(A conversation with writer) Kate Holden:
“I do have the kind of psychological profile that tends to be drawn to the taboo things - as an observer though, not as a participant - but in that case I thought I was going to be an observer, then it toppled over.” Australian author Kate Holden is explaining how she, a studious young woman from a stable background, who graduated from University with an Honours degree in Classics and Literature, became a heroin addict, then a sex worker.
“Your late teens and early twenties are full of things that you’ve never done before. I think I looked at it as a challenge, to take a step that truly terrified me” she elaborates. “It came from not understanding consequences, which I think is very typical of young people. I don’t recommend five years in heroin addiction as a maturing experience, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to test yourself. It did teach me a lot of things that I needed to know about the world; I just think I did it rather dramatically.”
Holden’s first book, In My Skin, published in 2005, chronicled those years spent in an underworld of drugs, prostitution and, ultimately, profound solitude. It was a raw account, conveyed with little of the self-indulgence she fears plagues the memoir as a literary form: the “monstrous narcissism”, as she calls it. It hit a nerve. Since the book was published she has received messages from many addicts and ex-addicts who have sought her out to share their experiences or, uncomfortably for her, advice. Says Holden, “I find it incredibly humbling and moving, and I really appreciate the trust they put in me, but I am not trained in counselling. I sometimes think, ‘What am I doing here? I don’t even know what I’m talking about’.”
It’s been 10 years now since she finally weaned herself off the drugs that had replaced everything else in her life, and began emerging from the cocoon of her nocturnal existence. It started, intellectually, with a year of reading up on the French Revolution, which she found "allegorical” at the time (all the revolution coupled with carnage), and led her to the Romantic Poets. “I read Byron – I love Byron. I didn’t read the poetry so much as about their lives, I was fascinated with that.”
Holden instinctively responded to their credo: “The Romantics believed there was nothing so true about yourself as your emotions, your response to the natural world. And I really needed to get back to that because I’d lived in this really strange world as a sex worker, where I was happy in lots of ways, but I lived a very artificial life, wearing costumes that weren’t really my kind of clothes, and performing as this other personality, so I really needed to find authenticity. That was what I pursuing more than anything else.”
Her new book, The Romantic, another memoir, recounts the nine months she spent living in Italy as she recovered from her former life. Holden felt the need to leave Melbourne in order to gain some perspective on what she had been through. “I think it was a good thing to do, to get away. Here I would have been constantly bucking against all the old things, so crossing to the other side of the world where absolutely no-one knew me, I could kind of reassemble everything.” As the fug of addiction dissipated she experienced an awakening. “To suddenly have pain there, and joy, and pleasure, and smell it was like coming up from a subterranean world and moving into the daylight”, she recalls.
Holden had planned to spend her time in Italy recuperating; instead she plunged headfirst into a series of liaisons, re-exploring her sexuality and newfound, unanaesthetized emotions with verve. She describes the book as being “about this girl who goes to Italy in search of the 'Romantic', then having this very picaresque journey through various types of romance and sex.”
It comes as little surprise to learn that Holden, who wrote her graduating thesis on the diaries of Anais Nin, has been an avid journal keeper since the age of eight. For The Romantic, they were her starting point. “I went back to my diaries and found there were really comprehensive accounts of what was going on, which is more tragic in one way than anything else because I was so focused on these relationships at that time that I kept very, very detailed accounts of them – there were even verbatim passages of the conversations we had.”
The result is another vivid chapter in Holden’s already colourful life: bittersweet, illuminating, a feminist tome for a new generation perhaps. Now, at 10 years clean, as a successful writer and columnist (for The Age, an Australian newspaper to which she contributes weekly), her years of tumult behind her, Holden exudes a kind of intoxicating vivaciousness.
“I’m really happy with the writing; it’s such a joy, such a gratification. I try and explain to people that with heroin, it’s hard to go back to other types of satisfaction; it can be a bit nebulous. Heroin is a very concrete form of satisfaction. It’s difficult, when you’ve learnt that one, to see how you could be satisfied by anything else. I used to absolutely marvel at people who could get through the day without it. I had no idea how I was going to do it.”
