Memoir

Where We Swim takes the broad view on each component of its title: the ‘where’, the ‘we’, the ‘swim’. Wellington-based author Ingrid Horrocks explains that her original idea – to record a series of solo swims – was transformed when she realised such deliberate solitary excursions were ‘bracketed moments held deep within lives’ and that their contrivance ‘felt too close to the act of an explorer, or an old-school nature writer’.

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There’s a Judy Horacek cartoon in which a woman tells a friend that she once intended to be the perfect wife, a domestic goddess. When the friend asks, ‘So what happened?’, the woman replies, ‘They taught me to read.’

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When did the rationale for the Iraq War – which began in 2003 and still rumbles today – go from being a mistake, to a self-deception, to an outright lie? When did it dawn on the Bush Jr administration and its key allies in London and Canberra that the ostensible reason for the invasion of Iraq had disappeared, probably literally, under the sands of Mesopotamia? By the time of the invasion, Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed no weapons of mass destruction that could threaten another country. The Iraqi dictator may have desired such weapons, but a combination of international sanctions and the mere fear of retribution thwarted his plans.

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Young writers may turn to the page for catharsis – for writing-as-therapy – but that’s not why we read them. The ageist view, that a writer mustn’t pen their memoirs until they are older and learned, neglects the breadth of excellent work by precocious writers who have a story to tell. Naïveté and inexperience can enchant, sometimes more so than brilliant craftsmanship or intellectual maturity.

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The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen begins like a fable, the story of a poor family that wins the lotto and moves to a remote Queensland location to make fairy-tale characters for a tourist attraction called Dragonhall. There should be a happy ending, but there isn’t.

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In Creating a Character (1990), acting coach Moni Yakim urges students to explore their vulnerability, arguing that, while we admire Superman for lifting buildings, we become emotionally invested only when he’s faced with Kryptonite. It’s ironic, Yakim writes, that vulnerability is simultaneously ‘the one quality a person is most likely to conceal’ and the one that ‘most allows an audience to identify’. This is the terrain Rick Morton traverses in My Year of Living Vulnerably, a mix of memoir, cultural history, reportage, and witness testament. How can we be at peace with our vulnerabilities when, like the dinosaurs Morton used to obsess over, they could eat us alive?

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‘The first forty years of life furnish the text, while the remaining thirty supply the commentary,’ Arthur Schopenhauer remarked in The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims. While the timespan is different, the proportions are similar. Brendan Ryan’s Walk Like a Cow, which focuses predominantly on the poet’s first twenty-five years, has been written over roughly two decades. The memoir features twenty-seven largely self-contained chapters and nine previously published poems, in a roughly chronological narrative.

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More than twenty-five years ago, I wrote an essay on the work of Oliver Sacks (Island Magazine, Autumn 1993). Entitled ‘Anthropologist of Mind’, it ranged across several of Sacks’s books; but it was Seeing Voices, published in 1989, that was the main impetus for the essay. In Seeing Voices, Sacks explored American deaf communities, past and present. He exposed the stringent and often punishing attempts to ‘normalise’ deaf people by forcing them to communicate orally, and he simultaneously deplored the denigration and widespread outlawing of sign language. Drawing on the work of Erving Goffman, Sacks showed how deaf people were stigmatised and marginalised from mainstream culture, and he revealed, contrary to prevailing opinion in the hearing world, the richness and complexities of American Sign Language.

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Monsters by Alison Croggon

by
April 2021, no. 430

Alison Croggon has written poetry, fantasy novels, and whip-smart arts criticism for decades, but Monsters is her first book-length work of non-fiction. In this deeply wounded book, Croggon unpacks her shattered relationship with her younger sister (not named in the book), a dynamic that bristles with accusations and resentments. In attempting to understand the wreckage of this relationship, Croggon finds herself going back to the roots of Western patriarchy and colonialism, seeking to frame this fractured relationship as the inexorable consequence of empire.

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No Document begins with a description of the opening sequence of Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949) in which a horse is led to slaughter – a significant misremembering that Anwen Crawford rectifies later. Franju’s black-and-white documentary actually begins with a collage of scenes shot on the outskirts of Paris; surreal juxtapositions of objects abandoned in a landscape devastated by war and reconstruction.

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