WORD Christchurch 2022: The spec-fic kids are alright

This session in The Chamber at The Piano had a really good vibe. Where there higher than average numbers of people with brightly hued hair in attendance? Yes. Is that generally an indicator that I'm in the right place? Also, a yes.

Local writer Karen Healey introduced the panellists by way of their books namely, Kurangaituku (Whiti Hereaka), The Dawnhounds (Sascha Stronach), and Butcherbird (Cassie Hart) but made it clear that she was there to "start them off and let them go". What followed was a collegial and supportive kōrero with a lot of pinging backwards and forwards between panellists which, for me, is the best kind of panel discussion.

Whiti Hereaka, Sascha Stronach, Cassie Hart and Karen Healey, The Piano
Whiti Hereaka, Sascha Stronach, Cassie Hart and Karen Healey, The Piano, Saturday 3 September 2022.

The germ of an idea

A simple started question to begin with though: Where did your books come from?

For Hereaka the story was very much inspired by the pūrakau of Hatupatu and the birdwoman. This is a local story in the region Hereaka hails from and when they travelled to Rotorua they would stop at the Rock (a rock plays a pivotal role in this tale) and they'd hear the pūrakau. She was always curious about the birdwoman of the story and she wouldn't let Hereaka go.

Stronach says that what eventually became The Dawnhounds was a story that he had written a long time ago and left sitting for years and then his relationship with the police changed and he "ripped up the floorboards and made it a whole new thing".

As the mother of a Minecraft obsessed primary schooler I am surprised to hear that the germ of Hart's novel started in Minecraft. She described harvesting some wheat in the game and the perspective of being among the wheat with the sky above reminded her of being on the farm where she grew up. The impulse to write a story about that place sprang from there.

Wordviews and the end of things

Right. Onto the meaty stuff. Healey wrily challenges the panellists with, "We've got 40 minutes left. How can we decolonise speculative fiction?"

Seems like a big ask to get that sorted in less time that it takes to make a mudcake, but fair enough for asking.

Stronach points out that a lot of sci-fi is about going out to the stars and "taming worlds". This idea that you have to hurt a world in order for people to thrive on it isn't ideal and he'd love to see a more sustainable approach being applied.

Hart chips in that she's written about a sentient planet. But also it's totally normal to speak to your ancestors in some cultures. It would be good if that idea could be more normalised generally.

For Hereaka there's an issue of labelling too that's problematic. She wants to push back against "magical realism" as a term because for Māori it's not Magical Realism, rather "magic IS real - it's how we experience the world". She's also keen to decolonise the actual structures and the form of the novel towards Te Ao Māori. How might we reimagine those?

Her own novel, Kurangaituku does just this. There's a parallel, cyclical quality to the narrative - of coming and going.

From there the conversation segues into discussions of finality within fiction. Hart has been bemused by people who ask her about writing sequels to certain stories when, for her, the story is told - "I don't need more of this, you need it."

Stronach thinks that modern readers are less inclined to expect finality - with sequels and reboots - "nothing goes away forever". He goes on to quote Native American author, Rebecca Roanhorse who said that all indigenous fiction is post-apocalyptic because the world has already ended. 

I have never thought about it that way but it's 100% right.

There's also a bit of back and forth about how much readers really need to have explained to them. Stronach points out that "readers will 1-star a book if it doesn't have a map... some things aren't going to be known or explained, they just are" and that "the readers who are stuck in their ways are very vocal".

Hart thinks that readers of short fiction are a bit more accepting of not knowing things, just because of the nature of the format. There's not time and space to explain everything. 

Hereaka admits to "being a bit of a salty writer - you have to do some work too", but she gets "much more out of a story I engage with" and is less likely to forget it so why not offer that to the reader?

Stronach comments that "it's better to write a book that some people love rather than a book everyone likes".

There's also a discussion about how, as a writer, you have to please yourself first. That you should put the stuff into your work that you get excited about - nerd out. And that often the parts that you have the most fun writing are the parts that people enjoy reading the most.

After a brief mention of writing (and reading) acknowledgements the whole thing turns into an unpacking of how everyone knows each other which is delightfully nerdy. There really is a community of spec-fic writers in New Zealand. Stronach mentions being "Twitter mutuals" with Hereaka who helped him with some of the te reo Māori kupu he uses in The Dawnhounds. Hereaka also mentored Hart through revisions of Butcherbird and they're all in agreement that you don't bring a book to publication alone. Hart seems genuinely embarrassed by the idea that she'd take sole credit for her novel when so many other people helped make it happen.

Ermagherd. SEX.

So far, so wholesome. So Healey mixes it up a bit with an opened ended, "so... sex scenes...".

Stronach looks immediately uncomfortable and perhaps if you've read his book it will be plain why, but I haven't and so it remains a curious and mildly unsettling mystery... for now, at least.

In any case, Hart and Hereaka are happy enough to discuss the topic. Hereaka has sex scenes in her book because they needed to happen for the story to move forward, "my role is as a servant, or a vessel of the story..." so even though it might sometimes make her uncomfortable to think of certain people reading those scenes, she needs to put those feelings aside.

