“Having it all” – my speech at the launch of The Whole Intimate Mess

On 22 June 2017 my publishers at Bridget Williams Books put on a delightful launch event for my book The Whole Intimate Mess at Vic Books Pipitea. The incomparable Emily Writes was the guest speaker. Emily spoke beautifully – you can see what she said here. And below is a rough approximation of what I said. It was wonderful to be so supported by family, friends, colleagues and readers. Thank you to everyone who came, and all those who bought a copy.

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Photo: Dave Crampton

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Press coverage of The Whole Intimate Mess

My book The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, Politics, and Women’s Writing was published by Bridget Williams Books in June 2017. You can find out more and order it here.

I’ve been fortunate to have had wide and generous press coverage of the book, and I’ve collected some of that here. I’m pleased that it has prompted some interesting conversations about women, work, parenthood and mental health.

The Whole Intimate Mess – Holly Walker‘, Up Again with James Dann, Interview on RDU FM, 28 July 2017.

Unacceptable Choices‘, Review by Alison McCulloch, Scoop Review of Books, 14 July 2017.

I am ok, and thanks for asking!‘, Interview with Susan Strongman, The Wireless, 6 July 2017.

Torn in two: Former Green MP Holly Walker discusses trading Parliament for motherhood‘, Michelle Duff, Sunday magazine, 2 July 2017.

A Private Face‘, Sunday TVNZ, 25 June 2017.

Holly Walker: The Whole Intimate Mess‘, Simon Sweetman, Off the Tracks, 21 June 2017.

Holly Walker – The Whole Intimate Mess‘, Interview with Kim Hill on RNZ, 17 June 2017.

Holly Walker – The Whole Intimate Mess‘, Interview with Ryan Bradley on Radio Live, 17 June 2017.

You can’t always get everything you want: Deborah Coddington reviews Holly Walker‘, Deborah Coddingham, The Spinoff, 15 June 2017.

A brief history of feminist literature in New Zealand: Tessa Duder on her classic novel Alex‘, Tessa Duder, The Spinoff, 14 June 2017.

Holly Walker and the books her kid is reading‘, The Sapling, 14 June 2017.

‘I really admire that you have been open about mental health as a candidate’: Chlöe Swarbrick in conversation with Holly Walker‘, Chlöe Swarbrick and Holly Walker, The Spinoff, 13 June 2017.

‘There is nothing normal about crawling up the hallway, screaming and hitting yourself in the head’: former Green MP Holly Walker shares her story‘, Holly Walker, The Spinoff, 12 June 2017.

Interview: Chris Kraus

This interview was first published on The Spinoff on 9 May 2017.

Chris Kraus’s first novel I Love Dick received a lukewarm reception when it was released in 1997, but has attracted a cult following and been hailed as a feminist classic since its re-release in 2006. As much an art project as a novel (in which every reader participates – try reading it on the train) it consists of love letters written by a character named Chris Kraus and her husband Sylvere Lotringer to a cultural critic named Dick. Yes, those are their real names, and there really was a Dick – British art critic Dick Hebdige was so angry about the book that he outed himself as the model for the character when he spoke out to denounce it. For Kraus, the lines between fiction and non-fiction are blurred at best.

The author of three other novels and two books of nonfiction, Kraus continues to collaborate with her now ex-husband Lotringer on Semiotext(e), the publishing company they co-edit with Hedi El Kholti. Though she was born and lives in the US, she spent her teenage years and early adulthood in Wellington, having Marmite smeared in her hair by the kids at Wellington High in the 1970s, and working full-time as a feature writer for the Sunday Times by the age of 17. At 21 she returned to the US to pursue an art career and spent decades making performance art and experimental films on the fringes of the US and LA art scenes. The recent revival of I Love Dick – a television adaption created by Jill Soloway (Transparent) premieres in the US on May 12 – means Kraus is finally enjoying the wide acclaim she deserves. Her 2006 novel Torpor is about to be re-released and she has a new book coming out in August.

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Review: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

This review first appeared on The Spinoff on 27 April 2017.

Roxane Gay is good at opening sentences. Examples from her first short story collection, Difficult Women: “The stone thrower lives in a glass house with his glass family.” “When I was a young girl, my husband’s father flew an air machine into the sun.” And my favourite: “We are having a heated debate about whether or not yogurt can expire when my husband suggests we stay together but see other people.”

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The Mervyn Thompson Affair: What a 32 year old controversy can tell us about the Chiefs scandal

First published on The Spinoff on 15 September 2016, part of its week-long coverage of the Mervyn Thompson Affair – the strange, powerful 1984 incident when six women abducted an Auckland university lecturer, chained him to a tree in Western Springs, and labelled him a rapist.

I think the six women who abducted Mervyn Thompson had a grand plan. As well as enacting vigilante justice on him for his alleged crime, I think they hoped to shock the country out of complacency about rape and sexism, and force a culture change. In light of a police and court system that responded inadequately to victims of sexual violence, and deeply ingrained sexism in New Zealand society, perhaps they convinced themselves that violence was the only rational response.

Thompson became a symbol, chosen because of his high-profile and respected status as a playwright and lecturer, to stand in for all men – or at least all rapists. It was a brutal invitation to see things from a victim’s perspective: men, imagine if this happened to you. It’s how many women feel, all the time.

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Review: The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

This review first appeared on The Spinoff on 4 August 2016.

