On the quiet ferocity of a 105-page masterpiece
In 1994 I was sitting with my brother, Kodie, at a table in our family’s small kitchen at our house in Birchfield, north of Waimangaroa. The coal range was going. Our sister was waiting. We were too. The waiting permeated everything, even the playdough she’d made us. She had used a recipe from Nic’s One Thousand Things to do on a Rainy Day. We lived on the West Coast, so it was a handy book and we all loved it. Tam had put out plastic dinner mats for us to shape our playdough on. I made a duck. I was almost 12 so making a duck from playdough on a plastic eating mat slightly embarrassed me, but I still became very involved in what I was doing. I used a butter knife to cut the shape of resting wings into the duck’s sides, a smile on its bill. It was only when I finished that I realised I was bad at art, something I’d not known before I made the duck, or at least, something I’d not known until I’d looked at it. Tam offered to put my duck in the oven of the coal range for me, though it was playdough and not clay. And the waiting continued, for the phone call, for the duck to bake.
I’ve been to Greymouth’s secondhand bookstore, Red Books three times. The store was once Tradewinds, which was where I bought a green dress for $60 and got married wearing it the next day. There are treasures on the Kahikatea shelves. The floors are also wooden and there is a potbelly fire so it is cosy too. On my most recent trip there in March, I searched the New Zealand fiction section and found JC Sturm’s The House of the Talking Cat. I snatched it quickly as if I were fishing through a bargain bin in a crowded store, grabbing it out of reach from other grasping hands. But I was the only customer in the store, the book was mine. The owner took it from me to check the price, written in pencil on the inside cover.
She smiled saying, “You found Jacquie Sturm.”
“Can’t believe it.”
I paid the $20 and went to the car where Tim, my husband. was waiting for me. We went to eat lunch at KFC. I took The House of the Talking Cat inside with me, like the collection was a new kitten I couldn’t bear to leave alone. We sat with our wicked wings and a Zinger burger each, well-salted chips and potato and gravy to dip them in. There’s a window in Greymouth’s KFC which frames the end of the Rapahoe mountain range before the Grey river cuts it off. The green of the range is so lush it blisters to purple, almost blue. I like to look from this modern place, this sanitised house of fried chicken, to this ancient place. I wiped the grease from my hands with a napkin to touch the book.
I read one story, “A Thousand and One Nights” early on a Sunday morning, while everyone was still sleeping. When I finished the story, I closed the book and took a big breath. It was about a woman waiting for her husband to come home from a night drinking. The woman was with her two children, a little girl and a toddler boy. It opened gently: autumn sunlight and warmth, a rug on the ground in front of a gum tree. She has her back against the trunk, a view of the harbour, her knitting in her lap. The little girl makes mud pies with gravel for sultanas, and she ices them with daisy petals. And in this first paragraph we learn the woman is waiting, and the children are too, though they don’t know it, the waiting permeates them, through her eyes, it turns the physical existence, the connection to body, earth and sunlight into a hologram. This waiting is a punishing haze, thwarting what it means to be human, spinning people into ghosts:
“…They were simply pretending and none of it was real, not even the wanting and willing and pretending, nothing except the waiting.”
I remember making the duck because it was a time when my family was sitting in the wake of horrific violence, waiting. We were waiting to learn the damage. And in that waiting space, I made a duck, and as much as I remember what the duck was supposed to be distracting me from, I remember feeling the belief that everything I might make would be art and that the world was beautiful and magic and I was tugging it out with my young hands stained yellow with food colouring. Then the phone rang, and Tam sat down at the table to tell us. The playdough duck was in the oven, Kodie’s eyes were blue and round and watery, and we were snatched from the table in the warm kitchen with the plastic mats and our beautiful strong big sister, into chaos.
Debilitating periods of waiting can be a symptom or a result of past harm and family violence, and it is perhaps one of the more persistent, stubborn scars. The toes pressed against the feet, the inability to know how or where to sit, or what you just read, you are four pages on and you can’t remember what’s happened in your book, your brain is a spool of cotton and the waiting is a cat, boxing it down the hall.
The woman in Sturm’s short story goes about her evening, she lights the fire, she cooks tea. She covers the largest plate with another plate and puts it on a pot of hot water of water to keep warm. She reads the story of Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca which is about mice smashing up a dollhouse to her children. She puts them to bed. She wants to have a bath, but it was “a bit risky – a bath wasn’t a good place to be caught in.” Instead, she has supper and fills her hot water bottle. She wants to go to bed, but she doesn’t want to be discovered in bed, “in case it happened again”. She tries to read but she reads a page twice and can’t remember what she’s read. Her waiting corrodes her living. Her existence is reduced to Waiting for the Bad Thing to Happen. She imagines herself taking an old ship’s bell and standing out on the steps and closing her eyes and ringing it. But that would not be okay, she decides, because the children can’t know.
