Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh tells of the time she went swimming in deep, deep water with novelist Lloyd Jones at Byron Bay.
The first time I meet Lloyd Jones is nearly my last.
He’d promised me breakfast and a dip near Captain Cook’s Lookout – I should’ve suspected something then. Indigenous encounters and all. We were both at the Bryon Bay Book Festival and I was curious about meeting him kanohi ki te kanohi, ever since “that review”.
I know that Karl Stead, my fellow Poet Laureate, knows a thing or two about getting up people’s noses with less than favourable reviews of their work. This isn’t my area of specialty. I enjoyed reading Mr Pip, and had written as much in my review. It was, to appropriate the Hopi saying, a story that I hadn’t known I’d been waiting for.
But I did mention a couple of things that let me, as a brown woman reader, know instantly, that this was a white male author writing with the voice of a young brown girl. Why would Matilda objectify her own hair and call it stiff and fuzzy? Why would women, hiding from guerrilla soldiers, squat in the bush while their babies sucked their teats rather than their nipples? Don’t cows have teats? Humans have nipples last time I’d checked.
I shared these observations in my review for the Dominion Post. I’d heard it didn’t go down well with him. Not my problem eight years ago.
But now they’d stuck me on a Three New Zealand Writers panel with Lloyd Jones, and the wild dog in the room would have to be addressed. The other writer was Courtney Sina Meredith. We’re meant to be on the same plane. I spot her in front of me in the boarding queue. A woman in a floral shirt behind me grabs my arm.
“I’ve just read about you in the Kia Ora magazine! You’re the New Zealand Poet Laureate aren’t you?”
“Yes. Hello. How are you?”
Floral shirt lady begins telling me about her high school sonnets as we file past business class. She grabs my arm again.
“Ooo, that’s Lloyd Jones! How come he’s in business class and not the New Zealand Poet Laureate?”
“Ah well, you know how it is between novelists and poets,” I reply, thinking the same thing.
At the baggage claim at Gold Coast airport I spy Lloyd at the front of the conveyer belt, waiting for his priority luggage. Best to bite the teat and introduce myself. I stride over, holding out my hand.
“Lloyd? Hi. I’m Selina.”
He’s broader than in the pictures, but has the familiar looking hairline, and is about the right age and colour.
“Yes? Hmmm. Well.” He limply takes my hand.
“I thought I’d come up and say hi, since we’re sharing a panel.”
Deadpan stare. He obviously hasn’t forgotten about that review.
“I’m on the New Zealand Writers panel with you?”
“Excuse me?” My throat is itchy. I didn’t think we were going to get into it this early. We haven’t even left the terminal.
“No. My name’s Ian.”
When I finally meet the real Lloyd at the Writers Tent he’s actually quite friendly. We find a point of connection almost immediately: running, sons, rugby, Courtney’s future. Courtney tells me later how when she was just starting out as a writer, Lloyd spent three hours mentoring her through the minefield of publishing in and beyond New Zealand. They’ve kept in touch. I like Lloyd for this.
The panel goes well. We have a friendly disagreement about voice. I speak about wearing the mantle of representation – when you’re the only brownie in any given context, you find yourself representing all brownies everywhere. I’m not talking about Girl Guides. It’s only natural that you straddle the writerly line between your personal voice and a more political one.
“I disagree,” says Lloyd. “I can only write for me.”
After the panel I lean over to Lloyd.
“Has anyone ever come up to you and thanked you for representing them? Told you that you speak for them?”
“That happens to me all the time. It’s not something I choose – it’s chosen me.”
“But you can only tell the story as you see it.”
“On that we both agree.”
Later, I tell Lloyd I plan to run up to the Bryon Bay cape lighthouse. Lloyd’s being hosted at the Treehouse, a place one back from the beach.
“Come over for breakfast and we’ll go for a dip.”
I run the 5kms to Lloyd’s accommodation. He’s already gone out earlier to buy us organic muesli and fresh blueberries. Lloyd tells me there’s been a slight change of plan. Christine, his neighbour and owner of the Treehouse, has invited us to swim before brekky. She’s been ocean-swimming at the bay for the past 35 years. She swims with a tribe of 60 and 70-something-year-old women weekly. When we walk the path down to the beach, there they are. Waiting with extra masks and snorkels. I even get handed wetsuit togs. I’ve never worn a wetsuit before. Lloyd is given the sole pair of extra flippers.
“Take one, it makes a difference,” says Lloyd, handing over a thin yellow piece of rubber. A difference for what? I’m wearing a bikini top for goodness sake. I chew my lower lip as I look out at the expanse of blue, the rising and falling. But Lloyd’s up for it. He keeps reminding me of the ages of our escorts, but they look like sleek dolphins to me.
And so they prove to be. The group swims out and soon split off. I keep close to Lloyd. His neighbour is out a little farther, the others are now well ahead. Somehow I thought they’d be within arm’s reach should I start sinking. I follow Lloyd. I wonder what surfers are doing out here and then soon see. The waves build up from nowhere. Their white foaming crests rise behind me and, somehow, to the side of me as well. We’re out deep. The coast is now a kilometer away. I see Dave and the boys standing on the beach yelling “What the hell are you doing?” My husband and sons are, of course, at home in New Zealand, watching league. But I imagine them on the beach. I catch glimpses of them as the waves rise and fall. My leisurely stroke turns into a bid to stay afloat in the churn. I can’t catch my breath. I turn to Lloyd.
His neighbour calls out, “You okay dearie?”
“Um, I’d quite like to go in now please.”
I swallow another mouthful of salt water. It occurs to me that if I lose my shit I will sink and drown. While the sun is in the blue sky. While bathers heat themselves on the beach. I count slowly: 10, 9, 8…
Lloyd swims over.
“Selina, it’s okay. The beach is just there, but we’ve got to head out before we can head back in. Just follow me.”
It’s now that I realise maybe Lloyd is trying to kill me on purpose. Maybe he never did get over that review. The ruse with the octogenarian ocean-swimmers to lull me into dangerous waters begins to make sense. Another of the tribe pops up. She is a lithe 70-year-old.
“You’re okay. Don’t follow him. Follow me.”
I watch Lloyd swim off. I follow her. She cuts across the water. Calm, lean strokes. In the murky sea I track both her flippers with my one flipper. Pink fins, up, down, up, down, up, down.
We clear the breaking surf. The beach is still a slip of yellow. My breath is still ragged. A 65-year-old pops up next to me.
“Okay, luvvie, you’re doing well. Just swim in a bit more otherwise you’ll get caught by the current and it’ll carry you all the way out then you’ll have to swim to the next bay.”
Breathing becomes laboured again. Bloody Lloyd! I spot him near where the other current is meant to be. I have no air to call out to him.
“Turn over on your back. Isn’t the sky a pretty blue?”
I look at her glowing face and see her rainbow-coloured swim cap for the first time. I feel calmer with my head above the water. I look up at the blue sky I could still drown under. Dolphin lady keeps encouraging me. “Nearly there luvvie.” I turn and see that the beach is nearly there. I freestyle towards it.
“Come around a bit, there are stones there.”
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I want the fricken stones. I want solid ground beneath my feet and I don’t care if they get cut. Lloyd is now right behind me.
“Alright then? Well, that was a bit more than a dip wasn’t it? You were so polite out there.”
Flipper you, Lloyd Jones. I’m gonna drown you in a poem.
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.