Friday, 21 November 2014

I’ve just read Kirsty Gunn’s Thorndon – Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project (2014).  She wrote the notebook/journal when she was the Randell Fellow and stayed at the Randell Cottage in Thorndon.  Gunn’s original project was to reflect on Katherine Mansfield’s “life in my own terms, using my own writing experience and knowledge of the city she and I were both born in as a way to understand both her and my own aesthetic and drive” (10).  While Gunn says that the initial conception of her project would be much larger, and “would take a great deal more scholarship than I possess, with more time and research and years of planning” the Thorndon she presents in this volume includes fragments of stories and ideas that may be developed further in other work (10-11).

While the book is about Gunn reconnecting with her and Mansfield’s aesthetic and drive, it’s also about Gunn reconnecting with Wellington, with her birthplace, and what the notion of home is.  Which is of course something Mansfield and Gunn have in common, although Mansfield didn’t get the chance to come home again.  The theme of ‘home’ has been prevalent in a few recent releases (see my post on Wedde and Brow) and is the most fascinating aspect to Gunn’s reflections.  Gunn’s daughters come and stay with her in the cottage, and it’s touching to see her connection with them as she tries to connect the girls with her birthplace.  I also enjoyed reading about Gunn’s sister’s fear about Kirsty coming back to Wellington, and I wanted to know more about her relationship with her siblings and parents.

What was interesting for me, as I read about Gunn’s reflections on Mansfield, was to re-evaluate my own relationship to Mansfield’s writing, and my relationship to Wellington.  You see, I enjoy Mansfield’s writing, and obviously admire her skill and style, but I don’t feel the same intense connection to it that Gunn does.  It wasn’t read to me like Gunn’s mother read it to her over her childhood.  For me, it’s a class thing; the experiences Mansfield draws on are not my experiences, I am very much outside the gates of the Garden Party.  I can’t even remember when I first encountered Mansfield’s stories – it must have been at school, but it was definitely at writing courses, and then at NZ literature classes at University where my favourite story of Mansfield’s, “The Woman at the Store” is said to not be typical of Mansfield’s style.  But I love it, I love the detail and the fear of the earth engulfing them all and turning the travellers as mad as the woman at the store.  Maybe the reason I love that story is because it’s outside of the middle class experience, because Mansfield is looking at a woman outside of her own experience, and sympathising (to a certain degree) with her.

Recently I had a story included in an anthology which made me question my supposed lack of connection to Mansfield.  The story is in Sweet As ( and is called “Oriental Bay.”  I wrote the story when I came back to Wellington to do the MA at the IIML.  I had lived here briefly before, over a decade ago.  I had just finished a creative writing course at Aoraki Polytechnic in Timaru and thought I could go to Wellington and be all creative.  Which is all well and good but I wasn’t ready for it.  I was intimidated by the ‘creative types’ and had a sense that I wasn’t where I was meant to be.  I was trying to fast-forward my life when I knew I wasn’t ready for all Wellington could offer, so I went back home, went to University, got ready, and then came back.

When I came back the first thing I wrote was a story inspired by Mansfield’s “At the Bay.”  This brings up two things: the intensity of the experience of being in a new place, just how much you notice that is new and exciting that demands to be written about, and how in my mind Wellington is connected to Mansfield.  In my story, I wanted to write a contemporary version of going to the beach (though not Days Bay) and the city life of twenty somethings who are disconnected from family.  My story marks a space and time for me, and also made me realise how connected Mansfield is to my idea of Wellington, and a connection I feel to her writing set in New Zealand.

Gunn’s writing journal/notebook is fascinating, and I’m looking forward to seeing the expansion of her aesthetic and drive in her new collection of short stories Infidelities.