Kōhine by Colleen Maria Lenihan (Huia Publishers, 2022), 232pp, $25
Fiction, Albert Camus is often quoted as saying, is the lie through which we tell the truth, and the short stories in this collection are an excellent illustration of this literary adage. Though the author has presented the intertwining episodes as fiction, the raw truths they convey and the ample evidence they contain of a hard-lived life make highly convincing reading, and the prevailing, sometimes painful sense of authenticity within the stories is ably underpinned by the clarity and immediacy of their predominantly Japanese and New Zealand locations, delivered always with atmosphere, and enriched by spare, telling touches of detail.
During an interview at the Auckland Writers Festival earlier this year, Lenihan stated that the book was written as a response to the loss of her teenage daughter, and it is the tragic death of Aria, the partly Māori maiden of the book’s title, and the often harrowing life of her mother, aptly named Maia, that frame and permeate, though never restrict or restrain, the various stories in the collection.
The spartan, often unhappy homes of a New Zealand childhood, where the characters, sometimes Maia and sometimes Nerissa, are pushed and pulled between Māori and Pākehā faiths and failures and expectations, provide the settings of early stories, which establish the cultural and linguistic multiplicity of the narrative premise. In ‘Little Miss Paranoid’, the child narrator attends a family tangi:
We get to the marae and the old ladies call us on and Mum starts to tangitangi. I’ve never heard her sound like that before and it’s the saddest sound in the whole world. Then we have to take our shoes off to go into the wharenui, and I worry that my best shiny black shoes, the ones with the little ankle strap that are for church, will get mixed up and lost or, worst of all, paru. I hate my shoes getting paru. Then we go in and Mum cries so much when she sees Uncle in his coffin, and she needs a hanky for all the hūpē.
Sadness and anxiety walk hand in hand through this small world, but perhaps the most confronting stories in the collection are those set in the seedy nocturnal streets of Tokyo. Peopled by a parade of sex workers, salarymen and schoolgirls, these tales reel between situations and characters to reveal the sordid underbelly of a glittering supercity and lay bare its disturbing culture of exploitation and fetishisation. Here is a place that Lenihan presents with the power and conviction conferred on her by what Kate McLoughlin, in her scholarly study of the authoring of war, terms ‘autopsy’: the firsthand experience of battle that is the most crucial ingredient of authority, legitimacy and credibility in war writing. And in many respects, the settings of these stories do constitute a war zone for women, dehumanising spaces dominated by drugs, alcohol, money and greed, in which the survival of self is not inevitable, but the scarring of mind and heart is.
Although there can be no doubt that the author is writing with all the potency of personal experience, to Lenihan’s credit, the irrefutable ugliness of the realm through which she leads her readers is mediated by a narrative voice that is invariably frank, dispassionate, almost deadpan in tone, never veering into judgement or descending into melodrama, but telling it how it is, allowing both humour and pathos to reveal themselves, and leaving the reader to make their own assessment of the souls whose lives are exposed to them in torn fragments, as if through a succession of peepholes.
The stories in Kōhine are delivered from widely varying and sometimes rather rapidly oscillating points of view, through the eyes of characters ranging from Japanese mothers-in-law to strippers, from music teachers to hotel clerks, from cheated wives to crows. Yet the narrative voice is curiously constant nevertheless, shifting little in rhythm and register between the stories, the omniscient authorial presence always poised at the shoulder of whichever character carries the focal baton. One notable exception to this is ‘Directions’, in which the harsh, rhythmic voices of unnamed crows are raised in commentary on their urban embattled surroundings, their ancient and sacred role, and on the brief fatal flight from a balcony of a shiny-haired ‘flightless one’, whose soul they then pledge to guide homeward, by implication on the journey of return necessary for Aria’s Māori wairua to reach its traditional homeland.
Ultimately, it is the interweaving voices of language and culture that sing loudest in these stories, although often in tongues that may be foreign to the reader. This conscious choice, to employ Māori and Japanese words and phrases alongside English, and on occasion to embed logographic characters and hieroglyphs in the text also, without glossary or translation, contributes significantly to the immersive and unsettling experience the stories offer. In ‘Idol’, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl named Yuki applies to work in AK-47, a popular café in Tokyo where men are entertained by a selected group of women. The Talent Manager warns her:
This is very hard work, and you must remember: treat the fans like kings. They spend a lot of money and time on idols, as this is the most important thing in their lives. They are otaku so they don’t have their own families or many friends. You must always be happy and bright, no matter how tired you are. Get their meishi, remember their names, so they will come back to the café.
