What Is Creative Non-fiction?

What’s creative non-fiction? What’s an essay? What’s the point of all this writing? These are the questions swimming around in my head right now. I began last month with a burst of energy and inspiration. I got out a bunch of books from the library and immersed myself in the genre of creative non-fiction. At first, I enjoyed all this reading and reflection. I could almost see the possibilities opening up in front of me. Unlike the academic essay, which intentionally fabricates emotional distance between the writer and their subject, a creative non-fiction essay is all about the spaces in between. The subjective experience is the motivation. You’re rewarded for admitting what you don’t know and examining your own ignorance on the page.

Cheryl Strayed (whose book Wild was turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon) says that a good essay should end with the unwritten line ‘and nothing was ever the same again’. She’s talking about the way an essay should stay with you, change you. A good essay should pick you up in one place and drop you off somewhere else entirely. Of all the things I read and reread, her quote is the one I printed out and stuck on my noticeboard:

‘Behind every good essay there’s an author with a savage desire to know more about what is already known. A good essay isn’t a report of what happened. It’s a reach for the stuff beyond and beneath. Essayists begin with an objective truth and attempt to find a greater, grander truth by testing facts against subjective interpretations of experiences and ideas, memories and theories. They try to make meaning of actual life, even if an awful lot has yet to be figured out. They grapple and reflect with seriousness and humour. They philosophise and confess with intellect and emotion. They recollect and reimagine private and public history with a combination of clarity and conjecture. They venture into what happened and why with a complicated collision of documented proof and impossible-to-pin-down remembrances. And they follow the answers to the questions that arise in the course of writing about what happens wherever they go. The essay’s engine is curiosity; its territory is the open road. This is what makes them so damn fun to read. The vibrancy and intimacy, the mystery and nerve, the relentlessly searching quality is simultaneously like a punch in the nose and a kiss on the lips. A pow and wow. And ouch and a yes. A stop in a go.’

‘A savage desire to know more about what is already known’ is the sentence that sticks out. And also ‘impossible-to-pin-down remembrances’. I feel like this is entirely the territory of my manuscript. I’m going through the stuff of my past, holding it up to the light and turning it this way and that, unsure what is true at the same time as I know how things turn out.

What I’m doing feels like a form of therapy. This gives me occasional attacks of self-consciousness. Who wants to read about all these unspectacular people and unspectacular events in my unspectacular life? It’s a question I try and avoid because doubt is debilitating, and I really want to submit this manuscript so that I can go to Aussie next year to the Sydney Writers’ Festival with the Māori Literature Trust and Huia Publishers.

In a moment of reaching, I sent my mentor, Paula Morris, an email, and asked her if it was normal to feel ‘icky’ about my writing.

She replied like an editor, not a therapist. ‘Avoid vague words like ‘eventually’. You need to give details. Specifically, when did these things happen? Where did you go? Not ‘across town’ but from which suburb to which suburb?

She’s right, of course. I could see what she meant as soon as she pointed it out. She also wants more characterisation, which is something I don’t think I’m very good at. Characterisation has to do with the little details that help the reader to picture the people that only you, as a writer, can see. It’s the kind of stuff Ashleigh Young nails. In her award-winning book of essays Can You Tolerate This?, she describes the vet as ‘a cheerful man with a loud guffaw who’s as tall as it is possible to be’. She likens her mother’s delicate mouth to the edge of an upturned saucer.

I’m not very good at this. I find it hard to describe people. My father, unoriginally, has brown skin and deep frown lines like gashes on his forehead. I don’t know how to liken him to anything else. He is the thing I compare other things to. I would describe the couch, for example, as something that holds the shape of my father.

Ashleigh makes all this seem deceptively easy. It’s not as though her words are fancy or complicated. It’s that she sees the world in a very peculiar and interesting way. I’m not quite sure if I do. I think it’s one of the reasons I struggle so much to ‘think’ in Māori. In Māori, you wouldn’t say that someone is forgetful; you’d say he tangata māhunga wai – that guy’s got a mind like water. You wouldn’t say someone is old; you’d say they have hairy ears – taringa huruhuru.

Perhaps that’s another reason I should prioritise my reo studies. Seeing the world with a Māori lens might give my characterisation in te reo Pākehā the boost it’s missing.


Like many New Zealanders, Nadine Anne Hura (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) has grown up with a foot in two worlds: te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. She joins Te Papa Tupu eager to work on her manuscript of essays about identity, language and belonging. She has three children and lives in Porirua.

What It Means to be a Māori Writer

Shilo Kino with Patricia Grace and Robyn Bargh at the Pikihuia Awards in 2013.

Don’t call me a Māori writer.

I am a writer who is Māori.

Yeah, there’s a difference.

