Naomi Arnold, editor and publisher of the brilliant Featured website, selects the 10 best non-fiction news features of 2015.
Since Featured began nearly two years ago, we’ve been collecting the best New Zealand non-fiction writing, creating an online library where you’ll always find something good to read. Here’s a selection of some stories we’ve enjoyed most this year – and if you’re not into these, there’s a couple hundred more to choose from at featured.org.nz.
Send your favourites to firstname.lastname@example.org so we can share them with our feature writing enthusiasts in our weekly newsletter, and from next year, look out for us here at The Spinoff, when we start a podcast series interviewing some of New Zealand’s best true storytellers.
“The moral crusade I’m now on is a slippery slope. The past months have taken their toll. I can only think or talk about Centrepoint, equally driven and exhausted, feeling the weight of all the expectations and accusations deep in my body. Every morning, I wake up with a tight chest, dreading yet another confrontational email. Instead of becoming [abuse victim] Louise Winn’s ally, I should be seeing a therapist myself.”
After Centrepoint leader and sex abuser Bert Potter died in 2012, journalist Anke Richter started writing a book on the commune. But after interviewing more than two dozen people, she became overwhelmed by the survivors’ grief and pain, and found herself a long way from objectivity.
“Neil was the one who found Jeng on the morning she died. On the first few days afterwards, in deep trauma, when numbness set in, he said that he became like a sea anemone, responding only to the environment around him in each moment. I keep picturing a sea anemone, attached to the sea bottom, its skeletonless body triggered by the slightest touch. Beneath the weight of miles of water above it, it moves around very slowly in the dark.”
There’s not much writing about suicide, and how it affects those left behind in confusion and despair – and certainly not much that is this well-written.
“I left Christchurch in June last year, just before my 26th birthday. I boxed up all my belongings, stored them in my Nana’s garage and said goodbye to my job at the Press, my long-term boyfriend, my family, my friends and my Dad’s grave. I told everyone I needed an adventure, a fresh start, a bigger city. Really, I left because I felt trapped.”
Olivia Carville was a 22-year-old junior reporter when the deadly Christchurch earthquake hit, and her and Daniel Tobin’s raw video footage shot while escaping the centre city was some of the first to emerge. The video is still affecting four years on, showing the shock and grief of those first few minutes post-quake, against a background of car and building alarms. Carville spent the next years reporting on earthquake stories, but this year, from Canada, she reflected on why she had to leave.
“Contractions. Nausea. Broken waters. Down to delivery, where technicians are setting up a $30,000 “Giraffe” neonatal cot with its long neck and overhanging heater. Antibiotics through the just-in-case cannula. Magnesium sulphate for something. Shivers. Strangely tense legs. Beeping machines. Labour is definitely uncomfortable, but not outrageously painful. She’s just getting the hang of the pushing when suddenly it’s done. Once the head’s through Theodore just slips out. It’s 5.38am.
He’s tiny, like a little doll. But there’s hardly time to marvel at him before he’s whisked away, because the birth isn’t over yet, and it’s going wrong. The placenta won’t come away despite increasingly vigorous tugging, and then it tears – three-quarters comes away but the rest is still in the uterus.”
Adam Dudding followed little Theodore and his parents, Rebecca and Cameron, for 13 weeks, as a traumatic birth followed an early labour – and then a struggle to get three-pound Theo well enough to come home.
“He sat and talked to them, he said. He called them, “My girls.” He said, “I’m a Christian, and I know I’ll see my girls in heaven.”
But he murdered them. He executed his wife, brought an axe down hard on his daughter’s head seven times, slaughtered the both of them – at least according to the jury at his trial in 2002, and another jury reached the same verdict this week, at the Wellington High Court, when he was found guilty on Wednesday afternoon. It didn’t feel shocking.”
Steve Braunias spent seven weeks covering the Mark Lundy trial for the New Zealand Herald, and produced a string of chilling reports like this one. For the years of fine work on Lundy that led to court this year, see Mike White’s North & South coverage – unfortunately not online.
“Anna is eloquent, something she attributes to her “posh” state school background. At 16, she abandoned school, instead working on and off on the street.
“When I last worked it would have been four or five years ago. The amount of girls is, like, triple now. It’s because of housing,” she says. This time around she has been out here for three months.
It is 6.04pm. Time to walk to her spot outside Vision College. Ever since the heels went on, she is harder, swaggering and defiant. She “hates herself” for being back out here.
“I’m darker. A lot harder, like putting up a wall. I have more of a stone for a heart than a heart, I guess,” she says flinching as she looks away, her fingers itching for a cigarette that isn’t there. She stares down the street. Over the next year Anna will attempt to leave Manchester St twice.”
Shelley Robinson spent a year getting to know some of Manchester St’s sex workers, and produced a rare piece of insight and empathy.
- Pollen pioneer Dallas Mildenhall – using nature’s sex spores to crack crime. The Dominion Post, November.
“By the time Dallas Mildenhall got there, Kirsa Jensen was long gone. Kirsa’s horse Commodore was back home with the schoolgirl’s grieving family and police had cleared away the rope that tethered him to the gun emplacement, where Kirsa was last seen.
All attention was fixed on that 3.5m length of cord, thought to belong to whoever was responsible for the 14-year-old Napier girl’s disappearance. At the time – 1983 – it was New Zealand’s most intensively investigated piece of evidence, ever.
The first Mildenhall saw of that Feltex Duralene rope was when it turned up in his lab. The cops had run out of options. His Dad and the case detective had got talking – they belonged to the same club.
Up until then, Dr Mildenhall – palynologist – had mostly spent his time examining fossilised pollen to help date oil deposits. The idea of using pollen to fight crime was novel – to Mildenhall, to New Zealand and, largely, to the world.”
Nikki Macdonald must be the hardest-working weekly feature writer in the country – she’s won multiple awards and writes on fascinating topics every week. This profile is just one recent example.
- The last thing they saw was their mother holding their scissors, by Florence Kerr. The Waikato Times, November.
“On June 5, 1999, at their rural Tirau home, Tokona bundled Simon, Winiata and Alex into the family’s white Ford Fairmont and drove the 5km to Tirau to visit her elderly uncle. It was 9pm.
She asked her uncle for a Bible and a copy of her whakapapa (family tree). They stayed about 20 minutes and then headed off. But they didn’t make it home.”
Part of Fairfax’s recent Faces of Innocents series, examining New Zealand’s tragically high rates of child abuse. Florence Kerr and Mike Scott put together a compelling video and story package.
“Hazel*, 16, got into fight after fight as a junior student, and was only saved from expulsion by a compassionate principal and her marks – which were good despite an abysmal attendance record. These days, she comes to school almost 80 per cent of the time, except when she is sick or her mum needs help with siblings. Or, like that day earlier this year, when catastrophe strikes. Her family rang and told her “just like it was a normal, daily thing”, she says. She spent the rest of that day between the police station and the hospital, desperately trying to see if her dad was okay.”
Kirsty Johnston is a tireless education reporter for the New Zealand Herald. Here’s the first of a series she did on the poverty divide in education, and how it threatens the futures of our young people.
“One drink in, it became clear that date number one didn’t think too much of my profile.
He had a point. I had not even attempted the first section, “My self-summary.” Answering, “What am I doing right now?” I had replied, “Suffering questions designed to provoke existential dread.” I had left “The most private thing I am willing to admit” blank. I had also misspelled my moniker and couldn’t change it without paying money, so was stuck with VivanRutledge.
“I thought you were cagey,” he said. “Are you afraid your students will find you?”
I had not worried about it before.”
Not your average online dating story.