A portrait of Ockham winner Airini Beautrais by Steve Braunias (interview) and Jane Ussher (photography).
Everyone wants to read Bug Week since it won the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand national book awards in May, and everyone should – it’s a sharp, funny, tender, shocking and precise collection of short stories which delve in and out of sexual politics in New Zealand. Everyone was surprised it won the $57,000 prize, including the author; she approached the stage in a state of disbelief, but improvised a thank-you speech with great poise and warmth. I introduced myself at the after-party. It was a pleasure not just to meet an author who had won the biggest award in New Zealand writing but to meet an author who I began corresponding with before Bug Week was published, or had a working title.
In April last year, during lockdown, Victoria University Press released a free download of works in progress by various of its authors. I reviewed it for ReadingRoom, and identified a short story by Beautrais as “a knock-out…it’s going to be among the best works of fiction you will read all year.” Beautrais set her story at a wife-swapping orgy in Wanganui (as it was then) in the 1980s. She writes, “I pictured Margot and Gregor. Her over the basin, loose tits swinging.” And: “Roger and Arthur were spit-roasting Ron’s wife Sandra. I thought I could make out the dark shape of Ron masturbating in the corner, but perhaps it was a the curtain moving in the breeze.” God almighty. It gets darker, murkier, when the narrator, Adam, hives off to a pub in the city for a Lion Brown: “This town was like sticking your head under a guillotine blade, every second…It was like an old black-and-white TV in an old folks home, screened filled with static, with all the old folks passed out in chairs, dreaming of their regrets.”
She read my favourable comments and offered another of her stories for publication at ReadingRoom. It was the brilliantly told story of a woman who was kind of stalking her ex-partner in Mt Victoria. The story was titled “Psycho Ex”. Of course I accepted it. It later featured among the stories published in Bug Week (and was reposted at ReadingRoom last month).
Another of the winners at this year’s Ockham awards was Vincent O’Sullivan, for his biography of Ralph Hotere; it made him the first author since Janet Frame to win all three categories – fiction, non-fiction, poetry – at the national book awards. Beautrais, too, has a parallel of that achievement. As well as winning the fiction prize this year, she won the national book awards prize for best first book of poetry in 2007 (for her debut collection Secret Heart) and won the Landfall essay prize in 2016.
Clever, adept, hard-working, the literary sensation of 2021 with the biggest-selling work of fiction in the land, she lives in Whanganui, and agreed to a live email interview experience on Sunday evening between 7 and 9.
Hey so congrats again on the Ockham and congrats, also, that Bug Week is number one for the second consecutive week in the Nielsen best-seller chart. What varieties of happiness has that inspired?
I didn’t know about the charts but that is nice to hear. I guess winning awards is good for external affirmation. Most of the time as a creative person all of that has to come from within – otherwise you would give up.
Also, I have been having lots of fun conversations with workmates and friends about what to do with the prize money. My friend’s son who is 9 thought I might be able to buy a Tesla (unfortunately not).
You said to Canvas journalist Joanna Mathers, “I come from a family of environmentalists who are very frugal and not fixated on material things. I will talk to them and ask them to help me be prudent.” Which sounds fantastically formal: “I must away, and ask the elders.” Anyway, have they given you prudent advice?
I think I meant I would need some investment advice, because I’ve never been in a position to have to invest money. I would like to put some aside for my kids towards their education. So, I talked to the elders and then remembered they are quite anti-capitalist and not big on investments either. It’s a pretty strange problem to be having.
Am I right in thinking you grew up in a Quaker family?
Yes, my parents were Quakers by conversion. When I was 7 we moved to Whanganui to live in a Quaker community. In NZ it’s a pretty liberal left church that accommodates everything from devout Christianity to a bit of paganism, Eastern guru devoteeism, and even atheism. We all had our own houses around a central communal venue that would host gatherings of Quakers from around NZ and the world. We always had people knocking on our door or staying at our house. I think it taught me a lot about manaakitanga, and accepting people from all walks of life.
