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Essays we like

Recently I have been teaching a course on essay writing for Kahini. While I was preparing I became concerned that my own essay reading might be too narrow so I put a request on Twitter for people to tell me their favourite essays or essayists.

It was too good a list to keep to myself.

In no particular order, and with no endorsements or credits for the suggestions, here are the essayists my Twitter network provided:

Eula Biss

Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering, a collection

Joan Didion

Annie Dillard

Jenni Diski

David Foster Wallace

Helen Garner

Natalia Ginzburg

Mark Greif, Against Everything

Jay Griffiths

Siri Hustvedt . ++

Paul Kingsnorth

Barbara Kingsolver

Kei Miller

Andrew O’Hagan, The Secret Life, a collection, and The Tower

George Orwell

Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Solnit

John Jeremiah Sullivan

James Wood

Some of these authors were familiar to me and will be familiar to lots of people but others are newer or from a different place or parts of the universe I have yet to visit. Thank you so much to the people who replied to my tweet.


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Place-words: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, in which enchantment is practised to undo the injuries of modernity

[With grateful thanks to Radio NZ and Kim Hill for alerting me to this extraordinary book],-landscape-and-language

It is extremely hard to describe what Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane is, or more importantly what it does, but it feels to me like something rare and precious. Landmarks  is part of the current river of advocacy for the natural environment. But the book is not in the form of direct arguments for conservation. It was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in 2015. But it is often poetry to my eye and ear, and I think it could be argued that the whole book behaves as if it were poetry.

In terms of structure, the book consists primarily of ten Glossaries , each one a collection of words particular to a certain aspect of land or water, for example Glossary lll Waterlands. Within that there are Subheadings.

Moving Water

Pools Ponds and Lakes

Rain and Storm

Riverbank, Riverbed

Springs and Wells

Swimming and Splashing

Water’s Surface


Within Wetlands are the following words :

allan piece of land nearly surrounded by water, Cumbria,

amod     green plain almost encircled by the bend in a river, Gaelic,

crannog    prehistoric lake dwelling, Irish,

doirling    islet to which one can wade at low tide, Gaelic,

eyot    small island, especially in a river, English,

feorainn    grassy area of riverside or shore, Irish,

baft   island in a pool, Midlands,

and halb, holm, peninsula, water-faesten, warth and ynys.

These glossaries contain words from Old English, Norn, Anglo-Romani, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, the Orcadian, Shetlandic and Doric dialects of Scots, numerous regional versions of English and the last vestiges of Norman still spoken on the Channel Islands. The place-words that Macfarlane collects and curates for us have been collected by scholars and members of the public, not just by him, so the Glossaries and the book have an inclusive quality. Words sent in by old ladies and children are treated with as much respect as words contributed by scholars. And perhaps this would be the right place to say that the words themselves are extraordinary for their sounds and the lyrical beauty of the things they describe.

The most obvious mechanism I can see is that Macfarlane directs the reader’s attention towards words about the land, which, for him, is the United Kingdom.

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George Orwell’s diaries: the archival impulse and how to ‘read’ current events

Over the last week I have been reading George Orwell’s diaries, edited by Peter Davison and published by Harvill Secker in 2009.  The diaries have made an enormous impression on me for several reasons, among them the relentless focus on the practical details of making a garden and living from it, in what Davison calls the Domestic Diaries and his detailed documentation of the earnings, housing and diet of the unemployed and low paid workers in the mines and on farms. I find both of these uses of writing inspiring.

These things are never simple though. The Orwell who put himself into doss houses for unemployed men and hung out for a few weeks with tramps and union organisers was an old boy of Eton and had other choices. There was a strong sense in which he did this to get things to write about. That is something which, as a writer, you have to stop and think about a bit. The boundary between his possible exploitation of the people he stayed with and his ability to write an exposé of subjects other people are ignorant of or are wilfully ignoring, is not straightforward at all.  Or at least I don’t think it is. It has been said too that he ‘stage-managed’ the writing in The Road to Wigan Pier to show himself subject to the same lice and hunger and cold as the families he was in contact with, when in fact he would shortly return to his own way of life, which was also cold and damp and had terrible food but was several steps more secure and comfortable than the lives he was visiting. All of these critiques notwithstanding I still think that writing about the lives of people who are getting a hard time from employers, landlords and whose suffering is being ignored, is a good thing for a writer to do.

Orwell’s domestic diaries, where he records every egg that his hens lay and how many potatoes he harvests and how many peat blocks he cut and how much gas the stove is using and how much meat he will get from half a stag, impress me from the point of view that he does not think the details of life are beneath his notice. To the contrary, he seems to think that paying attention to what you grow and what you need to survive, is as important a part of life as the writing he does or the thinking he does about world affairs. The domestic diaries do have a manic quality though, a hard turning away of his attention from certain things, to be partially achieved by this staunch focus on the details of the garden and the household economy.  Those ‘certain things’ include his own health and his emotions.

In the time immediately before the declaration of war on September 3 1939, Orwell kept two diaries.

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Creative Non-Fiction and The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2016

Last week I had the pleasure of going to the Award ceremony in Auckland. The Non-Fiction category, for which my book Lost and Gone Away was a finalist was  announced straight after the Best First Book awards. I had been telling everyone that I was betting on Witi Ihimaera’s Maaori Boy which I think is a landmark book on the New Zealand scene. And that is the book that won the Non-Fiction prize. I won’t say it is an easy book to read. It has so many stories within stories that sometimes I felt as if I couldn’t fit another one in my head, but that is the world it is telling us about. I think this is the only memoir I have ever read that contains the creation of the earth. That is how far back and wide it goes. And in-between the writer and the creation stretches a long long line of people whose stories influence the boy and what you might call his fate. I was pleased this book won the prize. I think we, Aotearoa New Zealand writers and readers , need more books about every aspect of the bi-cultural world so that we can learn about it, and also so students of writing can see what is possible.  Today I was writing an essay about Charles Brasch’s poem The Clear. That brought home to me how important it is to feel that you could belong in a piece of writing. When I read his poems I know that when he says ‘me’ he could mean me. Young Maaori writers deserve that too.

So my congratulations to Witi.

I did wonder though, later, after the merry-go-round had stopped and the music had died, whether there needs to be a re-think of the Non-Fiction category, and perhaps Creative Non-Fiction needs to be its own category. The books in this category were so different from each other in method and purpose that I couldn’t see a reason why they should be judged against each other. My pastiche Lost and Gone Away versus Rachel Barrowman’s scholarly biography of Maurice Gee? How does that make sense? Creative Non-Fiction is enjoying a flowering in Aotearoa at the moment. How about making space for that?


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