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Ashleigh Young is awkward. Endearingly awkward.
Although she’s clearly uncomfortable being interviewed, she’s also very nice. She pre-warns me over email that there’s a dearth of parking spots near Victoria University Press’s office, where she’s an editor. When I arrive by bus, she makes me a cuppa with soy milk. Then she answers my questions candidly, and usually very concisely. Her words feel a little like gaps in the silence. Actually, it’s refreshing to interview someone who is openly awkward, and perhaps a bit weird, rather than trying to present only their most impressive side.
Ashleigh is talking to me because her second poetry book, How I Get Ready (VUP), comes out this month (May, 2019). She describes it as angsty – which it is – but the book may convert people who don’t much like poetry to the genre. Some of the poems are poignant, some are thought-provoking, and all are autobiographical in some way. They’re full of striking images, and capture a mood or distil a moment.
It’s her first book since her knockout essay collection Can You Tolerate This? (VUP) was published in 2016. The common thread of the essays is how to bear up in the world, moment by moment – though there are plenty of lighter, and wryly humorous, moments. She writes about everything from the impossibly ugly jacket her brother wore everywhere, to a largely one-sided conversation with a woman who over-shared on a flight. I finish the book feeling like I know Ashleigh, and that I like her very much.
She admits she’s uncomfortable with her success. Bear with me listing the accolades for a sec. Can You Tolerate This? has had three print runs in New Zealand, and won the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for General Non-Fiction. That year, she also won one of eight global Windham-Campbell Prizes from Yale University, worth US$165,000 (about NZ$230,000). Can You Tolerate This? has since been published by Riverhead (a Penguin imprint) in the US, and in the UK by esteemed publisher Bloomsbury.
The collection’s had what Ashleigh calls “some nice reviews” (actually, they were glowing) from the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Washington Post. And in April, she was one of eight authors shortlisted for the global 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize (worth NZ$58,000) alongside the likes of Booker winner Anna Burns. “All this has been completely unexpected. To start with, it felt surreal.”
At 35, Ashleigh’s already achieved what very few New Zealand writers will – being published and critically acclaimed overseas, and winning international prizes. Some would call it living the dream. But this recognition seems to throw her more than it gratifies her. “I really struggle. I’m not interested in being a ‘personality’. I want to be behind the scenes.” She hasn’t even asked how her books are selling overseas. “I don’t really think about it, (success) because it’s overwhelming. I’d rather have a degree of obliviousness that allows me to write with some freedom. Otherwise I end up with other people’s expectations and judgements too close to me, and that’s distracting and sort of constraining.”
Has that $230,000 made her feel rich? “No! It’s in a term deposit until I decide what to do with it. I did buy new cycling pants and I got a haircut! But the purpose of the prize is really to buy yourself some serious time to write, which I’ll do when I’ve got a project firmly in mind.” She still lives simply, bikes to the office, works full-time at VUP. Ashleigh is said to excel as an editor, working with writers to improve and fine-tune their books, from “big-picture suggestions” through to “more cosmetic changes”. She writes her own stuff on weeknights and weekends. She doesn’t want to comment on her relationship status. “My social life is pretty much book launches, which is a bit embarrassing. I’m probably a bit of a homebody more than is healthy.”
But she also accepts invitations to international literary festivals. This helps push her out of her comfort zone, but it’s difficult, and not just because it tires her. “You have very little filter, and you’re also judged on your manner and things that often feel uncontrollable when you’re really nervous. I’ve definitely had some festival appearances that I’ve cringed over afterwards. But, boringly, practice helps.”
One of her essays touches on her mental health. She’s spoken about this briefly before, with some trepidation, but doesn’t want to go into it again, partly because people expect a neat resolution narrative – you know, for someone to have battled with and recovered from mental illness, and learned something. “Some people are unsure how to respond when you answer that your illness is very much ongoing, you’re still learning how to be in the world with it, and maybe you won’t ever get fully on top of it – and there’s unfortunately still quite a lot of stigma attached to that admission.”
There’s no magic cure. “Although I was listening to this podcast, Invisibilia, about this little implant that stimulates a tiny part of your brain, and it’s really great for deep depression, and the podcast told the story of someone who used it. Apparently the effect was profound.” Would Ashleigh try that? “Yeah.”
But Ashleigh would rather talk about other things. She’s not expecting How I Get Ready to sell well (New Zealand poetry doesn’t tend to). However, she says the stereotype of an under-nourished poet writing in a garret isn’t a thing. “Every poet I know except one has a job.”
Some poets say they just scribble a poem after a flash of inspiration. That’s not the case for Ashleigh. “I like to push a piece of work around, to see what it might turn into.” Her poetry literally has lots of unexpected gaps between words; again, gaps in the silence. “Silence is important in poetry. It’s definitely the things you don’t say, as much as what you do say.”
During her childhood, some things remained unsaid. Ashleigh grew up in Te Kuiti with her father (an accountant), mother (a teacher), and two brothers more confident than herself. Hamilton was the big smoke. As she describes in an essay, she started thinking about “ways in which to continue, and what continuing meant”. She writes that getting up, getting dressed, and interacting is one way of continuing. “But there was another way of continuing, and this was the continuing of silence. Our family had always continued to continue through events that we did not know how to speak of to one another.” For instance, after her mother locked her father out of the house, no one mentioned it the next day.
Her family were fine with appearing in some essays. “Especially now that some time has passed – and especially my dad who I didn’t write about always in a complimentary way.” In an essay she recounts how, when he dropped her off for her first year of university, he told her she had a “little moustache”. There’s no hint of one now. She’s beautiful.
Somehow, Ashleigh still has a certain dread “of not amounting to anything. But I’m working on that – and taking everything as it comes.”