The ‘essay is having a moment in Aotearoa literature’, according to Lynley Edmeades, the current editor of Landfall and co-editor of Strong Words 3 (with Emma Neale, her immediate predecessor as Landfall editor). As the title suggests, this is the third anthology of essays from Landfall’s annual competition – founded in 1997 by then-editor Chris Price to celebrate the 50th birthday of New Zealand’s oldest literary journal.
It’s not hard to accept the ‘moment’ argument. Print media and a range of online media, including e-tangata, the Spinoff and News Room, regularly publish essays. The number of recent essay collections – by Emma Espiner, Alie Benge, Lana Lopesi, Megan Dunn, Kate Camp, Dame Fiona Kidman, Nina Mingya Powles, Madison Hamill, Rose Lu – suggests growing support from New Zealand book publishers, and growing interest from New Zealand readers. We ‘want to read stories of real people,’ says Edmeades. Readers ‘want to know what people think and feel, what they’re struggling with and what makes them tick’.
Strong Words 3 gathers nineteen thought-provoking essays from the 2021 and 2022 competitions, including winners, runners-up and the highly commended. A good anthology of contemporary essays will include a wide range of topics and writers beyond the middle-class or mainstream; it will make a space for writers to explore their own preoccupations and those of society around them. Is it a delight in the deeply personal that makes readers reach for essays, or the interest in a space unexplored? Essays ‘are personal in their reflections,’ Edmeades writes, ‘but they also display the process of doing, of the mind engaging with ideas and trying to work through things’.
Edmeades resists ‘making comparisons and forming clusters’ because this ‘feels like comparing an apple to a bookshelf’. She identifies just one ‘thread that (loosely) ties all these essays together – learning’.
The act of learning – and performing this learning in the essay itself – implies an acknowledgement of the flabby, leaky and largely unknowable world beyond the self. There is a spirit of wow, look at this, a recognition that we cannot – personally and collectively – hold all the world in our minds.
But the work in Strong Words 3 isn’t entirely disparate. Several essays touch on health, specifically cancers and brain tumours. Two interrogate the notion (and reality) of colonised land and the discomfort of standing on it. Several essays, unsurprisingly, excavate relationships, including lost friendships to the bond between mother and daughter.
Antisemitism is explored in Norman P Franke’s account of the poetics (and bird-call expertise) of French composer Oliver Messiaen and in Andrew Dean’s essay ‘The New Man’ – winner of the Landfall competition in 2021 – which centres on his family, post-war immigrants from London, and the marginalisation and persecution of Jewish people in both Aotearoa and the UK.
There is much unexpected and idiosyncratic material in Strong Words 3, like Claire Mabey considering the lure of cigarette smoking. Alexis O’Connell leads us through a half-marathon with the French Foreign Legion in an essay that includes a borrowed château, some gory Medieval history and escaping a dangerous marriage. ‘Pig Love Slop,’ by Maggie Sturgess discusses memory and narrative, in short juxtaposed sections, by way of auctions, hoarding, cleaning and plumbing, among other things.
Tihema Baker’s lyrical and thoughtful ‘Whakapapa’ is ostensibly about death, tangi, and the shocking discovery of human bones when digging a grave. But it carries so much more: the place of the author in his society; the shift that happens as one grows out of young adulthood and into responsibility; the inevitability of stepping up as his father had done:
I wasn’t the only one he’d given this feeling of reassurance and safety throughout the tangi. He’d done this for everyone. Not because he’d wanted to, but because there was nobody else. His father’s generation – my Koro’s – was almost gone; we’d just buried another of them. So he’d heard the call. His time had come to step up.
And so, I realised, had mine.
For Baker this takes the concrete form of serving as a grave-digger, and learning from his father’s example of what it means to be a kaumatua:
I didn’t feel ready to be responsible for something like that and wasn’t entirely sure that ‘gravedigger’ was the type of role I wanted to fill… a part of me wondered if I shouldn’t feel okay. I could still feel the weight of that tapu on me … Dad assured me that there was nothing to worry about. He said we’d been cautious and respectful in our treatment of those kōiwi.
‘At the end of the day, son,’ he concluded, ‘they’re our tūpuna. Who better to care for them than us?’
