I belong to the South Island Writers’ Association (SIWA). I joined SIWA around 12 years ago, and was chair for three of those years, including the 50 year anniversary. Last month I was able to do a feature for Flash Frontier on some of the flash-fiction writers at SIWA. Thank you to the wonderful Michelle Elvy at Flash Frontier , who has kindly allowed me to reprint most of it here. The lead interview is with Rata Ingram, my daughter, but not because she's my daughter! but because as a member of SIWA, she won the SIWA competition that featured in National Flash Fiction Day event, Flash in the Pan 2017.
SIWA boasts Dame Ngaio Marsh as its first patron, and it is a lively group of writers based in Christchurch who meet once a month to take part in member competitions, open-mikes and discussions on the craft of writing and issues related to publishing. Our judges and speakers have included Michelle Elvy, Frankie McMillan, Joanna Preston, Bernadette Hall, Paul Cleave and Elizabeth Knox, to name a few.
Some members' names you might recognise if you are active in the NZ writing scene are Rachel Smith, Celine Gibson, Karen Zelas, Barbara Strang, Sue Kingham, Jenna Heller, Zöe Meager, Jeni Curtis, Jane Seaford, Shirley Eng and Sam Averis.
Last year, our youngest member Rata Ingram won the SIWA 2017 flash fiction competition and read her story at Christchurch’s Flash in the Pan. Her interview, story and related artwork are featured below, along with Sally Carroll’s story, which came second, and a story from the current chairperson, Céline Gibson.
For more about SIWA and how to join, visit the website. I recommend it for meeting other writers and keeping up your craft!
Interview: Rata Ingram, SIWA flash fiction competition winner
Winner of the South Island Writers’ Association (SIWA) Flash Fiction Competition 2017, Rata Ingram, chats to Céline Gibson, Flash Frontier contributor and Otago Regional Winner of National Flash Fiction Day 2015.
Céline Gibson: Biggest congrats, Rata on winning 1st place in the South Island Writers’ Association Flash Fiction Competition 2017, held to coincide with National Flash Fiction Day 2017. Your flash Verus Amicus Cognoscitur is a tender, touching flash on friendship. It felt to this reader to be a piece written to laud and celebrate that fragile gift that is true friendship. Was that the inspiration behind the flash?
Rata Ingram: Yeah, in a way. It was also about – well, I guess at the time I was feeling quite lonely. I think that as writers we tend to base some stories on people we know, or people who have made an impression on our lives, so this story was based on a friend; this friend was there for me when I needed a shoulder.
CG: The way you have chosen to structure the story is unusual – the breaking down of the word ‘amore’ letter by letter. Was this form something you envisioned from the outset, or did the idea suggest itself to you as the story progressed?
RI: I subscribe to an email newsletter called A.Word.a.Day and, true to their name, that’s what they do – send out a vocabulary word each day. They have a theme every week, and at the time, the theme was words that by removing the first letter would still be a word. They gave as an example Virgil’s quote: Verus amicus amore, more, ore, re cognoscitur, which translates into “You can recognize a true friend by their affection, behaviour, words and deeds”. A great Latin example of taking letters off words and making new words. I was really taken by the quote and structured my story around that. It’s meaningful to the story as well – the erasure of letters reflects the character’s need to erase the ‘black marks.’
CG: In the Ore section of your flash, I love the two simple but heart-rending passages of dialogue:
“I know I’m supposed to feel dread,” she said, “But fear is in my hands, not my heart or my head. My cuticles are bleeding.”
“Take this tissue,” he said.
There is much hinted at here about the bond between these two characters without overwriting it. How important is it to trust in your readers to ‘get it’ without resorting to the dreaded ‘signposting’?
RI: It’s very important! It’s that whole maxim of what makes for good writing – show don’t tell. That’s what teachers remind us of from when we first lift a pencil, and they’re right. I’m a fan of mystery stories, and simply put, if everything was spelt out, there’d be no mystery. If you make all the details explicit, the story becomes less relatable, less gripping.
