Monday, September 19, 2011

NZSpecFic Blogging Week: Write About Christchurch

It's taken me a while to become comfortable with the idea of putting my country into my writing. That's what you get when you're brought up on a diet of American and British influenced culture without any critical analysis.

Good old cultural cringe, eh? It confounded and astounded me when during the Lord of the Rings phenomenon so many people were "OMG YOUR COUNTRY IS SO BEAUTIFUL!!!11!" Well, yeah? Those mountains are what I went tramping in, and those rivers I went canoeing on, and that bush I went camping in, and I can just pop down to the beach, and I can drive through it whenever I want. I mean, it's just pretty scenery, and really our cities aren't all that and we're just four and a bit million and obfuscate hand wave humble humble.

I might complain a lot about being cut off from the rest of the world until I remember how cut off the rest of the world is from us. To someone who lives in a concrete jungle or may never see the ocean, New Zealand must look like Madagascar or another planet. But hey, I can assure you, we're all human beings down here with rich and intertwining cultures.

For someone who grew up in a small town and moved to what could be a considered a laid back city, it seems weird to think these might be magical places. Blenheim might seem a pretty boring place to grow up, until you consider the magic of it's safety and the OMG WINE! and SUNSHINE! and THE SEA!

And Christchurch. Well, it's...ummm flat? It's not called the Garden City for nothing. And it's easy, has lots of lovely old buildings, and all that culture again. And it's safe...ish.

Well, it was. Now it has lots of cracks and holes and falling things and a huge place in history for all the wrong reasons. How many cities get the chance to rebuild almost from scratch? That takes a lot of imagination in itself.

After September 4th 2010 (the Greendale Fault 7.1 magnitude quake that did most of the damage to Kaiapoi and the Darfield area), I still felt comfortable writing about Christchurch. My first published story was set in Christchurch, I was rolling around the idea of a urban fantasy novel set in Christchurch (set in the funky alleyways that included all the bars and boutique shops of the central city), and I started writing a science fiction short story set in a Christchurch that was a city of bicycles post-oil.

I set both the novel and story ideas aside after February because my landscape changed so dramatically I would have to rethink both and I wasn't comfortable writing about the city. I'm not yet comfortable with my place in this drastically and dramatically changing city. I used up all my Christchurch writing karma on my Memorial Day blog back in March. I found it too difficult, too raw, too WRONG to write about something that belonged to a select group of people in this world. I'm sure other local artists, poets and writers feel different. Others may feel the need to work out their pain, trauma and stress through their art.

Not long after the February 22nd 2011 quake (the Port Hills fault 6.3 magnitude quake which leveled the CBD and did most of the damage to Lyttleton and the eastern/river suburbs) someone said to me I should use my experience from the earthquake and put it into a story. They probably didn't mean I should write a science fiction or fantasy story ABOUT the physicality of the quake (though it will probably be woven into my novel idea whenever I get round to it) but the trauma and emotion could be used in some way.

I remember saying to myself 'No, I can't do that, it's too close', then proceeded to do so in some fashion anyway. The science fiction story I ended up writing that included earthquakes and a destroyed city was far enough removed from my experience that it didn't feel like a betrayal. I liked what the story became, and I could intellectualize it through the grander themes of falling civilizations and evolution of a people.

I've also had people tell me that I have something to talk or write about for the rest of my life. I don't like the idea that my experience in the earthquake is something I can 'use' or make hay from. I know I'll be stronger because of it, but I'd rather I never went through it at all. I don't like having my life defined by something so terrible.

I am sure though that it's going to take a long time for me to feel comfortable about setting a story in Christchurch again. I may have to shelve the 'cycle city' story for a long time because I can't even imagine what this city will look like in a year's time, let alone ten, twenty or fifty - I'm disappointed in my failure of imagination, but I know it's a symptom of the stress. I'm actually at a point in my 'grieving' for the city where I just cannot LOOK at it any more (and well hey, just as I typed that sentence we had an aftershock, doing nothing for my nerves and love for this place). Those parts of the city I said 6 months ago that I haven't seen? Still haven't seen them. This is not a city that I know or love right now.

I only have so many teaspoons left. A lot of my energy is focused on writing, and I've had to cut out a lot of the peripherals and multi-tasking I used to be able to do. I ran out of oomph to absorb the proposed city plan. I keep telling myself I'm not allowed to complain about how the city turns out because I didn't make a submission. I can only hope that someone read my mind about what I wanted for arts spaces and rebuilding the hospitality alleys (Poplar Lane, Litchfield Lane/Sol Square).

So, write about Christchurch, put it into my SF&F? No, sorry, I can't. Not right now. It's too personal, it's too early. I need to dream about something far away and romantic for now.

Christchurch city as seen from the Port Hills, taken moments after the February 22nd 2011 6.3 earthquake, with dust rising from the falling buildings in the central business district
This now famous photo taken only moments after the February 22nd 2011 6.3 earthquake shows
the dust rising from fallen buildings in the CBD

This post is part of New Zealand SpecFic Blogging Week, September 19th to 25th 2011. For more posts and a Readers and Posters prize draw, please visit the Speculative Fiction Writers of New Zealand website.

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