In June this year, six years since Christchurch was shaken awake into a new understanding of the city and the geology beneath it, I published a novel. Decline and Fall on Savage Street was prompted by that event, and the years that succeeded it as the city shimmied then settled to a kind of peace, or as close to peace as this country can manage. (There have been a couple of quakes already today; yesterday there were seven, though they have been tiny and distant, barely discernible. A reminder, however, that this is not perhaps the most tranquil place to perch, above the interface of a couple of major tectonic plates.)
Writing about this event and the political and corporate activity it unleashed has been a curious business.
I work professionally as a writer. For the past thirty years, I have spent my life writing plays, poetry and – principally – fiction. When we were flung from bed onto the carpet early one morning in September 2010 as the walls heaved from side to side, windows burst and the whole building threatened to collapse, writing was not, however, something I considered as a first response. What mattered in those tremulous weeks, as hundreds of aftershocks swarmed through, was talk: with friends and family and complete strangers encountered on the street. We exchanged stories. That was enough.
It was enough, too, a few months later when the second, much more devastating quake killed and injured and triggered the demolition of the familiar city landscape. People exchanged stories: deeply moving stories of great, almost casual heroism; touching stories; darkly funny stories; stories about what had happened to them and to people they knew during the quakes. And later, they talked also about the devastating experience of living in a city in abrupt transition and the difficulties of negotiating with an insurance system completely unregulated by a government dedicated to neoliberal unfettered enterprise. Thousands of such narratives have been recorded and are now lodged in archives about the city.
I also turned to recording. Along with a photographer friend, Juliet Nicholas, I recorded 20 narratives of the quake and the year that followed. These were published in mid-2012 by Canterbury University Press as The Quake Year. I also published a book of essays, The Broken Book, which included an essay about walking round the city on that first September morning when the air jittered and twinkled over fallen masonry.
What mattered deeply and compellingly was reality. Fiction fell back before the vast, collective narrative, exposed abruptly as an expression of mere ego, a display of technique with its roots in Enlightenment notions of individualism.
I think this may be a common response to disaster. When I began thinking about it, I could come up with no novels, for example, written during the Blitz by any of the dozens of writers who were living in London at the time. The first I could recall was Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, written long after the war was over, in 1948 and from a great distance in Southern Ireland.
Why? Perhaps it is simply that in disaster, you are simply too shocked, too busy getting by, surviving day to day, to settle into the calm space required for invention and writing fiction. Or maybe it is because, when buildings are destroyed, taking with them the institutions they house, you lose the necessary infrastructure: the library, the bookshop, the performances. Although, in Christchurch, Morrin Rout and the organizers of the WORD writer’s festival managed to stage it anyway, only a few months after the city centre had been shut down, in tents in mid-winter in Hagley Park.
Perhaps what restrains the fiction writer is a kind of embarrassment: why invent an alternative reality, when the one that is around you is so grittily present and all-encompassing? Maybe there is also a kind of instinctive courtesy, a deep empathy for those others whose experience has been so distressing that to invent would seem an insult.
The other genre that seems possible under extreme circumstances is poetry. With its formal structure, the poem offers a kind of order on the white page. It offers, too, its tradition as the form in which human beings express the deepest emotion. Under the pressure of intense feeling it feels appropriate to reach for a mode that has its roots in bardic incantation. Poems feel ‘right’ at funerals. They also feel ‘right’ as a response to disaster. An entire anthology of quake-related poems, Leaving the Red Zone, was published in Christchurch in 2015.
I wrote poems and nonfiction in response to the quakes and their aftermath, and in 2013, I began work on twinned volumes. I wanted to try and understand the rebuilding of the city and the political ideas that had come to govern it. The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, is non-fiction. Decline and Fall on Savage Street is fiction. Six years after the quakes it seemed possible to imagine.
I love fiction. I love the way it penetrates to the private, secret places of peoples’ lives. I love the way it permits multiple points of view, and the way it plays, like poetry, with metaphor, connecting this with that. I value its capacity to shape the random detail of existence.
Above all, I value the way fiction operates within a different notion of time. In non-fiction, facts are always threatening to alter the narrative. There is no such thing as an ending. Time is at work, changing meaning, adding further detail, before your fingers have even left the keys. Fiction on the other hand is a structure that exists outside time. Events can conceivably have a beginning, middle and end. It is classical, designed to arrive at that final, orchestral ta-dum! – while non-fiction is improvisatory, a perpetual jazz riffing around facts.
But, together, they tell a single story.
Fiona Farrell is one of New Zealand’s leading writers, receiving critical acclaim across a variety of genres. Uniquely she has been a finalist in all three categories at the NZ Book Awards, for fiction, non-fiction and poetry.