A way with words
Samoan author Lani Wendt Young writes about how her life and writing rub up against each other.
Lani Wendt Young
My mother is an artist and one of the many things that she makes is patchwork from squares of elei fabric. Some of the fabric is her own handmade elei, printed using carved tapa boards. Other pieces are remnants of material imported from overseas. The patchworks are glorious creations and no two are alike.
When I’m asked about my writing process, I usually go blank. Because a book just happens? But then I think of my mother, standing at the printing table in the open garage, mosquito coils at her feet to chase away dengue fever, designing new elei prints, arranging and re-arranging patchwork squares. There’s a feral cat called Snickers that plays in the fabric piles and scratches you if you get too close. My mother’s garage faces the driveway where customers come to shop at her design store. She pauses often to greet people, to snap instructions at her elei printer or to try a new cake recipe, using whatever fruit is in season. There’s no ‘’sacred artist space’’ where she’s screened away from the business of everyday life. She makes art in the midst of mess.
In that, I am my mother’s daughter, because writing, for me, is like making an elei patchwork. I write lots of scenes, some drawn from everyday observations and experiences and others from the vivid tapestry that is Samoa. Others are imports – lit by a spark from a good movie, a fabulous book, Beyoncé’s latest album. Then all the pieces need to be sewn together, plotted, arranged and rearranged.
My stories are alternately nurtured and exhausted by all the other things I do besides write. I have five children, so writing is spaced around the school run, swimming lessons, math tutorials, homework and refereeing squabbles over everything from Xbox to, “She took my BTS hat.” Sometimes I write late into the night, starting when the kids go to sleep and letting the stories take over until they fizzle out at about 3am. I also do office work for our construction company. On days when GST returns are due (or overdue), my desk overflows with receipts. But the story is always there, buzzing in the back of my mind.
Because I’m a hybrid author, the only person driving me is me. I set deadlines, work backwards on the calendar, schedule my beta readers and editor, and then write like hell to meet the dates. Being a writer is very unhealthy.
I’m addicted to Diet Coke and my latest
The whole family conspires to get my books finished. The children tell me, ‘That one doesn’t suck too much, Mum.’
writing fuel is siamu popo – a coconut/ caramel spread – slathered on toast: a heart attack waiting to happen, but so delicious getting there.
The whole family conspires to get my books finished. The children help brainstorm. They scoff at ideas they think are dreadful and generously tell me when “that one doesn’t suck too much, Mum”. In their haranguing, they remind me that there’s nothing mysterious or sacred-artist about writing a book. It’s about doing the work, writing the pieces, then sewing them together in a way that works – making art in the midst of the mess that is life.
Lani Wendt Young is the 2018 ACP Pacific Laureate whose books include the young adult Telesa series. She is a keynote speaker at the National Writers Forum, run by the NZ Society of Authors, in Auckland from September 21-23.
Writing space: Lani Wendt Young.