Is there any such thing as literature in Nelson?

In the latest in our occasional series which look for signs of literary life in the regions, Kerry Sunderland studies Nelson – and talks to an author whose book is being filmed right this second, in Prague, by some guy called Taika Waititi.

Two words: Maurice Gee. Of course literature exists in Nelson; New Zealand’s most revered author lives here, in the city where he wrote Plumb – his 1979 novel, which was recently judged the best book of the past 50 years in a major survey conducted by The Spinoff – and many other of his classic works. He’s 86 now and ventures out only for quiet walks and visits to the bookstores. Gee has publicly stated he’s given up on fiction but has been busy these past few years writing the story of his parents, his own upbringing and his wife’s peripatetic life as a child. He tells me that he’s considering submitting them for publication.

Christine Leunens also lives in Nelson. The Belgian-New Zealand author is an international superstar – and one of her books is currently being filmed in Prague by Taika Waiiti. Jojo Rabbit, which stars Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell, and is due for release in 2019, is based on Leunens’s second novel, Caging Skies. It was a global success, with the French translation shortlisted for the Prix FNAC and the Prix Médicis. Other translations of the story of a Hitler Youth who discovers his parents are hiding a young Jewish woman in their home have already or will soon appear in Poland, Korea, Turkey, Spain (in both Spanish and Catalan), Hungary, Serbia and Croatia.

We arrange to meet at the River Café on the banks of the Maitai at the northern end of town. It’s high tide, the sun is shining and the amber oak leaves are swirling. In looking for her, I have a slight advantage. There are many photos of Leunens online – signing books beside Witi Ihimaera, clowning around with Waititi at the What We Do In The Shadows premiere, gracing several luscious double page spreads of NZ Life and Leisure.

Leunens had just started work on her fourth novel, an historic Franco-New Zealand story set around the time of the 1985 bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, when she moved to Nelson from Palmerston North in 2014. Even though she’s desperately busy trying to now finish that novel, Leunens agrees to meet with me because, she says, “it really interests me how a place can have an influence on one’s writing.”

Leunens and husband Axel de Maupeou, who heads up the Nelson City Council’s festivals team, first moved to New Zealand in 2006. For a few years she’d been speaking predominantly French and Italian and, as someone who wrote English language novels, was worried she was getting a bit rusty. New Zealand was their first choice: “I saw the beaches and the mountains and I was so moved. I said to my husband, ‘I feel a calling; we have to go there. That’s where I want to write.’”

One of the advantages of living in Nelson, Leunens explains, is that it gives her more time to do just that – and with three teenage boys busy with extracurricular activities to wrangle, her music (she is a violinist), a film adaptation in the making and a tendency to write novels that rely on extensive research, time is her most precious commodity. Luckily everything in Nelson is “a song away”, she tells me.

Leunens says this travel even replenishes her – in a way, it’s invigorating for a writer who spends long hours sitting at her desk. Our stunning beaches also nourish her. “Tahunanui and the Abel Tasman quiets my mind, it erases my brain, cleans the slate.”

Yet that doesn’t mean she thinks Nelson is boring; there are still plenty of potential distractions. By the time we settle inside, after agreeing the autumn whirligigs carry too much of a chill, she tells me, “There’s so much to do here. If I went to everything this novel wouldn’t have happened.”

As for her collaboration with Waititi, she says they share the same artistic temperament. “We’re both interested in how children cope in the adult world. I think the story is a drama that manages to be funny, but I wouldn’t describe it as a satire. There’s a very close line between humour and tragedy. Taika has been very respectful. He tells me, ‘it’s still your baby, just dressed in different clothes.’”

Maurice Gee, Christine Leunens, Taika Waititi, and unknown person

At first glance, Nelson appears to lack the energy, diversity and youth of Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin. Some lovers of literature wonder whether the region’s famous lifestyle may be literature’s worst enemy. There can be dangers inherent in a culture that is too homogenous and too comfortable; there’s no grit for the more experimental and dynamic work. There is certainly an annual exodus of high school leavers to cities with universities.

Only five years ago, the region was still officially the least ethnically diverse region in New Zealand. Our population has changed rapidly since then. Nelson’s migrant population is now the country’s third highest, with more than 20 per cent of Nelson-Tasman’s total population of 100,000 born overseas. Yet less than one per cent of New Zealand’s Māori population usually live here and while there’s now a small but significant community of Burmese refugees, and a growing number of Indians and Chinese, which is partly the result of NMIT’s efforts to recruit international students, it’s still largely 50 shades of white.

