Farewell Prime Minister

Yesterday, with mixed emotions, the country watched the resignation speech of New Zealand’s 40th Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. 

These are my thoughts…

As a public servant I am required to be politically neutral. And to be honest, in a moderate country like NZ, it doesn’t matter too much who makes political decisions as long as they’re made with the right intent, advice and evidence. Having served for 10+ years and under two governments (three if you count the coalition), I have seen laws made and unmade. And often the differences in policy are a matter of verbiage rather than substance.

BUT as a woman, I cannot undermine the impact she’s made. Especially on the parts of feminism that have suffered from toxic masculinity. 

For a long time and for obvious reasons, women could only make it in politics and leadership at large, if they had the biggest balls in the room with a hardy whiff of Thatcherism, i.e. were more manly than all the blokes. Books and workplace seminars that were meant to empower women, only ever told them to grow balls that adopting the qualities traditionally known as masculine was the only way to get ahead and to be a leader. Ironically, their male bosses were not advised to become more feminine.

However, as Ardern rose to power and international headlines praised her for what they called “feminine leadership,” I watched workplace conversations change. The definition of leadership expanded, and femininity got elevated (if only slightly) from the ranks of a flaw incompatible with professional achievement. 

I wonder if things would be much different, had her career fallen on less “interesting” times. Yet, even as a jaded cynic, I bought into and have been inspired by her relatability; as a woman, as a mother, as a human. 

And as a PR professional… I have been genuinely impressed. So much so, I must echo the words of John Key (her predecessor and a very different NZ Prime Minister): “I think she’s an outstanding communicator.”

I wish Ms Ardern and her family joy and equilibrium. I’m sure this won’t be the last we see of her.

Your “easy” is someone’s “impossible”

Have you discovered the book-writing secret that will help everyone? We need to talk.

I often see privileged and/or ableist statements floating around the writing and creative communities.

E.g. “I’m a single mother with five jobs, and I wrote 50 books last year.” 

Okay, good for you. You should be proud. But somewhere there is a person with zero kids and zero jobs, and just one chronic illness. And that person has written zero books because on their good day they only managed to shower. And you have zero rights to judge them.

The fastest person in the world can run 45 kilometres per hour. Doesn’t mean the rest of us can. Not with all the self-discipline in the world. And just because you’re managing to do all the things, doesn’t mean others can keep up with your level of productivity.

“You need to prioritise your art.”

Fine. What do you suggest I de-prioritise? My kid? Or the job that keeps a roof over our heads? Because that’s literally all I have time and energy for. I barely watch TV. Sometimes I listen to audiobooks while driving her to school. I skimp on cooking and cleaning. And I’m STILL flat out.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making excuses. I HAVE written a book. I AM getting short stories published. I’m doing it. Not as fast as I want, but I’m making it happen. And it’s through none of your “shoulds”. It’s NOT through having a routine, or writing every day, or setting a timer for fifteen minutes. It’s not through self-discipline or building a habit. It’s through constantly coming up with new hacks to trick my stubborn brain. It’s through seizing every unplanned downtime. It’s through radical opportunism. 

“But my advice is proven to work.” 

That, my dear, is called survivorship bias. I’m sure your approach worked for some people who have similar inner-workings to you, but there are many for whom it didn’t. Yet those people aren’t accounted for. It’s not the failed attempts that get the airtime.

Yet, your experience IS valuable. I’m absolutely not saying that you should stop sharing it. No, no, no. I’m just asking that you share it with compassion and kindness. Because you can’t shame anyone into improvement. You cannot invalidate people’s struggles and limitations because “you have struggled too,” or “you have struggled more.”  You can’t help anyone by making them feel less than when they don’t fit into your one-fits-all mould.

Trust me, I know. I’m good at school, at work, and at solving big problems. I’m useless at the little stuff, like remembering appointments or closing the fridge door. And if I had a penny for everytime someone said “you should just pay attention” or “you should just write it down,” I would’ve paid off my mortgage long ago. Instead, I’ve spent hours of my life crying over spilled milk, wishing I was “normal.”

But I’m not “normal.” Not in the neurotypical sense. And understanding this, I have accepted that certain things – things that don’t even cross most people’s minds, like how much eye contact you should be making with the supermarket checkout operator — are going to be really, really hard for me. And “just setting fifteen minutes aside for my art” isn’t going to cut it. Because my brain buffers. And it buffers a lot.

