Bridge from nowhere

KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 05:00 31/07/2011
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MARTIN HUNTER/Fairfax Media

Award winner: Christchurch writer Jane Higgins.

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The Bridge, Jane Higgins, Text Publishing, $26

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War drums beating in Europe inspired a Kiwi author to craft a winner. Kim Knight talks to her. 

IN the European winter of 1981, martial law was declared in Poland.

At an ecumenical monastery in the south of France, a young visitor faced a dilemma: go home before the borders closed – or stay, and wonder when he would be allowed re-entry to his land of birth.

Christchurch woman Jane Higgins remembers her Polish friend went home – and the agony of his decision: "It kind of blew my mind."

She was in her early 20s. "The young, green New Zealand girl goes to look at the big wide world."

The Taize monastery – motto: peace through justice and reconciliation – was near a military base. Higgins was there as a volunteer – "cook, bottle washer, picking up the trash...

"And every now and then we'd be at the church, and there would be a warplane screaming by and you'd get this sonic boom... I thought, `this is serious preparation for war that I'm looking at. And here are these young people who are kind of involved in wars not of their own making'."

Thirty years later and that formative OE underpins her award-winning novel for young adults. The Bridge, released tomorrow, won Higgins the 2010 Text Prize (open to New Zealand and Australian writers) and a $10,000 publishing contract.

Her post-apocalyptic read, which mixes questions of faith with fear of the outsider, was three years in the making. Higgins says her first, "much rejected" novel, was lying in a bottom drawer, when she thought, "Perhaps I should I try a short story?"

"And it just grew and grew..."

Words were honed at Christchurch's Hagley Writers' Institute, where she and nine others met weekly under the tutelage of poet Bernadette Hall. "She made me think about language in new and exciting ways. Being able to look at language sideways was something I got from her."

Higgins' first creative story-telling efforts were at Christchurch's Sacred Heart Girls' College, where she devoured classic science fiction and fell in love with Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea series.

"The line I got back from the teacher was `write what you know' – and if you look at my career since then, that's exactly what I've done. I've gone out and I've researched and studied and made sure that everything I write about, I really, really know about."

She's talking about her work as a social researcher at Lincoln University – including a study of teenagers born after 1984, the post-Rogernomics generation, in which participants surprised her by asking why she wasn't asking about religion.

"I have become aware that spirituality has become important to young people... even if it's just banging up against it and saying `no, I don't agree with that'."

A long time social justice champion, Higgins has campaigned – among other things – against the Springbok tour, sexism in the Catholic Church, and the Employment Contracts Act. She credits a teacher and nun, Susan Smith, with encouraging her involvement in peace and justice movements.

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In The Bridge, teenagers must sift fact from fiction from propaganda. Knowledge truly becomes power – and not every character has a happy ending.

"I did think hard about that. But I also thought, `this is what happens in war'. My grandmother lost a brother... young people die in war and I think that reality was brought home to me travelling, and opening the newspaper every day of the week."

Higgins learnt she won the Text prize last winter. "My husband was coming home from the airport. I texted him just a whole series of smiley emoticons. We've been celebrating ever since."

This year's winner, announced last week, is Melbourne-based freelance journalist Myke Bartlett. Entries for next year's competition open in May 2012. Higgins' advice for wannabe writers?

"I think it's about making a mess at first. Not expecting it to come out perfect first time. It's tempting to say `that's awful' and walk away, but once it's down on the page, you can rework it."

- Sunday Star Times

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