That Holden not only got through the day without it, but has continued to for years now, is something she doesn’t take for granted. Nor is the opportunity to follow her vocation: “That’s one of the huge issues in recovery, that you have no faith that anything will ever comfort you in the same way. You can’t imagine anything ever taking that space. I think I’m incredibly lucky that I did find something that replaced that, and that I got a career and some success out of it.”
(A conversation with filmmaker) Justin Pemberton:
We spend our formative years experimenting with anything and everything in an indefatigable quest to form our persona; that is, how we define ourselves, and how we wish the world to see us. They’re mutable, these personalities of ours - we morph, we adapt to our environment, we remain in a state of flux. Our gender however, that's more straightforward. Or is it?
Imagine, if you will, feeling you were born into the wrong body, the wrong sex altogether. Imagine identifying as homosexual, and finding that so transgressive you consider transforming yourself into a member of the opposite sex. These are themes explored in Is He Or Isn’t She, a new documentary from filmmaker Justin Pemberton.
Made over the course of five years, and shot predominately in the provincial environs of New Zealand's Far North, the film introduces us to Graham - a transgender identified man transitioning to living as a woman - whom Pemberton met through a stroke of fate. “I'd been researching eunuchs, as I’d heard that sex offenders in America are being chemically castrated, so I started doing some research. I thought it was never going to be funded in New Zealand, as they only fund New Zealand stories,” he says. Eventually, he changed tack. “At that point I was looking at pitching some ideas internationally (...) a friend of a friend told me about this guy who wanted to become a woman but hadn’t told anyone yet. I wondered if that was really boring compared to castration (...) thought it was interesting that he hadn’t done anything yet [surgically]. I hadn’t seen a documentary before that had started when the person was still a man.”
The project began with Pemberton interviewing and filming his subject, gaining momentum when project funding was secured. Graham, who assumed the name Ashleigh as she transitioned into living as a pre-operative female, quickly struck up a rapport with Pemberton as he documented her journey. “Five years is a really long time, though I wasn’t there all the time; I’d have a break of nine months or something and then I’d feel really guilty, like I’d abandoned it. So I’d go back and pop up four or five times over three or four months. My life was changing as well and Ashleigh was really interested in that. We definitely developed a friendship; she would ask me for advice.” Over time, as she struggled to raise funds for the operation she maintained would make her ‘whole’, Pemberton begin to doubt Ashleigh’s commitment to full, reconstructive surgery.
“I think the financial burden was significant in things not happening, but it just didn’t quite add up, because I was talking to other people who had been in difficult financial situations themselves who had managed to achieve it.” By this stage, the lines between documentarian and friend had begun to blur. “I had a fundraising event for her, a documentary film festival. I thought that would be a good way to get it started. I think I raised 1500 bucks for her, through that. Then nothing else happened; nobody else followed through; nobody seemed motivated except for me. Everyone else was just happy buying this moratorium that she had boxed herself into.”
The film’s pivotal scene is arresting, for both audience and protagonist: Pemberton shows Ashleigh graphic surgical photographs of male genitalia being transformed into a vagina. “I don’t think anyone had actually confronted Ashleigh about what was going on, and I think Ashleigh is a bit of a fantasist. At that point, I was thinking, ‘Am I going to have to pay for this?’ Which obviously would raise some serious ethical questions. I got to a point where I was feeling quite stressed; I’d been following someone for four years and they weren’t going anywhere.” It’s worth noting that Pemberton completed a degree in psychology before he made his career in film. “Interviewing people, hearing their stories, finding out what makes them tick is something that I’m really drawn to. A lot of the people that I’ve filmed have really enjoyed that opportunity to sit down and talk about themselves, to work things out. I’m usually filming people who are going through some kind of crisis. It is a lot like a very public kind of therapy.”