So, when I share tips or experience, I try to present it as personal and subjective, e.g. “This is what works for me.” “This is a hurdle I’ve faced and this is how I’ve overcome it.” “This is what I tried and it worked until it didn’t.”

And if you’re offering coaching services, you can similarly use examples from your work that don’t imply a one-fits-all solution. E.g. “Jane Blogs was going through such and such, I taught her to do X and Y, and this was the outcome. I can show you how.” And when somebody tells you they don’t have time, or energy, or can’t stick with a routine or a habit – believe them. Just because it’s not your experience, and perhaps not most people’s experience, doesn’t mean it’s not theirs. And maybe you aren’t the right person to help them, and that’s okay. The least you can do is make them feel seen and valid and not like a failure.

And for the odd-balls like me, who don’t fit the mould – don’t despair. Just because you haven’t found something that works, doesn’t mean you won’t. Keep searching, keep asking, keep speaking out. Share what works and what doesn’t, so we don’t feel so alone. Be radically opportunistic and make art. Once a week, once a year, or once a decade. I believe that you are doing your best.

Upcoming Anthology publication

Exciting news! My post-apocalyptic short story, Windy Wellington, will be published in the SpecFicNZ Anthology later this month, along with (I think) 24 other stories from Kiwi authors of speculative fiction.

Note: The interview below was first published on the SpecFicNZ blog.

Aftermath: Tales of Survival in Aotearoa New Zealand is SpecFicNZ’s new anthology, due for release in early April.

The anthology explores Aotearoa in a post-apocalyptic world. Disasters have occurred around the country and the world. New Zealand, in our isolation down under, may have escaped most of what happened around the world, but it was pretty bad out there. As Kiwis are apt to do, though, we’re “getting over it”. You know, she’ll be right …

This is not just an anthology of disaster stories. The pages are filled with hope in the form of short stories, poems, flash fiction and artwork about what comes afterwards. The contributions are exclusively from SpecFicNZ members and reflect the diversity and breadth of this country we love to call home … even if the edges are a bit torn and tattered.

We’re interviewing all the contributors to the anthology so you can get to know the brave souls who’ve battled zombies, aliens, earthquakes, volcanoes and more to bring you the stories you’ll find between its covers.

Today, we’re chatting with Alla Zaykova

  1. Aftermath includes a variety of disasters set all around Aotearoa New Zealand. What disaster / location combination did you write about and why?

I got the idea for my short story from re-reading Dune last year and the harrowing desert wind described there. I transposed that wind to New Zealand’s capital, where I have lived and worked for the past decade, to see what happens — a speculative twist on the “Windy Wellington” adage.

  1. How do you think the Kiwi approach to life after disaster is unique?

The pandemic proved Kiwis are pretty sensible in a crisis and look after one another.

  1. What are your most valuable post-apocalyptic skills?

I hope to never find out but I’d like to think I can spin a pretty kick-ass tale. It may not seem like much, but stories are vital for the survival of civilisation.

  1. They say the pen is mightier than the sword. Being a writer, you must have lots of pens. What creative use would you put them to in a post-apocalyptic New Zealand?

I lose pens, so I prefer to write digitally. However, in the most recent sci-fi book I’ve read, a metal pen was used to perform an emergency tracheotomy. So there you go.

  1. What are you working on now?

I’m currently revising a gritty space opera novel called Blackjack Interstellar. It’s a bit of a modern take on old-timey pulp fiction like The Stainless Steel Rat.

  1. Where can readers find out more about you and your writing?

I post about my writing journey on instagram under @azaykovawriter

I can also be found at www.azaykova.com

Please visit https://specfic.nz for more info.

TCKs – the aliens amongst us

“Where are you from?”

It’s a straightforward question, isn’t it? Not if you’re a Third Culture Kid (TCK, also known as a global nomad).

The term was coined in the 1950s by an American sociologist Dr Ruth Hill Useem, to describe people who have spent a significant part of their childhood years in two or more different countries. Useem found that, unlike people who move to a foreign country as adults, children incorporate elements of each culture they live in, but don’t fully integrate into any single one.  They combine pieces of their home and host cultures to form a “third culture.”

These experiences continue to affect people throughout their lives. Studies over the past decades have identified a number of common characteristics shared by TCKs, irrespective of which countries they lived in. These include good intercultural skills and interpersonal sensitivity, open-mindedness, adaptability, fluency in multiple languages, etc. Which is handy, right? However, growing up in different worlds also poses challenges: e.g. a sense of loss and grief (especially as many children don’t choose to move, it’s decided for them), confused identity, feelings of not belonging anywhere, rootlessness and cultural homelessness.