I tell stories. Stories I hope will shape perspective. Give life more meaning. And as clichéd as it sounds, provide a voice for the voiceless.

My Māori culture means everything to me. It is, of course, part of my identity. In fact, it is every part of who I am.

But one thing I have learnt from Te Papa Tupu is that we are simply not just ‘Māori’ writers.

We are writers who offer a Māori perspective, but our perspective is not the same. We share a gift of telling stories, but that’s where our similarities end. We were not chosen because we are Māori. We were chosen because we are writers.

I want the other five recipients to be successful just as much as I want to be successful. I am in awe of the support, love and inspiration that comes from the other participants and my mentor. It is refreshing and a change from a world often consumed by egotism and selfishness.

My book is a piece of my heart that I am laying out bare. I wrote it three years ago, in the space of six months.

The story lived inside my head for years. Niko, the thirteen-year-old protagonist in my story, nagged at me every minute of the day to write.

After I finished my manuscript, I went and served a mission for my Church in Hong Kong, a noisy, bustling city that gave me perspective. I came home and dug out my manuscript.

And now I’m here, a part of something special. But this is a lot harder than I expected it to be.

Shilo in Hong Kong

I recently got a new job, and I’m moving three hours south to a new place. In between a new full-time job, moving houses and juggling my social life, church commitments, family time and exercise, I have no idea when I’m supposed to write.

And if I’m not careful, writing becomes a chore rather than a joy.

But I write because I love it. I love being a writer. I’m proud to be Māori. There is a deep satisfaction and pure joy in my soul when I write. And I’m incredibly grateful to be part of a programme that encourages me to do what I love.

But do not expect my story to be the blanket ‘Māori’ perspective. There is no such thing. I am one voice among many.


Shilo Kino (Ngā Puhi, Tainui) is a journalist who previously worked for Fairfax Media and has had stories published in Huia Short Stories. She speaks fluent Mandarin from serving a volunteer mission in Hong Kong. Shilo is delighted to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

A Story to Tell

Tēnā tātou katoa. He uri tēnei nō Ngāti Hine, me Ngāpuhi. Ko Tokerau te maunga, Ko Taumarere te awa, Ko Waiomio te whenua. I tipu ake ahau kei Tāmaki Makarau ki te tonga i te taha o tōku Māmā – no Ingarani ia. Ko Wallasey te whenua, Ko Cheshire te rohe, Ko Mersey te awa. Nō reira, he Māori, he Pākehā ahau. Tokotoru aku tamariki, kei Porirua mātou e noho ana.

He mihi maioha ki te kaipānui.

All my life I’ve wanted to write fiction. Not sci-fi or fantasy but the kind of fiction that’s believable. Characters so real that when you’re finished with them the reader is convinced they exist. A few years ago, living in Abu Dhabi as an expat and stay-at-home mum, I had the opportunity to give this dream a shot. Every day, after dropping the kids off at school, I sat down to write. I wasn’t entirely sure of the plot or the characters, so I started with exposition (fancy word for blabbing-on). It sounded brilliant, but by the next day, I could see it for what it was: a yawn-fest.

I moved on to writing scenes. I used my kids as inspiration. These stories were better, with the added bonus that the kids loved them. Each day, they’d jump in the car and ask if I’d written another chapter. They’d argue with each other about the story arc of ‘their’ character and push me towards outrageous and implausible plot twists. But it was hard to get these fictional characters to do what I wanted them to do. The caution I had to exercise to protect my kids’ feelings was like writing in a cage. I was more captive than captivating.

Eventually, I gave up writing and started reading. Not leisure reading, but the kind of reading that takes hours and hurts. I deconstructed passages of my favourite novels the way an architect might eye up a building to see how it’s put together. The more impressive the novel, often, the more invisible the author.

One weekend, enrolled in a writing workshop, a teacher asked us all a question: ‘Who feels as though they have a story to tell?’

I didn’t dare put up my hand. In fact, I suddenly felt ridiculous. I had no story to tell, and this frivolous dream of writing a book became apparent for what it was: self-indulgent and egotistical. I finished the workshop and went home and not long after that we came back to New Zealand.

I returned to what I knew: policy and research. The thing is, I didn’t stop writing. Instead, I stumbled into a genre I didn’t even know had a name: creative non-fiction. To me, I was just writing introspective, rambling stories about the things I cared about: my reo journey, my kids, education issues and a few long-winded pieces on identity politics.

E-Tangata gave me my first break in 2015, publishing the first essay I sent them. From there, I had a few other things published, and I won a couple of awards (thanks NZSA and Michael King Writers Residency). Then along came Te Papa Tupu. I thought for a long time before throwing my hat in the ring. Resurrecting the dream of writing a book was something that filled me with unease, not just because I was scared of failing (again), but because I wasn’t really sure if I was ready.

