Wendy Parkins is the author of a new memoir, Every morning, so far, I'm alive, published by Otago University Press.
Formerly a professor of Victorian Literature, Wendy has taught at universities in New Zealand, Australia and the UK, and is the author of three scholarly monographs and dozens of academic articles and book chapters. Her previous books include Slow Living (co-authored with Geoffrey Craig) and Jane Morris: The burden of history.
Every morning, so far, I'm alive chronicles her struggle with homesickness and career burn-out, which develops into depression, contamination phobia and OCD.
Wendy talked to us about writing the book, which she began as a way to address a downward spiral in her mental health.
It’s a memoir that describes my experience dealing with depression, OCD and contamination phobia. Things really fell apart for me after I moved from New Zealand to England for what I thought was my dream job about six years ago. I was very homesick for New Zealand and I entered a sharp downward spiral in which my symptoms became overwhelming. I started to write down what I was going through and found it helped my state of mind as well as giving me a purpose. But it’s not just a story about mental illness. It’s also about how we figure out where we belong and what sustains us in difficult circumstances.
You have filled this book about your experiences with snippets of literature: poems and quotes and pieces from novels. How has the work of other writers shaped your life, and do you find comfort in reading?
Literature has always shaped the way I understood myself and my place in the world, as well as influencing my life in more direct ways: it led to my career as an academic and gave me a desire to live in England someday. That last part didn’t work out so well – the reality of everyday life in 21st century Britain is not like a Romantic poem; sometimes it felt as grim as something Dickens might have written!
When I was at my lowest point in my illness, I found I couldn’t read at all – no ability to concentrate and no interest in finishing a book – and I felt robbed of one of life’s greatest pleasures so I value it all the more now I am back to reading voraciously. I read a lot more contemporary literature now. Living back in New Zealand again, I am especially enjoying reading the work of writers who are exploring what life is like in New Zealand right now, whether that is in fiction, poetry or non-fiction.
This book is also threaded with self-deprecating humour. Was it a challenge to infuse your writing, which describes some very difficult experiences, with humour and why was it important to do so?
It was one way of conveying the weirdness when part of you knows your thoughts are irrational but another part remains absolutely convinced that certain things are life-threatening (for me it was anything that I saw as potentially contaminating). In turn, these irrational thoughts lead to some bizarre behaviour, arising from the need to guard against the dangerous things you fear (whether through avoidance or rituals).
During the long process of recovery, and as the depression lifted, I came to see that my phobia and OCD were such a strange way of being in the world that they were funny in a way, and writing about them with humour could help take away some of their power over me.
When you are in the midst of any mental health problem, of course, it is incredibly debilitating and scary and I would never want to minimise the extent of suffering that people experience but on another level – that of intellectual curiosity, I guess – there was also a sense of “how weird is it that our minds can work like this?”
You have worked as a professor of Victorian literature and I imagine you have some amazing bookshelves! Which New Zealand books or writers have been special to you in your life?
While I was writing the book, I found that I was drawn to New Zealand poetry – I became fascinated with Ursula Bethell because of her attention to nature, her garden, and everyday life, as well as the way she described that feeling of being torn between life in New Zealand and life in England. Contemporary poets like Jenny Bornholdt and Dinah Hawken also resonated with me because they take the apparently ordinary things of life and illuminate them. Lately, I’ve been reading (or re-reading) some of the classics of New Zealand literature, like Robin Hyde’s The Godwits Fly and Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water, partly as a way of grounding myself back in New Zealand and connecting past and present.
Last year we conducted reading research that showed that New Zealanders enjoy reading memoirs – they were just slightly less popular than cookbooks and crime thrillers. What do you think is the enduring appeal of autobiographical writing?
That’s a very good question and one I asked myself a lot during the process of writing my book because prior to that I rarely read memoirs or autobiographies but was almost exclusively a reader of novels. I found, though, that I was reading a lot of memoirs, especially those by people who had been through depression or other forms of mental illness. Their accounts were comforting and reassuring for me – other people had been through similar trauma and survived – but they also showed me how people could take their painful experiences and turn them into something creative that could be shared with others.
So I think that reading other people’s life stories does two things which seem contradictory at first: they give us insight into experiences different from our own, the product of others’ unique life histories, but they can also provide a safe way to reflect on and process our own experience. I say ‘a safe way’ because other people’s accounts are at a remove from the painful immediacy of our own lives but through reading them we might be able to start to have the courage to reflect on our experience or at least to think more creatively about it. For me, thinking about life as a narrative – one where we can start to identify patterns of cause and effect even if we don’t know the ending yet – became much more useful than thinking of myself in terms of diagnostic labels (like “I’m a depressed person”, or “I’m an OCD sufferer”). There was more to my life than my illness and situating that illness within a wider life story is something that memoirs and autobiographies can do so effectively.
Can you tell us about memoir writing you admire and would recommend to other readers?
Memoir has had such a resurgence in recent years, partly due to the fact that it has become a much more diverse and creative genre than in the past. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? are wonderful examples of inventive, even transgressive forms of memoir that have had a powerful impact on me. For a memoir that combines a moving narrative of mental health with beautiful nature writing, you can’t beat Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun.
What’s next in store for you?