Ashleigh Young responds to our slightly irreverent literary questionnaire, inspired by Katherine Mansfield.
Write a prelude to your life in one sentence.
The UFO cruised over the poplar trees and eventually came to rest in a swamp.
Would your father have accepted your plea for musical training?
Yes, of course, but he would then want you to perform at his friend’s birthday parties.
Do you speak French?
My mother is a French teacher and I grew up with a slightly complicated relationship to French and so I never learned it. But I can ask for a beer.
If you were to, at any stage, become a ghost who would you haunt?
I’d be a useless ghost because I’d always want to apologise to anyone I startled and check that they were alright. So no, I wouldn’t haunt anyone. I’d be one of those ghosts that just hangs around. I’d read lots of books and go to the movies and to gigs, though. I’d keep busy.
Do you keep ‘great complaining notebooks’ a.k.a. journals?
I used to. Then I burned them all.
Garden parties. Yes or no?
No. Too many ants and wasps and scratchy grass.
Where have you had the best time of your life?
In the sea.
Where have you had the worst time of your life?
If you were to use a nom de plume, what would it be?
Virginia Woolf wrote ‘I was jealous of her writing — the only writing I have ever been jealous of.’ Who are you most jealous of?
I’ve always been just a little bit jealous of people who are wonderfully articulate. It would be my superpower.
Where are you in the family birth order?
I’m the youngest. But I was a huge baby.
You left home and then:
I went back home on the night train.
What is your favourite short story?
For a while now it’s been ‘The Cows’ by Lydia Davis.
What was the last real letter you wrote?
A letter to someone from the internet who wanted to be pen pals. I liked the idea so I wrote the letter but then I didn’t send it straight away because I didn’t have a stamp at the time. Time went on, and the letter just sat there waiting for its stamp, which I kept forgetting to buy. And then it was too late: the letter was out of date. And I got too busy to write another one. It’s been sitting in my bedside drawer for a couple of years now.
What brings you bliss?
A painful but effective sports massage on my sore legs.
How would you like to die?
During a painful but effective sports massage on my sore legs. But seriously – how would I like to die? How would I like to die?! I guess like everyone: painlessly and oldly. Like I’m going into that daydream where friends and family are holding you aloft on their shoulders and cheering as they run with you through a meadow and then suddenly all of your former pets come running up to greet you.
‘There is no twilight in our New Zealand days, but a curious half-hour when everything appears grotesque—it frightens—as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw.’ What are your feelings on New Zealand twilight?
Mansfield was just projecting her bad mood onto the landscape. I love New Zealand twilight. I love all of the transitional lights. They tend to be times when you’re either waking up or going home – when you’re returning to yourself. They’re good times for reading or writing too.
Has anyone ever said of you that you’re ‘a dangerous woman’?
I don’t know. I hope someone’s thought it.
Have you ever had an X-ray?
Yes, after I’d fallen over while moving at speed.
Write a brief history of your eyesight.
There’s an essay about this in my book!
Is there ‘the taint of the pioneer’ in your blood?
I wish there was but I don’t think there really is. I’m more like a barnacle on the pioneer’s ship. I like being in familiar territory but I’ll go along with things. (I really like how Peter Wells answered this question with something like ‘I am 100% pure taint’.)
‘I want to be REAL.’ True or false?
False. But I’m thinking about ‘real’ in the sense of truth-telling. A ‘real’ person foists their reckons on others without deferring to context or to others’ feelings, because they value truth-telling more than anything else. I find that hard to stomach. I think we’re better to one another when we have some unreality in our lives.
I mean – to have complex conversations and ideas, to imagine possible futures and work towards things that seem impossible right now, and to feel empathy, we have to go deeper than how things appear. And often we need to dance around a truth in order to be kind or civil. Sometimes politicians and commentators use the idea of ‘saying what everybody’s thinking’ or ‘telling it like it is’ as an excuse to avoid challenging prejudice and to imply that these well-worn thought grooves are the right ones, the real ones, because ‘we’ all think them. In that sense, being real means going backwards. So … I want to be a useful mixture of real and unreal, like blood and plasma.
Ashleigh Young works as an editor in Wellington and teaches creative science writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Her poetry and essays have been widely published in print and online journals, including Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction, Five Dials (UK) and The Griffith Review (Australia).
Can You Tolerate This? is her second book; her first was the poetry collection Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012). She gained an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2009, winning the Adam Prize.
In 2017, Ashleigh won a prestigious Windham-Campbell Literature Prize worth USD $165,000 for Can You Tolerate This?
She blogs at eyelashroaming.com.