When We Remember to Breathe is a brand new book and collaboration by Michele Powles and Renee Liang.
Described as ''powerful
Renee and Michele talked to us about this project, the chaos of parenthood, the importance of friendship in making art, and their favourite local writers.
Kia ora Renee and Michele. Please tell us about this special book.
Michele: When We Remember to Breathe was initially called The Chaos Project, as we were thigh-deep in the mess of work and small children and we didn’t know how or what would come of our collaboration. The only rules we set were that we would write regularly-ish, that we would start just before the birth of our second children, and (a bit further down the process), that we’d write till our first children went to school. Around four and a half years total. We didn’t set out to write a book initially, but when we laid out the manuscript, literally, on the floor and stepped through the pages, it became clear that this was a book and that we wanted to share it.
Renee: Kia ora! When We Remember To Breathe is our personal record of the early years of motherhood – the moments we’d like to freeze and keep forever; the moments of change and realisation. It’s a correspondence between two mothers who became friends in the process of writing to each other.
How did you meet? What sort of writing had you done before this book?
Michele: Renee and I knew each other as writers, from book events like the Auckland Writer’s Festival and New Zealand Book Month, but we hadn’t hung out as such. I had a novel and bunch of short stories for adults and children published as well as writing a bit for radio in the UK. After my first son was born, I started writing more commercial work. When I was pregnant with my second son, I knew I wanted to capture more of those hazy, blurred moments of babyhood and, inspired by a collection of personal essays by two Irish poets, figured this sort of format would be a great way to make that happen.
Renee: Michele and I knew of each other as writers and had met at various book events such as the Auckland Writer’s Festival, but we didn’t know each other well. I was writing poetry, short fiction and theatre. I had also kept diaries for years, but this was the first time I had tried literary memoir.
Parenthood changes us in many ways, forever! How has motherhood changed you, creatively?
Michele: I’ve had to adjust to writing in short bursts and snatched moments. I won’t lie, it’s been a challenge. I’ve ended up writing shorter works as a consequence, I think. But having children has also allowed me to stop, and reset mid-thought sometimes, as my kids slap my sensibility around the face with an entirely new perspective. It’s exhilarating, a bright burst of colour when I was expecting to be doing laundry.
Renee: My kids constantly remind me of how innate creativity is. They live stories their whole day; that’s how they construct meaning, and as they became more verbal I could understand more of what they were doing. Now that they are starting to write as well as read it feels like the start of an exciting cycle.
Before I became a parent I used to be one of those people who would sit down at 11 pm and really get into my groove around 1 am. These days, sleep and routine are less a luxury than a necessity. I’ve had to structure my writing around the needs of the family, but in doing so I realised that brief bursts of intensive activity can be just as productive as long uninterrupted stretches.
Friendship and community are so important when we become parents. How did working on this project together build your relationship and did the sharing of experiences bring comfort?
Renee: This book wouldn’t have happened without Michele. We started writing to each other as a private correspondence, so we could be really open and honest. It was Michele’s idea – we initially planned to write every week. Predictably, life intruded and weeks sometimes turned into months. But then one of us would send something, and the other would not be able to resist writing something back. It was good to know that if I had a reaction to something, I could write it down and send it to Michele and I would get something thoughtful and rich back that would reassure me I wasn’t going crazy. I think that’s the camaraderie that links parents together – the ‘oh, you too? I feel you!’
What does ‘Read NZ’ mean to you – how important is it that we read books from this place?
Michele: I ran New Zealand Book Month for a few years and never got tired of telling people how important it is for us to tell and hear our own stories. We know our stories best; we know what shapes us and thrills us and moves us. Seeing ourselves written large: our good, great and god-awful bits allows us space to think about who we are as a society and who we want to be. Literature and art can and should be a place to start talking, a place where we dig into what is important to us as we continue to shape what it is that makes Aotearoa “home”.
Renee: It is so incredibly important that we are empowered to tell our own stories. I work with community writing workshops where we try to give people the skills and confidence to write. For many it’s just about knowing that their voice is important, and the skill will come with practice. Just as there need to be empowered writers, there need to be empowered readers, of books that speak to them of places or experiences they know. Aotearoa hosts blend of new and ancient cultures, and we are still defining our ‘NZ stories’ which will form the basis of our multiple identities – it is critical that we continue to read, to write and to discuss.
Which NZ books/writers have been special to you in your life?
Michele: I read Keri Hulme’s The Bone People when I was fourteen and it rocked my world. While I might have missed some of the more intricate themes back then, the visceral language got a hold of me and made me hungry for this sort of writing – I remember vividly thinking I’d finally found someone who had captured how I saw the world. From there I discovered Witi Ihimaera (thanks to a visionary English Teacher in fifth form) and then Patricia Grace and Maurice Gee. Now I’m drawn to a broad church of kiwi writers all going from strength to strength, like Mandy Hager, Tania Roxborogh and Barbara Else writing for young people, to Glen Colquhoun and Tayi Tibble penning poetry and Sophie Henderson writing for the screen.
Renee: Hone Tuwhare showed me how poetry can move, comfort and anchor – I was a fan from when I was a teenager. I also studied Janet Frame at school and the way she stretched and pulled language showed me how far it's possible to push, and how beautiful the experience can be. Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera were the first authors to open up Māoritanga to me, and I am still exploring and learning now with playwrights like Miria George and the work of many others like Sāmoan writer and performer James Nokise. For the past decade I’ve been particularly entranced by my fellow Asian writers such as Lynda Chanwai-Earle, Alison Wong, Chris Tse and Gregory Kan, because we are defining what it means to be Kiwi-Chinese and recording the histories and voices that have long been silenced.
What’s next in store for you both? Will you continue to keep writing about your experiences in motherhood?
Michele: I have feature film Tenderwood in development and a book project on the go. Both have mothers as central characters but their journeys into motherhood are very different to mine.
Renee: I have a children’s play in the works, which is very exciting – and possibly some short radio plays for kids too!
When We Remember To Breathe is co-written by Michele Powles and Renee Liang. Published by Magpie Pulp. RRP $25.00