Hart has one sex scene in her book that was a challenge to write simply because there's an aura of "dubious consent" around it, depending on how you read it. She admits to having put off writing it because she knew it would be difficult but felt it was worth it because she "doesn't see sex scenes like that very often" and it's important to have conversations around those sorts of scenarios which genuinely do happen to real people. But also "it's hard to damage your characters when you love them".

As for people making assumptions about the authors' own experiences based on the content of scenes like that Hart asks "Do you think that Stephen King is a serial killer?" and Stronach sarcastically chimes in with "I've done so much gene-splicing, you guys..."

Don't microwave a brick

Which is a great segue into asking what the writers have learned in the course of researching or writing their books.

Stronach says he's learning a lot about microwaves and how they interact with different materials. He asked an expert if you could microwave a brick and the answer is - DON'T, "it goes off like a hand grenade".

Duly noted.

Hart has learned a lot about herself in the process of mixing real experiences from her life with the imagined. It's helped her work through some stuff. Also, that her aunties are insecure - even though she's said they are not in her book they still refuse to read it.

Hereaka said that she's learned how to fail. She started writing Kurangaituku many years ago but abandoned it when she realised she wasn't a good enough writer to write the book she wanted to write. So she wrote something else, honed her skills, and eventually came back to it.

Books for sale on the UBS stand, The Piano
Books by the authors for sale at the UBS stand, The Piano.

Horrific families, homophobia... and crafts

Why are families such rich sources of horror, Healey wonders? DON'T WE ALL?

Hart thinks that it what it boils down to is that we think we know our family but what if? You can never really know somebody.

Healey then turns to Stronach - why did he create such an awful, homophobic setting for his bisexual protagonist in The Dawnhounds?

He says that he was writing the kind of homophobia he saw when he was growing up and which he could feel "like a cat can sense an earthquake" that's coming back around again. And so he could write a story "where there's liberation from that... there's a lot of darkness in the queer experience...". At further prompting from Healey he confirms that he did some research into Weimar Germany (and also S+M in Wellington) that informed his portrayal of underground queer bars and the community that forms in dark places.

A question now for Hereaka who is famously quite crafty (as evidenced by the bird-ified jacket she's wearing) - her Kurangaituku also makes things, specifically as a weaver. What's that about?

Whiti Hereaka's bird jacket
Author Whiti Hereaka in bird-themed jacket

Hereaka's answer is that when this character, who starts out as without a physical body, comes to have hands she thought they'd want to explore what they could do with them and that weaving comes from nature and it's way of her reclaiming it from humans. She also holds up the book, open in the middle where the two narratives flip over and compares it to the awarua weaving pattern that depicts two rivers running next to each other. But admits that's she's tactile - "I want to feel things", she says as she rubs her fingers against each other.

Book recommendations

Healey wants to know what everyone's reading, what's good?

Hart recommends The Honeys (by Ryan La Sala), a YA summer camp horror with a genderfluid main character - bees, honey, horror, "it's really good".

Stronach has been reading classics, specifically As I lay dying by William Faulkner in which there's a lot of "talking around things". "It's not a homosexual book but it's a queer book". In it, he says, there's a lot of "politely dancing around the fact that someone's died... and they suck".

Hereaka has been reading The employees by Olga Ravn which is a novel in the form of a series of interviews with employees 200 years in the future - some of them are human, some are not. And she's be dabbling in horror with some "good old Shirley Jackson". But also admits that there's too much good stuff to read:

I can't keep up with all the amazing books in Aotearoa. Stop writing! But keep writing!

Keeping it Kiwi

Healey wants to know about the challenges of keeping Kiwi-ness intact in your work when considering how it will read to an international audience. 

With The Dawnhounds Stronach was surprised at some of the things he was asked to change, in particular the word "moggy" which was being interpreted as some kind of slur even though it was pretty clear from the context that it was referring to a cat. But other than specifc words there's also a "piss-taking" sensibilty that New Zealanders have that Americans tend to take at face value. He expands on that by referencing a character from Tamsyn Muir's hugely successful Gideon the Ninth. He says "Gideon's humour is steam from a pressure cooker" but American readers tend to just think of him as a funny guy (there are murmurs of disbelief in the audience). "That humour is particularly kiwi but Americans don't quite get it".

Hart also points out that Taika (Waititi) is "...killing it overseas - they like our humour, those tones, those comedic moments".

Hereaka says that overseas readers of Kurangaituku have been fine with it but that "this book was for Māori readers first".

Hart says that "not every book is for every person" which is an apt corollary to the librarian mantra "For every book, a reader. For every reader, a book". They both work together.

Stronach, who it seems is not afraid of looking at reader reviews online, says that someone had said that he was really bad at making up fantasy words but every example they'd quoted was a real te reo word - "Why did you call it a 'taniwaha' when it's a dragon?"

It's an oddly bum note to end a really engaging session on, but at least there's a satisfying frisson of disgust from the audience. The kids are alright, I reckon.

Further reading

WORD Christchurch Information