Thursday, 16 October 2014

Give Us This Day launch

On Monday evening (13 October) we held a very successful launch for Give Us This Day by Helena Wiśniewska Brow at Unity Books. 

Herewith, Harry Ricketts launch speech for the book:

In 2009 I was lucky enough to have Helena in my second-year creative nonfiction class at the IIML. Itll be no surprise to any of you here to learn that for her portfolio she produced some terrific pieces. One of these was called “Stefan”, and told the story of how Helena with her father tried to relocate the house in East Poland (now Belarus) that he had been forced to leave as a twelve-year-old in 1941. This was the start, Helena explained to us, of an epic journey that brought him and some of his siblings to New Zealand in 1944, among other Polish children offered sanctuary in Pahiatuha. I’m relieved to find that my report on Helena’s portfolio was very positive. Here’s a snippet:
The character of your father comes across very powerfully, particularly the contrast between his usual, awkward New Zealand self and his extrovert Polish self which emerges only fleetingly with his siblings but comes back in fuller form during the trip. I like the way you organise the piece, folding your father’s history into the narrative of the journey. The minor characters are vividly etched in. The writing is crisp throughout.
After my course Helena went on to do the MA in creative writing at the IIML, and eventually produced Give Us This Day. Reading the beautifully produced final version, various things strike me. For instance, the structure, the way the narrative (built around various journeys) is always moving forward but is also constantly backtracking, folding in on itself, following now Stefan, now his sister Hela, now Helena’s mother Olga, now a particular uncle. So, in addition to Stefan, we encounter a raft of fascinating characters, not least Helena’s mother, whose story has its own poignancy. Indeed in their very different ways the stories of both of Helena’s parents will, I think, strike a deep chord with many readers. Because, while unlikely to be anything like as horrendous as Stefan’s story, the story in one form or another of a forced or involuntary emigration or exile, and of struggling and only partially adapting to the New Place, this is a story common to many Pakeha New Zealand families. This story, you could say, is part of our cultural DNA. 
The writing is just as crisp (and, I should have said, elegant) as I remember. Here is Helena on her father and her late aunt Hela:  “What might be learned from walking through history again with them as my guides ‒ my elderly father on one arm, my ghostly aunt on the other?” Here she is on Belarus: “The country’s KGB atmosphere, the [guide]book said, was its chief tourist attraction.” Here she is on herself and her sister Zofia: “We are still fussing about on the fringes of our parents’ lives, worrying about our own.” Not unexpectedly, there are recurring moments of meditation on memory, exile, home ‒ moments which press against the interwoven stories, particularly of course Stefan’s, because for him “the longed-for homecoming would [and could] never take place”.
There is also, and much to Helena’s credit, an awareness of the difficulties involved in trying to understand and write someone else’s story. Her subtitle is A Memoir of Family and Exile. I don’t know if, like me, you’ve noticed over the last few years a prejudice against the term ‘memoir’, as though a memoir is somehow not quite highbrow enough, just a bit too popular, too infra dig. A friend of mine (here in the audience) likes to say in their dogmatical way: “A novel’s a novel. That’s what it is. It’s just that some novels are better than others.” The same goes for memoirs. And one of the many reasons why this is such a good memoir is because, while reading an often startling and heart-turning story (I cried around page 240, incidentally), we regularly, quietly, bump up against realisations like this one. Here Helena has been in the university library, looking at documents relating to the Polish children who came here in 1944:
The library is emptying and the dark behind its soaring windows bounces my own fuzzy reflection back at me. I gather up my things to leave. I ask the questions, I visit the graves and read the books. But I can’t live the story; it’s not mine. The things [my father] gives me, these pieces of memory, are like Marysia’s mother’s parcels: carefully wrapped gifts, generously handed over, intriguing when wrapped in their tissue and string. Unwrapped and exposed, held up to the light and examined, they are the bits and pieces of a life. What made me think they could be more?”
And yet there is more, much more, as you will know if you’ve already read Give Us This Day or will, I hope, very soon discover. In the meantime, congratulations, Helena, I knew you could do it. Thank you.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Five Questions for Fleur Adcock

