Flash Frontier

Writing the last taboo: Alex Reece Abbott talks with Iona Winter

Interviews and Features

An introduction from Alex Reece Abbott

We first met through flash fiction, and across the waves, and in my night/her morning, we had a kōrero about Iona’s new anthology, The Elixir & Star 2023 Grief Almanac – a liminal gathering, and her related mahi, supported by a beautiful backdrop, a rahu that once belonged to Iona’s favourite poet, Hone Tuwhare. At the mention of people passed, lights flickered and flashed, machines stopped, but we carried on…having a go at un-ghosting some ghosts, being outside the square, facing shadows and ‘forcing hope into an unlit void’. The Grief Almanac is part of a new body of work which includes Iona’s A Counter of Moons, a poetic, creative nonfiction memoir about her journey with suicide bereavement and a collection of new poetry, In the shape of his hand lay a river, both due out in 2024. Within a week of the launch, the inaugural Grief Almanac was already in the top twenty list for independent booksellers in Aotearoa New Zealand.


Alex Reece Abbott: Kia ora Iona. I want to begin our kōrero by remembering and honouring the man who you’ve called one of the sparks for this pukapuka, the wairua of this mahi, and the founding of Elixir & Star Press, your magnificent young kauri, your tama, the prolific, eclectic musician Reuben Winter aka Totems.

And here we are, two suicide bereaved women having an open kōrero about grief and loss – let this serve as a sufficient content warning.

Iona Winter (Waitaha): I’ve become a little rebellious around the whole content warning thing, because these are topics that have been kept silent for too long. You know, we all deal with them. Obviously, it’s a bigger kōrero than this – but I don’t think we need to wrap death up in cotton wool. We see grief all the time, but when it happens to us, it often becomes a thing that’s avoided…we’ve become death averse. I’m generalizing of course, but I won’t silence it.

ARA: Facing recent bereavements myself, I didn’t know what to expect…a book of writing about grief could sound depressing…so, ngā mihi, I could recognise a lot and found wry humour, so it was affirming and a healing space too. It’s a huge achievement to bring this together – how is the Almanac being received?

IW: People who’ve commented so far have said similar things: that it’s original, it’s a balm and a necessary resource in our world. Even people I’ve talked to randomly about this mahi, they’re like: oh my god what a great idea, why hasn’t that been done before? It probably

has in multiple forms, but this concept feels very relevant and important. And precious…a real taonga.


On the last taboo

ARA: The Almanac addresses that absence of diverse New Zealand voices in one place speaking to grief, a tangible reminder of how art can reach you when you are feeling unreachable…

IW: I want to make things that support people through difficult processes and that’s what this Almanac is about. The wahine at the printers welled up looking at all the art and she said: Wow, what a beautiful idea…I can see how this person has woven their grief into this.

I also wanted to make it accessible to everyone by including art and music, because not everyone can read. And since not everyone has the financial means to buy books, I’d love it to be stocked by libraries. I see more and more how we shut down our emotions, yet we must feel this stuff as part of being a human –

ARA: And especially suicide grief still often isn’t spoken about much – that ghosting the ghosts, even though some stats show that suicide is the largest killer of men under fifty. You’ve mentioned the lack of personalized resources for grieving. With the Almanac, you’re changing the narrative. It’s a bridge, an act of resistance, empowering people to tell their individual stories about grief, including suicide.

IW: Not speaking has so many ramifications, and it’s intergenerational as well. We have a dreadful suicide problem it’s always been like that in my lifetime. In Aotearoa, we’ve ranked highly for decades. Within two years, our whānau lost my niece and my nephew, and Reuben is the third mokopuna to take their life.

ARA: I’m so sorry…aroha atu ki te whānau…

IW: Kia ora rawa e hoa. I’d say that, regardless of ethnicity, orientation, whatever, most of the business of being a human is healing the inherited, intergenerational stuff. If healing’s not your buzz then…kei te pai…we’re not all here to do that work, but certainly that’s been a big part of my life to embody my healing process – and as artists, we’re wounded healers too, aren’t we? Art is a very powerful way to work through things.

