An interview with the New Zealand poet, novelist, and scriptwriter ahead of her appearance at New Zealand Festival Writers Week.
Anne Kennedy’s most recent poetry collection, The Darling North, was named the winner of the poetry category at the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. There is a sweeping yet intimate quality to Kennedy’s work. Knowing humour and a delight in language are unreservedly interspersed amongst images of literature and landscape. She talks about the craft of writing, a Breaking Bad parallel in early colonial New Zealand, and the power of place.
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SAIYA GUO: It is always interesting to delve into how writers perceive the practice of writing. In your novel, The Last Days of the National Costume, storytelling is associated with the workmanlike acts of sewing and stitching. Is this similar to your image of writing?
ANNE KENNEDY: For me, writing is like growing grass—there are different shoots springing up all at once. So while on one part of the lawn there might be an almost spiritual creativity going on, in another part the lessons of technique are being considered.
Because I’ve worked in film for a long time, I’ve been exposed to quite technical ways of looking at narrative, and I’m sure that’s affected how I think of form in fiction and poetry too. My narrative poems have turned out strictly three-act structure!
I was lucky to grow up in a house where art was valued. Although my father ran the local gas company, and my mother was a homemaker, there was something very creative about the way they lived their lives. I thought being any kind of artist was a viable option. To this day, I believe being in business and being a homemaker are creative occupations, the same as writing.
Overall, I think knowing about craft helps bring good ideas into the world, rather than stifling them. This is why I believe in the value of good creative writing schools.
SG: Throughout National Costume, the main character GoGo is caught between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’. Do you find that is a similar tension for you, in the dual roles of being an academic and a writer?
AK: I would put teaching in the ‘thinking’ category along with writing. And it’s true, the novel does consider the realness of doing physical tasks compared with the nothingness of thinking. I love the dichotomy between writing being a thinking activity and yet describing the real, the physical world—sets and scenes and actions and objects.
In the end, we do tasks, even thinking ones, so that we can look after our families and sleep in a comfortable bed at night. There’s something in that dual existence that keeps me writing.
SG: Your body of work is remarkable for how it traverses genres and mediums. Are there adjustments that are required for writing in different forms?
AK: I’ve been asked this question a lot, but I still haven’t entirely worked out the answer. The common ground in the genres I write is narrative, and I guess my overriding work is to try to present interesting stories in different ways.
Perhaps the adjustment I make between writing fiction and poetry is to do with rhythm and language, and being able create an accessible anti-narrative. I used to write (and read) quite challenging anti-narratives in fiction. I’m past that. I like the idea of a narrative poem that takes leaps and risks being more readable than a work of fiction that does the same thing. The line breaks, the rhythm, the white space helps with that readability.
SG: You have spent quite a few years teaching and writing in Hawaii. How would you describe the effect of living in Hawaii?
AK: After a decade in Hawaii, the place is deeply part of me. (I literally miss it in my lungs.) Living there exploded the way I think about the Pacific. As an immigrant, I was fresh-off-the-boat, and I used to have the strange feeling that this was the place my great-grandparents, who came from Ireland in the 1880s, thought they were immigrating to—warm, benign, full of possibility, but also difficult culturally. The whole experience intensified my view of myself as a settler, and I think those ideas—of loss and work and the new land—are in the fabric of my two recent books. Hawaii sharpened my sense of how it is to be displaced and to make a new place with layers of perception and stories, old and new. National Costume is to me, in the end, about how people live on contested land.
SG: This experience of Hawaii seems to have much in line with the ideas of displacement and diaspora that you explore in your prose and poetry.
AK: Being in Hawaii did inspire me to concern myself with place, but I hasten to add—going back to my ‘lawn’ thing—that place as a theme was just one of a whole lot of ingredients, while the characters get on with it. (When I wrote ‘feminist’ things—domestic poetry, a coming-of-age-story for girls, a novel about incest—I was mostly interested in these girls as characters.) But alongside place, I’m interested in the voice of location and in the way that represents place. I’m with Grace Paley when she says, “If you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes from your parents and street and your friends, you’ll probably say something beautiful.” Many of my favourite writers sound exquisitely like where they come from (Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle).
Hawaii is one of the most ethnically diverse places on the planet. Being in a mixed-ethnicity family myself, this fit like a glove. We were suddenly normal. In New Zealand, people still stare at you if your family is not all the same colour. Hawaii people talk about race all the time—it’s everybody’s favourite subject. In New Zealand, ethnicity is like sex, you can’t talk about it in public. It was a shock coming back to that, and to the racism that goes on in all walks of life, even the writing world. I’ve been invited to countless all-white events over the last year. I guess the experience of being a minority (which I was, being white in Hawaii), has made me even more determined to be open to different aesthetics. Aside from the ethics of it, I thought that was what art was about.
