Talking with Nic Low about literature and the outdoors and a cultural exchange with Christchurch

Last month, New Zealand author Nic Low came to Seattle for almost two weeks as part of an ongoing native author exchange program facilitated by the Seattle City of Literature organization. As part of Lit Crawl, Low appeared onstage at the Hugo House with Seattle author Willie Fitzgerald. The morning after Lit Crawl, he met with me to share his thoughts about the trip, and how Christchurch and Seattle could grow together as literary cities. This interview, obviously, took place before Seattle was named a UNESCO City of Literature, but that designation makes Low's thoughts on a cultural exchange even more relevant.

So you've been here for ten days. What are your impressions? What has your visit to Seattle been like?

Well, I'm still on a good high from Lit Crawl last night. I'm always excited when a whole city comes out — whatever the event is, something that draws a whole lot of people out into the public space. Because writing often happens behind closed doors, publishing happens behind closed doors. It's not always a particularly public art form. So when you get something like Lit Crawl, it's really exciting.

I loved going to see [Claudia Castro Luna’s] Poetic Grid [presentation]. I loved hearing all the different poets read, and seeing the photographs and the maps correlated. I've been hiring the Spin bikes and also walking everywhere, to get a feel for the geography. So to then overlay that with poets’ impressions of that geography was really enriching. I enjoyed that a lot.

I also loved the Jack Straw Writers who were on before that. Really cool to see a - I was going to say a younger generation but that's not right, because they're really from all different generations. But the Jack Straw Fellows are doing some really exciting work.

We had a lovely catch-up with the Jack Straw Writers a couple of days ago, and they shared stories of what they're working on. I was super-impressed with the diversity of that group — a really broad range of perspectives: people writing about their personal experiences growing up; people writing about experiences of being native but not living on your home territory; people writing about sexual violence; people writing about a whole range of different topics, but all from really beautifully crafted points of view. I like getting down and soaking those kind of things up.

Another real highlight has been connecting with various different First Nations groups here, and sharing stories with them. I'm Ngāi Tahu — I'm Maori — and that's a very big part of who I am, what I write. So to hear some of the stories and the histories from people who've been here six, eight, ten thousand years is really exciting.

I went down to Tacoma for an event down there. They’re touring a totem pole around the Lummi Nation in solidarity with the fight against various fossil fuel projects. And I met a wonderful writer, Rena Priest, who's a Lummi woman, and she'd written a piece specifically for that occasion. Really great to connect across those cultural boundaries as well.

You also skipped up to Vancouver?

I did. It's a bit of a stupid way to organize a schedule, but it's entirely my fault from just saying “yes” to everything. I had an event in Vancouver not last night but the night before. And then I've got another event in Vancouver tomorrow. So I'm going back to Vancouver on the first plane tomorrow morning.

So you've been south, you haven't been all the way down to Portland, but you've been to Tacoma, you've been up to Vancouver. Does it feel like a region in your brief experience, or is the national border significant to you?

I sent a photograph back to my partner back in Australia at the point where we went across the border and we just had a view of ocean. And I sent her a message that said ‘Canada to the right, America to the left.’ It's just ocean! These lines are always mildly arbitrary, and I think the arbitrariness of that emerges when you are hanging out with First Nations people, whose territory boundaries have no relationship.

I mean, they obviously have a very important relationship to that national boundary now. But predating European settlement, the fluidity — or just the different tribal territories, and the overlap and the trade — seeing the shared knowledge between indigenous people up and down that coast? There's a real familiarity to that.

I've been watching the weather patterns very closely and seeing if I can get myself into the hills at all. We got one day hiking in the Cascades, which was lovely — you can sort of see that coastline, the consistent vegetation. I know, from the map and from photographs sort of what the geography looks like. But it's basically been raining the whole time —

Yeah, it has.

So we haven't seen so much of it.

It's appropriate. It's seasonally appropriate.

The book I'm working on, as you know from the talk last night, is the history of mountains in New Zealand. And I really was, and still am, keen to get up into the mountains as much as possible here. But my crampons haven't got much of a workout yet.

They're intense. I'm from the east coast — I'm from Maine, which is other corner — and the mountains here are much more impressive than they are there.

I did catch one glimpse of Rainier out there, sitting proud. It's like a magnet to me. I was like, 'I want to go there.' But it wasn't possible.

It's very impressive. And it’s a volcano, too, so in a lot of ways it could just as well be our death on the horizon. At some point we could be Pompeii.

Oh wow. A fossilized Seattle. Just everybody caught with their lattes in one hand, with their phones in their other hand.

Yeah. People of the future wouldn't be able to tell your fossil from a Seattleite, with the coffee cup in your hand.

No they wouldn't. And I think that is one of the interesting things. I travel a lot and you do, on the one hand, brace yourself for strangeness and difference, but on the other hand you often find similarity and connection.

There's such commonality in culture now. We read so much that comes out of America. There's such great cross-influence in terms of media, in terms of internet, in terms of the technologies that now guide our lives.