The suicide bereavement process – I talk about this in A Counter of Moons – even the words that are used, committed suicide. We don’t say committed cancer, or committed Alzheimer’s. The language that’s used around suicide maintains shame and silence.

often says, suicide is the last taboo. But I’m not afraid of the topic, Reuben and I talked about it for half his life. We know many people who have suicided – especially in the arts community. And, I say we as humans, beyond culture, we’ve become so far removed from allowing people to express themselves honestly.


On support and resources

IW: There was no support. I had to find my own, which highlighted the silencing. I knew about suicide but in terms of my grief, I just had to do it intuitively. There’s a really good whakataukī: Mātua whakapai i tōu marae, ka whakapai ai te marae o te tangata. You need to clean up your own marae before you start cleaning up others…I keep coming back to that. And I think it’s important to keep sending creativity to this.

There aren’t enough resources here for people, that’s another reason why I’ve done the Almanac. I think it would be a great resource to hand to someone after a death or any kind of loss…yeah, it would be good for professionals to pass on to somebody. My GP has asked for a copy.

ARA: You said ‘death averse’ – is grief stuck in our ‘too-hard kete’?

IW: Totally. Since the Industrial Age when life became more and more about business and productivity, but in the Victorian era, you would wear your grief. There were processes in place that were a natural part of life… We’ve moved so far away from that. I remember Reuben saying to me, in his teens: God, I’ve seen so much death online video games and movies and stuff I don’t know how I’m going to be when I see a dead body, because I imagine it’s really different. And I think that’s the shocking part… I’ve written about this in A Counter of Moons.

We’re seeing this collective grief now online about what’s happening in Gaza, and other places… It’s very easy to respond to what’s outside of us and forget ourselves, especially when we’re inundated with technology…we’re fed. That’s the word that’s used: the feed, we’re fed stuff all the time. But it triggers people repeatedly, particularly those carrying trauma, making it difficult to address anything unresolved. It’s like Papatūānuku is keening and has been for centuries – when are we going to change what we’re doing?

ARA: The Almanac offers what Stella Peg Carruthers writes in her poem ‘Brave Heart’: ‘a pinch of truth’ in the face of the silencing – what Meghan Don calls ‘wise words’. Several writers – Araya, Arnold and Balfour – explore well-meaning attempts at comfort and guidance and in ‘The Years Since’ Anna Sophia tackles ‘dumb platitudes’ too —

IW: Yeah, the platitudes, when people don’t really know what to do or say. All the people who said nothing to me! A few friends have said: Ahhhh…you really educated me! [Laughing] If you don’t know what to say, better to say that rather than saying nothing, right? Yeah…[laughing] the Grief Almanac is also for how not to support a grieving person!

ARA: With your mahi for these connected works around grief, what have you learned?

IW: To be fearless. What I noticed most, when researching, was idealising…like we the ones who are grieving have to be in this place of acceptance. You know: ‘They’re in a better place now…’, lah, blah. But I wanted to read something that said (excuse my language): this is fucking bullshit, my life’s screwed, I don’t know who I am anymore, I’m really angry, sad and bereft, and people can’t support me in the ways I need to be supported, I just don’t have the language to ask right now.


On crafting the Almanac

ARA: Your mahi is pioneering in Aotearoa. How did you make this Almanac?

IW: Well, it came from that gap, because there wasn’t anything that I could find here. Not anything where a diverse group of people co-create a community responding to grief. I found a lot of good death and grief resources, but most were from overseas. There are a few books here in Aotearoa (see below).

Death and grief aren’t sexy or fashionable, or marketable. And while everybody knows it’s there, they don’t really show that it’s raw, it’s in your face. I’m not going to idealise and say: My son took his life and I’m over it now and I’m a survivor. None of that kind of stuff.

When we continue to pathologise and pigeonhole, we move away from our manawa, our hearts, but grief and death and suicide touch everybody…regardless of ethnicity, occupation, sexual orientation, regardless of where you’re located in the world.

