Where Will Massey Take You? Life Writing 2. Edited by Jack Ross. ISBN 0-473-09551-3. Massey University: School of Social and Cultural Studies, 2005. viii + 155 pp.
Where Will Massey Take You?
Diagonal Parking in a Parallel Universe:
A view from within the world of Asperger’s Syndrome
When she was good …
Someone Else’s Story
Interview with Farid Shafizadeh Dizaji
The Lawnmower Man
Old man, little boy
What to do?
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About
Dr Leslie Whetter, Mr. Weta, The Man Who
Went to Antarctica & the German Spy on The Hill
Love, Time and Memories:
Liu Jing Hua, My Grandmother
College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Private Bay 102 904
North Shore Mail Centre
RRP: $NZ 10 (+ $2 postage & packing)
So what is Life Writing, anyway? Over the five years since the course was pioneered at Massey’s Albany campus, we’ve had a lot of time to consider that question. “Biography and Autobiography,” is the first (and most straightforward) reply: writing based on your own, or someone else’s, life experience.
That, however, is where the complications begin.
As well as formal biographies, there are oral history recordings, genealogical databases, printed interviews, academic case studies, filmed documentaries, and an ever-growing profusion of internet sites covering every aspect of people’s lives. As well as standard life-and-times autobiographies, there are memoirs, video diaries, blogs, travelogues, letters, diaries – as well as autobiographical fiction and poetry.
I’ve tried to put in samples of as many as possible of the genres our students have experimented with to date, but you’ll just have to take my word for it that this barely scrapes the surface of what we’ve encountered so far. These are, in fact, simply the ones that didn’t get away:
There are two interviews, by Catherine Alexander and Nathan Calvert, each exploring the life of an outsider within New Zealand society with (I think you’ll agree) exemplary sympathy and insight.
As well as individual poems by Kali Bell, Jenna Crowley, Justine Giles and Claire Talbot, there’s a poetic memoir by Phillipa Reeve, and an essay by Katie Ranby linking her own poetic vocation with that of her Great-Grandmother, born in 1872. There are pieces of intense, concentrated autobiographical fiction by Erica Marsden and Claire Talbot.
There are memoirs of friends and close relatives by Rachel Bresnahan, Anaise Irvine and Emma Zhang; also a multi-faceted oral history of the reclusive Dr Leslie Whetter (one of whose claims to fame was being described as “quite unfit for a Antarctic expedition” by Douglas Mawson) compiled by Kelly Schischka.
Then there are the pieces of (more-or-less) straight autobiography. It’s hard to imagine anything more diverse than Kali Bell’s, Rachel Bresnahan’s, Jenna Crowley’s, Erin Gallagher’s and Anna Leclercq’s various takes on this category.
I suppose there’s not much point in providing a roll-call of all the other pieces I would have liked to include: Angela Liles’ analysis of the many faces of nicotine addiction; Anna Kemp’s minute, Balzacian account of a day in the life of an illegal squat in Amsterdam; Diana Hennin’s tales of the haunted Gothic mansion she grew up in … some of them aren’t here for a very simple reason – they cut too close to the bone to be made public just yet. Other people’s feelings have to be respected, too, when it comes to digging up the past.
Too many, though (I suspect) aren’t here because their authors thought they weren’t good enough to be exposed to the world. I regret that very much. Each of us has stories to tell – stories which may not interest everyone, but which will be of great interest to someone. Stories, what is more – this I firmly believe – which may give that reader the courage to re-examine, or reshape, his or her own life.
It’s been a very pleasant task putting this anthology together. If I had just one hope for it, it would be that it would inspire you to write down (or otherwise record) some of your own memories. As Shakespeare puts it in King Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.”
Reviews & Comments:
- Jenny Lawn. "Life Writing 2." School News. SSCS - Massey University, Albany [6/10/05]:
Lecturer Jack Ross has edited the second anthology of work by students in 139.226, Life Writing. The poems, short stories, and interviews gathered in the collection are varied and hard-hitting, so come to our book launch ... to meet the contributors and be inspired! The English programme is grateful to Sarah Grimes for the evocative cover design (from an image by Simon Creasey).