How do you encounter the divine?
Me personally, I think I am mostly a nature worshipper. I’m really interested in the European pre-Christian seasonal rituals. Not so much human sacrifice, just stuff like having a bonfire or planting trees.
Have you encountered the divine? I ask these questions of course because they are Quaker precepts, or Quaker ambitions. A belief in divinity and “an Inner Light”. I’m not supposing you remain a Quaker but I am supposing you still take quite a bit of Quaker thinking to heart?
You’re right, I’m not an actively practising Quaker but I’m still an affiliate. My understanding of that belief system is that anyone can talk to God, you don’t need a priest or other ordained person as an intermediary. This was pretty radical shit back in the 1600s and people got locked up (and in the States, executed) for saying that kind of stuff publicly. It’s like a natural spiritual home for anarchists and anti-authoritarians.
There’s also an idea that God (or the divine) is present in all people and in all living things. So it’s not something like working really hard to attain enlightenment or to be allowed to go to heaven when you die. It’s like an ever-present easy-access divine. Quakers will say stuff like “We are holding you in the light” when someone is going through a hard time.
Another Quaker idea, although not exclusive to Quakers and in fact every kid thinks this, too, is that “everyone has within them the potential for goodness”. I am going to segue from that to Bug Week here because it seems to me that quite a few characters in your wonderful book have kind of like totally squandered that potential. The doctor in “Quiet death”, raping a woman’s dead body – God does not seem overly present in this fellow.
I guess a Quaker would argue that even the most depraved person has God within. I remember being a kid during the first Gulf war and people talking about “that of God” in Saddam Hussein. It’s the idea that if you have enough faith in people you can help them to change.
I agree with that in principle but I think a person has to be willing to change, and a lot of the time, the depraved or the narcissistic, sociopathic, etc, aren’t particularly interested in self help.
I think of that story as being more allegorical than literal. It started out as a story about euthanasia gone terribly wrong and ended out being a story about the female experience and about how patriarchy ultimately harms everyone.
Have you read John Cheever’s great story “The Five-Forty Eight”? I ask because I’m fascinated by the similarities with your story “Psycho Ex” but more so the differences. Like Cheever, it’s about a woman who both is and isn’t a stalker. She says in your story, “I am simply a person who loves you, loves you deeply. I have never felt this way about any other man, ever….The thing about love is that it isn’t insane. Love is the purest, sanest thing any of us will ever feel.” And in Cheever’s story, she talks of love, too: “I’m better than you. I still have good dreams sometimes. I dream about picnics and Heaven and the brotherhood of man, and about castles in the moonlight and a river with willow trees all along the edge of it and foreign cities, and after all I know more about love than you.” But the guy in Cheever’s story is hideous, awful. This devastating sentence: “Most of the many women he had known had been picked for their lack of self-esteem.” In your story, he’s a good sort and he consoles his ex-lover. You don’t deal in monsters and you don’t apportion blame. Anyway – have you read that Cheever story?
I haven’t read that story – I will put it on my list! Choosing partners with low self esteem is textbook narcissist behaviour.
In “Psycho Ex” I wanted to explore obsession, but in a scenario where it isn’t super harmful. Perhaps the male character still has feelings for his ‘psycho’ ex as well.
I think there are some monsters in Bug Week, though. The rapist doctor, for instance. The professor in “The Teashop” is a total monster, albeit a fairly 2-D one. Maybe that’s the thing – once you flesh out a character, they become human.
You have a bank manager who is too pathetic to be a monster in the story that begins, “After a full hour of whipping the bank manager, Esme lay down beside him on the bed.” Was he always going to be a bank manager in the story? Could he have been a judge? They like a good whipping I bet. And what do you make of Esme?
No, I don’t think he’s a judge type. He’s a classic bottom.
