Beyond the Ending

When Te Papa Tupu ended on Friday, 3 December at a hui held at the offices of Huia Publishers in Thorndon, it felt more like the closing of one process and the opening of another than an ending.

We were welcomed warmly into the HUIA whānau, and Robyn Bargh explained their kaupapa of nurturing writers, which impressed me with her emphasis on writers and their work rather than the marketplace.

We were told what would happen next with our manuscripts – several readings; meetings; an offer to publish, or not; editorial meetings, if accepted; further editing – about a six-month process.

The day ended in a bar on the waterfront sharing a jug of lager with Larree and Jacquie. We met once before at the opening hui for Te Papa Tupu, exchanged a few emails over the months and followed our respective entries on the monthly blog. Looking into the eyes behind the words, knowing there lay a person as mad as me, was a treat. I’m sure we do share a common madness: the madness of restless souls most soothed by playing with words and writing stories.

Later, I stopped on the City to Sea bridge to look at the new urban marae being built near Te Papa. I considered whether the sharp industrial roof design was a reflection from Futuna Chapel or a statement for the emerging corporate Māori elite.

I was standing beside the brass plaque honouring Lauris Edmond where a quote from her work talks about the importance of action, not just observing life.

Te Papa Tupu programme gave me the opportunity to live, in Lauris Edmond’s words, ‘the world headquarters of the verb’ for a few months so I could concentrate on writing, and with Alia Bloom as my mentor, my novel has been developed as near to completion as I can achieve.[1]

In saying goodbye to Zhu Mao and Mr Lau and all the troop, I’d like to thank those involved in Te Papa Tupu programme for their deeply appreciated gifts of time and guidance.

[1] The quote is from Lauris Edmond, ‘The Active Voice’ in Scenes from a Small City. Wellington: Daphne Brasell Associates Press, 1994.

How Coincidences Mean More Than You Think

Often this month, I’ve questioned, why am I doing this?

Not so long ago, a New Age–shaped world view would have me think, oh, but writing seems to have chosen me. Now, I can’t be so sure.

Back then, I might cite the time I went looking for guidance on what I thought was an original idea, a novel comprised of short stories. I’d written a bunch after an eventful summer and saw they could link together. First bookshop I visit and my eye catches my surname. I share it with Robert Burdette Sweet. Above his name, imposed on a broody youth was the title White Sambo and A Novel in Stories. The structure of the book was what I was looking for and the themes in our stories uncannily similar.

That’s synchronicity giving a sign, I told myself. Keep on writing.

Now, I have the opportunity to finish a book with a publisher who’s taken an interest, and I’m near paralysed at times by doubt – the nemesis of synchronicity.

Carl Jung explained something profound and universal when he coined the word synchronistic to describe those events that seem like providence. My first conscious experience was on my thirty-third birthday. I was in the middle of making a life-changing decision: whether to stay in Aotearoa or take up an offer overseas. If I stayed, I wanted to make a veggie garden, and it was already spring, so hedging my bets, I went to the garden shop and bought lime, and blood and bone, and probably some seaweed magic. The cost was thirty-three dollars and thirty-three cents on my thirty-third birthday. I didn’t listen. Instead, I spent a miserable year in Taiwan.

A few years later, I read The Roots of Coincidence by Arthur Koestler where he explained Jung’s theory of synchronicity. I was sceptical, because although God wasn’t in the theorem, it still assumed an invisible hand. I talked to an uncle about it. He didn’t have an opinion. Then I told him I had a friend coming to visit me from Scotland. He asked where from, and I told him Loch Fyne. He said, ‘Jeez, I had a girlfriend from there when I lived in the UK. What’s your mate’s name?’ It turned out my uncle’s old girlfriend was my friend’s aunty. I gave him the book to read.

… a day has passed …

Driving home from town this afternoon, I heard an interview on the radio about China celebrating the birth of Confucius for the first time since the Revolution and how the new leaders are allowing a high degree of freedom in religious practice after fifty years of suppression.

Could this be synchronicity? My book is set in China, and a major theme is the preservation of the Daoist arts during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution. The interviewee talked about the tens of millions of Chinese openly declaring their faiths, unheard of even ten years ago.

So I gave praise to Carl Jung for quelling my doubts long enough to get on with the writing.

Mark Sweet Wakes the Sleeping Zhu Mao

Brian Bargh of HUIA left a message. He asked I return his call. ‘It’s good news,’ he said. I went all goose pimply, and great gulps of excitement came tinged with fear.

Mark Sweet
Mark Sweet starts his writing journey in China with the draft novel Zhu Mao.

I began writing Zhu Mao three years ago at the start of the Diploma of Creative Writing course at Whitireia Polytechnic. When I applied, I submitted a short story, one of many, interconnected, which I wanted to shape into a novel. But the opportunity to write a new novel was too much, and Adrienne Jansen encouraged my fresh idea.

It was based around two experiences of traveling in China in the 1980s. One involved infanticide of baby girls, the other execution of criminals. The story grew and, at times, took on a life of its own. I spent a month in Wudangshan, the birthplace of t’ai chi, and found a setting for the story. I loved the process. In the end, I rushed to finish and was awarded a C+. I was gutted and let Zhu Mao sleep for two years.

During that time, I came to see my final assessment as fair. And I learned a big lesson. Anna Rogers was my mentor, and assessor, but I took scant heed of her opinion. Now, I see that all she told me was sound advice.

Late last year, I met the author Elspeth Sandys and asked her if she would critique my manuscript. She was encouraging but highlighted major problems with structure and genre; much the same as Anna.

I’d been dabbling at rewriting Zhu Mao for a few months, growing increasingly frustrated at my lack of editorial crafting skills, when my sister emailed about Te Papa Tupu incubator programme.

Being chosen for the programme is a gift for which I am deeply grateful. The opportunity to work with a mentor, and the means to concentrate on writing for six months, makes the completion of Zhu Mao an achievable goal.

My thanks to those in the Māori Literature Trust, Huia Publishers, Creative New Zealand, and Te Puni Kōkiri who have developed and promoted Te Papa Tupu.