Pemberton was ultimately surprised by Ashleigh’s true motive: “I think she just wanted to be normal, which is a strange kind of thing really, from where I’m coming from: that there is something exciting about being original and different. You have to remember that a lot of people don’t like that; a lot of people want to blend in and not be noticed. To be normal is a virtue for some people.”
(A conversation with cultural ambassadors) Maria Batiz and Jose de la Macorra:
Restaurateurs Maria Batiz and Jose Carlos de la Macorra first came to New Zealand eleven years ago on their honeymoon, with the intention of visiting Australia afterwards. They never made it. “I liked it better here!”exclaims Maria. They bought a truck with a motorcycle motor; it had a little wooden house built into the back of it. Then, for six months, they traveled the length of this country, stopping only for a spell to pick kiwifruit in Keri Keri, near the top of New Zealand's North Island.
Back in Mexico City, Maria finished her degree in art restoration and began teaching, while Jose worked between the corporate world and a business he started, exporting religious iconography to the United States. But their imagination had been captured. “We could see that in New Zealand, it’s really easy to do what you like. It’s possible. You can survive with a small business,” says Maria. They had a plan. Jose had studied hotel management in England, and had found while working in hotel kitchens that he enjoyed cooking. He wanted his own establishment, he wrote in his thesis. It would be a place to promote Mexican culture: he would be an informal agent for his country.
They returned to New Zealand – Maria found work in her field while Jose turned the basement of their apartment building into a kitchen, and Mexican Specialties was born. Initially trading as a sandwich delivery service to office buildings, it’s now a small yet bustling slice of Mexico tucked away in an anonymous block of shops in one of Auckland’s outer suburbs. Its reputation has grown primarily from word of mouth, and its whereabouts are passed rapturously from person to person.
Maria can be found up front most days, serving customers while sole cook Jose keeps the most authentic Mexican food in New Zealand coming out of the kitchen. Regular customers know to be patient as Jose, ever the perfectionist, detests any kind of culinary shortcuts – he sources and chooses all meat and produce himself, cooking everything dish by dish to ensure it meets his high standards. They had a chance to expand but decided to forgo extra space and more customers. “Sometimes you try to do more, but it changes, the atmosphere changes. So we decided to shrink!” says Jose gleefully. “If you put in 10 more tables, then you have to put another fridge, another cook. You start relying on other people, you can’t check on the quality”.
“Say with sex,” he continues, “Imagine you do it morning, afternoon, and night – it becomes quite dull. The thing with this is, if you do it too much, then that’s your life – it stops being enjoyable.” Which accounts for their abbreviated opening hours; the doors are open from Thursday through Saturday each week, even then, only from mid to late afternoon. It hasn’t deterred their ardent clientele, most who have supported them from day one.
The business is shaping up to be all they hoped it would be.“Personally, for us, it was our best chance to open up with the local people, it was a good opportunity to socialise. We have customers that come every day. Not even to eat! Just to talk for five minutes and go!”
“There is an Englishman who has come every Saturday since we opened,” says Maria, smiling. “He’s missed two Saturdays, because he went to England. He came, knocked on the door and said, ‘I’m not coming his week, so don’t worry about me!’”
“It’s not just a taco, you know? It’s really deep,” says Jose, “We talk to them about Mexico. We plan trips for them, and of course they can meet the parents, go for lunch with them.” In fact, four different customers have stayed with their parents since Mexican Specialties opened its doors.
The freedom that Maria and Jose feel they have in this country is not to be understated. “In Mexico he would probably never have had a shop like this. The social expectations are really different. You have to live in a certain house, drive a certain car and have a certain job – not making tacos and talking to people,” explains Jose. “You have to live on a level that is in accordance with your social status.” Would they consider moving back at some point? “We didn’t come here forever, we came here for a couple of years – but now it’s been 10,” says Jose, with a shrug. “There’s never been a reason to leave. Here we have our own life, our thing, and it reflects who we are 100 percent.”