With this regular inclusion of potentially unknown words in the text, the reader is constantly challenged to approximate meaning, to figure out connotation from context, and to move forward in situations despite imperfect understanding, thus cleverly reflecting the lot of any stranger making their way in a strange land. Some lexical items recur regularly enough to become acquired by the reader, and absorbed into their vocabulary, but there remains always a degree of ambiguity, an uncertainty that echoes the subliminal sense of unease that is part and parcel of the experience of a cultural outsider.
The author, however, also draws attention to commonalities that exist between disparate languages, and by extension between cultures and individuals; for Aria, who ‘had moved to Japan at the age of eight, and now at sixteen, spoke Japanese like a native,’ the languages of her two homes are finally woven into a single strand after her death when she embarks on the final leg of her soul’s passage to ‘the Tail End of the Fish’, and the red-starred Pohutukawa, ‘Te Pua o te Reinga’. As she passes above Hokianga, Aria observes:
Voices summon you in Māori, which you don’t speak, but you can understand them, and you reply in Japanese and they can understand you. Instead of ‘āe’ you say ‘hai’. Instead of ‘ahi’ you say ‘hi’. Instead of ‘awa’, you say ‘kawa’. And instead of ‘hime’, they say ‘hine’.
Despite enormous differences, then, there remain ways in which communication is possible and connections can be made, but it is the consistent human failure to maintain connections that dominates these stories. After a holiday interlude with her daughter in post-tsunami Thailand, the character of Maia observes that there ‘are two kinds of people: people who stay and people who leave’. And though she completes this passage, which concludes the story, with a brief discussion of her rationale for her departure from New Zealand, and from a home whose encircling green hills she felt suffocated her, the line resonates across the whole story collection, peppered as it is with arrivals and departures, beginnings and endings, loves and abandonments. Nobody, it seems, feels at home, or stays anywhere for long, and the characters that wander in and out of these stories are all lost, unsafe or at best unsettled within their surroundings, aliens amidst the noisy congregations of the bars and restaurants they frequent.
Yet even when they recognise the need, even when they try, it proves difficult for characters to, in the words of Paul McCartney, ‘get back to where you once belonged’. In ‘Just Holden Together’, Maia revisits her New Zealand home and family, and the burial place of her daughter by the Whanganui River, in a tragi-comic story punctuated by the discovery of sawn-off shotguns in the boot, and black plastic bags full of marijuana buds in the back yard. As she is driven to her mother’s house in the matriarchal 1974 Holden Kingswood, Maia surveys the landscape of her previous life through the eyes of her present self:
Rabbits darted across the road lined with pines, the trees’ foliage horizontal strokes of yellow and green. The muddy river flowed past sluggish and slow as if powerful forces roiled beneath its surface. Perhaps a taniwha lurked in the deep.
The past is heavy, I thought.
Only if you hold on to it, said the imaginary Buddhist monk in my mind. An Australian called Zen Ken, he was always chiming in with his two cents.
And after a week with the whānau, Maia is more than ready to leave again. In the end, the key to survival, or at least to progress, for Lenihan’s characters seems to be not to hang on, but rather to let go—of grief and of disappointment, as well as of the past. As Zen Ken asks the grieving Maia in one of her dreams, ‘Why hold onto the coffins of dead moments?’
Although the stories in Kōhine have death at their centre and are punctuated by partings, although love and friendship prove imperfect and often fleeting for the characters who like dodgems continually collide with each other only to careen away again, each ending in the collection also signals the possibility of a new beginning, while the cyclical, spiralling nature of the interlacing narrative threads leads the reader to believe, to expect even, that there will be more to come.
I certainly hope so.
RACHEL O’CONNOR was born in Christchurch. Her short fiction and nonfiction have been published in Ireland and New Zealand, and broadcast on Radio New Zealand, and her debut novel, written for her Master of Creative Writing, was translated and published by Kedros Publishing in Athens. Rachel currently lives in Auckland, where she is completing a creative PhD at the University of Auckland.