The Blue Fury 17: Failure of imagination

The Blue Fury is a comic about Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield haunting a first year teacher.

I’ve said before that I chose Mansfield as a foil for Frame based on her being semi-recognisable. What this actually means is that I chose her for her hair. In this moment, before I colour and upload the comic I made, this strikes me as particularly unfeminist, to choose someone for their hair.

This strip was partly inspired by an essay by Ashleigh Young, “Katherine Would Approve”, which you can find in her book Can You Tolerate This. Or you can click the link. (I guess you are allowed to click the link.) In it, she describes how many people take possession of Mansfield, finding meaning in her connection to their lives. Not only am I’m guilty of being one of the people more interested in Mansfield’s life than her writing, I’ve reduced that interest to hair. Hair that I’ve made sleek and slick. Hair that is no longer her hair. Is hair life? Some would say so. A hollow sort of life, but aesthetically interesting.

But more than Young’s essay, it was my supervisor’s comment, earlier in the year, as I described Janet Frame as an influence, that “Everybody chooses Frame” to write on, which made me feel that my sphere of influences was predictable and small. I felt like Rory Gilmour when she realises that everybody writes about how Hillary had influenced them in their essay for whatever-the-important-thing-they-are-trying-to-get-into.  Hillary. We – or I – feel familiar enough with her to refer to her by her first name. The emphasis on her name demands italics.  I guess it is somewhat admirable to become a first-name-only person. Like Madonna or Oprah. Maybe I shouldn’t see it as a reduction in the shadow of a more famous Clinton. It’s not the left-overs of an identity, it’s the forging of something unique. Except it can’t be in my part of the world. Hillary, here, means “Sir Ed”. Sorry, Hillary, your name, in my mind at least, has been eaten at both ends by more famous men. Do you have a middle name? The internet would tell me if I could be bothered asking. If so, I can conceive of Hillary’s left over name, her middle name, as a donut hole. Another hollow. Something in between, barely significant and unseen. The bit that it takes a special sort of marketing to sell.

In any case, no one wants to be Rory Gilmore, the girl who people say is good at things but doesn’t actually appear to be. There’s a gap between the telling of the story and the action with her. It’s like the gap between by assertion that these characters are Frame and Mansfield and my knowledge of them.

The idea that everybody wants to write on Frame and that everyone wants a part of Mansfield’s life is another sort of failure of imagination, like teaching the texts you were taught at school. We circle round and round the edges, leaving a void in the centre where our own opinions were meant to go.

But there’s a kind of comfort in feeding off someone else’s legacy, even if you are just using them for their hair. The void is delicious and donut-y, which brings me to the idea that there can be a fruitfulness to a failure of imagination, however lame.

I will gorge on the empty hole, leaving myself feeling bloated and guilty about the consumption of clichéd calories because, as a teenager, I did want to be Rory Gilmore, and I haven’t been sensible enough to let that go.

Otter-dogs 88: Do you write your name in books?

I was recently given a second-hand book, The Cowboy Dog by Nigel Cox, and it had a name in it that I couldn’t read. It was like someone had signed someone else’s work. I couldn’t imagine it was the kind of naming that was designed to get the book returned to the owner and, in fact, the book didn’t look particularly read. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t. My read of the book didn’t break the spine either. VUP has good production values. Perhaps I will sign my name in it too.

Retrospectively Baader-Meinhoffing Hamilton

Baader-Meinhof. Not that long ago, I wrote a facebook status that said simply that. A friend discretely messaged me, soon after, to ensure that I hadn’t been trying to enter the term into a search engine and that sense of humiliation still colours the way I think about the phenomenon. I remember that and I think, sometime that’s going to come back around on the facebook memories thing – sometime, I’m going to be tempted out of perversity, to hit that share button. No, not perversely. Heroically. The re-share will undo the ambiguity of the first post, turning it into a deliberate act and I will triumph over my shame.

Except I won’t. Because then there’s Hamilton. Hamilton the musical.

I didn’t ignore Hamilton. I didn’t notice it. Friends, colleagues, students had been talking to me about it with a kind of fervour for over a year and I had nodded, saying, “No, can’t say that I’ve heard of it.” Odd that I never felt compelled to look it up. Odd that it didn’t stick. The enthusiasm that people have for that musical is a force. It gushes, unashamedly. The people who had told me about it were electrified and I greeted this with a dull, slippery confusion. Their fanishness was not going to stick to me. Whatever this thing was, – a musical did they say? – it wasn’t for me. Such was my ambivalence that I wasn’t able to connect that these people, people I liked, respected, were all talking to me about the same thing. It washed over and past me, dissipating into nothing.

The moment that lit the trail towards Baader-Meinhof style realisation in hindsight was a friend’s instagram of her daughter, Ruby, in January. She, gleefully, holds her arms out to the Broadway sign as if introducing it. She is contorted sideways, looking backwards and upwards at once, legs planted apart in the manner of the logo. While obscured by backlighting, her look is a mix of reverence and concentration. I wanted to know why anyone would look at a sign that way. What was this thing? Why was Ruby excited?

Enter Pop Culture Happy Hour. The podcast that will tell you all you need to know about a thing. Except it didn’t enter. It had been there for a while.  Now, I remembered. I had seen Hamilton before. I’d scrolled past it countless times. It wasn’t just a town South of Auckland that I was incredibly reluctant to visit. It was sought after. People wanted it. And I remember another thing. The book.