Most of the essays I’ve published up until now have been pretty formulaic – 1500-word think pieces pivoting around a single idea or theme. They’ve tended to explain rather than explore. They’re persuasive essays intended for an online audience, but they stop short of deep introspection. The manuscript I sent in to Te Papa Tupu was something quite different. They’re still essays, but they’re longer and more personal. They don’t deal with just one idea or theme but multiple. The stories are about people and relationships as much as they are about issues.

This is the real reason I was afraid: in telling my story, I invariably end up telling the stories of everyone else close to me. My whole family gets implicated. Fiction seems so much safer because you can hide the truth behind a veil. But these aren’t made-up characters, they’re real people, and they all have a stake in what I have to say.

I wasn’t sure what scared me more: that my manuscript would be rejected or that it would be accepted.

In the end, I’m so glad it was accepted. I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be to work through these doubts and fears. The first workshop emphasised manaakitanga as a foundation of this programme. As well as creating the conditions necessary to become a better writer, we’re supported through strong relationships. My mentor is Paula Morris, someone who I’ve admired and looked up to for a long time. I get the sense that she’s going to be tough, but I know that the quality of my work depends on it. I’ve also been fortunate enough to spend some time with John Huria, whose feedback has helped me see so much more potential in this genre than I’d ever seen before. In addition to our mentors, we have each other – five other writers going through a similar journey.

It’s early days, but my unease has already begun to dissipate. I’m beginning to feel more excited than nervous. Outside the restrictions of the formulaic 1500-word essay, I can sense a freedom to explore language and ideas and to weave history and research into the narrative. I’m keen to challenge myself in new ways and in new directions. Best of all, I can see all the skills of fiction that I spent all those years trying to master finally coming into play.

I’m looking forward to writing about this journey here on the blog. I’d like to use this forum to discuss the mentoring process and to share some of the highs, lows and general insights. If you’re interested in reading some of my essays, please feel free to stop by my website: nadineannehura.co.nz. You can also read a more in-depth piece about Te Papa Tupu that I wrote for The Spinoff here.

And if you’re reading this feeling as though you might have a story to tell and wondering if Te Papa Tupu could be for you, chances are it is! Don’t let the doubts get the better of you. Keep writing, keep reading – and one day it’ll be your turn to write this blog.

Noho ora mai.
Nadine


Like many New Zealanders, Nadine Anne Hura (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) has grown up with a foot in two worlds: te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. She joins Te Papa Tupu eager to work on her manuscript of essays about identity, language and belonging. She has three children and lives in Porirua.

I am a Writer. I am Māori.

I come from a family of storytellers; they seem to be able to spin the spoken word into magic. Put me on the spot, and my words get tangled in my mouth and become something awkward and heavy. I can never quite seem to articulate my thoughts that way, but give me a pen? Give me a pen, and everything changes.

I’ve always made up stories. I used to develop worlds and characters for my brother and cousins so we could play out vast adventures across our grandparent’s farm. I shared my writing with friends and family and had a few things published here and there.  It’s so much a part of me that I couldn’t imagine life without it.

I am a writer.

I wasn’t sure about applying for Te Papa Tupu though. I almost didn’t. It was such a big, wonderful thing, a thing I really felt I needed to help next level my writing. And I was petrified of not getting in. I managed to make myself apply by lying to myself – because I’d encouraged a couple of other friends to enter, I had to do the same in solidarity.

Aside from wanting to improve my writing, I was starving for connection with Māori writers. We’re spread out, we don’t all look physically Māori, and we’re not always identifying ourselves as Māori on social media, etc., either. At the same time, I felt like maybe I wasn’t Māori enough to join the few groups I knew of.

Te Papa Tupu is the first time I’ve ever applied for anything where being Māori was a requirement. My whole life, I’ve had that voice in my head that I’m white enough to pass, to get all the benefits that are available to Pākehā, so I should just not. And on the other hand was the fear that if I claimed I was Māori, people would tell me I wasn’t Māori enough. I was stuck in that place of not feeling like I was being entirely myself but scared of discovering I was somehow doing my heritage wrong. I don’t look it. I don’t speak it. I don’t know where the macrons go half the time.

The reality is that I am Māori, and it’s only my fear that’s held me back. Fear and lack of knowledge. Lack of connection.

I’ve been working on that barrier for a long time. About a year ago, I added the word ‘Māori’ to my twitter bio. It was such a small thing, and yet I deliberated over it for days. It felt like I was revealing a hidden part of myself; coming into the open. I’m not sure what I thought would happen – what does it even mean to be a Māori writer? Do people read your work in different ways? Is there an expectation of what Māori will write about? Will people see things in my work that they didn’t before because they are looking at it through a new lens? I didn’t know, and it made me anxious. But I took that step anyway.

