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The Beautiful Afternoon
by Airini Beautrais

Dazzling essays that 'explore not just personal experience but travels in knowledge'.

By April 5, 2024April 9th, 2024No Comments

Airini Beautrais is best known for her award-winning collection of short stories, Bug Week, in which her deadpan style delivers strangely intense and unexpected developments In The Beautiful Afternoon, a book of personal essays, a similar method seems to be at play.  Beautrais is conversational, discursive as she tells about her life and her research, yet there is nothing casual here. Deep personal experiences are examined fearlessly, juxtaposed with forays into topics such as literature, the environment, religion, media, dance and gardens. Throughout, collisions of memory and thought reveal ideas that are nothing short of profound about life in our complicated world.

For example, in ‘Basic Bitch’, Beautrais shares in unflinching terms how as a young woman she felt out of kilter with social and gender norms. ‘I am so ugly and so unlikeable that I don’t deserve to be alive’. She describes a journey through despair, self-analysis, poetry – a line from Jenny Joseph, ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple’ – and arrival at an understanding of the privilege that accompanied her agonised thoughts: ‘Perhaps we were able to shake our fists at the system so safely because we knew that any time we chose, the system would be there, for better or worse, with open arms’. The dichotomy between experience and realisation is unfolded in a remarkable way.

Again and again in The Beautiful Afternoon, Beautrais wrestles with – no, massages – conflicts both internal and societal and arrives at places of unexpected potency. In ‘Reborn as a Sea Hag’, she brilliantly sets the process of getting a tattoo among the memoirist tendrils of narrative, description, self-mythologizing:

I have wanted an Octopus for two years. At the time of lying down on the tattoo bed, I am thirty-eight years old. I have told people I am doing this because I want to be reborn as part goddess, part witch, part sea hag. Also, I really love cephalopods. This is a big piece because I want big symbolism. For me, getting a tattoo is part of a larger process of healing. There isn’t a straightforward, rational way to explain this. However, rites of pain are common in spiritual practices around the world, and, on a biological level, the release of endorphins in response to pain can have psychological benefits.

Beautrais embraces the personal essay in the truest sense – ‘to try’ as coined by the 16th century French writer Montaigne, to explore not just personal experience but travels in knowledge. These essays reference widely from Lord Byron to Audre Lorde, Wilde to Wollstonecraft, The Little Mermaid to The Waitangi Tribunal.

Importantly, Beautrais stands on the shoulders of second-wave feminists and intersectional feminists who developed the scope of the form: Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, Haunani Kay Trask et al, who synthesized phenomenologies and political insight. Beautrais’s adherence to the Feminist adage, ‘the personal is political’ is vital to her inquiry. In a contemporary context, Beautrais could be compared with writers such as Roxane Gay, Deborah Levy, Rebecca Solnit and Eula Biss, and with books from Aotearoa like Sarah Jane Barnett’s Notes on Womanhood and Henrietta Bollinger’s Articulations.

Beautrais stands out for me among these writers because she has something new to say, which is not the case with everyone in the field, even some of the current stars. Beautrais has an original take on every topic she tackles. She is difficult, imaginative, daring.

The 17 essays in the collection are too numerous and varied to do justice in this review, but there are themes that are important to note. In ‘The Beautiful Afternoon’, perhaps the simplest essay here, is an exquisitely painful account of camping, the family in society and loneliness as a single woman:

I am in Kawhia, spending a second night in my new tent. I have come here because I have never been here, and I have discovered that the main reason people come here is fishing. The village is a mix of fishing baches, run-down houses, overgrown sections, a couple of campgrounds. I am not here to fish, and my presence again feels somehow inappropriate, like turning up at an event in the wrong kind of clothing.

‘No Scrubs’ analyses the male ‘scrub’ or ‘rake’ as depicted in the work of Jane Austen, George Eliot and Dickens. A scrub is an opportunist and a narcissist, a ‘gambling con-man’ like Wickham in Pride and Prejudice or a ‘broke artist’ like Henry Gowan in Little Dorrit. and In Beautrais’s youth the scrub was yet ‘another unemployed stoner’. In adulthood the scrubs are selfish, like ‘a man I dated [who would] carry bags of rubbish and dog shit to the public park and shove them into the public bins because he was too cheap to pay a few dollars a week for rubbish collection’. It’s not about ‘a lack of assets,’ Beautrais concludes, but selfishness. ‘The false hope I gleaned from Austen,’ she writes, ‘was not that I would marry a rich man, it was that it was probable that a long-term heterosexual relationship would involve love and respect’.

‘Wicked Pack of Cards’ is a virtuoso exploration of the metaphysical in culture, taking in Tarot, The Waste Land, witches, and Beautrais’s own connection with ‘stitch-and bitch’, a feminist gathering to sew and talk.

I told Maria I had been holding back from passion. ‘I feel like some of my ideas are just too wild,’ I said. ‘Just go with them,’ Maria said. ‘That is what the world needs, for us, for women, to catch fire.

The Beautiful Afternoon takes us on an exhilarating tour through memory, knowledge, association, language (surely the ‘beau’ in the title references the author’s name). As the collection builds, Beautrais structures a vivid picture of her life and times – a Quaker upbringing, eco-warrior youth, marriage breakup, single parenting, and work as a science educator. On matters of difference, the body, susceptibility to the dominant culture, rejection of coupledom, she speaks selflessly of the self in ways that are both meaty and nuanced.

I learned a lot from this book in terms of knowledge. But if the scope of research is breathtaking, it is what Beautrais does with her materials that is so stunning. These essays teach us how thought and ideas are one with daily life, that the ‘structures of feeling’ of emotions and relationships are inseparable from the world we live in. I suspect many readers will recognise their own journeys yet look at them in new ways. There’s wisdom here. ‘At a young age I learned to deal with the disappointment of turning back from a summit hike when the clouds set in,’ she writes in ‘Holocene Wayfarer’. Beautrais is at once instructive, inspiring, and dazzling.

The Beautiful Afternoon: Essays

by Airini Beautrais

Te Herenga Waka University Press

ISBN: 9781776921324

Published: March 2024

Format: Paperback, 280 pages

Anne Kennedy

Recipient of a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement, Anne Kennedy is the author of four novels, a novella, anthologised short stories and five collections of poetry. She is the two-time winner of the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, for her poetry collections Sing-Song and The Darling North. Her most recent book is the edited anthology Remember Me: Poems to Learn by Heart from Aotearoa New Zealand (Auckland University Press 2023).