I’ve lost count of the number of times people say: Oh, why don’t you just move on. Ridiculous really, because how can I move on from the death of my only child? Feeling the depths of grief has helped me though the rawness – and no judgment on anyone who feels they can’t do that. But for me, that’s how systems, society, our families shut down grief, those ‘move on’ comments…yeah: Let’s just shut you up, because we’ve heard enough.

ARA: To be forgotten is to die twice is another kupu – and this Almanac is a deliberate act of remembrance. These linked pukapuka are like a permission slip to move beyond ghosting our ghosts, saying: Yes, you can do this. You can talk about this. So apart from the consistently high quality, diverse work, the collection feels very healthy – a respectful, honouring taonga that could accompany people through grieving.

IW: I love that you picked up all of those things. Yeah, making the Almanac was also about creating space to show how we manage grieving too.

ARA: Reuben’s music reflects all kinds of eclectic genres, so your approach to this Almanac is very in synch with his mahi…

IW: Reuben was very exploratory and curious, and a natural when it came to music and creating things…he wove a lot together. He did that with people in his life too. So, for creating the Almanac, I knew there had to be no parameters…no division around anything, just: send in your work. I didn’t want it to be only New Zealand’s most famous authors writing about grief. I wanted to bring a multiplicity of voices, tones and feelings. That mix felt important, so that the work is accessible for everybody.


True by Kaye Winter. Photo by Iona Winter

True by Kaye Winter. Photo by Iona Winter


ARA: Your own writing isn’t included, but you’ve written about your grief through the shock of losing Reuben, very visceral work like Morass. I love your line: “It’s not okay that I have to bring my only child home in a fucking box.” The artwork ‘True’, by your Mā, Kaye Winter, takes its title from one of Reuben’s kīwaha – and her whetū design relates to his first word and his age when he died. What part does creativity play in the grief process, particularly writing?

IW: Yeah, it was cathartic writing A Counter of Moons, but writing my poetry collection,

In the shape of his hand lay a river, was real catharsis for me. Art often comes from a place where someone has suffered something big…something wordless. And art can be a bridge internally and externally, a way to traverse that liminal space we go into when we experience anything huge. That timeless, otherworldly space.

ARA: What were the challenges, making the Almanac so soon after your own loss?

IW: Hmmm…that I did this all by myself [laughing]…I took on a huge project, seven days a week for many, many months. But I had help, some trusted friends looked over it because, by being so in it, I missed some things. Mā’s advice was to follow my puku. I thought: Nobody else is gonna do it, so it might as well be me.

With Reuben being the spark, I felt very driven – but that’s another challenge, because of my own health issues. I live with a disability, so don’t have a lot of money, and I was doing all this mahi unpaid. Creative New Zealand’s funding application process at the time was fraught. Running a Boosted campaign was a big challenge, and when I got feedback that said, Oh, it feels a bit mysterious…can you break it down a bit more and simplify it?, I came up with the idea of telling the story about founding Elixir & Star Press, through images of myself and Reuben – a little story about his journey and my journey. But it took a massive emotional toll because the campaign finished around the time of Reuben’s death date.

ARA: What was your editorial process?

IW: In my head it was originally smaller, maybe seventy, eighty people. The more I got into submissions, it evolved. Submissions were open for a month – if I’d left it open longer, I’d have tripled my workload [laughing]. The dates were pertinent to Reuben too…It closed on his birthday and opened the month before on 4/20 (if you’re in America) – that’s international Weed Day, so yeah…we keep him alive by having some humour around things like that.

I went with what spoke to me in terms of grief and grieving; loss, absence, identity. Maybe it was the point I was at…through the initial harsh edges of grief…but I wanted work that spoke to that rawness, and I appreciate how much people trusted me with their work for the Almanac. It came down to one hundred and three people, and I could tell they knew about grief by the way it was shown in an unfiltered way – with different voices and images. Every time I looked at the writing and the visual art, I said: oh, I hadn’t noticed that before or that speaks to something.

For me, being in this liminal space is about the wairua of the pieces…not being in my head or wearing an academic hat, or what’s ‘acceptable literary work’.

