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The City and the Writer: In Auckland, New Zealand with Chloe Honum

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Auckland as you feel/see it?

Watery, green, international, glistening, focused, striving, self-conscious, thoughtful.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Saying goodbye to my mother at Auckland Airport. I was fifteen and leaving home to go live with my grandmother. My mother died from suicide two years later. My memories of leaving Auckland are connected to one of the most heartbreaking things about growing up there, and about Aotearoa/New Zealand as a whole, which is our dire youth suicide rate. A 2017 UNICEF report showed that we have the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world; ours is twice as high as Australia’s and nearly five times that of Britain. New Zealand is known for its progressiveness, peacefulness, and immense natural beauty. Youth suicide can feel like our dark secret, a national crisis that we have had a lot of difficulty facing.

Thankfully, there is more discussion about mental health issues and contributing societal factors now than when I was growing up. I was grateful to be living in Auckland when, in early 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the Wellbeing Budget, a world-first that will provide a huge boost to mental health care, among other important things.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

So many things come to mind, but I’ll go with the song of the tui, a native bird that starts singing well before sunrise and is known to sing in moonlight. The tui’s song is very distinct. It has a dual voice box, so it can sing a kind of duet with itself, and can mimic other birds and sounds. Walking in the city, when I hear a tui singing in a tree, I often can’t help but pause and listen for a while—it’s such an enchanting, strange, uniquely New Zealand sound. It’s also a reminder that New Zealand was originally a land of birds that lived without predators. There are no snakes, and the only native mammals are bats and marine mammals, which is how we have the flightless kiwi, our beloved national animal. I wouldn’t say it’s a detail that goes unnoticed (the tui is much revered), but it does strike me as a sometimes subtle yet extraordinary part of the rhythms of the city.


What writers from here should we read?

I think often about how Janet Frame should be read and known more widely. Born in 1924, she was from Dunedin, on the South Island, but she spent time living and writing in Auckland. She is best known for her memoirs, which were made into the film An Angel at My Table by Jane Campion, but she was a masterful poet and fiction writer, too, and was twice shortlisted for the Nobel Prize. She is quite famous in New Zealand, but I feel strongly that she should be studied and talked about more outside of the country as one of the most important writers of her time.

For wonderful contemporary Auckland-based writers, I recommend Paula Morris, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Jack Ross, and Michele Leggott.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I return to a giant stone chair that my family calls “the Wishing Chair” in Thorne Bay, on the North Shore of Auckland. The chair looks out to the sea and to Rangitoto, a volcanic island in the Hauraki Gulf. The shape of Rangitoto—a Māori name meaning “bloody sky”—is so soothing, rising out of the sea in long, smooth, symmetrical slopes. Janet Frame called Rangitoto “Auckland’s landmark, her phenomenon.” The island is the youngest of about fifty volcanoes in Auckland and it can be seen from many beaches and peaks. I go to the Wishing Chair to make wishes and gaze at Rangitoto, and to walk on the volcanic black rocks that lead out to the sea. It’s the most steadying place I know. It’s also where I scattered my mother’s ashes, in the ocean off the rocks there, and I feel soothed thinking of her as part of that clear, calm blue, with Rangitoto looking over.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The one most dear to me is the Sargeson Centre, home to the Grimshaw Sargeson residency fellowship. Named for New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson, the center is a loft at the top of a brick building that was constructed in 1883 as a horse stable. It’s stately and beautiful, covered in Virginia creeper that turns from green to fiery red to bare vines as the seasons turn. The building and the fellowship have a rich history in New Zealand literature, having provided time and space to Kiwi writers for over three decades now. The location is also very special, tucked among the majestic trees and meticulously tended grounds of Albert Park, in the heart of the city.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There is a neighborhood called Mount Eden that I’ve always loved. My first after-school job, when I was about fourteen, was at Mount Eden’s fish and chip shop. Mount Eden is walkable from the central city, but it felt like its own mysterious village. The area has since become a lot ritzier, but back then, in the early nineties, it was both quaint and grungy, a kind of wonderland for my adolescent self. I also love the mountain. From the street below, Maungawhau (Mount Eden) appears to be little more than a treed hill, but it’s actually a volcanic cone and the highest natural point in Auckland. It’s not a difficult climb, and suddenly you find yourself in this breathtaking, quiet place, with 360-degree views of Auckland.


Where does passion live here?

To me, no street has more passion or personality than Karangahape Road, known locally as K Road. Although it’s becoming more and more gentrified, it has long stood for a kind of countercultural grit and tenacity and beauty that is specifically Kiwi. Long live K Road.


What is the title of one of your works about Auckland and what inspired it exactly?

I wrote a poem called “Read More about Our History,” which is about St. Mary’s Home for Unwed Mothers and the practice of forced adoption of babies born to unmarried mothers in New Zealand during the 1950s to the 1980s. The title refers to the ways that the practice of forced adoption has been obscured or erased from the histories of some of the institutions responsible.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Auckland does an outside exist?”

Yes, very much so. Though Auckland is a bustling and vibrant city, for me there’s no forgetting that we’re on an island at the bottom of the Pacific, looking up, heading into the morning while much of the world is still making its way through the day we just left behind. At the same time, when I am away from Auckland, I feel it always with me; it’s the city of my youth and of my heart.


Chloe Honum is the author of the poetry collections Then Winter and The Tulip Flame, a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award and winner of Foreword Reviews’s Poetry Book of the Year Award and a Texas Institute of Letters Award. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, Poetry, the Southern Review, Bettering American Poetry, and New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre. She has received a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize, and she was a 2019 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow at the Sargeson Centre in Auckland. She was raised on the North Shore of Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and currently lives in Texas.

Published Jan 27, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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