The woman is afraid for anyone to know explicitly what’s happened to her, and even Sturm refuses to give the reader this information, siding with her character over a potential reader’s thirst for raw detail. The woman in the story wonders what people would say, what they’d do with her, if she were to go outside and ring the bell, and shout that she can’t bear waiting any longer. Just wondering what people would say about her makes her hand rise up to cover her mouth.
Whether it be an old ships bell, or a DM sent late in the night, the women’s hands rise up to cover their mouths, in horror, for what people might say and at what they might do with them.
It’s a time well before reading The House of the Talking Cat. We are sitting in front of the fire, the young mother and her baby and me. Their eyes are glassy because they are both sick with a bad cold. The young mother is used to not getting much sleep. There are dark circles under her eyes. Her skin is pale, her lips are dry. I should cuddle her. I can tell she has started waiting, I can feel it, she’s not here, now, not here with me. She is waiting for him now. She hears a squeak and spins her head towards the door. It’s the dog. The relief is in her brow, the disappointment in a quiver of her jaw. Anyway, he can’t come back here now, after those things he yelled. The baby leans against her chest. I put some wood on the fire. I make her a hot sweet tea. She waits. I’m waiting too, for the scratchy throat, and the man to come back and drag her down the hall and out the door and into the car. I need something from the supermarket.
“Do you need anything?”
“I’ll be right back.”
The young mother nods. I leave the room, I’m almost out the door when I realise I have forgotten my Eftpos card. I go back into the lounge. She’s crying now. She was not only waiting for the man to return – she was waiting to be alone to cry. I’ve caught her crying. I hug her and worry it’s the wrong thing to do, after all, she saved these tears for this lone moment.
“I just feel like shit,” she says.
“I know babe,” I say.
I go to the supermarket, and when I get back, she’s still on the floor in front of the fire. She has dried her eyes. She’s staring at the flames, the fire is a hologram in this underworld, and the waiting brain is not a spool of cotton anymore, it’s the bats hanging in this haunted place, snapping their eyes open, expectant and hungry, their chatter sharp.
In Jacqui’s story, the man arrives home, but the waiting does not stop. She waits for his breath to become slow and heavy, so she can exit the waiting place where nothing else is real. But instead of exiting, she returns to the beginning of the cycle, and while the beginning of the cycle is less fraught – the bats might close their eyes, the spool of cotton might be left, because the cat too is quiet now, and the man with the ‘terrible dead white face with everything dragged down’ might never do the Bad Thing again – the portal has been opened to this underworld once, she’s been swallowed into it. How else can she escape but do what scares her as much as the man does: ring the old ship’s bell?
The House of the Talking Cat was published in 1983 by the Spiral collectives – Irihapeti Ramsden, Marian Evans and Miriama Evans. All 11 stories are about or narrated by women, and more than half of them include children. Very few of these characters are defined by their race, and yet her personal experience of being marginalised and the restrictions on a woman’s life in the fifties is infused into each piece. In “Jersualem, Jerusalem” the reader is immersed in the friendship between the children of a Samoan family living ‘temporarily’ in a public works camp, and a child – a permanent resident – who lives in the small community. The Samoan mother is a beacon of vitality. She would line the children up in the living room and show them how to do the siva, “gliding and turning and dipping before us like a bird, and her hands were flowers, folding and unfolding and folding again”. The narrator learns later, running into one of the children, Olive, an adult with children herself now, that Olive’s mother never recovered from the flu, “and that house, especially that house.”
The home was condemned but Olive’s mother had made it beautiful with some finely plaited mats, polished coconut bowls, a table and chairs and a gramophone which the children would crank the handle to play ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem.’
In “First Native and Pink Pig” the racism depicted is overt, and race is specified. A Māori boy named George wants to invite a racist boy from school over for his birthday, so he could see “what we’re like…You know all the kids want to get invited to my parties. They say they’re beaut fun and you’re so good at making pies and things.”
The mother warns the boy it might not work out how he hopes, but she agrees, he can try to show the boy how “silly” he’s being.
She asserts that is she is a writer, who happens to be Māori, and she should not have to write about a kuia taking her mokopuna to the sea to collect kaimoana
In the “Too good memsahib”, the racism is subtler, and its target is an Indian mother. The narrator of this story is a memsahib, a white woman, who takes it upon herself to rush an Indian boy to the hospital, telling a shrieking and frantic mother “Don’t worry. I’ll look after him.” And she takes him off the mother’s hands (she was making an “awful fuss”) and to the hospital in a taxi, leaving the mother on the side of the road, gnawing her knuckles. The boy is bleeding from his head, and the white woman believes she is the only one who can help him. Eventually though, she tires of being a saviour and decides she would rather “quit of these people for ever”.