Why am I telling you this? Because I’m a TCK. I was born and spent the first eight years in Russia, the next nine years in Namibia, and then I came to New Zealand, on my own, aged 17, and ended up staying (for more than 15 years so far). I have elements of all these cultures ingrained in me. 

The whole rootlessness/confused identity issue did really bother me as a teen and in my early 20s. I felt that I was missing crucial chunks of experience to really belong anywhere and that I’d be a foreigner everywhere I go. The question “Where are you from” used to make me quite uncomfortable, especially if I didn’t want to share my entire life story.

I didn’t learn the term TCK until I was studying towards my second qualification in my mid-twenties, but I had been preoccupied with this topic long before that. 

In the first space opera I wrote when I was 16, kids get plucked from different planets to be sent to an intergalactic space school (to become crime fighting space agents, obviously), and the criteria for Earth kids was that they had to have lived in a foreign country, which was meant to make them adaptable enough to cope with living in space amongst the aliens. That book never saw the light of day, but I continued researching this topic for school essays and later for uni — that’s when I discovered the term Third Culture Kids.

There’s a piece of research that suggests making this discovery can be life-changing. It was for me. It helped me understand myself and my experiences, to realise there were many people who felt the same way as me, and to feel seen and validated. It’s similar to realising you have a neurodivergence for the first time, or figuring out your sexuality — your experience in the world suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, a book by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken is a great resource for anyone who wants to know more about this topic. As the cover says, this book is for “anyone who wants to understand the blessings and curses of growing up multiculturally.” You’ll find it useful if you’re a TCK yourself, or if you’re a parent of one, an educator, an employer, a researcher or a policy-maker.

I’ll also include a link to my old scribblings on this matter because they have handy references to more research and articles: https://midnightmediamusings.wordpress.com/tag/third-culture-kids/ 

Crawling to your dreams

Lately, I’ve been missing appointments like crazy, even with reminders. I wondered if I have early-onset dementia, but more likely, it’s just my brain telling me I have too many tabs open.

I’ve been getting frustrated with my inability to establish a routine this year, to find a balance between work and parenting, and to write regularly. My nomadic youth has taught me how to pack a suitcase using up every bit of space, and I’ve been trying to apply it to life, assuming that if I organise things the right way, I’ll be able to fit it all in. But what if there’s just too much stuff? What if I’m at full capacity and it just won’t fit, no matter how much I try?

I found this hard to accept because a) I compare myself to others — other people are able to manage jobs, kids and side projects, so should I; and b) I compare myself to my former self who was a bit of an overachiever.

But I don’t know other people’s circumstances and my own circumstances have changed. I’m dealing with a demanding (and often unpredictable) day job, a sensitive kid who hates sleep, an invisible chronic illness, a freshly diagnosed neurodiversity with it’s sensory and executive function challenges, and cumulative stress that was bound to catch up with me at some point. I don’t have much in terms of a support network either.

So, maybe this IS my capacity. Maybe that’s why my brain has been sending me the “not enough working memory” error message every time I try to plan something.

That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t follow my dreams and finish that damn book. But given I can’t take anything off my plate at the moment, I need to accept that it’s going to be messy. There won’t be regular writing sessions, balls will be dropped and appointments will be missed. There will be tears, and that’s okay.

Maybe one day my situation will change and I will be able to find consistency again (like I did last year for a few months). Until then, progress will be sporadic and opportunistic. 

In May, I took three weeks off work to edit. I might be able to do it again next year. Before then, there will be weekends where I get a few hours to myself, nights when I can afford to sacrifice more sleep to the writing gods, and bursts of focus and creativity. 

Of course, writing sporadically will take more time. And that too can feel frustrating. But once the book is finished, it won’t matter how many years it took to write. It will be mine, it will be done, and it will be tangible. And I’ll have the success of a kept promise to myself to surge me forward as I write the next book and the next.

So, if the burning elephants you’re juggling prevent you from writing every day or even every month, acknowledge your limitations. But don’t give up on your dreams. Be opportunistic, snatch your sporadic chances, and remember that every little bit of progress gets you closer.

If you can’t walk towards your dream, crawl, and if you can’t crawl, lie down in your dream’s direction.