Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand edited by Michelle Elvy, Frankie McMillan and James Norcliffe (Canterbury University Press, 2018), 293 pp., $39.99
There’s a feeling of currency about flash fiction right now. The editors of Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand seek to capture – and capitalise on – this excitement around the form. Flash fiction is ‘arguably the fastest growing literary form worldwide’, they say, pointing to strong journal and competition submissions as evidence of a related surge of interest here in New Zealand. But although editors Michelle Elvy, Frankie McMillan and James Norcliffe celebrate the form’s current energy, they don’t claim any special newness for its most recent iterations. Instead they acknowledge the ‘deep roots’ of the compressed form in New Zealand literature, reaching back to the work of Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson, as well as the more recent short short-story anthologies edited by Graeme Lay and Stephen Stratford from 1997. The nod to Sargeson in particular seems important. Published more than eighty years ago, his very short stories like ‘A Piece of Yellow Soap’ still read with extraordinary urgency. But if, like me, you’re relatively new to the more recent variations on shorter forms, Bonsai provides an exciting entry point.
Prior to Bonsai I’d read only a scatter of flash fiction in various places. I therefore approached the book as an opportunity to learn more and, fittingly, found that the initial task was to learn how to read it. Accustomed to reading short stories, I first approached Bonsai as if reading another anthology, but this didn’t work. As a compilation of very short pieces of precision and intensity by 160 different writers, the book is far too intense to absorb that way. In fact, the experience is more like reading an anthology of poetry. Once I switched to this reading strategy and embraced the opportunity to read single stories as time allowed, I was more able to enjoy their contents and appreciate their technical achievement. My strongest impression was of the precision with which the most effective writers deployed their techniques in the small spaces that were available to them. Bonsai’s writers had only 300 words to work with, and it was often startling how quickly character depth and narrative momentum were generated, while mood and music were manipulated via the precise techniques of poetry.
In ‘That summer’, Latika Vasil subverts tropes that initially seem familiar. Her title suggests languorous sea-swims and easy friendships of childhood summers. Beyond the first paragraph, however, summer ceases to be a hospitable season. An altered climate means swimming lasts only as long as the kids can stand it. Sunscreen is cranked up to SPF100, and swimmers wear neck-to-ankle swimsuits for protection. In the final image, overhead drones monitor the kids’ movements, linking their return home to the larger movements of migrants across sterile landscapes.
Colloquial and casually brutal dialogue is deployed to devastating effect by Kathryn van Beek in ‘Women’s studies’. Working as a cleaner in ‘Femme Fatale’ to finance her university studies, van Beek’s protagonist vacuums as unobtrusively as possible around the workers and clients. In the process she witnesses scenes that are sometimes shocking in their strangeness. At other times, she’s exposed to a gaze and commentary that are disturbingly familiar:
Two young, nice-looking guys stood at the bar. They watched me as I worked.
‘She’d do,’ said one of them.
‘She’s more fuckable than half the girls in here,’ said the other.
What seems at first a more bucolic undertaking is expertly manipulated by Janet Pates in ‘Last ride’. When the central character saddles up quietly to avoid waking his parents, it’s assumed he is travelling a familiar route of masculine coming-of-age narratives. In fact he seems older, and riding his family farm one last time, his future foreclosed by family debt and an impatient bank. Pates manages rhythm and tone cleverly to evoke the rider’s reined-in emotion as he canters over the mourned landscape.
In their introduction the editors note the importance of imagery in small stories to evoke a wider world. One of the book’s richest examples is the exploded can of preserved chicken, held overhead and shot, William Tell-style, by a pair of sibling children in Sam Averis’ ‘Ain’t Chicken’. Having set them to roam the rubbish dump with a gun and a ‘don’t be a pussy’ attitude inherited from their dad, Averis focalises the raw energy of their lives through the exploding chicken and its ‘descending mist of bone and giblet’. In a further example, Joan Fleming draws all male energies towards the central object of the fire engine in ‘Firefighters Talking to the Siren they are Running Towards’. While the young volunteers sprint with youthful virility towards its ‘urgent shining redness’, the older men are just happy to reach it. Patting it like an ‘enormous, aging red cat’, they swing themselves up inside and enjoy what might, after all, be the last ride.