CG: For those readers not overfamiliar with Latin, what is the significance of the title to the theme of your flash? I’ve read a few flashes where, for me, the piece was let down by the title. Your title, however, is a triumph – a mini masterpiece in itself. Was your flash fashioned from the title, or was the title born from the flash?
RI: It’s half of the quote – a true friend is known– and I used the other half for the sub-headings that structure the flash. So, in essence, my flash was fashioned from the title. The title was a gift in many ways! Latin has this dark, antiquated mood to it, which reflects how the character is feeling – the trying to make sense of something that they don’t necessarily understand.
CG: When did you first come across the genre of flash fiction? What is its attraction for you as a young writer in the 21st century?
RI: It would have been a SIWA competition. SIWA has introduced me to a whole raft of genres that I would never have come across otherwise. Discovering flash has been a twofold opportunity in that I not only found out about this whole new genre, but that I also get to now experiment and play with it.
I think my flashes are basically of a poetic nature, because they don’t have much plot – they’re exploring a moment, and in relating to the 21st century it makes sense, because we’re very much in this digital age where life seems more fragmented and fast paced – think of twitter, where you only get 280 characters to express your thoughts to the world. Flash keeps me disciplined in writing short but punchy pieces.
CG: You’re a member of the South Island Writers’ Association (SIWA) which was founded by Dame Ngaio Marsh in 1963. How important is it, do you think, for writers to be part of groups like this? Has your continued involvement with SIWA grown or influenced your writing?
RI: Fitting writing around your life is difficult and can tend to have you NOT getting around to it, but if you have a deadline, you have something to work towards. SIWA’s monthly members’ competitions are good for this. Also, you get feedback from judges, which is really beneficial; you get to explore different genres, and best of all you get to meet other writers doing amazing things.
Being part of SIWA has definitely influenced my writing. I’ve learnt so much from our Outhouse judges – all renowned local and national writers – and from my fellow writers who sometimes give a talk at the meetings. Having the opportunity to judge a competition myself – a blog with the theme ‘10 Things’ – gave me more insight as to how we write. And I would say that in my role as newsletter editor of SIWA, my involvement with it has definitely grown.
CG: It can’t help but be noticed that when you attend SIWA meetings, you often come dressed as a character – which we love, by the way – but what’s that about?
RI: Apart from the fact that it’s fun to do, I’m really just trying to reflect the different shoes that writers reside in.
CG: I think Myrtle was my favourite.
RI: Thank you.
CG: Has there been any literary inspirational figure/s in your life, Rata?
RI: I like the writing of Janet Frame – her playing with words and her sideways insight into the world… it’s possibly something that my character has in Verus Amicus Cognoscitur.
The image I have included was inspired from a passage by Janet Frame’s book Faces in the Water, and the style of Buck Nin’s The Mamakus. You’ll notice black marks (almost resembling bars or needles) and these black marks also feature in my story, as a metaphor (or a reality) of isolation.
CG: Finally, what lies ahead for you in your writing career?
RI: I want to continue to grow and develop my writing, obviously. Long-term… I would like to make a collection of thematically similar short stories, poems, flashes and essays. I think I’m building that up now in my writing, anyway. It wouldn’t be a book in the conventional sense because of its collage type of structure, but I think New Zealand is okay with that now – thanks to young writers like Ashleigh Young and Hera Lindsay Bird who challenge the traditional book forms.
SOME WRITING FROM THE SOUTH ISLAND WRITERS ...
'Verus Amicus Cognoscitur' by Rata Ingram
Amore / love
It’d been a while since she’d seen anyone real. She stayed in the room with the sea-green walls and the skirting board that was exactly the height of her hand. When she heard footsteps from down the hall she stopped smoothing the black marks and peered out from where she had crept, under the bed. The door flinched. He walked in carrying the bulbous red mug, the only one she would drink from, full of hot tea. A teardrop of milk slid down the side.
More / acts
The tea was hot but she was thirsty. She wrapped her fingers around the mug and pressed tightly until her nailbeds turned white and she couldn’t feel her fingertips. He laid a hand over hers and she heard the rasp of skin among the static grazing the corners of her ears.
