A way with words

Samoan author Lani Wendt Young writes about how her life and writ­ing rub up against each other.

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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.

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