The interplay of prose and haiku in the collection’s haibun enables some striking manipulations of image to alter or enhance our felt experience of the story’s meaning. Patricia Prime uses the prose sections of ‘The Present’ to generate a sense of building family tension en route to a Christmas display in London. But the child’s perspective is simultaneously alert to wonder and possibility, and the haiku catches brilliantly this concurrent darkness and light:
a spark of light
from Big Ben
In another example of the potency of this form, Joanna Preston’s ‘Wintering Over’ deploys haiku at the end of a prose piece conveying the claustrophobia of surviving winter – how it wears on the mental health and relationships of those forced to survive at close quarters:
unbroken snow –
the shadow of a stone wall
Here the haiku’s extreme compression highlights not only the writer’s use of imagery but also her manipulation of the musicality of language. Throughout Bonsai these effects work together. The constraints of the word limit encourage precise attention to the management of rhythm, sentence length, line breaks and, in essence, the white space around the words. In a superb bringing together of these poetic techniques with the tension of narrative, Jac Jenkins builds an anticipatory music in ‘The possum hunt’, as her narrator tracks a fruit-thieving possum. And in ‘Not another nafanua poem’, Selina Tusitala Marsh uses a heavily accented rhythm over long lines to suggest the unending support work done by the unsung sister of the Samoan goddess of war, Nafanua:
[…] because someone had to feed the aiga harvest the
kalo the bananas the pawpaw bagging them and dragging them to makeke fou
to sell for kupe to pay the government school for the kids to get a scholarship […]
As I gravitated towards these and many other favourites in Bonsai, I felt the magnetic force of my own reading biases at work. But I also noticed the influence of an unobtrusive yet effective curation. The contributions are arranged by writer in alphabetical order, yet this potentially arbitrary sequence is given more coherency by the linking of subjects or images. To take just a couple of the many examples I encountered, there is the shared concern with connectedness in the adjacent contributions of Caroline Crick and Mike Crowl, and the use of neighbourly interruption as pretext in both Vaughan Rapatahana’s ‘Boil up’ and Harry Ricketts’ ‘Folly House’. This subtle curatorial effect must have demanded much work from Elvy, McMillan and Norcliffe, but it helps considerably in navigating the reader through what might otherwise have seemed a somewhat random and overwhelmingly vast array of short pieces.
Seven essays are also included as a contribution to what the editors say is still a limited criticism of small forms. Many explore the parameters and possibilities, including the continuities between prose poetry and short short fiction. Having looking closely at the range of works selected for Bonsai, Tim Jones concludes that there is no hard and fast distinction that separates the two genres. In fact, it’s often simply a matter of where they’ve been published first, or how the author defines them. Similarly, Martin Porter states that flash fiction exists largely in the narrative tradition, but warns that restricting it to narrow definitions is dangerous. And in a probing essay on the flash fiction and prose poetry of Frankie McMillan and Simone Kaho, Airini Beautrais says each book offers ‘welcome relief in its departure from literary norms’. It is this sense of fresh technical and creative possibility that seems to energise many of these thinkers on the small form.
But Allan Drew puts his finger on what is most exciting about Bonsai: its unpredictability. Most of the works I found most effective came from writers I had never encountered before – and there were many favourite pieces. One of the challenges of writing this review was narrowing down which of those favourites I could discuss. It’s notable too that most of the works I found most effective appeared originally in Flash Frontier, suggesting not only the quality of that online journal but also the vitality of its community.
LAWRENCE PATCHETT is the author of the short-story collection I Got His Blood On Me: Frontier tales (VUP). His short fiction has also appeared in Landfall, Sport, Dominion Post, Hue & Cry, and on Radio New Zealand. A new novel, The Burning River, will be published by VUP in 2019.