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Placing the Personal Essay

Last week CROCC participated in the ‘Placing the Personal Essay Colloquium’, held at Puke Ahu in Wellington, aka the Massey Wellington campus. Convenors Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey put together academics and creative writers, and asked them to talk about place and the form of the personal essay. This was an invitation to migrate across borders, and many of the speakers did. From the academic side Lydia Wevers talked about ‘dirty books’, her dirty five-year experience of working at Brancepeth Station as she researched Reading on the Farm, Tony Ballantyne’s fish and chip shop (chop suey pattie for $1.60) anchored his argument for attention to the local, and Sally Blundell offered an insider’s account of what home means after the Christchurch quakes. The ‘creatives’ for their part got fairly theoretical: Martin Edmond’s keynote on ‘Riding the Ghost Train’ initiated a writing-as-ghostly metaphor which ran through the colloquium. (Alex Calder got spooked in Southland; Annabel Cooper revisited some old haunts.) Lynn Jenner brought place and the personal together in confessing to a childhood in a small red or pink painted room in imagined Vienna, before going on to make a plea for greater freedom in prose forms. Ian Wedde was surprised to be the first to point out that we all live now in a kind of Middle-Earth Truman Show, and Jack Ross and Harry Ricketts also took up elements of this theme, and Giovanni Tiso’s remarkable concluding account of what happened when he uploaded images suggests this is just the kind of world that Google Plus is taking us to. Alice Te Punga Somerville, both an ‘academic’ and a ‘creative’, countered such hyper-reality by pointing out that far below us in the concrete pipes which now channel an ancient stream under Puke Ahu, eels gathered, as they have for a very long time, a story of the persistence rather than the ephemerality of place. Even the eels, though, migrated to Twitter in the course of the day.

Congratulations to Cherie and Ingrid for putting such a diverse group of speakers together, and posing us the dilemma of talking about place, the personal and the essay form. The challenge produced a very lively day. The venue had to be changed to accommodate all the people who wanted to attend, and the tea breaks fizzed with conversation.

‘Placing the Personal Essay’ was held under the auspices of the W.H. Oliver Humanities Research Academy of Massey University, the Stout Research Centre of Victoria University of Wellington, and the Centre for Research on Colonial Culture, University of Otago. Tony Ballantyne and Annabel Cooper represented CROCC at the event.

Annabel Cooper

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