Ore / words
She wanted to wait for him to say something but it was her turn to speak. He cared about the symmetry of dialogue. She would speak, then he.
“I know I’m supposed to feel dread,” she said. “But fear is in my hands, not my heart or my head. My cuticles are bleeding.”
“Take this tissue,” he said.
The symmetry meant she tried to fit too much into her sentences, and they became tangential, like some German professor talking amicably to a blackboard, grammar uncannily tacked onto the ends of things. Now she had nothing. She’d abandoned words but was not alone from them.
Re / facts
“Can you help me clean the marks on the walls?” she asked.
“I will. I’ll bandage your hands and you can show me where they are.”
He wanted to help her eradicate them. She pointed, and he took a cloth to the clean paintwork. He hoped they weren’t quite real yet.
'That’s My Girl' by Sally Carroll
Behind our garage there’s dirt like crap. My school skirt is covered in wet, clay shit. I’m hiding, listening for Dad’s footsteps… he’ll be in one hell of a mood until he sobers up. Then he’ll admire my guts for standing up for Mum. He taught me. I’d put my fists up to his face, play-fighting, “Get your knuckles straight,” he’d say, “That’s my girl.”
I got him good. I was ironing my new dress from the Sallies when I heard Mum scream. I grabbed the iron and blasted into the kitchen. My pissed Dad was forcing Mum’s hand over the stove, over a hot element, yelling, “Where’s the sixty bucks?” He turned letting Mum go, his eyes wide. He lifted his fist at me. I plunged. I slammed the iron at his chest. “Jesus,” he hollered rushing to the cold tap. I dropped the iron and ran.
I can’t hear footsteps. I’ll sneak into the house and grab the forty bucks stuffed under the ironing board. I hid it there after shopping at the Sallies. Fish n’ chips will be good, and some cigs and mixes. My phone… it’s a text… ‘What’s the yelling?’ it says. Shit. It’s from Tim. He’s on the street. No way he’ll enter my property cos’ he hates my parents. His parents have jobs and everything. If he posts stuff on Facebook about Dad’s yelling and Mum’s screaming… I don’t care if he’s my boyfriend… I’ll belt him one.
He’s sitting on the neighbour’s fence. I shrug when he asks me about the screaming. He puts on his I don’t believe you look. I let him know.
“We’ve just finished having fish n’ chips for dinner, crumbed blue cod, not that shark shit your family has.”
'Christmas Saboteur' by Céline Gibson
They bustled into the bedroom and settled on the shag-pile to watch her antics from the far side of the bed.
With the flourish of a magician, parcels of brown paper, roughly bound with string, were whisked from behind a sheet, then lobbed across the room. “For you, for you, and for you.” Feverish fingers tugged at bows.
“We’re having Christmas dinner out this year,” she said, whizzing the last brown parcel across the paisley eiderdown.
They envisioned a fancy restaurant, their best clothes, waitresses hovering with pads and pencils.
“Victoria Park,” she said. “Sandwiches and a thermos.”
Their beaks parted. Tiny, choky chirps about the worst Christmas, ever. No festive paper; no Christmas tree cleverly studded with cotton-wool balls to replicate snow; no naked dolly in the laundry basket masquerading as Baby Jesus. Mean old Mummy, out to sabotage Christmas.
Their father poked a hole in his parcel. “Lovely – Old Spice … again.” He plodded to the bathroom and shut the door. Poor Daddy!
At Victoria Park she reprised her magician role, producing ham-and-mustard sandwiches, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs from a chilly-bin.
Daddy stretched out in his deck-lounger, took a sip from his beer can. The chicks admired their Christmas sandals while pecking at their sandwiches. Mummy shook her wrist to admire the charms on her bracelet – a ladybird, shamrock, apple, anchor and number 13.
Her brood watched her slice into the Christmas cake. Mummy was so pretty; Daddy was so happy. This was the best Christmas, ever.