Alie Benge

Alie Benge
Photo credit: Ebony Lamb

Alie has been takahē’s essay editor since 2022 and is sadly now moving on to other opportunities. We interviewed her to chat about what’s next, her essay collection Ithaca, and what’s been her favourite thing about editing essays at takahē.

Gosh! In the time you’ve been at takahē you’ve published an essay collection, moved countries (more than once?) and now you’re editing an anthology to be published next year – that’s a lot!

Technically I’ve only moved to one country, but it feels like I’ve moved here several times. I’ve had to fly between the UK and Aotearoa three times this year. That’s too often to be doing a 30+ hour flight.

My next project is a Substack, which isn’t ready enough to announce yet, but what the hell: I’m a tragic cook, so I thought why not write a newsletter about cooking! I’m also in the planning stages of a novel. I have all the characters in place, I just don’t know what they’re going to do yet.

Tell us more about Ithaca and the publishing process… 

Ithaca is an essay collection about love and what it means to find your way home. It came about because I had to throw an entire memoir in the bin, but then looked in my essays folder and realised I’d been writing about the same thing for basically my whole career and had almost enough essays for a book.

I’m proud of Ithaca, but it’s a very personal book, so I’m also glad to be living in a different country while people read it.

What has been your favourite thing about being takahē’s essay editor? What do you think it has taught you?

I’ve loved seeking out new voices, reading journals to see who is out there that maybe hasn’t published much and asking if they have anything for takahē. But I’ve also not been able to do everything I’ve wanted to because of having to balance the editor role with work. I think what I’ve learned is that if I don’t have the time available to do the job service, someone else will, and they’ll do a great job. And if I love the magazine and love the Aotearoa lit scene, then it’s time to let the next person have a turn.

The personal essay is really having, as Lynley Edmeades put it, ‘a moment’. That’s pretty exciting, I think. Are you continuing to work on your own further essays?

Oh, I hope that’s true. I feel very evangelistic about essays and just want everyone to love them as much as we love fiction and poetry. And I’m so glad takahē is online now so that more people can read and share them. Cadence Chung’s essay in 109 is a belter.

Most of my writing this year has been for brands (gotta hustle to pay that London rent). I have written an essay for Otherhood, the anthology about not having kids that I’ve been co-editing. To be honest, after writing a whole memoir-esque collection of essays, I was a bit sick of my own voice. I’m slowly making a foray back into essays, but the appeal of fiction is that it’ll be a break from writing about myself.

What are you reading at the moment? Or, what was the last book you read that you really loved? 

I just finished The Wren, The Wren yesterday. It was very sweeping and expansive. No one does families like Anne Enright. The thing with her books though, is that even though I love them and live so deeply in their world, once it’s done I couldn’t tell you a thing that happened. I wonder if other readers find that too. 

The book that has stuck with me the most this year is Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel. It grabbed me by the lapels on the first page and still hasn’t quite let me go. I’ve now set myself a project to read everything she’s written. I’m working through Mantel Pieces, her collection of essays from the London Review of Books.

And continuing on from that question, if you could have dinner with one other writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you ask them? 

It’s got to be Caroline O’Donoghue. Not every writer would be a good dinner guest, but she’s consistently hilarious and I’m sure she’s a great hang. The Rachel Incident was one of my favourite books from this year. It’s lively, a bit pulpy, and but also incredibly smart and incisive. 

What advice would you give to someone starting out on the writing journey now?

Pick something very small to write about. Especially with essays, the smaller the better. But then use that small thing to look at something big. If you’re writing about rivers of the world, write about the smallest fish in the river. In Kathryn van Beek’s essay Going Dutch she used coffee beans to write about Dutch migration to New Zealand. Michelle Zauner used Korean food to write about grief in Crying in H Mart.

Also, make it weird. There’s so much seriousness and expectation attached to the word ‘essay’. But that means there’s more room to break the form. Play with genre, play with realism. And then submit it to takahē.

We’re really sad to see you go! But hoping you’ve got exciting and fulfilling opportunities coming up. What are you looking forward to in the new year? 

I’m looking forward to coming back to Aotearoa in May to take Otherhood on the road. We’ve got a three-city tour planned, and we can’t wait to meet our contributors and the people who helped fund this collection through the crowdfunding campaign.

After that, I’m excited about time to write again! Otherhood has been such a gargantuan task and the work never seems to end. So even though I’ve loved it, there hasn’t been much capacity for anything else.

And of course, I’ll be eagerly awaiting to see who takes over as the takahē essays editor, and the essays they’ll bring us.

You can buy Ithaca from your local independent bookstore here