A Place to Grow

I took this photo during my time in Tokyo. It is of a lotus about to bloom. I’ve always loved the Buddhist view of a lotus – as a lotus can grow out of mud and blossom above the muddy water, we too can rise above the mire and messiness of our lives. We can transform.

Last week we had our final Te Papa Tupu Workshop in Wellington. We kicked off with Huia Executive Director Eboni Waitare inviting us to reflect on our  journey with the program, before meeting with our mentors: James George, Jacquie McRae, Simon Minto, Whiti Hereaka. That session was followed by informative and stimulating workshops: Point of View with Paula Morris, Story Arc with Simon Minto, Marketing and Personal Branding with Waimatua Morris, and Publishing with Robyn Bargh. We finished up by sharing thoughts on where we see ourselves going with our work, before heading off to drinks and nibbles with Creative NZ, Te Puni Kōkiri and Huia Publishers staff, and finally dinner and cocktails at The Library – an aptly named and decorated watering hole for book nerds like us. It was a full day, and I believe we all left with full hearts… yes, I am a giant cornball. I admit it.

At the mentor meeting, James George asked me what was going on, as I’d said I was in a bit of a slump. I explained that I was having difficulty with creating more of a narrative spine in some of my stories. I was feeling blocked, and I wasn’t sure why. As always, he cut to the heart of things very quickly:

find some other place where there is some energy in your work and work on that / a piece of description, a piece of dialogue / something poetic and wistful / what are your strengths in this collection? / what are you good at? / don’t look at what’s not there / maybe it isn’t there / have confidence that you have fascinating subject matter that you can invoke truthfully / you may have to confront a truth about yourself that you are terrified of / let your characters speak their truths to you / make the undercurrents noisier / more disruptive / pile these themes / not to fix them / embrace who you are and what you do.

Once again, I am reminded how fortunate I am to be here, now.

During the workshop discussions, James George made a great point that Huia invests in writers, unlike other publishing houses, who harvest. This makes Huia very unique. I feel incredibly supported and nurtured by Huia, and by each and every person who is a part of the Huia whānau. I am so grateful that I was able to thank Robyn Bargh personally for what she has built for us. What she has created is phenomenal, and a success story. This opportunity came at a time in my life when I deeply needed someone to believe in me. Take a chance on me (lol Nadine). I was so ready for it. It’s been life changing. It’s been emotional. It’s now my dream that we will take this beautiful taonga that Huia has given us and share our stories on the world stage, to inspire and uplift our people, and make them proud.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. Upon returning to NZ in 2016 after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award, and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

Birth Pangs

I’ve been struggling with my writing lately. I’m working on a story set in the Hokianga in the 1950’s, based on true events that I am reshaping. Reimagining. I wasn’t there, obviously.

James George (mentor): This is the strongest opening to any of the stories so far. Has real punch, and the economy, almost flatness of style really allows the implications to burn.

My mentor’s comments are encouraging, yet I’m still having a hard time working on it. I sent the opening to Nadine (Hura) who said: ‘I got chills reading it. I got the feeling I wanted to look away but I couldn’t stop reading.’ I replied that my writing often makes people uncomfortable, and she said ‘Do you feel resistance writing these subjects?’ Which is something I hadn’t even considered… that the countless ways I distract myself from sitting my ass down in the chair and writing aren’t always down to simple laziness and lack of motivation. That perhaps the themes in this particular story are difficult for me to face.

I’m surprised I didn’t consider this question of internal resistance myself, earlier. I’ve written before about subjects that are personally painful, like teen suicide. It never occurred to me that this could be challenging. It’s a curious blind spot.

I’m reminded of a printmaking class years ago, with the incredible artist and teacher Marty Vreede who talked about how there is a pain threshold when making art, that you have to push through. And that one often isn’t aware of what the art is really about until the fullness of time reveals it later.

