Flash Frontier

New book: Madeleine Slavick’s Town

Interviews and Features

TownThis month, we are pleased to feature this beautiful, subtly powerful collection from Madeleine Slavick.

Readers can find the book and its author at an event on Thursday, 04 July, at Unity Books, Wellington:


Unity Books Wellington
Thursday, 4 July, 12.30

With readings from Town in English by Madeleine, te reo Māori by Basil Keane, and Chinese by Luo Hui

Town will also be at Photobook / NZ Book Fair on Saturday 10 August, Level 2, Te Papa, Wellington.


Michelle Elvy: Kia ora Madeleine! Your new book, Town, includes photographs and poems / creative nonfictions, combined to paint the place you live. It begins with ‘The Road Where I Live’ and is a gentle unfolding of images: cars and waving people, trees and smiles. Also: ‘Glass from a windscreen, empty cigarette packets, walls of stone, a dead hare and fences.’ How did these particular details come to find their place in the opening of this book? What was your starting point?

Madeleine Slavick: Kia ora Michelle! Thanks for having me here with Flash Frontier.

The first image in Town: a narrow, yellow railway house, even more yellow at dusk. Two long wires straddling sky.

The first text: ‘The Road Where I Live’ – a straight line from state highway to bush. Timber factory at one end, forest park at the other, and how many things in between.

Memoir, photo book, Town is a hybrid, with photography, poetry, flash and stories of eels and parenthood, wind and violence, birds and weatherboards, stories on the town, towns, in all their kindness, business, loneliness.

May I quote Robin White who has written this about Town:

town / taƱn / n. 1 an urban area that belongs to all of us, with a name, defined boundaries, and local government or, more precisely, the road I just walked…

Slavick’s images and text are mutually supportive and distinct at the same time. She reminds us of how much is to be discovered if only we would stop and ponder.

The road I just walked, I must walk again, with new eyes.

Town is a composite of place. I live between towns and between countries/cultures, with voting rights in Hong Kong, USA and Aotearoa. Town includes the urban  and rural, streets and paddocks, Christchurch and Hawke’s Bay, Manawatu and Wairarapa, Wellington and many places across North Island.

The title piece ‘Town’ opens:

A town might be a city.

A city might be a country.

A country might be a volcano.

Hear the whole piece here. (RNZ interview with Mark Amery)

ME: Your earlier books include a collection of pieces from your time in Hong Kong. We wonder: Which comes first for you, the images or the words? We’re thinking of the circularity of an individual in a space – the creative breathing in/ breathing out.

MS: Writing is collage. Most of the written works start from an experience, or more than one experience. Then there is the art of sequencing. Listening.

Sometimes I work with a notebook, sometimes with the camera. It’s all about seeing.

May I quote the Austrian-American photographer Ernst Haas, an early influence on my photography:

‘Photography is a certain kind of loving.  A picture – you should be able to rest in it, sleep in it. And live in it.’ 

The content and format of Town follows my previous book, Ffity Stories Fifty Images of Hong Kong (MCCM CREATIONS, 2012) – both have 50 photographs and 50 texts, and both have 132 pages.

My next book might just be on the United States, with a focus on Portland, Maine, where I lived for ten years of my childhood and where I will visit soon. (Here is a previous photo-essay on a trip back to USA.)

ME: We notice that some pieces are very small, and nevertheless pack a punch – such as ‘She is Seven’, ‘Landline’, ‘Gentle’, and the two-line ‘Pīwakawaka’. Since we’ve just come through our month of NFFD and Micro Madness, we’d love to hear you talk a bit about the shape of the small.

MS: ‘The shape of the small’ – could be a title!

Probably my favourite very small work ‘One Carcass’ has just two sentences.
The second: ‘One carcass changes every living thing.’

Nicholas Reid quotes the entirety of ‘Landline’ in his review in The Listener.

In six lines, ‘Gentle’ gathers more than six living things: child, ongaonga, cow, rhododendron, macrocarpa, tūī, olive, nectarine, and it closes, ‘Love the shape of the quince.’

I close ‘Pīwakawaka’, the two-liner about that flitting little bird, with, ‘A man called a loved one Fantail. She also left.’ (A true story.)

‘She is Seven’ is one of the longer short pieces in Town. It was written when I was new to Aotearoa and took a bus ride to attend the 2010 Going West Festival, at the suggestion of the poet Janet Charman whom I had met in Hong Kong. Just $11 for an 11-hour ride, from Wellington to Auckland, a great way to experience the country.

I was lucky to sit beside a seven-year-old for several hours. How we talked and sang and looked out at the landscape together. The piece was a finalist in the 2013 Flash Mob International Flash Fiction Competition, and in addition to being published in Town, it lives at an artspace in Whakaoriori Masterton through the project, Outdoor Poems.

Hear and see ‘She is Seven’ here (scroll down a bit).

I feel the small is celebrated in literature in this country. Flash Frontier. At the Bay | Te Kokoru. National Flash Fiction Day and its annual competition. Micro Madness. Short story authors winning big at the Ockhams.  I think of ‘Short, Shorter’, a Wairarapa Word gig last year on short and flash fiction. Further back, I think of Bonsai, the 2018 anthology of ‘best small stories’ that you co-edited, Michelle.

Bonsai, exquisite shaping of the small.

ME: The external view weaves with an internal glimpse of your own life, with pieces such as ‘ Hong Kong Song’, ‘(Not) and ‘Plane Trip’. How does this internal view collide with your notions of ‘Town’?