Tina Makareti’s competition-winning piece, ‘Lumpectomy,’ offers a careful analysis of her diagnosis with breast cancer, and the cultural framework that gave it the conditions it needed to grow: stress and overwork due to long-ago trauma. She lists Sir Mason Durie’s four aspects of Māori health:
tinana, wairua, hinengaro, whānau, or physical, spiritual, mental and emotional, family and social. Some models add whenua to land/roots to this structure. The whare needs all walls of the house, and its foundation, to stand. When hurtful action comes from within the marginalised community, it causes deep fracture for the marginalised psyche: it’s like taking a wrecking ball to the walls of our whare tapa whā.
Makereti examines internal or relationship-based conditions for disease. Bonnie Etherington, in ‘A Fried Egg in Space,’ looks at the environmental conditions, both past and present, ‘on deeply damaged lands’ for their effect on her brain tumour – chemical-waste disposal and nuclear sites, the ‘black smoke of American missionaries burning their rubbish in open pits’ near her childhood home in West Papua. Considering the work of environmentalist Robin Wall Kimmerer, she acknowledges the human need to grasp for reasons, as well as see ourselves ‘in relation with our ecosystems’:
My surgeon says that we will probably never know what caused this tumour – it could be caused by absolutely nothing at all, an accident of bad luck or genetics, of one cell transforming and multiplying all wrong. But, still, latching onto any potential answer offers some comfort.
Identity is another of the anthology’s strands. Maddie Ballard teases out her feelings and expectations when learning Cantonese, the language of her grandfather and of the name he gave her, his gift. In ‘Securitising Gender’, Jess Ducey navigates switching to using they/them pronouns, and shifting views of their ‘womanness’, as well as the many and various ‘costs of a female body’.
Two essays by tauiwi needle at the heart of Aotearoa’s discourse on the ongoing effects of violent colonisation. In ‘To Shuck an Oyster’, Charlotte Doyle explores her family’s relationship with the land they’ve loved over many generations. The family has ‘been holding onto interpretations of events, no unquestionable truths’, Doyle admits, declaring her own discomfort on realising how the land was acquired from Ngāti Manuhiri. The action of the essay’s title becomes a metaphor:
Shucking an oyster teaches assertiveness, self-awareness and kindness. Prising open the protective shield around my family’s relationship with Ti Point will need a similar approach of concerted effort and care for all involved. It will need forceful gentleness.
In ‘Mary, Me and the Bees: In search of the good settler,’ Susan Wardell sets out to find a settler who didn’t intend to destroy what was already present in Aotearoa and discovers one Mary Bumby who, in 1838, carried bees from Yorkshire to the other side of the world. These were honey-making black bees, different from the native bees (of which 28 varieties remain, we learn in this essay) which nest but don’t make honey. The Yorkshire bees became our ‘most productive settler—an introduced organism that is effectively pollinating native plants alongside introduced ones.’ Like Doyle, Wardell – herself a beekeeper – finds a metaphor in this, interrogating what is needed to be ‘productive, not destructive – if, instead of stoats and rabbits, we can be bees’.
Sarah Harpur Raigrok’s ‘A Stand Up Mother’ sparkles with humour, unapologetically funny but also serious, examining the harsh judgement of teenage mothers.
My high school had one of those fancy mottos in Latin: ‘Palma Non Sine Pulvere,’ which roughly translates to ‘Please Don’t Get Pregnant.’ But I did, in my final year.
How can a teenage mother crawl out from under the weight of society’s disapproval? By still having ambition, the essay suggests – in the author’s case, to be a stand-up comedian – even if ambition for outside success renders parenting a life ‘of drudgery, of insignificance.’
[You] can’t be labelled a failure for becoming a mother and then expect to feel that motherhood is enough. You can’t be fed a rhetoric that a baby is the worst thing that could ever happen to you … then believe you don’t need to seek greatness in order to atone for living life in the wrong order.
The title of this anthology is apt. Many of these essays explore the need for strength: in grief and in fear; in becoming one’s true self; in staring down society’s disapproval; in holding feelings for another; in coming face to face with medical conditions that will alter life as one knows it. Strong Words lays down a gauntlet, and the assembled authors rise to the challenge. These are subtle, nuanced explorations of the personal and the political, and of our particular culture, place and time.