A huge fan of New Zealand short fiction, I approached a book of short non-fiction cautiously. (Cue non-fiction authors’ grumbles – the forward of Tell You What tackles and challenges the assumption of non-fiction’s ‘second class status’, but as I see it, the comparison is a healthy one. I doubt I’m alone in using a familiar structure – a book of short fiction – to assess the unfamiliar.). Would a collection of non-fiction delight me in quite the same way? The short answer is yes, it did.
The beauty of this collection is in the shaping. Editors Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew must be congratulated on their ability to nose out pieces from a variety of transient places – blogs, musings on the web, science papers, to name a few – and put them into book form, thus bringing them to a wider audience. I admire what must have been a difficult sifting process to bring us a striking collection of the familiar (Eleanor Catton, Steve Brauns, Elizabeth Knox) and (at least to me) the less familiar, but no less interesting, authors.
This contemporary collection is rooted firmly in the period 2010-2014. Each piece, while enjoyable in its own right, weaves together to form a larger narrative telling us what was on our collective mind during this period – the Christchurch earthquakes, the Auckland property market, Facebook, climate change, Maori Land rights, and Kim Dotcom. This is not to say the collection is limited to these subjects – we also explore topics such as how it is to be a Sherpa and the nature of friendship.
This is a rich and varied collection, and to call it a book of essays rather deadens the light, lively, and often surprising nature of these pieces. Tell You What celebrates everything that is wonderful, and unique about non-fiction. I learnt facts about snails, the meaning of Maori words, while catching a glimpse into what it must have been like to know Margaret Mahy.
Tell You What was an unexpected reading gem over the summer. The first of its kind, I highly recommend it and look forward to next year’s edition.