Harakeke flowers on the New Plymouth coastline which is home for author Lauren Keenan. (Photo supplied)

Author Lauren Keenan reflects on how to write truthfully about home. 

 

Can you write about a place you haven’t been to?

I was asked this question recently at the Auckland Writers Festival. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Not because I write about locations I’ve never visited — all my books are set in places where I’ve lived.

But the question was an uncomfortable reminder that I wrote two books while living overseas — and, even though they were about my home, I didn’t get some things right. (Luckily, I was able to correct my mistakes before the books were published.)

Things look different from far away — even the places we know well.

And I had forgotten the harakeke flowers.

E kīia ana te kōrero: kia mau ki te tokanga nui-a-noho. Home is like no place else. But what does home even mean? The definition is complex and personal. Home can be as much about people as places. It’s not where you are, but who is there with you: your family, your partner, your pets.

Home might also be about the random clutter of objects you’ve accumulated: the mismatched coffee mugs, the wall-hanging someone gave you as a gift, and the kitset desk you somehow managed to assemble years back and have kept ever since, even though one of the drawers is the wrong way around.

On top of this sits another sort of home, the one we take with us as we move around the world. This is the place where our wi-fi connects automatically, and our favourite breakfast sits in the cupboard. This home is where we sit in our favourite chair and turn on the television and watch our favourite streaming service, which has algorithms that align with our tastes. We do this wearing our oldest pyjamas, all the while studiously ignoring our housework. It’s this home you think of when, at the end of a working day, you stand up, smile, and say: “I’m going home.”

What, then, of home in a broader sense? Home, as in the place you are from, and where your stories are often centered — especially those you tell another person when establishing who you are.

This home might not have your old kitset desk with its bung drawer, but it’s where you have memories about a time when you were younger, often featuring people who are long gone. You probably wouldn’t walk around that place in your scrappy old pyjamas, but you still recognise its familiar contours.

And, for many Māori, home can have another layer entirely. Nō Te Ātiawa au. I am not from Te Ātiawa, I am of Te Ātiawa, and my pepeha grounds me to a place that goes back further than my living memory. This links me to my whenua, the place where my tūpuna once walked and were later buried, deep in the earth’s embrace.

Leaving Aotearoa New Zealand is not easy. The expense of moving countries can be astronomical, and the logistics require the organisational skills of a military operation. But we still do it, in relatively high numbers.

According to our most recent census, in the year to March 2024, 78,200 Aotearoa New Zealand citizens migrated elsewhere. This includes my sister and her whānau, who followed the well-worn path of Māori moving to Australia for work. Others leave for adventure. There’s much to see out there, and travel is exciting. There are also family reasons to go elsewhere, not to mention a plethora of other push and pull factors. Many of those people who leave will, like me (and hopefully my sister) return one day. Others will not.

I’ve now lived overseas four times, and each time, there’s a certain pattern I follow. A little knot of sadness starts small, but it grows and grows until homesickness becomes a deep melancholy that I can compartmentalise but never fully shake.

Last time this happened, we were living in the USA. When the homesickness began to gnaw, I channelled it into writing about home. The words flowed onto the page —  descriptions of tōku maunga, the coastline, the islands off Ngāmotu. The longer I was away, the more vivid the imagery was in my mind: the plants, the trees, the contours of the land. These formed the basis of my books and quelled the homesickness. A place doesn’t feel so far away when it is ever-present in your mind. I was happy with what I’d written, the descriptions felt true. That is, until I moved back to Aotearoa New Zealand again, and saw what I’d written about.

Lauren Keenan during her travels. (Photo supplied)

When you’re away from a place for an extended period, your memory starts to fudge around the edges. This often leaves gaps you know are there, for you can see their absence. But other times? The holes are seamlessly filled with other half-memories and partial impressions, which can edge out the real thing — and you don’t even notice. Sense of scale can become distorted. Things become bigger or smaller or longer or shorter.

When you move overseas, there’s a lot you can fit in your suitcases and stuff into cabin baggage while pretending it’s only 7kg.

But there are also the things that you can’t take with you. The conversations you have with people you love, in person, when you have nothing much to say and plenty of time to say it. Walking into a shop and being familiar with what’s inside, so you don’t get lost trying to find a loaf of bread. Knowing how to exist in a public space because this is your country, your culture, your place, and you know the unspoken rules around ordering, tipping, and standing in line. It’s having a sense of what food you like and don’t like without having to try it, and not walking into other pedestrians because you’re on the wrong side of the footpath.

And then there is the land. When I wrote about home, I had most things right, but there were some things I’d forgotten completely. The freshness of the bush, which seemed even crisper after a long period away. A steep slope I’d completely left out of a walk taken by my characters. And the view from the top of a hill that wasn’t half as expansive in my mind as it was in real life.

And the harakeke flowers, which are everywhere along the Ngāmotu coast for part of the year. How could I have forgotten the harakeke flowers? I had looked at them every summer, my whole life. They are at home. But I hadn’t remembered them at all.

Indeed, travelling abroad, especially living overseas, is fabulous and a privilege. It broadens your mind and enriches your life. But, for me, there is an important part of home that always stays put: tōku whenua.

So can you write about a place you haven’t been to? My answer is: Sure, if you want to. But I won’t. Because now I know I can’t even write about the area where I am ahi kaa without going there, walking around, and reconnecting.

Sometimes, the place in your head fractures from the place as it really exists, and nothing but going back can help you reconcile those two parts. And that’s okay. Because it’s still home. Even if you need to go there to remind yourself how to properly describe the harakeke flowers.

 

Lauren Keenan (Te Ātiawa) is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her focus is on Aotearoa New Zealand history, told for a variety of audiences. Her first adult novel, The Space Between, is set in 1860 Taranaki. It was published by Penguin Random House in March 2024. She has also written fiction for younger readers, including the award-winning Amorangi and Millie’s Trip Through Time. 

E-Tangata, 2024

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