The Land Ballot tells an emigration story which is also a story of New Zealand in the early 20th century ('dry’ regions, poverty, hard manual labour, the ‘cursed’ blocks of land). Is this a story you’ve wanted to tell for some time? 
The idea of writing poems about my father's early life at Te Rauamoa crept up on me very slowly. I'd written about it at great length in my family history, but wasn't sure whether it would be of any interest to other people. Years ago I wrote a poem about the bush fire, the most dramatic event of his time there, but I was involved in other projects and that went no further. Then early in 2012 I suddenly began to realise what an extraordinary story it was: two people from Manchester with their 10-year-old son travel to the other side of the world to turn themselves into dairy farmers; they have no farming experience; they arrive at the beginning of a war, are unable to buy land in the normal way because of currency restrictions and other problems, take their chance in a ballot and after several vain attempts find themselves with 150 acres of untouched native bush halfway up a mountain. It dawned on me that this was a variation on a classic NZ experience, one with which other people might well be able to identify.

What are the attractions of using poetry to tell this story, rather than prose?
Once I'd begun writing I couldn't stop. To use poems rather than prose meant I could see the events in a series of snapshots, sometimes visually (looking at actual photographs), sometimes in the voice of my father himself, sometimes in extracts adapted from the local newspapers and sometimes simply in my imagination, trying to think myself back into that vanished community and totally altered landscape. I wrote in no particular order, and then had to slot poems into what seemed like appropriate positions in the sequence. I was greatly helped by a wonderful if unassuming little booklet celebrating the Te Rauamoa School Jubilee and containing a hand-drawn map of where everyone lived. I wandered mentally up and down those rugged, stony, rough clay mountain tracks day after day.

What resource material did you have to draw on?
My chief resource was my father's reminiscences, which my son Andrew and I had recorded in a long session of interviews and subsequently transcribed. I also had boxes of other documents, papers and photographs: fortunately my grandfather Sam was a hoarder and kept such things as his passport, his few diaries, his firearms licences, and an amazing find: a bundle of glass negatives which I had never seen printed off. I saw young Cyril, my father, sitting on his first horse in about 1915. But Sam had kept no personal letters from his family in England, apart from innocuous postcards; I had to reconstruct certain traumatic events from what I had learnt here and there over the years. My grandmother Eva and her family were not great letter writers, but I heard a certain amount about her from her younger cousin back in England and from her daughter-in-law, my mother. I'm an obsessive researcher, and had unearthed huge amounts of factual material, but gossip is a great resource. And of course I knew these people; anything I learned could be measured against my memories of them.

I also had the good fortune to be writing at a time when quantities of early New Zealand newspapers are available online. The Waipa Post is not yet among them, but I was able to access it through libraries. Imagine my delight, sitting in the National Library in Wellington, to discover that at the age of 12 my father had played the part of Aladdin in the school play!

The narrator reminds the reader throughout the poem that she only has what information has been given ‘But what do I know? Only what he told us,/and what Sam wrote in that pocket diary.’ Was there a fine balance to be measured between fiction and reimagining? Do you see these as the same thing or not at all?
I sometimes wonder what his reactions would be to this exercise of prying into his life. As I say in one of the poems, ‘there was a line called Trespass, not to be crossed’ (although I've tiptoed over it more than once). I've used his own descriptions of such things as making fences, driving the buggy, and taking his small cousins to school on the back of his pony, but here and there I attribute words to him which he didn't actually utter into that tape recorder; for example, the quotations about milk are taken from English poems that he might well have read at school, but not from his own speech.
What is the poetry scene in the UK like now? Is there a scene? Do you feel a part of it?
As for the poetry scene in England, it is full of vigour and enthusiasm, buzzing with live events: readings, festivals, competitions and publications. I don't get asked to do as many readings as in the old days – there are hundreds of younger poets for organisers to draw on – but I'm still involved. This is where I feel at home as a writer.