I’ve certainly been struck by the degree of homelessness here.

I guess also there are some differences. I’ve certainly been struck by the degree of homelessness here. That stands out like a sore thumb, and it has made me feel pretty uncomfortable. It's confronting. It's really confronting to see that level of poverty hard up against this level of wealth. I guess I'm used to that level of poverty in very poor countries, but not in the rich countries.

Yeah. It's gotten out of control in the last ten years. I mean, it's always been there, but it is something that this city has not been responsible in keeping up with.

Yeah. It's a whole another long and complicated conversation.

I'm certainly curious to know how those demographics have shifted, of who constitutes the homeless. Because you have your stereotypical people, and then I've seen a whole lot of people who don't fit the stereotype. I've seen lots of people who look like they might not have been on the streets for that long, or have come from a whole range of different backgrounds.

It's certainly eye-opening in that respect.

There’s a study that found when the average rent in a city increases by $100, the homelessness population increases by 15 percent.

Seriously? That's the correlation?

Yeah. So you are seeing people who you would not normally see as homeless, because they are not ordinarily homeless.

Gosh that's a thin line, $100. That's a very thin line.

Yeah. It is a very thin line. It is the first thing that a lot of visitors notice and we have to do something to help. But to bring it back to books: So Seattle has several sister cities. Reykjavik, is one, and we have a pretty good cultural exchange going with Reykjavik. What do you think that the relationship between Christchurch and Seattle could be or should be? What do you think we have to learn from each other? It's a big question, sorry.

It's a big question, but a couple of immediate things spring to mind. The first one is what we talked about before with the Seattle Poetic Grid. I can see the usefulness of that, obviously, in the context of the literary exchange. And to bring writers back on a regular basis, to be mapping each other's cities, to be providing outside viewpoints.

I really like the idea of locals learning from visitors, and visitors learning from locals. There was one poem in the Grid that was from someone who'd been in the city for 24 hours, and it was an observation of tents under a freeway. Interesting that that was what struck him, or her.

We've been talking about a few different potential models. One thing is perhaps to have writers go in pairs. Imagine that I come back next year and bring another writer with me, and we do a project. And then the next year, that other writer comes back and brings someone new with them in a kind of an iterative process, so that they can make introductions and show people around, and vice versa. So get Elissa [Washuta, who visited New Zealand as a Seattle author through this program last year] back to Christchurch and get her to bring someone with her, and just roll it on that way.

Another area that immediately springs to mind is our relationship with the outdoors. Christchurch is really an incredible gateway to the mountains. An hour’s drive, you're in the snow, you're on a ski field, you're strapping on your crampons, you're ready to go. A couple of hours and you're in the absolute heart of the Southern Alps. So mountain culture, rock climbing, mountain running, mountain biking — all these things that you guys love, are absolutely alive and well in Christchurch.

I suppose this is sort of the work that I've been doing. I've been doing so much around place and wilderness and outdoors, but from a cultural and literary point of view. I'd love to see some kind of program that combines taking people into the outdoors and exposing them to the literature of the outdoors.

Like a kind of mountain writing festival perhaps, that happens in Seattle one year and in Christchurch the next. And then maybe the events take place somewhere in the mountains, or maybe it's a series of trips with conversation while walking, writers out on the trail discussing various different ideas about place and belonging.

You've already mentioned that you’re working on a non-fiction book about mountains. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

I grew up in the mountains. In all of our spare time we got taken up what we call tramping, what you would call hiking. The Southern Alps were a really big part of my dad's youth. He's always loved the mountains, and so when we were old enough to carry our school bags up, we went. And that really runs in the family. My whole extended family on dad's side are very much mountain people, and I knew the stories and the histories.

On my mother’s side, we are Ngāi Tahu, and we are more often than not thought of as coastal people. I knew the histories in the stories of the plains and coasts, but I didn't really know what our associations were with the mountains.

So I wanted to write a book that put those two things in dialog, my European heritage of mountaineering and climbing and exploring, and my Maori heritage of — whatever that looked like. I didn't really know what that looked like. But I assumed that, because hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of those rivers, peaks, valleys — they're all named. So if they're named, people knew them, there would be stories associated with them. I set out to try and find what those stories were.

Fast-forward three years, and I would spend a very long time in those mountains. I've done 15 long-distance journeys though the Alps. I'm going to write about ten of them. They're the pre-European routes we used for trade, for exploration, for family visits, for warfare. There’s a lot of mythology, our creation stories. It’s very, very central to our sense of identity and place.

There's a lot of books out there that talk about wilderness. We have a great fascination with explorers. But often the people that were exploring had guides; more often than not, they were guided. The places that they were discovering were all known, they were named. They were celebrated in long and deep histories. So I want to bring some of those histories to the surface, and I'd like to write this book in a way that gets people excited about both sides of those histories, so that when they go out into the mountains they see that overlay. They know who was here, what they were doing and why, and they understand the names that are on the land.