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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

Backyard Tales: Kicking Off

In February 2020, I was awarded Life Membership of Tauranga Writers, a group of around forty scribes from all over the Bay of Plenty, and New Zealand’s longest-standing writer group, now celebrating its 53rd year. It means a great deal to me, this tribute from our homegrown creatives, where I found my first literary mentor, wrote my first book, launched a career as a full-time writer. Fourteen years on, and my friends there are still a huge source of encouragement and support. We’re an eclectic bunch, and our writing is just as varied, including novelists, poets, editors, memoir writers, essayists, short fiction specialists, travel writers, and writers for children. Genres ranges from local history to recipe books to high fantasy. There are full-time professionals and keen hobbyists. Our youngest member is not quite eighteen. Last year, we lost a doyenne who was still penning poems on her typewriter at the age of ninety. Over New Zealand’s lockdown in March-April 2020, Tauranga Writers met virtually, thanks to the Herculean efforts of our president, Sharon Manssen, Sir Julius Vogel nominee and author of the Realm Trilogy, who fired out emails and patient step-by-step instructions. Sent out members’ work for us to critique. Made sure we didn’t all talk at once. Told us how to angle the camera. Reminded us to unmute. When lockdown lifted and we were able to meet again in-person, celebrating the event with balloons and cake, members described how those meetings had become a lifeline. Those who hadn’t managed to connect in, expressed their disappointment, and their joy at returning to regular meetings.

Because of the lockdown experience and the “buy local" movement that has ensued, I realised I haven’t been promoting our homegrown stories as much as I should, so here in Backyard Tales, I’ll be reviewing books from local colleagues, some of whom don’t write in my usual genres. So, let’s dive in….

After the Act by Jenny Argante

Give its title, perhaps I shouldn’t begin with Jenny Argante’s short story collection After the Act, but since the local literary activist was my first writing mentor and it was at her insistence that I joined Tauranga Writers, it seems fitting. After the Act is not a new title. First published in 2012, it is a collection that has stood the test of time, with its everyday but sharply-observed accounts of the human condition. As is the case with established writers, many of the stories have been published elsewhere, and the book includes some prize-winning tales, but I’m always intrigued by which stories an author will bring together in a collection, and how they might arrange them. It’s rather like choosing flowers for a bouquet; it depends on who the bunch is intended for, and the message you wish to convey. Here, the stories stand out for their simplicity. There are no high-action hurtling-through-space car chases or high fantasy realms. Set mostly in suburbia, in upstairs flats and at kitchen tables, Argante’s focus is on her characters, particularly their inadequacies, as they navigate marriages, divorces, parenthood. There are stories about loss and disappointment. Regret. Acceptance. Between these pages, a social worker consults a young mother whose baby is born gravely ill, a mother and daughter are at loggerheads over a lost roll of film, a man buys his wife a Christmas gift, leading to a surprise realisation. Readers will see themselves in this collection, or perhaps a sister, or an aunt. Writers will want to turn to the eponymous story, ‘After the Act’, the pop of colour in an already vibrant bouquet: in it, a woman, let’s call her Helen, writes herself into a story, the act of writing creating distance and safety and allowing her to resolve past hurts. Overall, this is a quiet collection, but expressive, and full of heart. Recommended.

This Old Stick by Andrew Corrin

Andrew Corrin’s debut short story collection, This Old Stick, comprises ten fictionalised tales of the elderly inspired by the author’s experience as a local GP. Corrin’s intent in writing, as he explains in the foreword to the book, was to bring “a sense of warmth and empathy to our perspective” of the elderly, a group not always seen as having value in society. And in these layered and nuanced accounts, not so much stories as character vignettes on a theme, Corrin achieves just that, painting a charming and poignant picture of the men and women he has encountered in his years of practice. A war-broken veteran of the Expeditionary Forces. A real estate agent losing his vision. A father with memory loss, who remembers what matters. Quiet stories, shedding light on the lived experiences of the people who came before us and made our community what it is.

Collected Poems: Joanne Rye MacGregor

Finally, I am dipping into the collected poems of my dear friend and colleague, Joanne Rye MacGregor. Titled simply Collected Poems: Joanne Rye MacGregor the book was released a year after her death through the efforts of her husband, artist Rob MacGregor, and members the Pacific Poets group. Comprising, haiku, long-form poems, free verse, and formal approaches, these poems offer flinty glimpses of Joanne’s life, of events and places and people, these moments at times warm and intimate, and also lonely and full of longing. They reveal, confirm, her passion for learning and travel, and also her ‘silver sand towel stretched’ love affair with home, of “sea-bitten banks” and “scrumbled clouds strung”. Of islands and mountains. Of whanau-family-love. A highlight is the six-page poem told in twelve parts, a rhapsody to Mauao (Mount Maunganui); where it seems apparent that if the poet were Cathy, Mauao was her Wuthering Heights. Living here, in Tauranga, where the mountain stands sentinel on the horizon, and is our local life-giving force, this is a work that resonates.

As a person, Joanne was broken and flawed and yet perfectly-formed as is the way of poets. At the community education course where we met, she performed her poem Prey, Alone, a poem of sexual abuse suffered the age of eight which also appears in this collection. Hairs rose on my arms. It was more than a decade ago, and I remember it still. A startlingly brutal introduction to this vibrant wahine-toa who lived her life as a fierce yet patient champion of the underdog, and the antithesis of the cowering and frightened child of this poem. She was a farmgirl, a Mountie, mentor, teacher, filmmaker, archivist, artist, writer, partner, mother, friend. “She left a power of tears behind” Joanne writes in her poem Tears of Rain, and nothing could be truer. You told us strictly no poems at your funeral, Joanne, and here you have left us your most intimate thoughts. I shall hold them close.

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