But literature is being produced, published and bought in Nelson. It’s home to two quality independent bookstores, with Volume joining the established Page & Blackmore. Both host author talks and book launches. When I ask Page & Blackmore how many writers based in the Top of the South they stock, they produce a list of 40 authors. The Top of the South branch of the NZSA has 60 members. This year is the 18th year an increasingly popular series of readers and writers’ events have been part of the annual Nelson Arts Festival. And Nelson is where one of the country’s best and most innovative publishers is based. Craig Potton and Robbie Burton founded their independent publishing company here in 1987. Without Potton & Burton, New Zealand writing would be immeasurably poorer.

Like Leunens, Alexandra Tidswell – whose debut novel Lewisville (published by Mākaro Press) was shortlisted as a finalist in the 2017 New Zealand Heritage Book Awards – says the region’s landscape sustains her writing practice.

“I run or walk up the Grampians or the Tantragee Saddle every day at lunchtime, which is really important to me as part of my writing practice. It gets me outside to breathe and move after hours of sitting on my butt. Running in the hills, rain or shine, through the same scenery which is actually never the same as the seasons come and go, gives me energy and space to work out all sorts of plot and character issues. I used to do this in Wellington (and I really love Wellington) but the weather in Nelson is a lot more conducive to this daily practice.”

Local poet and essayist Cliff Fell says that while there are a lot of writers in Nelson, he’s not sure it can be called a “literary community”, or if one does exist, then maybe he’s a little outside of it.

“That’s probably because I live some way out of town, but there was a time, when Rachel Bush was still living, and writing her last book – though of course no one knew it was her last book then – that a few of us used to meet and read new poems. Louise Wallace was here then, and Jessica Le Bas, Bridget Auchmuty, Rae Varcoe and Lindsay Pope, the scratchy old cardigan of NZ poetry as Ashleigh Young called him. Harry Ricketts was in town a year or so ago and we did a reading at Volume, in memory of Rachel. That brought quite a crowd out. Nelson certainly has plenty of readers, enough to support two bookshops – and local book launches are good affairs. Thomas Koed and Stella Chrysostomou at Volume have always been very supportive of the Nelson writing scene. They’re even doing some chapbook publishing now.”

There are dozens of aspiring writers based in Nelson and Fell has played a significant role in developing their skills. He established the first Level 5 creative writing programme in the country, which has formed the basis of the new NZ Diploma in Writing for the Creative Industries and has this year attracted a record number of enrolments.

Pretty Nelson (Photo: Leone Chapman)

In addition to the annual festival, there are regular opportunities for writers to congregate. Both the local NZSA branch and the Nelson Live Poets Society host monthly meetings.

The poets have had a bit of a rough time finding a new home in Nelson since the Freehouse pulled down its yurt, which many of us miss despite the piquant aroma.

The collective have now found a new home at the On Inn basement bar. Curious to know whether I’d find the edgy young authors and poets of tomorrow there, I went along recently. It was the first time I’ve been to the address since Nelson’s incredibly popular vegan café, East Street, moved out. Somehow it feels smaller and cosier than it used to. And it’s packed with poets and those who love poetry.

I meet Cat Woodward, a UK poet who has only just moved to Nelson. She invites me to join her at her table, which includes a young poet called Adhish, who I’d met at a Nelson Heritage Festival talk by Graeme Lay a week earlier. Later, Panni Palásti (AKA Eva Brown) joins us. After fleeing the streets of revolutionary Hungary she eventually settled in Nelson where she wrote her memoir, Budapest Girl.

“People in Nelson keep warning me about Nelson,” says Cat. “Everyone says that it’s provincial and narrow, that it’s no place for a young writer and that there’s not much in the way of the literary arts. They’re right, too.

“But I spent nine years in Norwich, which is the UK UNESCO City of Literature and an international literary destination. I loved it with all my soul, but it was also terrible. Throw a rock in Norwich and you hit a poet. Norwich is amazing because it’s saturated with incredible writers, but that’s just it, it feels like all of the places are filled, and everything is already finished. If you’re still talking, no one’s listening and if you’ve not made it already, forget it.

“Nelson is far from finished. Compared to Norwich, Nelson hasn’t even started yet and I like that.”


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