This language: awful fuss, beaut, silly, wonderful news, Michael, whatever shall I do? They spent the afternoon on the small front lawn under the gum tree overlooking the harbour, helps build this white picket fence world, which is beautifully depicted by the illustration on the cover. But the dark island of Kāpiti in the distance could be an iceberg, and while these surface level exchanges and images are true to Sturm, they are also deceptive, they are both hiding, and unfolding the truth for us. The vital, busy Samoan mother’s hands in a condemned house, with its air full of invisible dark spores. Mrs Kelly is breathing something acrid into her lungs, and we are distracted by these hands opening like flowers folding and unfolding and folding again.
After finishing her book I watch Broken Journey: The life and art of JC Sturm. She begins by saying, “The big question, where am I going to be put? Jerusalem? Not on your nelly.”
By 1966 Sturm had a collection of stories but no publisher, there was a period where anything she sent her ex-husband’s way was rejected. Sturm tells her own story vigorously, and frankly and I’m not going to rehash it here or draw my own conclusions. She would perhaps be open to people projecting onto her work – sometimes that’s the point isn’t it? We see what we want to see, and sometimes what we want to see aligns with what the writer hoped we’d find. To project onto a person’s life rather than their work is dangerous. And she shows no self-pity, she is sure of what she wants to say, which makes me want to believe she said all she needed to. She asserts that is she is a writer, who happens to be Māori, and she should not have to write about a kuia taking her mokopuna to the sea to collect kaimoana. A writer should be able to write from their emotional memory and use all the passion in the world to do so. And this is what she does.
At the close of the documentary, she says she writes to the work, for the work only, and for nothing or no one else. “It’s like pitting yourself against something, you’re not sure that you can do it, but you are going to give it a go.”
I did not expect to see a woman pit herself against herself with such quiet ferocity in just 105 pages.
Sturm opens House of the Talking Cat with two quotes. One from Janet Fame and one from Lawrence Durrell. Frame’s states, “For the memory is so often like a single explosion, a firework in the mind. One is blinded.”
The yellow duck was out the oven. The skin around my sister’s eyes had gone baggy from crying. The duck was smiling, because I’d put a smile on it. After the phone call, I wanted to throw it through the window, but it was not clay, the oven only baked it from silky, soft bad art, to rubbery, cracked bad art.
I am trying to picture my brother’s face, opposite me at the table, but he’s become a stoic man, so his stoicism enters the memory and makes his face stony and pale and staring. What had he made with his playdough? I can’t remember, but we have been kept home from school that day, and the schoolteachers know why.
My school report later that year tells my parents, they’re seeing the “old Becky” return. She’s getting back to her “bright, old self.” I wonder what my mother thought when she read this, did the cat tear towards the spool of cotton, teeth and claws bared, did the bats in the haunted house snap open their eyes? Because in the silence where Things are Going Well Now, and the people have stopped crying and can sit out in the gentle autumn sun and make mud cakes iced with daisy petals, and the young mother’s baby is asleep and the house is quiet, apart from the sound of a crackling fire, is where the bats sometimes like to wake and chatter. And you can’t remember what page you were on or that you should not loosen your jaw from your face and uncurl your toes from your feet. If you do, Something Bad might Happen.
Did my mum want to write back to the teacher, “What the fuck would you know?” but did she instead write back, “That is wonderful news to hear.”
I won’t project or pretend to know about Sturm’s life, but she did wait so long to be published and it is a devastating thought that some of her mahi ─like a plate of food being kept warm under another plate─ might have gone cold in her own dejected heart. But I notice in the thumbnails beside the documentary, there’s another one to click on. Road to Jerusalem. Its description: Documentary about JC Sturm’s ex-husband James K Baxter. I read the description and I smile. I get up out of my chair at my own monochrome table, walk to the kitchen window, look out it and see the neighbour’s washing flapping in a wintery wind the sheets and socks, cotton and denim, and their small manicured lawn. Behind all this is the dark spine of the Paparoa mountain range. I stare out the window, holding Sturm’s distinctive furry rasping voice in my head. I go back to the couch and open her book again.
The Collected Works of JC Sturm will be published by Steele Roberts Aotearoa in 2023. Publisher Roger Steele says, “We will be donating a hardback copy to every 2° school and Kura Kaupapa in the motu.”
Becky Manawatu’s story was commissioned by Talia Marshall, who is guest editor of ReadingRoom all this week. Tomorrow: a stunning portrait of Auckland cultural life in the 1980s by novelist Kelly Ana Morey.