First Fox by Leanne Radojkovich (The Emma Press, 2017), 64 pp., £6.50; Waitapu by Helen Margaret Waaka (Escalator Press, 2015), 191 pp., $30
In her debut collection of flash fiction, First Fox, Auckland writer Leanne Radojkovich presents the reader with succinct yet layered vignettes – eleven tales crammed with profoundly intricate metaphors. Flash fiction is, in essence, very short short stories: in that sense, although it’s a relatively new name for the genre, you could say flash dates back to the fourteenth century and to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The genre requires readers to pay attention to the intimacy of characters’ lives from the very first word, and is a finely tuned craft: every word counts.
Radojkovich’s stories are deceptively simple upon the first reading, and a reader might feel jolted or surprised but then move on. However, one of the most significant aspects of flash fiction is that it is designed to be read again, and in the hands of a good writer, with each successive reading, less becomes infinitely more as complex or alternative meanings are progressively unearthed. I suggest readers make the time for multiple readings of First Fox.
Radojkovich speaks of mothers, daughters, ageing, trauma, violence, fear, reward and loss, absent fathers, survival, vulnerability and revenge. Stunning black and white illustrations by Rachel J. Fenton support the writing and lend another dimension to the tales.
First Fox is intelligently crafted, and while the stories can be seen as contemporary twists on traditional fairy tales, which some readers might see as an exercise in the surreal, or as ludicrous and far-fetched, my sense is that these snapshots highlight the darker side of our communities and relationships. Radojkovich shows us things that are not often spoken of aloud, and I admire the way she illuminates the social, cultural and political in First Fox.
The opening story, ‘The Back of Beyond’, shows a displaced child living in difficult circumstances. She manages to survive them, complete with a fairy-tale ending where her long-lost dad returns and helps weed the overgrown garden of her dead grandmother.
The story with the most stunning use of imagery, to my mind, is ‘The Bookkeeper’s Tale’ – for the skill with which an innovative use of succinct backstory and narrative tenses create a haunting atmosphere. Its landscape is evocative and filled with delicious images, such as ‘a plume of glass sparks’, and the line ‘Her father exploded the silence between them’, which highlights tension and violence without naming it as such. The final sentence stayed with me for a long time, with its seemingly indirect reference to trauma: ‘She never really liked boys, she thought, and slid the skirt under the needle.’
In ‘Wisdom Tooth’ Radojkovich speaks of the ancestors, ash, bone, death and return – life cycles. The story could apply to any culture or belief system, any loss or rebirth: I can see, here, in its use of universals, the appeal of this style to an overseas readership; and the book is indeed published by an overseas press. Yet given that Radojkovich is a New Zealander, I would have enjoyed seeing more references to our landscape; it would be interesting to know what impulses or aims drove this particular artistic choice.
‘The Onion’ is a wonderful finale in the collection, where another displaced child challenges difficult circumstances and creatively takes her revenge. ‘She lifts her skirt and pisses on it. Later, she’ll take it home, chopping it into Uncle’s soup, wiping away her smile when he exclaims, ‘Too much salt!’
The author’s writing is accessible, focused, and can deliver one hell of a punch – as flash fiction should. These are not works to be rushed over, just because they are small.
It was an absolute pleasure to read First Fox. Radojkovich has left me hungry, and I look forward to reading more. Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu – despite being small it is of great value.
Next to flash fiction such as First Fox, an interwoven short story collection requires a different approach. Waitapu is not a book to be dipped in and out of; rather it is one that requires sustained focus.
In her debut short story collection Waitapu (a finalist in the 2016 Ngā Kupu Ora Māori Book Awards), Hawke’s Bay writer Helen Margaret Waaka (Ngāti Whātua, Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Torehina) weaves eighteen stories together to create an interconnected body of work.
It is a challenge to write short stories that are linked to one another; Waaka’s work can be read as part of a local literary tradition that extends as far back as Katherine Mansfield and that also includes a lineage of Māori writers, such as Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera. Structural creativity is required, and for the most part Waaka achieves this.
Initially I felt lost over the changes between character and narrative, requiring me to return to previous chapters in order to make the links for myself; I ended up appreciating the way Waaka has created a book where the reader has to do some of the work. Most of the chapters flowed well, and I was struck repeatedly by the integrity of her writing. Waaka shows the reader what appear to be everyday situations, but then takes us deeper beneath the casual surfaces.
Several characters left me wanting more, as though something was missing from their back-stories, or they weren’t as significant to the development of the book as a whole. It may have been Waaka’s intention to leave a few red herrings in the mix; these minor characters being similar to the less important relationships in our lives that still contribute to its overall structure. Waaka’s style is conversational and keenly observant. At times however, the narrative exposition felt excessive and interrupted the flow of what is predominantly a deftly woven collection of captivating vignettes.
Waaka demonstrates a solid understanding of human relationships, interpersonal dynamics, and the conflicts that emerge when faced with difficult decisions. To my mind, a stand-out story is ‘The Stroke’, where the protagonist Rowena is asked (almost forced) by the health system, to care for her abusive father.
She stood up. ‘I need time to think this through.’
‘Of course. We understand,’ the charge nurse said.
Do you? Do you really?
The Stroke illustrates how many health professionals often purport to know how we feel, when in reality they know nothing of the historical events hidden from view. When Rowena said no, I fist-pumped the air. She is a wonderful character, one that wrestles with all the options, feels the angst intensely, but then makes the best decision for herself, as a woman – rather than taking the tired, well-worn path of one who feels compelled to adhere to the pressure of whānau or social responsibility.
Waaka has covered many difficult, confronting topics such as alcohol abuse, sexual violence, family violence, grief, loss and belonging in Waitapu. We are shown what lies just beneath the surface, the cracks, horror and displacement that also occur in our communities, for both Māori and Pākehā. Yet ultimately, the collection speaks of home, belonging and whānau. Waitapu could be any town in Aotearoa New Zealand, or the world.
He iti kahurangi, Waitapu is a promising debut, and I look forward to seeing the continued development of Helen Margaret Waaka’s writing.
IONA WINTER (Waitaha, Kāi Tahu) is a writer from Ōtepoti Dunedin. In 2017 her short fiction was anthologised with Bath Flash Fiction, Nottingham Peacebuilders, Pacific Monsters, Elbow Room, Centum Press, and Ora Nui. She is passionate about representing Aotearoa in her work, and exploring the intersection between written and spoken word.