Land and Story

And when we go through our own surroundings, as we do every day, familiar features of our landscapes keep reminding us that the past is alive – Epeli Hau’ofa

Land holds a story: of time, of generations. When a nonfiction writer investigates land or place in their work as physical space (terra firma), as home, or as historical event, it becomes a presence, and in some cases an agent, in the narrative.

It is difficult to write about self and story without talking about place, because we are all rooted in some location. Epeli Hau’ofa states in his essay “Pasts to Remember,” “We all have or should have homelands: family, community, national homelands. And to deny human beings a sense of homeland is to deny them a deep spot on Earth to anchor their roots” (77). Memoir is often about reaching back into the past and investigating those roots, and as Hau’ofa so aptly states, place/land provides an anchor for those roots. In I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl explains, “Memoir must be written because each of us must possess a created version of the past. Created: that is, real in the sense of tangible, made of the stuff of a life lived in place and in history” (32).

Writing about returning – whether physically or mentally – to a place in creative nonfiction provides a unique space for a writer to examine the land with some distance of time. Time passage and physical space produces a way to weave the past and present into the writer’s story – the landscape alters like perspective, but the place itself is rooted in the past that shapes that memory. As a Creative nonfiction writer, I use landscape and attention to place to recover history, to shape memory, and to develop.

I use landscape and place to examine history in my own writing as I explore memory housed in the lands of Pennsylvania and New Zealand. I am writing into the past by touching history and the moments when the land and the place were new to me. Silko talks about this newness of place as well when she first moves to the Tucson Mountains: “So many of the plants and shrubs and the birds and snakes of the Sonoran desert were unfamiliar – I had a wonderful time reading and learning about them as I watched them outside my house. I knew it might be some time before I knew this desert well enough to write about it” (81). For me it takes time and distance to study the place I call home. Returning to New Zealand creates a sense of singing within myself, something I didn’t recognize while I was living there.

The returning to the land creates the space to feel the bubbling up of history and the spiraling of the past. The movement of time and the physical space of the land provides a way to weave the past and present into a narrative. The craft of writing about place helps to highlight the shifting of perspectives. Writing about land and landscape brings the reader into the visual, into the place where the story unfolds. Hau’ofa explains:

How often, while travelling through unfamiliar surroundings, have we had the experience of someone in the company telling us of the associations of the particular spots or other features of the landscape traversed with past events. We turn our heads this way and that, and right ahead in front of our eyes we see and hear the past being reproduced through running commentaries. (73)

 

Writing about place brings the past forward and it provides the space for the reader to see how the land and story are intimately connected. Our lives and our stories are anchored in place.

 

One aspect of ongoing book-length project, The Unfurling Frond, is the photographs that add an additional open narrative to the work. I see value in adding photographs to my narratives, because of the layering it creates. By placing photos in my work, I provide a way for the reader to see what I see, but also give the reader the opportunity to see other things I may overlook or do not feel are important to my re-remembering. I can direct the reader’s gaze, but I can’t control it. However, I can and do control what pictures I include in the text.  The text and photo, two mediums that push or pull against each other, become a place for the reader to find meaning.

The lure of this narrative process came as a result of reading Judith Kitchen’s Half in Shade and N. Scott Momaday’s The Names. Both books guided me to see how I could work with photographs. Kitchen’s use of photos provides a visual structure for the narrative; she often uses the technique of writing about the picture as she views it, much like the reader would: “I stare at the tire because to look at her, perched on the fence, feet on the top of the tire, hands open in a suggestive shrug, is to ask questions I can’t answer” (71). Her text mimics or mirrors how the reader might relate to the photo. Momaday captions the photos in his book, which adds another layer of narrative. His captions expand on themes, “My grandmother and I regard my father, who casts a long shadow” (44). The Unfurling Frond moves in-between the methodologies of Kitchen and Momaday.

Creative nonfiction and hybrid works with other media components provides the space to develop the “show and tell” that Patricia Hampl discusses in I Could Tell You Stories. Hampl states, “The first commandment of fiction – Show, Don’t Tell – is not part of the memoirist’s faith. Memoirists must show and tell. Memoir is a peculiarly open form, inviting broken and incomplete images, half-recollected fragments, all the mass (and mess) of detail” (33). The mixture of media takes showing and telling to another level because the author is able to direct the gaze of the reader when necessary. The media needs to layer on the text like a quilt, which on its own is another narrative. That is how I see adding media to my text: I am creating a narrative world for the reader to explore and experience. Unlike any of my other work, this collection includes pictures of signs and plaques, which layer text onto text. Layers build on one another creating a richer, more complex narrative.

Mixed media in creative nonfiction provides a voice to the past that is often missing. As Charles Baxter states in The Business of Memory, “What we talk about when we talk about memory is – often – what we have forgotten and what has been lost” (x). The layering of media in prose is like the quilt my nana made; each piece of fabric relates back to a story and a moment lost: my mother’s prom dress, an apron my great-grandmother wore, the curtains in the living room, a dress for Aunt Pat’s doll. Each piece of fabric—representing someone else’s story – layers together to create a complete work. This text represents the scattered and seemingly unconnected fabrics that make up my life and each has a story to tell.

The two lands that I call home are settler-colonized nations. My German and English ancestors are part of the colonization of the United States of America. The Irish and English ships sailing to New Zealand include my husband’s ancestors who are part of the colonization of Aotearoa.

My move from one settler-colonized nation, the United States of America, to another, New Zealand, creates a complexity to my narrative as I struggle to come to terms with the concept of home in New Zealand. Calling something home when it belongs to another pushes against me, but the need to feel grounded and a part of something larger than myself continues to drive me to seek my home, my place, my understanding.

Land contains history and we are rooted in the land even if the connectedness of land to people and vice versa goes beyond our comprehension. In this collection, it is my goal to root my writing in place to honor where I have been and where I am going.