That story started off with an image – just like they tell you in creative writing workshops. Or perhaps a time and place. In the 1960s my grandparents lived in Wellington and my grandad used to go drinking with Alistair Campbell, Sam Hunt, Denis Glover and a bunch of other poetry types. One time he started talking to me about their escapades and then just clammed up. Though he would always tell people that Denis Glover stole his best hat.
So I had this idea about these two alcoholic poets who day-drink at a brothel and that was where the story started from. In its setup, Esme’s teashop is a little like those dusty places they used to have on Vivian Street that looked like anything could happen in there. Maybe a bit like Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge but not as glamorous.
That story is set 60 odd years ago and things are different in some ways for women now, but I think the sense of being trapped in a situation is still very much a real thing. It could be marriage, motherhood, work, or something else. And the fear that comes with ageing is still very current.
Where does Bug Week belong in regards to #metoo? Can it be read, in part, as a #metoo text – aware of sexual politics, the damage of patriarchy, etc?
That’s an interesting question. Yes and no. A lot of it was written during the unfolding of #metoo. At the time I was also dealing with some personal trauma.
Being an ‘elderly millennial’ I came of age in one of the troughs of feminism. It was very common for girls to say ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist.’ I think we were conditioned to make excuses for all kinds of shit behaviour. I remember being taught about STIs but not about intimate partner violence. I hadn’t really thought about psychological abuse until a counsellor told me that was what I was describing to him. #Metoo felt like an indicator that things were on the turn and it was no longer mandatory to keep quiet all the time or to make excuses for harassment or abuse.
You wrote small pieces of autobiography in your great essay that won the Landfall prize a few years ago: “I am a Pākehā with a Māori first name… There are ten people called Beautrais in New Zealand, and the rest are in Nantes.” And then this: “’You had better ring the schools when you apply for jobs,’ said my teachers’ college lecturer, ‘so they know you can speak English.’” The essay was a wider point about identity in New Zealand, and one of the nubs of it is this: “That’s what ‘Kiwi’ means to me—an odd kind of half-arsed point-missing fairytale. One that’s increasingly difficult to maintain as populations become more urbanised and more multicultural, but don’t we ever keep trying.” That’s still true, isn’t it, this cleaving to a white image of Kiwi-ness?
I think it’s definitely true that there’s a dominant cultural paradigm in NZ that centres the white NZer of British heritage.
Learning to pronounce Māori names correctly is an important part of decolonisation.
It’s also important to learn how to pronounce names from all around the world. Having to shorten or Anglicise a name means someone loses a little of themselves. It is a simple respect thing.
Your exotic non-Anglo name is one thing; is living in Whanganui, another factor that might make you feel like a literary outsider? Yes, published by VUP, did the whole IIML thing (I think?), won the national book award for poetry and the Landfall prize and now the Ockham – and yet there’s a nice sense that you are outside of all that, living where you do. Does it feel that way?
Yes, I do feel a little removed from the literary epicentre of Aotearoa. But there’s a thriving arts community in Whanganui and I meet interesting people all the time.
Last weekend my friend organised a public function for me and a lot of people came to drink wine and eat chips with us. It feels like a community that’s small enough that people will get together to celebrate each other’s successes.
I think you mentioned when I nervously spoke with you at the Ockham night that you are now working on essays. But as regards short stories, do you think Bug Week might signal more collections? Are you a fan of the form and who do you love who writes it? And, this: how would you describe Bug Week, to yourself? What does it speak to you?
I have a heap of essay kernels that I’d like to finish. I also have some poems on the slow burn.
I’d love to write more stories too. Maybe a novel one day. I’m not short on the ‘to do’ list.
I am a big fan of the short prose form. Some of the short stories I’ve loved most have been by Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Annie Proulx, Lydia Davis and locally Tracey Slaughter, Pip Adam, Tina Makereti and Lawrence Patchett.
About Bug Week I’d say to myself, “Wow you finally finished it”, but also: This is like a weird homemade cocktail put together from the ingredients available and it has turned out strangely well.
Bug Week by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press, $30), now in its fourth printing, is available in bookstores nationwide