Hurting in Different Ways: A Review of Life on Volcanoes
Five of New Zealand’s best essayists break personal and political taboos to write on subjects usually discussed only in private in the new collection Life On Volcanoes: Contemporary Essays. Veronica Maughan reviews.
Life On Volcanoes: Contemporary Essays first and foremost intimidated me. I am 19, a second-year university student. I work part-time in a café, as a waitress. I do stupid and dangerous things whenever I want to, because I can. I am cloaked in my youth: look, how beautifully the nascent cloth shimmers! The freedom, the naivety: it glitters like gold. And it marks me, as well. A dunce cap. It is far too easy to pick out in a crowd. I have not learned to put on the black coats favoured by the real writers. They are simply too big.
But once I started to read Life On Volcanoes, my worries melted away, ice cream fumbled onto hot concrete. Make no mistake: each piece pummels you in the stomach. You hurt, in different ways. Reading Ruth Larsen’s touching ‘December Smells Like Hairspray’ on motherhood, I felt my mother pulling my hair into a ponytail for a soccer game. Crying over Tze Ming Mok’s letter to a friend about China’s political state (‘After A Long Silence’), I felt my throat swell as if to burst, a scream trapped deep within me. Courtney Sina Meredith stabs you in the gut with ‘107 Years’, her vivid descriptions of uterine agony, while Tulia Thompson holds your hand as you sob hot angry tears over ‘In The Under: Being Poor And Dreaming The End Of Capitalism’. ‘A Bed Of Volcanoes: Sex, Fantasy, Revolution’, Tui Gordon’s essay on rape culture, felt, regrettably, like myriad conversations I have had with other women on the subject, each as heartbreaking as the last.
Pain is not just brought up by current culture; it is our current culture.
I was intrigued by the similar discussions running throughout the pieces: the strongest of these, according to Janet McAllister, is “the difficulty of dealing with trauma, whether of the writers or their loved ones, or both”. Sexual trauma, poverty, violence, longing. Each conversation with a female friend, co-worker, teacher, relative, leads to these themes. This is what women discuss, openly and secretly: pain. On Twitter, standing on a table at a dive bar, murmuring to one another under the blankets with the lights off. We appear to be drawn to this topic like flies to rotted fruit.
And yet, does the current social climate not exacerbate these conversations? Pain is not just brought up by current culture; it is our current culture. I discussed this concept with a fellow writer, male, and asked him: in this time of upheaval, of inequality-airing and glass-shattering, did he as a man feel a pressure to speak on behalf of women, using his privilege, or did he fear potential thievery of a marginalised voice? His answer: absolutely both, and that it was so, so confusing. I am inclined to agree. The problem has no easy solution: when I turned the question back on myself (what would you want him to do?), I found no readily available answer. I do not know. That is often one of the problems that comes with existing in a world of trauma. We cannot see the trees – the forest is on fire.
Although the primary theme throughout the collection is trauma, an equally strong theme is female duality. The writers honestly share their multifaceted existences with us, in screams and whispers. Wondrous poetry is spliced with brutal descriptions of endometriosis pain. A powerful call to political resistance is saddened by necessary concerns of safety. One writer asks how we can preserve the intimacy and pleasure of sex when our lover has been sexually traumatised. Another notes the ecstasies and perils of child activities: nine-year-old joy at auditioning to be a mermaid in a ballet performance, nine-year-old envy at being cast instead as an oyster. Thompson, in her anti-capitalist essay, writes that “resistance begins with words, but also with brown teapots, and caring, and places to imagine the end of capitalism”.
I treated Volcanoes like an old childhood friend ... We went on dinner dates, to the botanic gardens, multiple bus and Uber rides.
This is a book of versatility. It is small, light, easily carried with you wherever you go. I wholeheartedly recommend this approach. My personal copy is stained with nail polish, olive oil and ink. I treated Volcanoes like an old childhood friend, visiting my city for the summer, whom I was eager to impress. I’m a grown up, I wanted to prove to it. We went on dinner dates, to the botanic gardens, multiple bus and Uber rides. We shared baths and beds. I spread the word, online and by word of mouth: this is a Good Book. I was at a live music bar with friends the other night, and felt a sudden ache for it. Brief yet deep, in my chest, a slurp of coffee that was far too hot. I miss it when I am without it – which is rare.
Life On Volcanoes proves the beautiful existence of female contradiction. We are water, rough and smooth. Experiences as horrifying as they are poetic, rising occasionally like koi fish, then sinking back down into a murky haze. Follow them, if you are not afraid to drown.
Life On Volcanoes: Contemporary Essays
Janet McAllister (ed)
Beatnik Publishing, $25.00
This piece is presented in an editorial partnership with
New Zealand Review of Books Pukapuka Aotearoa.