Applying to Te Papa Tupu was a much bigger step, and it’s already opened my eyes to how supportive, inclusive and amazing the community is once you find it. Since getting accepted, there has been a lot of ‘I didn’t even know you were Māori!’ (in a positive/sorry-for-not-realising way) and not a single ‘You’re not really Māori/not enough’, not even a ‘You don’t look it’.

Sometimes taking those big leaps is really worth it, and I’m still grinning ear to ear about being selected.

I swear it took me a week to believe I got in. Two. Hell, it might not have been until we were on the plane to that first workshop that it sunk in. Maybe not even until I was in the room with all the mentors, the amazing folk from HUIA and the Māori Literature Trust and the other mentees – each of them looking as exhilarated and nervous as me; eager to soak up wisdom, to learn and grow.

I feel so fortunate to have been chosen for this round of mentoring – thrilled that I get to work with Whiti Hereaka, who has already had such an impact on my writing. I’m so grateful to all the individuals and organisations involved in making this happen, and I can’t wait to see how our books look at the end of this process.

I am a writer, and I am Māori. And I tell you what, if you are both of those things (even if you’re not confident in those things), reach out. There is a whole world waiting for you, and it’s shiny and wonderful. I’m only sad it took me so long to dive into it – and now that I’m here? I’m going to make the very most of it.


DSC_0238Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction and lover of pizza, coffee and zombies (in no particular order). She’s had short stories published in several anthologies and been a finalist for both the Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadow awards.

Legacies and Legends

Well, this is truly the beginning of the end of the beginning.

As December draws near, I look at my body of work, and I am feeling quite sad – not for having the opportunity to complete my work under the guidance of professionals, but for the fact that I wanted to accomplish so much more in this time.

I set out on my creative journey when I was barely in primary school. My older brothers would read lots of books and comics and draw amazing pictures, and it was from there that I began to write and draw.

I wish I had kept some of my earlier work – although I’m sure I’d be cringing at the crudity of my craft – but every journey has a first step.

What I never anticipated was taking another million steps from there and still facing uncertainty. I thought a smaller, more unique country would allow better opportunities to realise my dreams, but it has been a struggle fraught with ignorance on my part. When you’re younger, you tend to wait for the world to come to you – for publishers to burst through your door, wanting to sign you up because you’re so damned special – and when that fails to happen, you begin to doorknock. You don’t knock on everyone’s door – you kind of test the waters by dipping a toe – and when that first frosty reception alarms and frightens you, you withdraw from the water’s edge and bide your time.

So I’ve been sitting at the water’s edge, casting stones and refining my work, but I should have been more aggressive and personal with my work. I can say that I have seen some of my ideas appear in other people’s work – not because they stole them but because ideas are continually floating through the air and are plucked and harvested by gifted people with a flair for creativity and a vision to achieve.

I’ve been sitting by the water’s edge too long.

I am part-Maori, part-Croatian, part-European – but if you look at me, you would definitely say I am a Maori – and when people ask where I am from, I say Pamapuria – not Scotland, Wales or Croatia. I am not rejecting that side – I truly embrace my unique heritage – but when I look in the mirror, I see Māori, and when I step out into the world people treat me as Māori.

As a Maori, I have always felt like I needed to prove myself – like the world was measuring me up and waving the bigger stick. This was not bred into me by my parents. This was an internal mechanism that was triggered by years of watching the news and watching social events unfold. But I have always had a profound sense of pride in my history and wanted to do more to lift my wavering spirit in the face of mounting statistics that told the nation Māori had higher levels of unemployment and less chance of success in the business world.

Sure, my mother and father provided for me as I provide for my children now, but I have always desired to achieve beyond everyday success – the kind of success I label ‘frequent-normalcy’ – going to work, buying a house, putting food on the table and clothes on our backs. We don’t celebrate that enough – but I desire more. When I was home and visiting the local cemetery, I asked my father about a headstone that bore our family name. He said it was a great-uncle of his, but he could not tell me any more. I realised at that moment that for all the years this man had spent on this earth – whether good or bad – his experiences are lost for all time. He had become a chunk of stone propped up in the ground with hardly a memory to carry him on into the future.

Was this to be my fate – to be remembered for a generation or two and then fade into obscurity? To become a cold block of marble with faded letters?

We might mention some folk with fond memory – whilst others live on in books and history – but most will live in this life and fade from the world without leaving a trace.

Not me – I want to be remembered long after my great-grandchildren join me in the next life, and I want to be remembered as someone who inspired others to do the same. For all our big talk and backslapping in admiration of our cultural identity, we have barely scratched the surface of what we can achieve as a people.

I can’t sit at the water’s edge and watch while others have all the fun – I’m going to jump in and get wet.