My friend Aimee has a book which she is extremely protective of. Her book on Hamilton. It has, of and on, sat on her desk at work for over a year. The way she touches it resembles a caress – as if she’s checking that it still exists. The first time she brought it into school she had held it out to me like Rafiki holding Simba. All that had registered was that this book was special to her for some reason. I had listened to my friend, more than once, talk about this show while she held the book to her and I had not heard a word. My mind had skulked off to other corners. I was not present.

Pop Culture Happy Hour recommended the cast album. So I listened to it – on shuffle at first, which I don’t recommend. The temporal dissonance of the non-linear Hamilton could probably stand as a metaphor for my entire association with the musical.  I did it in the wrong order. I wasn’t entirely sure who lived or died. I thought Burr was the hero. I had missed something essential.

Then I learned how to turn shuffle off on Spotify and it displaced The Mountain Goats as my favourite music to run to. I listened to it again and again. On loop. Non-stop. 

But I still had one more realisation to make. This was not the realisation that I had been a bad friend by passively dismissing interests, although this was important to attend to. No, this came back to the city in New Zealand of the same name.

I’m really glad I never said to anyone, “Did you know the guy who composed the music for Moana is from Hamilton?” Although, if I had, the same ambiguity that had confused me, may have saved me.

This was a fact that I had learned at the NZ premier of Moana, an ultimately hollow spectacle of blue light and drums despite the really good kapa haka. Lin-Manuel Miranda was there, I think. He was interviewed, soundbite style, beforehand. Perhaps I had been distracted by the children who were waiting for the film to start. I thought it was mean to make them wait and I was anxious that I had forgotten my bike lights and would be riding in the dark because it had gotten so late. Or perhaps it was because I had kicked over my complementary popcorn and was not sure that I’d picked it all up. I felt bad that there was so much free popcorn. I also felt relieved that I had kicked it over because this meant that I would not eat a carton of food that I did not like. But still, I had wondered why more of a fuss hadn’t been made of him. This was a guy from New Zealand who had written the music for a Disney feature and they were doing bits with actors!

I wondered later, too. Multiple times. A guy from Hamilton, I thought. Wow. Surely that’s as big a deal as Lorde, I’d thought. The idea was entrenched. That’s why, even after becoming a fan, it still took me months to fix that last misconception, to bring it into line with my new understanding.

Now, of course, I see Hamilton everywhere. I see Miranda’s influence in students’ poetry. Smug allusions pop. I see it in my past. Memories of conversations make sense now, even if my past self remains impassive and unmovable. I recall my ex-husband measuring his work ethic against Hamilton’s. Although, this could be a false construction. He did always work like he was running out of time.

This leads to an obvious line of self-doubt. I wonder what else I am not paying attention to. What else I am missing. What new humiliations of misinformation I have in store for myself. But I also think about Ruby under that sign, looking backwards and upwards at once, and get the sense that there are people who will tell me. And, eventually, I might listen.

Otter-dogs 86: In ellipsis

I have been reading about time in narrative fiction. According to Genette, the maximum speed of a narrative is ellipsis or omission. This, of course, got me thinking about whether the omission can be part of the narrative or not. I guess if it matters. A narrative entirely of omission would not be a narrative at all. Ellipsis can only be recognised in context.

All of this is potentially really meaningful but I decided, instead, to make a sex joke.

Talk notes: Toby Morris in conversation with Dylan Horrocks

When I go to a talk, I usually try to draw the person presenting. I had a bit of a hard time today because the only way I could see Toby Morris was my craning my head so that it was parallel to the ground and leaning sideways on my chair. The light was such that both Dylan and Toby had black holes for eyes that I couldn’t quite make sense of and the angle that I first started drawing Dylan from, since he was the one I could clearly see, was not one he ever returned to. And then I made the mistake of trying to draw Photoshop lightning. That’s what the spidery mess under the second Toby is. There is a reason it is called “Photoshop” lightning. But perhaps I am making excuses.

These notes are unlikely to make sense to anyone but me. They are less than linear since I decided that I didn’t want to turn the page so I proceeded to infill notes as I went. Considering this was a talk where Toby explained that learning clarity was the key to everything, my style does not much match the subject matter. But I hope it matches the fun. Fun was had.

Otter-dogs 85: I’m me

A friend said to me recently that point of view is the single most important question in storytelling. That wasn’t at the top of my mind when I wrote this, because I do have a long history of being frozen by the idea that I will never be anyone else, but it must have been simmering there underneath the surface, waiting to merge with other ideas for it came back to me just as I was uploading this. Comics, for me, don’t hold as much power in the point of view department as other mediums. I don’t think, for example, that we become Peter Parker when reading a Spider-man comic, no matter how compelling the first person banter-narration-voice-over is. We are positioned on his side, sure. We get slightly more insight into his world, but we don’t really get to be him in the way that we would if he was in prose form. Maybe a comic happens more outside of our head then. I guess, in that sense, comics are more like the experience of reading a play than a novel.

Partly the comment about being stuck in our own point of view comes from re-reading Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. She calls her dreamhunters who can perform dreams in multiple points of view, “novelists”. This got me thinking about whether novels can provide a true immersion in a character’s point of view, like, perhaps, a dream can, or whether we are still ultimately ourselves when we read. I think our self is always there. My self is. Lurking.