From Crap to Artichoke Tears

We’re lucky enough to have Eileen Merriman judging the Takahē Short Story Competition 2017. Novels aside, her short fiction has been widely published and commended, and appears with prodigious frequency in the Sunday Star-Times Competition, among others. Of course we want to know exactly how she does it.

“The first draft is crap,” she said in a recent interview. It’s something she learned early on in her writing career. See? I told you we were lucky to have her. She knows exactly how much hard work will be going into all the entries to this year’s competition.

If you’re after inspiration for your Takahē entry, read Eileen’s second-placed Bath Flash Fiction Award story, This Is How They Drown. It’s unmissable for its summer-fresh prose and mastery of tension. And don’t miss Artichoke Tears right here in Takahē, for its innovative structure and enduring bittersweetness.

Or, if you’re brewing fresh coffee and stretching your back before launching into another draft before the November 30th deadline, take heart. As Eileen says, “Writing is like anything – you need to put in the hours.”

Short stories selected for August issue

Rachel and I have just finished making our selections for the August issue of takahe. Thanks to everyone who submitted. There were a large number of stories to choose from, and we could only take 12. Many of the pieces we didn’t accept had a great deal of merit such as an interesting theme, an intriguing plot or great characters. But in several cases, we rejected a potentially good story because it was overwritten. By this I mean the addition of words, sentences or even paragraphs that the story didn’t need. Often the less said the more powerful the writing.

We do hope that those of you who are short fiction writers continue to submit to our magazine. If you don’t already belong to a writing or critique group I would recommend that you find one to join. Almost all stories, even those written by experienced writers, can be improved by taking judicious notice of readers’ comments.

Our next issue is an on-line only issue due out in August when you will be able to read the stories we have chosen for you. Do let us know if there any you particularly like.’

“Are you being served?” – writers, readers, publishers and reviewers … ?

Walter Dean Myers, American author of more than a hundred books for children and young adults, wrote about growing up a bibliophile in Harlem but falling out of love with books that failed to offer characters with whom he could relate. James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues changed that. It proved to be both an antidote and a revelation, Myers says, “I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map”.

Reflecting on Walter Meyers’ experiences – about representations in literature – it strikes me that alongside reading, writing and publishing, reviewing is a weighty task, not to be lightly undertaken and definitely a part of the ‘landscape’.

It has been said that writers write to share their ideas and experiences, to convey meaning and work with others; that publishing is the pivotal event that marks the move from ‘writer’ to ‘author’, and that reviewers, ideally, offer an analysis based on content, style and merit.

A review is an evaluation. It is not enough for it to be based on or anchored in personal taste – bland, glowing or otherwise. Nor is a review an occasion for a display of learning or to promulgate a reviewer’s own ideas on the topic of a fiction or non-fiction work.

Reviews are more than assessments of content, style, and merit. Reviews generate evidence for evaluation and making judgements about the written and published ‘landscapes’ of experience and the values these reflect or omit.

In takahē’s forthcoming reviews there is a wealth of sharing: of ideas and experiences by emerging and established authors, published by small and large presses in Aotearoa New Zealand. Does this selection reflect the diversity of experiences in our communities? We’d like to think so. That said, we are always open to feedback – especially about gaps or blind spots!

As we gather together our forthcoming reviews (a selection that does not necessarily cover all the publications of the season) it is our intention, however imperfectly achieved, to deliver reviews attuned to context and difference that encourage readers to explore and consider for themselves the diversity of ‘landscape’ being written about and published in Aotearoa New Zealand – by commercial, academic and self-publishing presses.

So, what are we writing, reading and publishing? Are you being served? In the list of forthcoming reviews for issues 87 (August, on line and free) and 88 (December) there is a rich mix, some with succinct short titles and some with very long ones! Yes – difference!

In takahē’s 87 (August), there’s Fale Aitu ‖ Spirit House by Tusiata Avia (VUP). I still remember my sense of amazement when I first read her poem (ten odd years ago?), “Pa’u-stina”– ‘I am da devil pa’umuku kirl …’.

In t87 there’s a review of The Blue Outboard, New and Selected Poems by Nicholas Williamson (Black Doris Press) and in which Carolyn McCurdie finds, “care for quality, integrity, craft, are evident in every aspect … ”.

