When Susanna Andrew and I sat down to write our proposal for that old-fashioned thing, a book on paper, we wanted to make the book we wanted to read. What we wanted was to sit down each summer to a collection of powerful nonfiction from the year that was: an annual scoop of fresh hot words, salty and strong. Like the Best American Essays series (and its more eclectic spin-off, The Best American Non-Required Reading), but – well, our own.
We knew there’d be more than enough material – New Zealand has so many fabulous writers, journalists, and essayists – and we knew we’d find much of what we were looking for online. New Zealanders are nothing if not adaptable, and with diminishing paper venues for our writing, we’ve been quick to populate the web niche with personal blogs, online journals, and collective enterprises like this one.
It’s no coincidence that three of the pieces Susanna and I selected for our book – by Keith Ng, David Haywood, and David Herkt – were first published here on Public Address. From the start, Public Address has been a sanctuary for great writers and a way to connect with great readers. (Also, Russell’s own 2005 collection of a century’s worth of speeches and essays, Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas About Ourselves, is – if not the daddy, then certainly the benevolent beardy big bro of our own brainchild.)
With the idea of an annual collection in mind, we decided our first one should dig a little deeper, to begin with. So we made the September 2010 quake our temporal starting point, and then read and searched and consulted widely. We found so much more than we could fit in one collection, and we still wish we could have doubled the size of this book – but what we did fit in, we chose because it somehow stuck with us. We aimed for a couple of dozen; we ended up with 29 pieces by 29 writers.
In Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015 (published by Auckland University Press, available in all good bookshops!) we’ve got household names and new discoveries; literati, Twitterati and the arty-farty; locals and expats; magazine writers and bloggers and poets and novelists and scientists and more, from all over New Zealand and abroad. We have stories that are comic, some tragic and some that are both; all of them guaranteed to engage you from the word go.
Eleanor Catton writes New Zealand from the ground up, taking a trip with her dad over the Southern Alps on a tandem bike that’s as sublime as it is ridiculous. Giovanni Tiso meets a New Zealander in Edinburgh, then finds his way to the country itself through the written word and the screen, before finally arriving in person.
Our writers come and go. Ashleigh Young chronicles the view from her bicycle seat in London and Wellington and all kinds of weather, the wheels of her questing mind turning along with the wheels of her brave bike. Jemima Diki Sherpa went to university in Wellington, but her home and her heart is in the mountains of Nepal, where climbing Everest is a local industry, guides are paid by the weight they carry, and disaster hovers constantly over each village.
Writing from Australia, Nic Low paints a historic, personal mural of his hometown, Christchurch, that collapses a thousand years of upheaval and repair into one deeply haunted space. Reporting from a tent outside his destroyed Avonside house, David Haywood makes you cry and then laugh, in that order; and Lara Strongman time-travels through books and buildings in pursuit of a legacy for the broken city.
Home is at the heart of many of these pieces. Naomi Arnold’s mum moves in unexpectedly, with the linen and the good knives, and all heaven breaks loose. Rachel Buchanan revisits ancestral land in Taranaki and plunges into the archives to confront a buried forest of whakapapa and bureaucracy and loss. Simon Wilson’s grandparents, long gone, come alive again on the page in a graceful, gritty portrait of rural Pākeha striving… and mutton.
Our writers take a close look at the natural world. David Winter offers a quick read about a slow subject that’s rich in metaphor: indigenous snails and their cannibal invaders. Claire Browning gets to know a small corner of New Zealand intimately, as she creates a half-wild, half-tame garden from scratch.
There are bloody rites of passage and debates about their value: Gregory Kan visits the jungle of compulsory service and voluntary education. Alice Te Punga Somerville explores the intricate layers of meaning in a single tattoo on a single hand. Megan Clayton takes a small test and ponders the huge weight of a prospective human life.
And there are portraits of characters: Elizabeth Knox recalls her profoundly whimsical literary relationship with the late, great Margaret Mahy. We visit Kim Dotcom and his domestic excesses, in the company of adventurous humourist- anthropologist José Barbosa. A creative genius architect uncle is glimpsed across the years by Allan Smith. We meet Paul, an intellectually challenged drama queen captured with love by his friend David Herkt. And up-and-coming novelist Paul Ewen’s story of his mate, Steve, is plainly unforgettable.
Speaking of Steves, we have a classic shaggy dog story from the legendary Steve Braunias that captures suburban gentrification in... an eggshell? Steve’s yarn chimes nicely with Greg Bruce’s chilling horror story about property auctions (quoth the Raven: 'Sold!') and Leilani Tamu’s kaleidoscopic perspective on the other side of gentrification and growing up in the octopus/ feke that is Auckland.
In short, sharp pieces, Anthony Byrt converts to nonfiction overnight, Keith Ng fast-forwards to a world without us, Sarah Bainbridge makes the human heart visible, and Chris McDowall takes us for a walk that is anything but simple. Meanwhile, Alice Miller logs off Facebook and back into real life, and Tina Makereti offers a language lesson with lasting resonance about the words we use every day.
There you go. Something for (almost) everyone; something from (almost) everyone, and all of it guaranteed to be great. Susanna and I have read each piece a dozen times or more, and still they have a palpable effect on us. Our hope is that the book will grab you too: that it will tell you things you didn’t know, but also tell you what you knew all along – that we’ve got some bloody great writers. And more to come.
Right. To business. To celebrate the end of the working year and the beginning of reading season, we’d like to give away a copy of Tell You What – but wait, there’s more! – in a double package with a copy of Russell’s Great New Zealand Argument. Two deliciously chewy reads bundled together, for one lucky commenter selected at random.
All you have to do is tell us, in the discussion below, what great nonfiction you’ve read this year, from anywhere in the world.
Links encouraged! Pile on in - we’d love to mail these handsome books out to one lucky reader before Christmas.