There was a quote that resonated with me during my art school days, written about the artist and my whanaunga, Ralph Hotere, and I’m paraphrasing here because Google isn’t helping. Something like ‘The meaning of suffering was the genesis.’ This holds resonance again for me now, especially as JG pointed out a biblical undercurrent in my current story.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. I do know that I have to fight through my internal resistance, and shut down any and all negative self-talk. Be kind to myself. This is brave work. Fuck Imposter Syndrome. I’ve cut the booze back which helps. I’m present and clear-headed, mostly. Now I’m gonna sit my ass down in the chair and push the words out, one by one. And hope that it will all mean something, in the end.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. Upon returning to NZ in 2016 after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award, and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

A Void

It feels like I’m sending these journals into a void. Like an actual journal, for my eyes only, which is kinda freeing.

I had writer’s block until recently. Prior to that, I wrote a short story about a Japanese piano teacher who goes on a surfing trip to deal with a broken heart.This melancholy tale poured out of me in two or three days. Working in the second person for the first time gave me a sense of urgency that propelled the story forward, and I found that almost breathless quality made the writing experience deeply enjoyable.  I’ve learned that Voice Is Key.  I’ve realized that once I have the voice right, the story flows. The words come from somewhere else. Every creative person knows this feeling. You become a channel for the universe to express itself through. We’re all jonesing to get back in the zone. Where do ideas spring from within this state? The nothingness of a blank page. The collective unconsciousness. The void.

My mentor, the novelist James George, has a startling intellect. The kind of person who makes you feel like you’ve somehow gained a couple more IQ points after listening to them.  Or more accurately, desire to be smarter so you can fully comprehend all the gems they keep dropping. I told him I was struggling with my short stories. Unlike writing a novel, which you can potentially plot out and continue moving forward towards an ending, whenever I finish a story I have to start again. Almost from scratch. New protagonist, new POV, new plot, new voice. This is a complication with writing short stories for a cycle. How many ways can you write about a thing? And I wasn’t totally sure what that thing was. There were many things!

James spoke to me about the notion of a controlling idea. He talked about Hemingway’s novel ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ about a damaged soldier coming back from war, a familiar Hemingway trope. And how this controlling idea gave Hemingway licence to roam through a landscape. To write about bullfighting and real drinking expeditions, changing the names only. JG explained that once the controlling idea is set in the readers mind, you can do that. I really liked the sound of this… how a controlling idea could give me some freedom to roam around too, in this psychological hinterland I’m conjuring which floats between Tokyo and New Zealand.

JG said, and I’m paraphrasing here: What truths are coming out? Is there a presence you can use as a controlling idea? The thematic presence is like a vessel where everything is being held like a bowl of soup, a series of reflections and responses to this central theme. It can be very subtle, a thematic resonance rather than a direct through-line.  Every single thing doesn’t have to point to the masterplot. Also, what are you leading up to here? Someone after reading your short stories will ask, well what do I make of all that? How close do I feel to the conflicts and ideas I’ve read about?

Plenty to ponder. I looked at the fifteen or so stories I’ve written and methodically listed their themes which include loss, intimacy, the male gaze, mothers and daughters, the expat experience, dislocation, where is home anyway? A theme of running away emerged, which although should have been obvious, took me by surprise.  However, that was not my controlling idea. I realized that what’s really behind it all, although yet to be dealt with directly in any of my stories, is transgenerational trauma. Kinda heavy and something I’ve been trying to, well… avoid.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. Upon returning to NZ in 2016 after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award, and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018

Wanderlust

There are two kinds of people: people who stay, and people who leave.

I’m not judging people who stay. Someone needs to keep the home fires burning. Close ties and family must come before travel for many. I am grateful that my brother has been here to keep connections to whānau alive. On my last visit to my daughter’s grave I saw the chunks of streaky pounamu and black pakohe, Whanganui River stones, that he’d been leaving over the years. Deep aroha tinged with guilt rose up within me.