The Land Ballot is published by VUP, p.b, $30. 
Available for purchase at our online bookstore here, and in all good bookstores nationwide.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

October newsletter

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Three new titles in October

Give Us This Day: A Memoir of Family and Exile
by Helena Wiśniewska Brow
In 1944, Stefan Wiśniewski, one of the 732 exiled Polish children, was offered unlikely refuge in New Zealand in 1944. Stefan and eight family members were among the many hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians who were deported by the Soviets from Eastern Poland in 1941, enduring forced labour and starvation in Siberia before fleeing south to central Asia and, finally, Iran. New Zealand offered wartime shelter to a group of these refugees, almost all of them orphaned children, who were educated and cared for firstly at a camp in Pahiatua and later in New Zealand secondary schools. Some of the Polish children would later re-settle in Europe or elsewhere, but most – including Stefan and four of his brothers and sisters – stayed and raised families in New Zealand.

In her first book, the manuscript of which won her the Adam Prize in 2013, Helena Wiśniewska Brow maps her father's terrible journey, and the miseries and triumphs of his family’s adjustment to life In New Zealand.

"What intrigued me was not so much what happened – my father’s life turned upside down by forces beyond his control – or even why," she says. "I wanted to find out how an experience that was over by the time he was 14 years old has defined him ever since. Seventy years after his arrival in New Zealand, I wanted to look at the impact that trauma had on him, on his family and on the people whose lives had intersected with his."

Helena says she always knew the story of her family’s past had to be written.

"The result is a very personal story, as all memoir is, but I hope there’s a common truth in it. I hope it’s one that any survivor, or child of a survivor, Polish or otherwise, might recognise."
Give Us This Day, hardback, $40. Available for purchase from October 3.

We launch Give Us This Day at Unity Books on Monday 13 October, 6pm–7.30pm. All welcome.

Helena will be in conversation with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand National this Saturday 4 October.

Helena is also taking part in the 'Celebrating Everything Polish' Festival being held at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea from 25 October–2 November. More details here.

by Fleur Adcock 
Fleur Adcock's new poetry collection, The Land Ballot, is also a family memoir. It traces a story that will be familiar to many twentieth century New Zealand settlers. Says Fleur:

"Early in 2012 I suddenly began to realise what an extraordinary story it was: two people from Manchester with their 10-year-old son travel to the other side of the world to turn themselves into dairy farmers; they have no farming experience; they arrive at the beginning of a war, are unable to buy land in the normal way because of currency restrictions and other problems, take their chance in a ballot and after several vain attempts find themselves with 150 acres of untouched native bush halfway up a mountain."

She says the process of writing the story in poetry rather than prose allowed her to see it in a series of snapshots.

"Sometimes I used the voice of my father himself, sometimes in extracts adapted from the local newspapers and sometimes simply in my imagination, trying to think myself back into that vanished community and totally altered landscape."

She says she unearthed huge amounts of factual material in researching the story.

"I'm an obsessive researcher, but gossip is a great resource. And of course I knew these people; anything I learned could be measured against my memories of them."
The Land Ballot, paperback, $30. Available for purchase from October 3.

"Hold on to your hat!" That was how one China specialist greeted the news that the Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee was meeting in Beijing in November last year (2013). He shared the excitement that many felt at the prospect of the Plenum bringing the winds of change to Chinese policy-making. Chinese President Xi Jinping – also General Secretary of the Communist Party – and Premier Li Keqiang were still relatively new to their jobs, having been selected in 2012. The Plenum seemed just the chance for them to push Chinese reforms on to a higher stage, resolving some of the intractable difficulties that had arisen in the country’s extraordinary rush to wealth during previous decades.