ARA: That rawness and vulnerability of the work in the Almanac is powerful, and putting your soul into your work is brave. With this mahi, you’re giving people who are grieving permission to tend that inner creativity, to be themselves – maybe that trust came from them knowing some of your story, rather than submitting to some anonymous editor for a lit mag somewhere?

IW: Yeah, that’s probably true ’cause I’ve been very out, very public about everything. Maybe it was because they knew a little of my story.

I hadn’t edited a collection before. I’ve edited people’s work and been on a few editorial boards, so this is a first in many ways. Then I went straight into typesetting and playing around with layouts…thinking how I wanted it to be, shaping it. It went through many incarnations.

I think I’ve been bloody brave, surprisingly, it was easier to deal with other people’s grief work than my own. The real challenge was– as my beautiful son used to say, with his eyes raised heavenwards – people. You know, worst case scenario, it’s a flop and people critique it…which people will. Not everyone’s going to like it – that’s okay.

ARA: I know it’s selling well and that it’s out for reviews already but really, the Almanac’s already a success, because over two hundred and fifty people have made work and submitted – and now that community exists.

IW: Totally. And I want to keep that momentum up. I’m pretty determined to do it again for 2025, and extend submissions to ex-pats – and this time, [laughing] to get some freakin’ funding from somewhere. It’s always felt important to co-create a grief community through this mahi.

ARA: In your OARsome radio interview you tell the story of the Almanac with passion, conviction, authenticity and humour…

a liminal gathering by Charlie Cryer

a liminal gathering by Charlie Cryer

IW: Oh…thank you…I appreciate that. Sometimes I struggle with titles, but ‘liminal’ is a word I’ve used a lot, in terms of my grieving…It encapsulates the experience of being between spaces or places, or realms. And A Grief Almanac… well, I love the word almanac. Grief goes through seasons, highs, lows, light, dark…It’s all-encompassing when you allow yourself to feel it.

Grief can be quite a harsh experience, so I wanted the title needed to reflect gentleness and the commitment to including lots of different voices…yeah, a liminal gathering just came and it felt like: yep, that’s it. And Reu’s friend Charlie Cryer did the cover artwork, an eco-print of pressed flowers…but there’s still some colour, beauty and life there.

The playlist was curated by Asher Lee and Emma Hall-Phillips, musicians and very close friends of Reuben’s. I have a lot of difficulty listening to music since he died, because it’s been a massive part of both our lives. It’s all original, New Zealand music, people who knew Reuben through the underground music scene, and they’ve included one of Reuben’s tracks too, No Answer from Milk.

ARA: Were there any surprises when you were looking at the visual work?

IW: How much can be conveyed through black and white imagery. I’m not a visual artist, so the images got me thinking about how much emotion and aroha was present. I often talk about te mamae me te aroha – love and pain must coexist. You cannot have one without the other. It also felt important to give readers space to come up for air, to look at an image and connect with it…a natural breath.

ARA: In your kōrero with Vaughan Rapatahana, you talk about the potency of expressing emotion through our relationships with nature. This collection is very rooted in the land, in country and nature…

IW: I wanted to reference stars somehow, so to bring the natural world in too I linked the sections with the whetū you see at different times of year in Aotearoa’s night sky. Connection with the natural world was a big thing for Reuben, and certainly for me.

ARA: Any expectations or preconceptions about grief that were altered – even overturned – through this mahi? And for anyone on a similar journey, editing something so close to their personal life, is there anything you’d want them to know?

IW: Making the Almanac has been healing-but-not-healing, because I don’t believe grief is something that can be healed per se... We just find ways to coexist with it. I knew that this kind of book would’ve helped me to normalise grief, after Reuben died.

It reinforced the importance of speaking up, and it’s like I’ve become this woman with a mission to give voice to [laughing]…grief…I’m not afraid of anything anymore. The worst thing that I feared has happened. Nothing else can touch me.

The most joyous thing is how supportive people were throughout the whole process, the messages – and connections I’ve made with new people – are really precious. I feel a community is being co-created and that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. Out of this quagmire of horrible, shitty stuff we experience are some gorgeous diamonds amongst the tūtae!