Still, staying wasn’t for me. If the world is like a book, why would I only want to read the first page?

I have a vivid memory of being ten years old and gazing at the green hills that surrounded Hautu Village where I lived, and feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I felt a visceral, profound yearning; a lump in the throat that was almost painful. I wanted to get out, get away from those verdant hills hemming me in and see something, anything, different. Even at that young age, I felt like I was trapped in a box and everything in it was too familiar. My family were poor, so international travel seemed like an impossible dream. I didn’t even get to the South Island until my early twenties. But then, the Fates intervened, and at twenty-five I was offered a lucrative opportunity to be an exoticdancer in Tokyo, flights and accommodation paid. I took it. I didn’t accept the job due to a lack of education. I had a bachelor’s degree, wasthe valedictorian of my year at art school, and had landed a respectable job in arts administration. I was simply tired of working hard for peanuts and was eager to have an adventure, and at the same time make some real money.

I left in 1999 and came back in 2016. Since my return, I’d only been out of New Zealand once toto organize shipping all my stuff from NYC that had been in storage for months while I travelled around, figuring out my next move.These past two and a half years have been the longest I spent in one country, since I first left all those years ago. That old emotion of feeling stifled by “home” began to resurface. I knew I had to escape before I lost my tiny mind, so this month I went to one of my favourite places in the world, the Kingdom of Thailand. Siam. The Land ofSmiles. Sawadee ka!

The moment of take-off is a deep release. That feeling of leaving everything, your life with all its petty hassles, behind. It’s not only transportive, it’s transformative. Up there, above the clouds, no one can reach you.


It’s my last day in Thailand today. I spent six nights in Koh Samui at a five star resort and three nights el cheapo styles in Bangkok. Or as a fellow New Zealander we met on a boat trip called this energetic, delicious, snarling metropolis: Bangers.My hotel is steps away from chaotic Asoke intersection which is choked with scooters, tuk tuks, and taxis that take traffic signals as suggestions only. I’m in love with the massive shopping mall, Terminal 21, designed to look like an airport with each floor named after different parts of the world. I spend most of my time inside this air conditioned consumer’s wet dream, constantly snacking. The food market here is just like depachika in Japan, those magical wonderlands of gourmet delights found in the basement of department stores. Skewers of succulent meats and vegetables. Sweet sticky rice with mango. Cups of fresh tropical fruit ready to be blended into delicious smoothies. All kinds of Thai street food, including the lightest, freshest and reputedly the best PadThai in Bangkok for $2.50 NZ. Coconut soft serve? Don’t mind if Ido! Can I possibly avoid saying that this place is a feast for the eyes? There is even a Japanese bakery where, joy of joys, I procure my favourite Japanese treat, mitarashi dango: glutinous rice balls on a skewer glazed in a sticky soy sauce syrup which reminds me of the spoonfuls of malt extract my mother would make me eat when I was a kid. I didn’t particularly like the taste back then but now, drizzled over rice mochi I can’t shovel it in my fat face fast enough. I know how much I will sorely miss this vast array of cheap, tasty, and plentiful food options when I’m inevitably confronted by bulky paninis and the same cafe stodge everywhere back home. $20 NZ dollars for lunch in AKL would get me four lunches in BKK. Not for the first time I think, why didn’t I move here?Bum around South East Asia for a year or two? I love you New Zealand but you’re too damn expensive, which is hard to understand when you’re basically a giant farm. NZ produce often sells for considerably lower prices overseas. We’re all getting royally fucked at the supermarket cash register. Why?