There’s something inevitable, natural even, about the way victims of sexual abuse can end up being blamed for what’s happened to them. Sometimes it’s so overt and egregious that we’ll all be outraged – like the Canadian judge who in 2014 asked an alleged rape victim why she couldn’t just keep her knees shut – but the rest of the time, it can feel normal, embedded in the very language, “the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things. As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.” This idea, and Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s rage about it, is the fuel for her fifth novel, The Natural Way of Things, which won Australia’s big new prize for women writers, the Stella Prize, earlier this year.

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Q&A

I did my first TV interview since leaving politics this week. I was hesitant about doing it but I think it turned out ok. It’s about my experience becoming a mum while in Parliament and how it could be made easier for others. It’s very much based on my essay in The Interregnum which was published earlier this month. And here it is.

 

Review: American Housewife by Helen Ellis

This review was first published on The Spinoff on 16 March 2016.

If the rumours are true, not only do we have another season of The Bachelor and a New Zealand Survivor to look forward to, but soon the Real Housewives franchise will hoist up a gilt-framed mirror in Herne Bay and show the rest of us something terrifying and unfamiliar.

Timely, then, to explore the archetype in the adept hands of a bona-fide society wife. None of this single mother with three children running a business passing as a housewife crap – Helen Ellis, author of American Housewife, is the real deal.

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Me and Alex

First published on my blog the she-book reader, 24 May 2015, and then on The Spinoff, 10 December 2015.

I had seen it on the shelf in the Waterloo School library many times. I was drawn to the cover, which shows a striking, androgynous swimmer emerging from the water, short-cropped hair slick with droplets, an unreadable expression on her face. The tagline hinted that she had experienced something darker and more adult than my child self had yet encountered: “Alex is a champion – and a survivor.” Perhaps for this reason, I never took it out of the library.

alex cover

My copy was gift from Mum, a consolation prize for a ten-year-old who had survived belatedly losing her privileged “only child” status. “To Holly, our own champion, with love from Mum and Dad,” she inscribed in the front cover.

For some reason, when I opened it in front of the aunties and uncles assembled for the celebrations, I pretended I had already read it. This is a habit I’ve never been able to break – nodding along in conversations I’m not following, laughing at references I don’t understand, knowingly meeting people’s eyes and smiling when I’m not even sure what shared meaning we’re exchanging. I’m trying to appear knowledgeable, and to please. In this case, it didn’t work; Mum just looked disappointed that she’d bought me a book I had already read. I hurriedly assured her that it was so good I wanted to read it again and again, which was true. I just didn’t know it yet.

I can actually remember the exact moment when I did. SPOILER ARERT! Alex’s boyfriend, Andy, is killed by a drunk driver about two thirds of the way through. Reading it for the first time, I was devastated. But through my tears, looking up from my bed at the boxes of junk stacked on top of my big oak wardrobe, I had an epiphany – if I didn’t want Andy to be dead, I could just go back to the beginning and read the bits when he was alive again. It was like magic. I hurried to tell mum about this momentous discovery. I think she knew then that I was reading it for the first time after all.

I swam competitively for a little while when I was growing up, but that wasn’t why I connected so strongly with Alex. Like me, she was an over-achiever, and she was hopelessly over-committed. She was a first daughter. Success came easily to her, and when it didn’t she felt aggrieved, like the rules for everyone else shouldn’t have to apply to her. She was headstrong, opinionated, and non-conformist, but she didn’t enjoy sticking out like a sore thumb. She was a proto-feminist. And she could fall apart in a screaming heap when it all got too much. She was further down the path than me – I was only ten, the character was fifteen – but holding that book was like holding up a mirror.

I read the novel (and the three that followed it) again and again through my childhood and early adulthood. I couldn’t shake the sense that Alex was me; that Tessa Duder had somehow seen right inside my head and heart and precisely captured what she saw there.

I took this seriously. When it seemed like my first relationship might turn into something, I gave my boyfriend a copy of Alex. When he handed it back to me he said “I get it.”

During another re-reading, not long after accepting a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford, I found the postscript to the final book, which notes that Alex went on to study at Oxford and become a public figure in New Zealand. I felt a shiver of recognition. It felt like pre-destination.

In Oxford, I made a new friend. I felt we were connected on a deep, spiritual level. To check this, I drunkenly interrogated her in the courtyard of the Turf Tavern. Had she read the Alex books growing up? Did she love them as much as I had? Bemused, she played along. I fell off my bike on the way home.

A few years ago, a press release came across my desk. It was the 25th anniversary of Alex. It was being reissued. I was an MP at this point, self-important enough to feel I could email authors directly without appearing ridiculous. I wrote to Tessa Duder and attempted, clumsily, to tell her how much these books, this character had meant to me. She wrote back, charming. Many others had written to her with similar stories over the years. She was taken aback but delighted that her writing had meant so much to so many.

I felt a bit put out – surely no-one else could have identified with this character as strongly, as completely as me? She was me.

But of course, it wasn’t my head and heart Tessa Duder had reached into and reproduced on the page. It was her own. What I had recognised so clearly as a ten year old was authenticity. It should have been no surprise that countless others had had the same response.

Lately I’ve been playing with words, trying to put exactly the right ones on the page in exactly the right order. I want to join that club of magicians who can convey an emotion in words so precisely that readers feel like it was their own. So I reach, as I have so many times for comfort, courage or reassurance, for my dog-eared copy of Alex, this time for inspiration.

We’re off to see the Wizard.