ReadingRoom

The capital of New Zealand literature is Masterton

Steve Braunias advertises his presence at the Kokomai creative festival in Masterton.

Masterton! You don’t hear a lot about Masterton, but it’s got a river, the town centre is about to enjoy a $3.6million revamp, and there’s a fluoride-free drinking water tap in Manuka St. It’s a go-ahead place, the bustling pride of the arid Wairarapa, and a clear signal of its vibrancy and good intent is its week-long Kokomai creative festival, which begins today.

The nine-day programme has music, theatre, dance and art. It also has literature. Events are set down this weekend at the Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, including sessions with popular novelist Nicky Pellegrino, political memoirist Marilyn Waring, and YA novelist Whiti Hereaka, who shares the stage with the legendary Georgina Beyer. A writing workshop with the celebrated fiction writer Pip Adam is sold out – and tickets are selling fast, very fast indeed, for the session I share on Sunday morning with the ubiquitous Paula Morris.

Paula Morris! There’s not a literary murmur in New Zealand without her breath in it, sort of thing. She convenes the Master in Creative Writing Programme at the University of Auckland, is a trustee of the Mātātuhi Foundation and the Māori Literature Trust, chairs the Ockham New Zealand Books Awards sub-committee of the governing body, the New Zealand Book Awards Trust, is founder of the Academy of New Zealand Literature, and undoubtedly has something to do with that new quango of literary busybodies, the New Zealand Coalition of Books.

But these are only the official versions of Paula Morris. The real and essential Paula Morris is a writer, the author of novels, short stories, and essays. She knows these forms from the inside as one of New Zealand’s best practitioners and she also knows these forms from the outside as one of New Zealand’s most perceptive critics. Both these sides will inform her contribution to our Kokomai session on Sunday: the subject is the short story.

The short story! It’s become the thing I probably love best as literary editor of the ReadingRoom books section at Newsroom. A new story is published every Saturday and the authors include established authors such as Owen Marshall and Elizabeth Smither, and younger writers such as Melanie Harding-Shaw, Jackson Payne, Elizabeth Morton, Frankie McMillan, Eileen Merriman and others.

From the outset, the object was to bring the short story back into the mainstream media. One of the great pleasures of the Listener magazine in times past was its weekly publication of short stories; it’s where Janet Frame was first published, where Frank Sargeson and Owen Marshall and Patricia Grace were published, where the most shocking short story in New Zealand letters was published – “Jewel’s Darl”, by Anne Kennedy, who created the character of a cross-dresser. The stories at Newsroom are an attempt to follow this honourable tradition.

Now and then I get in touch with writers, and ask if they have anything to submit; it led to publishing “Black Monk” by Charlotte Grimshaw, which has become the most-read story yet published at Newsroom. It’s led also to “Your Garbage”, a story by Rhydian Thomas; I’ve yet to publish it, but I can’t wait – it’s so fresh, so unlike the conventional short story in New Zealand.

Mostly, though, I sit back and wait for stories to arrive. I accept about 30 or 40 per cent. I don’t know what I’m looking for and I don’t have anything against genre – gee I’d like a good spy story, a good horror story, a good romance story. Do such things exist in New Zealand writing?

Does sex exist in New Zealand writing? I picked up a second-hand copy the other day of In Between the Sheets, a 1979 collection of stories by Ian McEwan. The cover is of a woman lying naked in bed. The opening story is called “Pornography”. He writes, “Suddenly she lifted herself clear of him and, with a far-away smile, urinated on his head and chest.” He likes it. But pretty much the only time any kind of sex happens in the stories I’ve received is in references to that dark New Zealand pastime of criminal sexual abuse.

Keeping it real, I suppose. Marion McLeod and Bill Manhire, in the introduction to their seminal collection Some Other Country: New Zealand’s best short stories (1984), talk about “the predominant tradition of social realism”. Why does that impulse still rule so much of New Zealand fiction? I might just ask Paula Morris, on Sunday, in Masterton.

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