I decide to have a night out, and head to Soi Cowboy, a short pink and red neon-lit street packed with go go bars. A friend suggestedI head to trendy Thonglor instead because its nicer, but I am hungry for some red-light realness. You can take the girl out of the club etc… I stroll around looking for a place to hang out. Suzie Wongs, Deja Vu, Kiss, TheDollhouse… Clusters of scantily clad women mill around, waiting for business. I sit down outside at a bar called Lighthouse, and a woman with a worn face sidles up and says “Drink for me?” She is wearing a white strapless cocktail dress with a sweetheart neckline. It has some lace on it and looks kinda 80s, like something Molly Ringwald would wear to the prom.

I could use some company, so I motion for her to sit, and light her cigarette. From my hostessing days in Tokyo I know her drinks will be more expensive than mine and that she is trying to make a little extra cash at the beginning of the night until she gets a real customer. She must be a prostitute, as she isn’t dressed like a go go dancer or hostess and looks too old to be either. She tells me her name is Nong and that at 40, she is an old lady. She laughs when I tell her that I am 44. Nong makes a joke in broken English that I think must be about anal sex because she acts out being fucked from behind. I chuckle along with her to be polite. A dancer sits down and asks for a drink too. She is pretty and has honey colored hair. I check the price first, and agree. Nong tells her friend that I am 44, and she says to Nong that she looks ten years older than me, which makes me feel sorry for Nong.

“Why you look so young?”

“Because my mind like child,” I say, and tap the side of my head. She wouldn’t understand the word “immature.”

We discuss Thai boob jobs, and the dancer invites me to feel her fake tits. They are very soft. I ask where the bathroom is and Nong takes me inside, where aUV-lit stage is packed with young women dressed in white bikinis wearing numbers. She leads me upstairs, where the floor is glass and you can look down at the girls on stage below. I try to surreptitiously take a picture through the glass but Nong catches me. I feel bad, like a sleazy farang, and offer to delete it from my phone.

“It’s okay,” she says. “No one see.You my VIP.” 


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. Upon returning to NZ in 2016 after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award, and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

Highway to Heal

When you were a little girl, books were your refuge. You learned to read before you went to school. You would read the newspaper everyday, on the floor with the sheets spread out. You read everything in the house: a set of Childcraft books, The Thorn Birds, Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (the Illustrated Second Edition).  You read in the car even though it made you ill. Your library card was always maxed. Mum would scold you for reading at the dinner table.

‘You read too much.’

At primary school you wrote: “When I grow up I want to be an author.” You forget about this. At twenty-five you leave NZ for money and love and you don’t come back for sixteen years.

One summer, you return. You are an outsider. You need something to do. You write.

***

You are sick of your stories. You don’t know if they are any good anymore. You lock them away in a drawer next to your bed where they languish for weeks. Someone sends you a link to an intriguing opportunity: Te Papa Tupu. You check it out. Hmm. Looks legit. You mentally blow the cobwebs off your manuscript. You follow George Saunder’s advice while doing a line edit: imagine there is a barometer in your brain, and wherever the energy drops in your writing and the needle dips, change it. It’s all about the micro choices. You do this with vigour and vim. You flex your writing muscles. You write a new story for your short story cycle. You fill out the required forms. Name: Colleen Maria Lenihan. Iwi: Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi. You print out your manuscript in triplicate and put it in the post. Bam. You tell your mentor that if you don’t get selected, you will quit writing. You tell yourself that you believe in your work. You tell yourself you got this. On the day the recipients are due to be notified, you watch the clock, pounce on every email that dings in your inbox, wait for the phone to ring. By 4pm you start to have doubts. By 4.30 you think surely you would have heard by now. By 4.45 you are lying on your bed in the fetal position. Yet another crushing rejection to get over.  At 4.55 you are railing at God if she even exists and hating your pathetic life when there is a ding. You check your new message immediately. It is from Huia Publishers: What is your contact number? You leap up from the bed. You punch the air and shout YATTA!

Later that night, you remember what your child-self wanted to be and think, Jack Kerouac was right. First Thought Best Thought. It’s just taking you a really long time to grow up.

 


DSC_0421Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. Upon returning to NZ in 2016 after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award, and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.