MS: Isn’t art the meeting point of the public and private. External and internal. Society and self.

There are several themes in the book, such as parenting (as referenced in (Not) and other works), and the links between Hong Kong and Aotearoa (an essay on recent Hong Kong socio-politics is here).

May I quote Hinemoana Baker:

Town is reminiscent of Robert Hass at his most beautifully imagistic, or Georgia O’Keeffe telling deep stories in flowers.

‘Madeleine Slavick’s language gains much power through stepping out of the way of its subject. All of us interpret and describe our world, our home, our thoughts to each other. But Slavick does this in such a way that we are not so much transported but, without pause, simply arrived into her landscapes. We find ourselves peopling the houses of her ‘Town’ and their ‘rooms, lit and possible.’ We become both the lens and the pen. We see with sharp focus and without pretence, between ‘…the artificial lake and sewage plant, early morning wings of thirty-five swans, seventeen pairs and a single.’

And the author Jillian Sullivan:

‘The art is in the structure, the layering of images. At once humorous, poignant, arch, illuminating
and matter-of-fact, Town gives you your hometown
as if you had always remembered it that way yourself.’

ME: There is a kind of stark reality in some of the photographs, and in others we sense golden light, or a look upwards to blue skies. The cover photograph suggests so much, as well. What do you think is the relationship between photographer and viewer, or writer and reader, in such a collection?

MS: May I quote an excerpt of Janet Charman’s remarks at the Auckland launch of Town:

‘Madeleine’s writing and visual aesthetic in her picture making, polishes the dust off the everyday. She makes people, places and things shine so they simply can’t be overlooked. But at the same time, it can be an extremely uncomfortable feeling when something–or someone–that has been rendered invisible, is brought into the light. And this, for me, is the outstanding aesthetic effect of Madeleine’s exquisite new collection Town.

May I also quote Luo Hui:

‘A poet-photographer, Slavick uses her eyes as a viewfinder,
and language as film. She composes with conscience and sensitivity, in flashes of light and shadow, and finds a delicate access to sanity, and joy.’

‘To write is to touch.’ (Write, Writer)

‘In a valley along a highway, four consecutive towns, as if someone had once skipped a stone.’ (Four Towns)

To photograph is also to compose.

And the production of a book is also an art.

I love the way The Cuba Press worked to create the cover and the entry into the body of the book – on the front cover, about 60% of my photograph is visible, but open out the inside flap, and the whole image is seen.


ME: And what of the animals? So many animals here – from domesticated cows to roaming eels? Is there an intentional tension between stillness and flow/ flight?

MS: Yes, as animals are a centre of the rural economy and experience, several animals make appearances in Town, and at readings, I like to ask the audience to choose which animal they’d like to hear about.

And, yes, there’s tension underlying many of the texts.

Godwit ‘Twenty-three metal godwits inserted into the wall above a television. Black arc, caught.’

Dairy cow ‘Statistics say the number of cows is doubling in this country. A paediatrician says the milk burns holes in children’s stomachs. Dairy for life, says the company, the largest dairy exporter in the world, that collects the product from next door. It starts here.’

Hawk ‘A carpenter finds you in the open country and carries you for miles until he can ask for a spade’

Tuna, long-fin eel ‘for every year you are
/ here, you add
/ a ring in the bone /
of your ear’.

Kiwi ‘They stay with the same mate, sleep with beak tucked, make two balls of hair in the daylight’;

Cat ‘Cat hunts rabbit, bird, mouse. Calls and calls and the other cat comes, follows the sound, the meaning. They stay on opposite sides of the prey and take turns eating.’

Cow (hairball). ‘The museum has a cow hairball. Trichobezoar. Kids want to touch but can’t, so I offer a ball of brown-grey hair from my last cut, place them side by side.’

Horse The last of the 50 texts. Here are the final three sentences: ‘Is she a child on the horse? Proud line of the back, able to order and love and praise. The daughter more than daughter, the horse more than horse.’

ME: And finally, the pages with the beautiful English and te reo Māori lines. Can you tell us about the wind, and how it made its way to the centre of the book?

MS: Wind, like the breath you mentioned earlier, lives everywhere.

The first small poem was one of the very first things I wrote, in Newtown, where I was once blown off the pavement and onto the street.

The second was penned in Hong Kong, land of the typhoon or big wind.

I thank Basil Keane for the translations – they complete the centrefold of the book.

Town / ISBN 9781988595764 / The Cuba Press, 2024 / available at bookshops across New Zealand / In Hong Kong, write to: info@mccmcreations.org / RRP $30

MEET THE AUTHOR-ARTISTUnity Books Wellington, Thursday, 4 July, 12.30 – with readings from Town in English by Madeleine, te reo Māori by Basil Keane, and Chinese by Luo Hui.

Town will also be at Photobook / NZ Book Fair on Saturday 10 August, Level 2, Te Papa.

Madeleine Slavick. Photo credit: Wendy BrandonMadeleine Slavick writes and photographs. Her books of photography, poetry, and non-fiction include Town, My Body My Business – New Zealand sex workers in an era of change (as photographer), Fifty Stories Fifty ImagesSomething Beautiful Might HappenMy Favourite Thingdelicate access, and Round – Poems and Photographs of Asia. Awards include the RAK Mason Fellowship.

Madeleine has initiated and coordinated many community arts programmes – in Hong Kong and Aotearoa New Zealand.

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