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Q & A: Siobhan Harvey on Ghosts

Friday 30 April 2021 2:43pm

Siobhan Harvey discusses her latest collection of poetry, Ghosts.


Siobhan Harvey cropHow would you describe Ghosts?

Ghosts is a book about migration, outcasts and the search, common to us all, for home. The collection begins in a contemporary inner-city suburb undergoing ‘regeneration’ where a poet, bearing witness to immense social displacement and discord, writes poems which chart this transformation, its difficulties and opportunities. So it’s a book about a very contemporary New Zealand and international issue, housing and how the landscape and dwellings placed upon it possess life, are animate and hold enduring qualities which can’t be erased by architectural demolition and redevelopment.

As the narrative develops, the issue of displacement holds broader geographical and political significance in the book. Ghosts materialise in landscapes in UK, Europe, US and Asia, as well as a refugee processing centre and post-earthquake wasteland. Here, Ghosts explores the contemporary and historic issue of migration and exile. We live in an era in which the displaced are politicised and stigmatised, deemed as threats to the social fabric and painted as ‘others’ by those who can make capital out of division, and Ghosts speaks back to that.

From there, the personal and social implications of these issues are meditated upon in the book. Ghosts are located in estranged family, unknown ancestors, fractured memories, lyrics of a 1980s pop song, a Shakespearean sonnet, television programs, the work of Robert Graves, words in dictionaries and those living with PTSD. Here are the ghosts of ethereal substance all migrants carry with them: subliminally; cognitively; psychologically; emotionally; memorially. These are the ghosts which survive alienation, estrangement, emigration, homelessness, othering, erasure and family trauma. That is to say, the ghost as a symbol of human resilience.

In all these elements, Ghosts is a literary provocation, asking readers and wider society to realise and korero with the lost souls we all carry within us, those present in our whakapapa, memories, whānau and pasts, and how, in doing so, we are all therefore ghosts also.

Harvey cover[2]Why were you so drawn to these particular themes?

I’m drawn to these themes because they hold personal and collective relevance. As I discuss below, the issue of housing is one I’ve been impacted by personally and as a member of my neighbourhood. These matters aren’t just cerebral to me, but hold a deeper significance. The enforced regeneration of Waiotaiki Bay I’ve witnessed has led it to altered not just physically and socially, but also emotionally and subliminally. The whenua is a living, breathing, enduring entity, which we care-take. I see, sense and feel it every time I look out of my window at the constantly fluctuating estuary, the shifts in the seasons and the ever replenishing fauna and flora. Home is more than a floor, four walls and a roof. As a displaced and rejected person, I live an ever-evolving negotiation with the concept of ‘home’.

As a displaced, estranged outcast, I also live with an ever evolving understanding of the presence of the ghost in my life. I have come to understand also that I’m not alone in this. We're a nation formed from indigenous and multicultural migrants. Our journeys, settlements, dislocations and assimilations are personal and collective. Sometimes, these are new beginnings, ripened with hope; sometimes, they are exiles, physical ends to disturbing pasts. These are the often unspoken, ethereal burdens our peoples have and continue to bear. Across all cultures in Aotearoa, there are innumerable stories of positive migrant experiences. Ghosts isn’t a critic or denier of these. Rather it narrates the other truths exiles can experience when alienation by family, culture and country occurs.

Are these recent concerns/interests?

These are topics and concerns I’ve long engaged with. The realisation of ghosts as a substance we carry with us and as a symbol of human resilience is one I’ve been examining, analysing and assessing for over two decades, ever since I came to Aotearoa, an exile alienated from and by parents, home and country. My awareness of the personal ghosts who came with me on that journey and who remained was expanded into an understanding of how this manifested as a collective engagement through our long history of migration. For instance, this has been informed by my work as a Lecturer in Creative Writing in which I teach the literature of our migrations, indigenous and multicultural. I’ve come to realise that all cultures journeying to this land have brought/ continue to bring their ghosts with them, be it Maori oral narratives detailing shapeshifters like Maui, the Victorian ghost stories brought by early Pakeha settlers or the family members left behind my present-day refugees.

At heart, this is a personal and collective navigation with belonging, assimilation, extrication and being liminal; a constant assessment and reassessment with the fraught and unanswerable question for the exile, ‘Where is home?’

It was made more resonant to me shortly after my last book, Cloudboy was published in 2014, when the small, multicultural community we live in, Waiotaiki Bay was included in legislation enforcing ‘regeneration’ upon it and its peoples. Overnight, ‘Where is home?’ became the most significant question asked of our neighbours and our neighbourhood. Our street was the scene of bitter conflict as night after night state houses were lifted off their foundations and floated, ghost-like, aloft huge trucks past our window, followed by crowds of community protestors and police. Running battles between the two sides were violent, bitter and destructive. People were injured; cars were upturned and set ablaze. The process of enforced regeneration led to Orwellian newspeak materialising in our neighbourhood through redevelopment firms bearing names like “Creating Communities”. As if our neighbourhood wasn’t a community before this. As if we needed others to import their vision of community onto our whenua because community was an alien concept to us.

