Topic: Jenny Argante
Jenny Argante is a New Zealand author, literary editor and proofreader. She is also Information Officer for the Tauranga Writers Group and Bay of Plenty Regional Representative for New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA BOP0)
Born in an elephant stable in India, Jenny has been Army brat, Service wife and lifelong rolling stone. Now permanently settled in New Zealand, she wants in her
Third Age to make it big as a writer. She is presently working with Tommy Kapai Wilson on his forthcoming book, Mauao: Caught by the Morning Light, to be published on Waitangi Day in 2012.
Jenny has been well-published – often commercially, sometimes in élite literary magazines no one's heard of. She does PR and information for Tauranga Writers, and editor of their monthly newsletter, Update. Together with Sue Emms she edited their jubilee anthology, This Side of the World: Tauranga Writers Celebrating 40 Years. (TW, 2007.) Previously she was production editor for the group’s CD on which she also featured, Where Poets Gather: Ten Poets from the Bay of Plenty – all reading their own work. In 2010 she worked with editor Margaret Beverland on Narratives with Nosh.
Jenny has tutored from its inception on the highly-regarded online Diploma in Creative Writing at the Waiariki Institute of Technology. from the Waiariki Institute of Technology. She also works freelance as a professional editor, manuscript editor and ghostwriter.
A compilation of New Zealand poetry for children, edited by Jenny, was published as Poetry Pudding in 2007 by Reed, and named a ‘Notable Book of the Year’. Presently she is working on Poetivity: How to Read & Write Poetry. She has written On Becoming a Poet for the Chapbook Series from Hen Enterprises, which is immediately available.
New Zealand writers need New Zealand readers - a personal opinion from Jenny Argante
New Zealand Book Month 2011 has come and gone with good attendance at all sorts of events across the nation. No doubt some of us are already planning how we can do it bigger and better in March 2012...
Thinking about it, I realised that often these events mean we are celebrating writers and individual works, and that’s a good thing, no doubt about it.
I only earned £3 a week in my first job as a filing clerk with Metal Box in Rochester, Kent. A keen reader on a limited income I found my literary salvation in the public library and through buying Penguin classics. Imagine my delight when Penguin New Zealand launched the first ten in a new series of ‘New Zealand Popular Penguins’. I have bought them all, and I intend to collect each and every title that is published.
I have not been a total fan of Penguin New Zealand. I cannot understand why they are a subsidiary of Pearson Education, and I don’t think they’ve shown willing enough to take on the challenge of publishing New Zealand-based and biased fiction.
With New Zealand Popular Penguins they have done a great thing for us all, and what I’d like to suggest is we all start buying them and reading them between now and next year’s New Zealand Book Month. Then perhaps we’ll get into the habit of buying and reading contemporary New Zealand fiction without reluctance or apology.
What were the ten titles Penguin chose to introduce the series?
Maurice Gee, perhaps unfairly, has two titles - Plumb and Going West. Plumb was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1978, the year it was first published. This is a multi-layered story set in the provinces about a Methodist minister who finds the demands of his religion simple, and of personal relationships complex and complicated. This is often cited as ‘the best New Zealand novel ever written’ and while I don’t agree with that, I do agree that in Plumb he presents us with a convincing portrait that totally evokes our empathy and engages our interest, and shows us, in the best writing, plot develops from character and not the other way around.
Going West was ranked among the 50 best New Zealand books by The Listener (26th January 2010.) Set in Auckland some fifty years ago it explores with acute vision the interaction of two lives, that of failed poet Jack Skeat - and his friend Rex Petley, who has the talents he seems to lack but could also be a murderer ... Give yourself a treat (if you haven’t done so already) and view on YouTube the wonderful animation of Going West sponsored by the Book Council and created by Colenso.
I was given Tu by Patricia Grace to review and put off reading it for some time, grumbling that I had no desire to read a novel about the Maori Battalion. Eventually I buckled down to the task, and opened at page 1 ... I was blown away. Here within the covers was a completely satisfying narrative of lives beyond my ken. I gave it a rave review - not that Tu needed my approbation - and read everything else of Grace’s I could lay my hands on.
Naturally I was pleased to see her included in this series, with Potiki, a word that means ‘the last-born child.’ This was a challenging book for me to read, as it makes few concessions to the non-Maori reader. I had to look up terms, take frequent breaks and read it two or three times before I ‘got it.’ (Or as much as I am capable of getting.) I am glad I persevered. It increased my enormous respect for this writer, who demands much of us and offers great rewards.
I struggled even more with The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera. I don’t think I could have got through it if I hadn’t seen the film. Only one New Zealand book has given me more trouble, and that was Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, also introduced to me through the cinema. Both were tough, both nourished and benefited me. There should be a word for reading a book intensely other than ‘enjoyed’. I first wished for such a verb when I read Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn. How could I say I enjoyed it when it was so dark, so sorrowing? Did I wish I had not read it? Never.
I felt the same about The Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors. Not light reading; but illuminating.
I wanted to resist Smith’s Dream by C.K. Stead. I had come to regard him as ‘too intellectual’ - deliberately dry, precise, without that emotional intensity or ‘kick’ I like to get from in-depth fiction. Waterland by Graham Swift springs to mind, or Madness of a Seduced Woman by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer.
Then I remembered a poem by Stead that had given me that kick - In That Country. I began to remember also how I had almost been put off T.S. Eliot by constant references to his poetry as ‘too intellectual.’ I decided to plunge straight in to Smith’s Dream, his debut novel, and see what I got from it.