- Jennifer Little. "Immigrant Voices heard in Life Writing.” ‘Scoop’ - Independent News (11/8/06]:
New immigrants are bringing a distinctive flavour to the body of work emerging from Massey University’s popular Life Writing course.
In most academic courses, students never hear about the startling events, painful moments, exotic episodes and revealing recollections of their fellow students.
But in this course, at Massey’s Auckland campus, such material takes centre stage. Indeed, students learn a lot about each other’s lives whilst critiquing their attempts at turning them into fascinating stories, if not art ...
- Jennifer Little, “Life Writing Course Lays it Bare.” Massey News 14 [12/8/06]:
In most academic courses, students never hear about the poignant moments, painful memories, startling events, exotic episodes and revealing recollections of their fellow students.
But in the University’s popular Life Writing course on the Auckland campus such material takes centre stage. Indeed, students learn about each other’s lives as well as critiquing their attempts at turning them into fascinating stories, if not art.
The life stories emerging are not only by and about New Zealanders, but have included personal tales from Baghdad, Beirut and Beijing, as well as parts of Africa and Europe.
A young man from Baghdad writes tenderly of his Egyptian-born great-grandfather, and of the war-ravaged history of his Middle East homeland.
A middle-aged Chinese woman, a former high-flying television documentary maker who spent her teenage years on a farm labour camp during the Cultural Revolution, tries to recapture lost memories of her own teenage daughter’s early years when she was a busy working mother.
A former New Zealand policeman puts aside real-life crime stories and is concentrating on children’s fiction.
As the title suggests, the paper deals with biography and autobiography. Far from encouraging outpourings of pure narcissism or unadulterated self-confession, the course enables students to combine academic study and analysis of literary masters with workshops where they experiment in different writing styles and genres.
It was launched seven years ago by the Head of English at Massey’s School of Social and Cultural Studies in Auckland, Dr Mary Paul, and is currently taught by senior lecturer Dr Jack Ross – also an author and book editor – with regular guest appearances from other lecturers and writers
Along the way students examine Graham Greene’s advice on writing autobiographically by changing one thing to make the transition to fiction, Marcel Proust and his ability to use sensory impressions to capture memory, and other well-known writers and poets.
The mix of academic study of writing techniques with creative writing exercises has proved to be a winning formula, says Dr Ross. The students reap great satisfaction from the chance to explore their own life stories imaginatively whilst improving their writing skills.
“Writing has to be approached as a pragmatic craft as much as an art,” he says. “There is a lot of false awe surrounding it.”
Several anthologies of past students’ work have been published by the University.
The course has also helped strengthen New Zealand’s evolving cultural identity, embracing more Asian and Pacific voices, he adds.
“One of the desired outcomes of the course was that it should improve the student’s understanding of how personal and non-fictional narratives contributes to New Zealand’s cultural history,” says Dr Paul in the introduction to one of the anthologies.
For students such as Chinese immigrant Xiaoping Wang, a new language and location have given her a freedom to write about personal matters in a way that she could not have in China.
Mrs Wang spent 14 years as documentary maker for a major Shanghai television station. Her last assignment was about New Zealand and she literally “fell in love” with the country while filming and decided to emigrate.
Although her memories of the six years she spent from the age of 16 enduring the harsh conditions of a farm labour camp during the Cultural Revolution might seem obvious and dramatic material for autobiographical writing, the 50-year-old was primarily interested in writing about her 16-year-old daughter.
Mrs Wang says her chosen writing theme, in which she wistfully rebuilds memories of her daughter’s early years spent at kindergarten and boarding school while her parents were busy working, has been a healing exercise for both mother and child.
She hopes to complete her Bachelor of Arts in English next year, and to become a tertiary teacher.
Media Studies student Muhanad Alnahas, who came to New Zealand from Iraq via Malaysia three years ago, has written about his much-admired great-grandfather – an Egyptian who pioneered a modern printing press in Baghdad.
“I wanted to show how a person could make something out of their life,” Mr Alnahas says.
Even the apparently dullest life can be turned into compelling art if the writing is well executed and the story given shape, according to Dr Ross.
But while the lives of many students who embark on Life Writing are far from dull, the challenge for all is to learn “the best way of saying what they want to say,” says Dr Ross.