Don’t do it all by yourself, that’s what I’d want them to know. [Laughing]. Get some help! I won’t do it this way again – it’s a lot of work…and it’s taken a toll on many levels. Not in a bad way, but it’s made me realise that it’s okay to ask for help.


On looking ahead

IW: Since sending this off to the printer, I had a big exhale, then a big flare up, so I literally couldn’t do anything for a couple of weeks. In March 2024, my poetry collection is coming out, In the shape of his hand lay a river, which comes from the poem, Morass. And there’s

A Counter of Moons in 2024 too. Then in 2025, it’s the next ESP Grief Almanac (see belo). I’ve got a new project percolating about ancestors, so that feels good.

ARA: Bronwyn Russell says, in Grief Is A Rock, that grief can be ‘something on which to build beautiful, useful things’. There’s mourning and remembering in these pages, but there is consolation too. If there’s one thing that you’d like people to take from our kōrero and the Almanac, what would it be?

IW: Hmmmm…Feel whatever you need to feel. Without censoring yourself.

ARA: Ngā mihi nui, Iona. It’s been an honour to read the Almanac and kōrero with you. Thank you for your candour and for leading this extraordinary mahi. This pukapuka really captures the complexity of loss. To use that beautiful phrase from your poem ‘Morass’, ‘forcing hope into an unlit void’ –  it’s a lot to ask of words, but I think you and the one hundred and three writers have achieved that in the inaugural Grief Almanac.


About the Almanac

The Elixir & Star 2023 Grief Almanac: a liminal gathering, curated and edited by Iona Winter (ISBN 978047368917-9, RRP NZD 32.99, is available from bookshops and libraries – and from Elixir & Star Press. For a limited time, you can buy a second copy for a friend at half-price.

Profits from sales are reinvested into the next Almanac. Follow Iona and/or Elixir & Star Press for news of her new poetry collection, In the shape of his hand lay a river and the upcoming A Counter of Moons.

Submissions for the second ESP Grief Almanac 2025: Open from April 20-May 20, 2025. For updates, follow Iona and Elixir & Star Press on Facebook and Instagram. And there’s the ESP WordPress page and information on Iona’s website too.


Links and Resources

  • Iona’s kōrero with Vaughan Rapatahana in Flash Frontier, including her poem ‘Morass’
  • Iona’s interview about the Almanac on the OARsome Morning Show
  • Some other Aotearoa New Zealand books about grief: Vaughan Rapatahana’s mō taku tama; Linda Collins’ Loss Adjustment, and a couple of poetry collections, The Long Cold Nights of June by Debby Curreen and Family Instructions Upon Release by Elizabeth Kirby-McLeod.


Iona WinterIona Winter (Waitaha) writes poetry, short fiction, essays, and is the founder-editor for Elixir & Star Press. She has three published collections, then the wind came (2018), Te Hau Kāika (2019), Gaps in the Light (2021), and a new poetry collection, In the shape of his hand lay a river. As the 2022 CLNZ/NZSA Writers’ Award recipient Iona completed A Counter of Moons, a non-fiction book on living with suicide bereavement, also due out in 2024. Fearless in the face of deep grief, she crafted a liminal gathering, the inaugural Elixir & Star Grief Almanac, that showcases the creative work of 103 New Zealand based artists responding to grief. You can find Iona at ionawinter.com or https://elixirandstarpress.wordpress.com/ or outside in the māra.


Alex Reece AbbottAlex Reece Abbott is a New Zealand Irish writer who works across genres and forms. Honoured with the Flash Frontier Summer Writing Award for a body of work, her writing is a Penguin Random House WriteNow finalist and Irish Novel Fair, Northern Crime, Arvon, Crediton, Pulp Literature and HG Wells prize winner and a London Independent Story Prize Rising Star. Her stories are widely anthologised, including in Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, The Broken Spiral (UNESCO Dublin City of Literature Read), The Real Jazz Baby (Best Anthology, Saboteur Awards), Heron (Katherine Mansfield Society) and A Cluster of Lights. You can find Alex at www.alexreeceabbott.info or outside, up a boreen.

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