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Art reflects life for first creative writing PhD

Tuesday 25 August 2020 5:06pm


Otago’s first creative writing PhD graduate Dr Majella Cullinane says her research and writing often explore 'place', the experience of being an immigrant, and the history of the Irish in New Zealand.

Dr Cullinane’s creative-practice thesis explores the interplay between memory and setting in the short fiction of US-based Irish writer Colum McCann.

McCann often draws on his own experiences to create characters – such as a Mexican-Irish protagonist searching for his mother, or multiple generations of an Afro-Irish family living in New York – whose experiences portray contemporary Irish culture as globalised and multicultural, instead of monolithic and squarely Irish-Catholic.

Also from Ireland, Dr Cullinane’s research includes a collection of her short stories that deal with similar concepts of “place, and the concept of belonging and unbelonging and the immigrant experience.”

Dr Cullinane's 2018 collection of poetry was published by Otago University Press, and in Ireland by Salmon Publishing

She says including analysis and her own work in her thesis involved balancing critical and creative processes that required very “different ways of thinking and approaching the writing process.”

“I really enjoyed writing the exegesis, which allowed me to bridge the critical and creative aspects of my thesis, and to show how they complimented each other. I also love writing short stories.”

Dr Cullinane says she is passionate about teaching, writing and research. Her current role as Professional Practice Fellow in Creative Writing at the School of Arts, leading ENGL 217 Creative Writing: Poetry, and teaching on first semester courses Reading for Writers and Advanced Fiction since 2015, has confirmed her desire to pursue an academic career.

An enjoyable aspect of teaching creative writing is watching students develop a voice.

“There’s usually a range of students and I enjoy seeing how, even fairly early on, their own particular voice is evident. My job then is to facilitate and explore that voice by focusing their attention on craft (writing techniques and practice) and the importance of reading for the emerging writer.”

In April Dr Cullinane was awarded a Copyright Licensing Grant to focus on a “hybrid project,” Meantime, which involves essays and poetry.

Meantime will explore themes of grief and loss, memory and place, life and death, and more specifically, the effects of dementia on the individual and family. A survey conducted by in 2017 shows four out of every five New Zealanders know or have known someone with dementia. I want to explore this, and create a contemporary document, which through poetry and the essay/memoir, records the unprecedented experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic in Otago, Aotearoa.”

Later this year Dr Cullinane will focus on rewriting her second novel, “and trying to keep ideas for the third at bay until that’s done.”

Dr Cullinane was to graduate in person on 29 August, but the graduation ceremony has been cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions.

ABOUT: Originally from Ireland, Majella has lived in New Zealand since 2008 and writes fiction, poetry and essays. Her 2018 debut novel The Life of De’Ath was shortlisted for the NZSA Heritage Book Awards and longlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for Fiction. Her second poetry collection Whisper of a Crow’s Wing was published by Otago University Press and Salmon Poetry, Ireland, and was selected as one of The Listener’s Ten Best Poetry Books of 2018. She has published poetry, short stories, essays and reviews in Ireland, the UK, the USA and New Zealand. She was Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 2014, Sir James Wallace/Pah Homestead Writer in Residence in 2017, and a joint recipient of the 2019 Dan Davin Literary Foundation Writer in Residence. Last year she was awarded a 2020 Hawthornden Fellowship in Edinburgh. She lives with her partner Andrew and their son Robbie in Port Chalmers.