I was taken into an imagined situation in 1970s New Zealand where Smith, a librarian, abandoned by his wife and children, takes first to a solitary life in the Coromandel and then by unexpected circumstances into a freedom fighter. Was it ‘too intellectual’? I don’t think so. I think it was informed by deep emotion and beliefs.
I’ve since been told the film Sleeping Dogs was based on Smith’s Dream so there’s my Sunday night viewing decided for me if I can track down a copy. I’m always interested in how film-makers interpret novels and what they concentrate on. And part of the fun of belonging to a reading group is finding out how differently other readers approach and respond to the book you’re all reading. So often unexpectedly.
I had read Fiona Farrell’s Book! Book! with the utmost relish, so it was no effort to turn next to The Skinny Louie Book. (You can read an excerpt at http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/farrell/skinny.asp to get a flavour of her writing.) This was Farrell’s debut novel, and it won the New Zealand Book Award when it was first published in 1992. Skinny Louie is the daughter of Shanghai Lil and she has a baby in the Begonia House which she abandons. The baby is rescued by Maura who takes it home, and names the child Tia. In the story of Tia’s growing up into the 21st century we discover aspects of the New Zealand psyche rarely discussed.
Stephen Braunias is using his Copyright Licensing award money to undertake his own study of this fascinating subject - it’ll be interesting to compare his factual observations with Farrell’s explorations - they both share an extraordinary facility of verbal expression spiced with malice and a generous dash of wit.
From Farrell I went to Shonagh Koea, another writer who perpetually fascinates me. Like me, she was something of a child genius. Unlike me, she built a solid reputation on this promising start. The Grandiflora Tree (1989) was her first novel, about a widow discovering her husband held a different view of their life together and dealing with how people view her now. She retreats into isolation, and this allows her to make other discoveries, mainly about herself. It’s an absorbing and insightful story, full of delightful surprises along the way.
Refreshed by Farrell and Koea I tackled John Mulgan’s Man Alone, not expecting it to be a bundle of fun. I knew the author had committed suicide, and that his story was set mainly in the years of World War I and the Depression. I was half-expecting a eulogy to the staunch and resourceful ‘Kiwi bloke’. Instead I found myself drawn into the absorbing story of the Englishman Johnson, a complex and fascinating character whose life seems constantly out of control.
Mulgan writes in a direct and straightforward style, deeply thoughtful and tinged with melancholy, but well worth the reading. No wonder Man Alone so quickly earned the status of a New Zealand classic, a status it has never lost.
Ronald Hugh Morrieson was a name completely unfamiliar to me, and I approached Came a Hot Friday (1964) with caution. (And the basis of another New Zealand film I’m unlikely to get my hands on. Fortunately my son-in-law is a film buff and will fill me in. One day I must fly to Wellington and explore the National Film Archive ...)
I did enjoy this South Taranaki writer’s tale of small town gambling scams in 1949, and ‘earthy’ is a polite term to describe his writing. I learn from the Internet that he was an alcoholic and that many people considered the New Zealand he wrote about was ‘not what we know’, that he wasn’t ‘literary’ enough. I’ve never understood this expression - ‘literary’. Any well-written book whatever its style is literary enough for me, and I can forgive some failures if the story is compelling enough. I have always had a particular fondness for ‘flawed works of genius, such as Wuthering Heights.
The impression I was left with is that Morrieson was ahead of his time, and that we see in his writing a pattern that still exists, a lack of appreciation for purely New Zealand writing. He worried that he wouldn’t be recognised until after he was dead. He was right. And there are pure gems in Came a Hot Friday worth mining for, and that sense of anarchy I go for.
Nine New Zealand Popular Penguins down, and one to go - Stevan Eldred-Griggs. I don’t know why I was resisting this. For some reason I envisaged the author as a Presbyterian minister. No escape now. I picked up Oracles and Miracles (1987) and started reading. Do you know, I enjoyed it so much I am now embarked upon books two and three in his trilogy.
His story is of twin sisters growing up in Christchurch the years from the 1930s to the 1950s. Hard times for many New Zealanders. I’ve since learned that Oracles and Miracles has sold more copies than almost any other work of fiction in New Zealand. I can’t help wondering if it will become even more relevant as a record of the history of a city dramatically transformed by the earthquakes of this year and last. That same sense of unease about things gone forever that I get watching movies set in New York and fearing/expecting to see the twin towers.
All ten books are very different. All ten books rewarded me differently but definitely for reading them. I shall be buying others in the series as Penguin publishes them, and I have also begun actively searching out New Zealand writers of the past every time I visit a library or second-hand bookshop.
I am beginning to think that New Zealand Book Month should be the culmination of eleven months of discovering and recovering New Zealand literature past and present. Let’s not stop reading books from overseas - why should we limit ourselves? Books, and in particular fiction, are and always have been the best means of learning about other codes, other classes, other cultures.
But let’s insist that New Zealand publishers encourage overseas readers to welcome our writers with equal enthusiasm by more actively promoting great books from New Zealand at international bookfairs. The Captive Wife by Fiona Kidman. Here at the End of the World we Learn to Dance by Lloyd Jones. The Life and Death of Laura Friday and Pavarotti her Parrot by David Murphy. Any you’d like to add to that list?
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Jenny Argante was nominated for the Community Spirit Award (Cultural Category) in 2008 and 2009.
Jenny Argante at Bookrapt 2015 (Photo: Debbie McCauley).