This book is based on the conference that the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre held on 2 July this year (2014). The conference brought together an outstanding group of China specialists and speakers. The main part of the conference consisted of three panels: one on governance and society, one on economic and financial affairs, and one on the Plenum’s international and regional implications, including for New Zealand. Some of the speakers at the conference gave papers, while others spoke from notes. This book consists largely of transcripts of the conference’s main presentations, as approved by the speakers concerned. It is divided into three main parts corresponding to the three panels of the conference. It serves as a record of the conference and, we hope, a stimulus to future discussion.

China at the Crossroads, paperback, $40. Available for purchase from October 3. 


Buried treasure

Each month we're going to profile one or two titles from our backlist that we love, think relevant or want to sell some copies of because we think you might like them.

For a limited period (beginning to end of that month) we will offer a 50% discount on 'buried treasure' feature titles purchased at the VUP online bookstore.

This month's buried treasure:

 Kicking the Tyres
edited by Jon Johansson and Stephen Levine
$50, p/b, October special $25

After each election since 1987, VUP have published papers and essays delivered by political academics, media and polling analysts, and politicians at a post-election conference giving an overview of the recent election campaigns. These books have become essential reading for those seeking to understand what just happened and why. Expect the 2014 general election book next year.

Sample quotes:

"A Fairfax Media-Research (2011) poll on 2 October even found Key to be the politician most trusted to babysit the children."
–Jennifer Lees-Marshment

"With the exception of Māori Television, female pundits tended to be interrrupted more frequently and enjoy less speaking time than their male counterparts."
– Corin Higgs

"In the wake of the 2011 election, Māori politics is best described as fragmented."
– Morgan Godfery

by Danyl Mclauchlan
$35, p/b, October special $17.50

A pundit (and biologist) whose blog dimpost is well worth following, Danyl Mclauchlan is also a fiction writer and author of New Zealand's leading comic-mystery-erotic-horror-adventure novel. Set in Wellington's Aro Valley, Secrets follows an unlikely hero, a down-on-his-luck writer named Danyl, as he attempts to unravel the Machiavellian plots of cult leader Campbell Walker. For those who like their adventure stories funny, fast and meta-local – look no further than Unspeakable Secrets.

sample text:
Steve sneered. ‘And do you just believe anything the corporate mainstream media tells you?’
     Danyl checked the byline. ‘This story ran in the Aro Valley Community Volunteers Newsletter.’
     ‘Exactly. Whose tune do they dance to?’
     Danyl chose not to reply. He flipped through the rest of the clippings. There was nothing of any interest: all the details of the case were suppressed. Danyl felt a rising sense of indifference. Did any of this matter? Parsons seemed like a horrible guy, and Danyl inadvertently stole his box. Parsons took it back and destroyed Danyl’s spare room, presumably out of vengeance, possibly because that’s just how black magicians did things. And maybe Stasia was involved, somehow, and maybe she wasn’t. ‘Seems like we’ve reached a dead end,’ he said. ‘Without the clues in the box we have nothing to go on.’
     ‘Not if we storm Parsons’ house. Ransack it for clues. Take back the box—’
     ‘Forget it.’ Danyl rolled up the news clippings and handed them back to Steve. ‘I’m a writer, not a criminal.’

Each month we offer a giveaway to our subscribers. If you want to be into win, subscribe to our newsletter here. You will receive these from November. Subscribers also receive invitations to our book launches.



Events in October

Event launch
Lit Crawl

Launch of Lit Crawl
on Thursday 2 October, 5.30pm
at Vic Books,
Kelburn Campus,
(RSVP to | Limited space left!)

Book launch
Give Us This Day

by Helena Wiśniewska Brow
at Unity Books
Monday 13 October
All welcome.

Elizabeth Knox
Talk on 'Intention and Experience'

at the Petone Library, Britannia Street, Petone
Wednesday 15 October
7pm start
Entry: Koha


VUP in Auckland event
Geoff Cochrane will be making his first literary appearance in Auckland,
in conversation with
Fergus Barrowman at the City Central Library
46 Lorne St, AK CBD
Tuesday 4 November