It was witnessing the flipside to this enforced regeneration termed “Creating Communities” which, as a writer, advocate and dissenter interested me. The silent, voiceless families who disappeared from our community in the middle of the night, keys thrown under the door mat, former homes abandoned. The legislative disenfranchisement of so many in the name of profit, as land values skyrocketed overnight and developers in expensive cars prowled our street looking for the next big investment. The destructive impact of intensified building on those of us who remained. From 2015 onwards I wrote about these matters for the New Zealand Herald, in an Op. Ed piece called, 'Intensive Housing Construction is Hard on the Neighbours'.

As I discuss below, the creative nonfiction author in me also explored these things in a long essay I wrote for Griffith Review called, ‘An Empty House’.

In essence, Ghosts is the realisation of a deeply mulled set of intersecting principles and thoughts which aren’t purely personal but speak to the wider social and cultural construction of contemporary Aotearoa. It looks back to where we’ve come from and looks forward to where we might be going, for it seeks to remember and return to our collective conscience the fact that we are a diverse peoples fused through a long tradition of migration who continue to reinvigorate our sense of community. Are we comfortable, Ghosts asks, that we as a people born of disenfranchisement and estrangement continue to disenfranchise and estrange swathes of people?

The structure of the book is unusual in that it ends on an essay. How did that come to be?

Structurally, Ghosts is a six act poetic narrative. It derives its structure partly from German author Gustav Freytag's five act structure: exposition; rising action; climax; falling action; denouement. The structure in Ghosts is also informed by traditional Greek theatre's use of the prologue and epilogue, and Greek philosopher Aristotle's analysis of Greek dramatic structure in his work Poetics, where he advocates for a narrative as a single whole action which is rendered into two parts, complication and unravelling. As an author, I'm deeply interested in form, its deployment, experimentation and application. For instance, in my previous book, Cloudboy I used a four act structure: set-up; complication; development; denouement. I believe form benefits both the writer and readers' journeys through the narrative. For both, it gives certainty, solidity and span, all of which are ballasts during a time when a story is unfolding (as it always should) unpredictably.

So the structure of Ghosts is an adaptation or fusing of traditional Greek and European dramatic structures. It adapts these into the following form: prologue; complication; rising action; unravelling; denouement; epilogue. In this, I was also influenced by other author's adaptation of form, such as W. H.Auden's five act The Orators (1932) which is a seminal collection. Like Ghosts, it's not uniquely poetic but also incorporates creative nonfiction prose elements.

Additional to the six act poetic narrative of Ghosts is a concluding creative nonfiction essay entitled, ‘Living in the Haunted House of the Past’. I’m the author of international and locally published fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. I find there are many synchronicities between these forms of writing, and that I bring my poetic mind and voice to my creative nonfiction works. I’m not alone in this. Mark Doty; Mary Oliver; Martha Cooley: here are a few contemporary accomplished poets who are skilled in the art of creative nonfiction. So, often when I have an idea, it feels authorial pertinent to explore it in one or more mediums. For instance, Cloudboy has a companion creative nonfiction piece called, ‘A Boy Called Cloud’ which was highly commended for 2014 Landfall Essay Competition and, subsequently, published in the international literary journal, Segue (US). Similarly, I sought to explore the topics and themes at the heart of Ghosts through creative nonfiction. The result was ‘Living in the Haunted House of the Past’ which was placed 3rd in 2020 Landfall Essay Competition. Former publisher Rachel Scott and editor, Emma Neale approached me to ask how I felt about including the essay at the close of the book. I loved the idea for all the reasons outlined above. So the published Ghosts contains its six act poetic narrative plus its concluding creative nonfiction companion piece.


Much of the writing is from a first-person perspective. Is the “I” in Ghosts actually you or something more complex?

This is a topic I’m deeply passionate about because it has a long history of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, and as an author I want to break the age-old stereotypically view of any poetry which uses the first person perspective being “confessional”. Can I add, my fervour to deconstruct the perception of my – or anyone else’s – poetry using first person perspective as something which is purely personal is inflamed by a long tradition of using this view to demean the work, worth, experience and voice of women writers.

Why do we continue to believe that, if a poet writes from the first person perspective, they must be writing about themselves? I find it disappointing that this kind of misapprehension continues, often unchecked. I have read reviews of my work in which poems written in the first person about, say, migration are described as, to paraphrase, about my migration. The inference is that the message of the poem has no audience or relevance beyond me, its author. That is lamentable and inappropriate, particularly because this misreading has too frequently and conveniently been ascribed to work about or exploring the interior life, the personal and/or the emotional. We never, say, read a novel written in first person perspective and label the novel or its author “confessional”.

Ghosts is poetry which, like short stories and novels, makes it a work of fiction. Like all fiction, as I know as a fiction writer, to explore and chart its narrative, themes and truths, I do tap into my experiences. But these experiences inform – rather than direct, frame and dominate – the book. Ultimately, the ‘I’ in Ghosts is crafted out of creativity, incorporating topics, themes, characters, conflicts, relationships and emotional and psychological states, I know, from experience to be true and which, I would like to believe, have communal relevance and speak to our communal sense in Aotearoa of who we are, where we’ve come from and where we might be going as a country in the future.