SG: Has this openness towards different aesthetics influenced your work since then?
AK: It’s hard to judge your own work that way. But as a reader (which includes editing and teaching), I believe that if you stay with a text that doesn’t seem immediately appealing, in the end you will understand its language. I first realised this with music, a long time ago. I would listen to something I didn’t even like at first, and it would become my favourite thing. It can be the same with literature.
SG: In National Costume, GoGo is the narrative force that speaks directly to the reader yet, at the same time, her secrets and histories seem closely held. What was the impetus behind creating such a character?
AK: GoGo (unlike her client) exists distinctly in the present. In our contemporary society, we know many people by their behaviour, not their past, and I wanted to reflect that. Her story, like a certain kind of narrative film, avoids flashbacks and exposition.
GoGo grew into this character. She didn’t arrive fully formed. But allowing for this kind of evolution, I wanted to create a character as smart as the reader. I get tired of characters who are made deliberately naïve. I also wanted a character who was smugly middle-class, but only just becoming aware of her privilege as it was slipping away. The crash of 2008 affected this, I think. I was in the US, where thousands of middle-class people lost their jobs, people who had thought they were set for life. I wanted to portray of the decline of bourgeois wealth, which is happening here in New Zealand too.
GoGo keeps secrets from everyone around her, but the biggest secret in the story is kept from her until the end. That’s the way I see it, anyway.
SG: There’s a sense of fluid identities throughout National Costume. Do the ideas of nationalities and costumes, as captured in the title, contribute to this?
AK: I hope so. To quote from real life: recently I met some people from the UK who had just become New Zealand citizens. They were asked to wear their national costume along to the naturalization ceremony. They told me they didn’t know what to wear. I must say, I had a big aha moment—these are the people in my novel! This incident is about the loss of identity that has taken place before agreeing to give up your identity, an erosion of identity. It happens to all settlers in the end, even if a new identity forms like a scar (to borrow from Eavan Boland writing about loss of language).
SG: The Darling North, your most recent poetry collection, can be said to be about landscapes that are both personal and external, as well as both present and historic. Are there particular influences from your own past that you drew on to create these?
AK: Aside from my own family background, I realised a while after writing this book that I had been affected by Janet Frame’s notions of the North in A State of Siege. As a South Islander, she wrote of the North as an exotic, tropical place, and a dangerous place, too, a place of no return—overwhelmingly an imagined landscape.
As settlers here, even generations on, I think we still exist—at least, this is my experience—in a dream of paradise. In National Costume, the Irish family think they are coming to Paradise, and it is a kind of death. In the news here, there are constant stories about how great New Zealand is, how our quality of life measures up. I’d guess these stories are mostly Pakeha-originated. It’s as if we need to keep reminding ourselves we came to paradise.
SG: Both The Last Days of the National Costume and The Darling North are rooted in a historical event or document: the 1998 Auckland Blackout for The Last Days of the National Costume and Old New Zealand by Frederick E. Maning for The Darling North. What first drew you to these events or texts?
AK: I read Old New Zealand for the first time three or so years ago, and couldn’t believe that I had got to this age without being acquainted with such an important document about early contact between Maori and Pakeha. It’s a text rich with history, humanity, and excitement, but in the end, double standards. Maning called himself a Pakeha-Maori and was anti-Treaty for the way he saw the articles of the Treaty serve Maori badly, but later he sat as a judge in the Land Court. There’s an almost Breaking Bad kind of moral descent in this. To me it spoke to how we deal with human desire and greed, even if we might have good or at least neutral intentions in the beginning.
For the Auckland Blackout—which remains one of the longest-standing urban blackouts ever—it suited the story I wanted to tell about the descent of the middle-class, or at least these middle-class people. The Blackout happened because the new private owners of the power company let the infrastructure run down. They didn’t give a toss. We’re still selling the assets off, despite a referendum showing that the people don’t want that.
SG: Finally, what are your plans for the near future? Is there anything that you are currently working on?
AK: I have a few irons in the fire. I am looking forward to continuing with a new novel with the generous support of the Michael King Centre and the University of Auckland in the spring semester. I am also delighted to have just taken up a part-time position teaching screenwriting and fiction at the Manukau Institute of Technology.