Also in t. 87 there’s a review of Leaving the Red Zone: poems from the Canterbury earthquakes edited by James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston (Clerestory Press). This gathers together 148 poems from 87 poets and in which, according to Dr. Christopher Gomez (a natural hazards scientist), “The brain gains a heart”.

There’s also a review of a collaborative work by a bevy of New Zealand and German poets: Transit of Venus   Venustransit by Hinemoana Baker, Ulrike Almut Sandig, Glenn Colquhoun, Uwe Kolbe, Brigitte Oleschhinski and Chris Price (VUP). Reviewer Janet Newman found that the work “… is not only about the Transit of Venus ­– a significant marker in New Zealand’s colonial history – but also illuminates the differing perspectives of poets from opposite sides of the world”.

And there’s a review of Helena Wiśniewska Brow’s book, Give us this day (VUP) which, Ludmila Sakowski says, ‘demonstrates that memoir can be more than a genre’.

Watch out for some of those longer titles in takahē 87 and 88:

Ko te Whenua te Utu / Land is the Price: Essays on Maori History, Land and Politics by M. P. K. Sorrenson (AUP); Ka Ngaro Te Reo Māori language under siege in the nineteenth century by Paul Moon (OUP); Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand edited by Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey (VUP); Artefacts of Encounter, Cook’s voyages, colonial collecting and museum histories, edited by Nicholas Thomas, Julie Adams, Billie Lythberg, Maia Nuku and Amiria Salmond (OUP); and Re-inventing New Zealand Essays on the arts and the media by Roger Horrocks (Atuanui Press).

And keep an eye out for the work of six poets (published by Makaro Press’ HOOPLA Series): Where the fish grow by Ish Doney; Withstanding by Helen Jacobs; Bones in the Octagon by Carolyn McCurdie, Udon by The Remarkables by Harvey Molloy; Possibility of flight by Heidi North-Bailey and Felt Intensity by Keith Westwater, reviewed by Patricia Prime in takahē issue 88 (December).

So – the long and the short of it? Are you being served? What are we writing, reading and publishing?

At the side of my desk is a newspaper article reporting on the falling standards of reading, writing and maths in our schools. MMmmmm …

Cassandra Fusco
Reviews Editor

‘Reading is not optional’ – Walter Dean Myers (1937-2014)

And since you are already online, why not check out takahē’s forthcoming spread of art, essays, fiction and poetry!

Personal Experience and Fiction

I was critiquing a story and suggested to the writer that the ending didn’t work.

‘But that really happened,’ she said. I replied that real events don’t always – or even often – make good fiction. When talking to friends about what’s been going on in our lives we tend to frame things in a particular way, embellish this, exaggerate that, so as to add interest to what we’re saying.

This is even more important when creating fiction. We might start from personal experience but we craft a piece as we write it, we wrap it in meaning, we add structure and significance.

Writers of fiction also produce works that have no basis in their own lives. But for these to work there has to be a connection between the writer and the work: the story expresses an emotion the writer feels or once felt.

Some of the short stories in takahe 86 (the April 2016 issue) are clearly based on personal experience. Some less so or not at all. Either way I hope you enjoy them.

Choosing the stories for the next issue

GovernorsBayPanoramicI’ve been selecting the short fiction for takahe 86, due out in April. There wasn’t a single submission that didn’t have some merit – great style, interesting characters or a gripping plot.

As I went through the pile, making decisions, it struck me yet again how fiendishly difficult it is to write a good short story. The ones that appealed to me were those which read easily, the words flowing gracefully. Effort made so as to appear effortless; no forced metaphors or flowery constructions; no unnecessary extras.

More than this is needed, however. There has to be one or more characters that the reader believes in, a beginning that intrigues, an ending that satisfies. But above all I realised, as I read piece after piece, there must be a substantial reason – other than telling a tale, or showing a slice of life – why the writer has chosen this particular subject. I believe that the stories I finally selected were those whose creator had become immersed, obsessed perhaps, by the fiction they were producing.

I hope you enjoy reading the chosen pieces when takahe 86 appears.