

Select a style suitable for your subject: What, if any, limitations are there with a particular style? Literature is either based in realism (where a reader may say “I recognise that”) or extraneousness (where a reader meets a werewolf). The latter allows conversations on topics, like rape, where we may entertain thoughts our defences would normally block. (Diaz)

Select a genre fit for purpose: Is dystopia the right genre for me? Dystopia is the genre of consumption. It isn’t new, just high in circulation. It functions as a narrative of consolation with an “It’s already too late to change” idea. Therefore, the reader doesn’t get an energy to change things. The purpose isn’t to reflect on a crisis but rather to resolve fears of where we are at, right now. (Diaz)

Dystopia is about doom, our own mortality. It is unleashed in an accelerated way. It is a dog eat dog kind of world. (Russell)

Appeal to a wide audience: When writing, if you deliberately focus on speaking to a narrow group of people, all sorts of readers connect to it. People like detail because the writing does not become pretentious or generic. The writer is really talking. (Diaz)

To reach a wide audience, write very specifically. (Diaz)

Diaz states, “Readers are welcoming” by nature and therefore, a writer cannot alienate someone. If a story has a human element or a sense of vulnerability, then it helps all sorts of readers connect. They see the character/writer as a human being. (Diaz) Even in a dystopian text, readers may be hit with the idea of potential or hope like in the ending of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road which Russell describes as providing a sense of utopia.

Include messages about issues affecting you or your area. Your passion will appeal to a certain audience. Russell’s first novel, Swaplandia!, is about the incremental damage to ecological areas like Florida’s Everglades. It clearly argues that development has its price.

Have a clear idea of the meaning you hope to convey: Interviewers often ask writers about the meaning of their text(s), yet these questions are superfluous since texts are always open to interpretation. Diaz replies, “The book is the sole property of the reader. It is irrelevant what the writer thinks.”

book is property of the reader not writer3

It would seem that several authors share this idea: Oprah Winfrey asked McCarthy whether The Road was just a story of a man and his boy or something deeper. (read full interview)

His reply was yes, but “…obviously you can draw conclusions about all sorts of things from reading the book depending on your taste.”

Welcome, rather than be wary of, different interpretations: Unintentional messages are a source of further discussion. Diaz notes that in some dystopian texts, women are invisible. In Suzanne Collins‘ The Hunger Games (ironically written by a woman) the protagonist, Katniss, loses her sister, is cut off from her mother and only has productive relationships with males. There is a deficit of relationships. What is this saying? (Diaz)

I gather the writer is accountable for the simplistic, key, message (singular) to be gained from reading any literature but the complexity of that message unravels and permeates, for each individual reader as they delve deeper into the text, experiencing the world for themselves. The reader is accountable for becoming aware of a kind of collage effect of messages (plural). In this way, the book is never “finished”. It lives on, regenerating ideas. Perhaps this is why we refer to texts in the present tense, even after we’ve read them. When a book is finished, you can reopen it and the characters live again. It reminds me of those magazine piles which are never discarded but rather passed on from gran to mum to daughter to friend to her mum to her gran…

If you, too, have listened to or read an author’s interview which resonated with you, comment below.

Paolo Bacigalupi says…

noun_15788_cc_quote“Short fiction seems more targeted – hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them. Long fiction feels more like atmosphere: it’s a lot smokier and less defined.”

SOURCE: Goodreads AUTHOR: Bacigalupi 

Firesong

The original ‘Girl on Fire’

Author: L E Orman
Length: short
Publication Details: Landfall, 142, vol. 36, no.2, June 1982, p. 129-132
Setting: New Zealand
Character(s): Miki, Michelle and Mum
Narrator: Mum
Keywords: motherhood, growing up, naivety, regret, adoption, mother’s intuition, caution, familial expectations, being impetuous, feeling discarded, loneliness, hindsight, heartache.

At the beginning of Orman’s writing career and well before The Hunger Games‘ “girl on fire”, there was Miki, with “eyes glinting in the firelight.” The title itself hints at what is to follow. Often, references to concepts of fire in texts represent chaos and destruction. However, this idea is somewhat softened by the addition of the word “song” which has different connotations.

Firesong is a little like a bildungsroman in one, compact chapter. We follow Miki’s development through three phases of her teenage life as she grapples with increasing responsibilities. Whether in fact she comes of age depends on your interpretation of the ending and her future.

The story reflects a changing relationship between mother and daughter which is clearly noted in Miki’s actions and change of character, as well as her mother’s comments.

As a 16 year old, Miki falls pregnant. But what will she do? Abort, adopt or give it all the aroha she has? How will she cope? What will happen when she is 18? Is there just one new member of the family or two? Who is the father? How will Mum react?

Key quote from L E Orman's 'Firesong'
Key quote from L E Orman’s ‘Firesong’

From the initial character description, it is clear that this is the product of a New Zealand author: “She was lovely, she had hair as black as the bush when the moon sleeps, and teeth as white as the manuka flower.” To deepen your understanding of this story, note the reference again to ‘black’ at the end and how the connotation has changed. What does it imply?

I first read this in the 6th form (Year 12, the penultimate year of secondary education). I wonder if I would have had the same reaction as I do now as an adult? I empathise with Mum, probably because she is the narrator, and am left feeling sad, angry and anxious. The final line is deep and haunting, even more so, when I learned that the idea for the story was inspired by something that actually happened to friends of the author.

Is it true though, that our choices define us forever?


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Theme(s): Only fools rush in: Teenagers should enjoy being a teenager. There is plenty of time to be an adult – later. Think of others before yourself. Learn from experience. Experienced mothers know best. Be true to yourself. Nothing lasts.