Their backgrounds and lives are very different, but Ghazaleh Golbakhsh and Lauren Keenan share a united vision.
Both have an unwavering determination that their creative talent as writers can be used to bring fresh perspectives to audiences here in Aotearoa and around the world.
Golbakhsh explains “it is very important - and very overdue in both literature and screen - that we support a diverse range of perspectives and voices. I think that people are hungry for these and there are so many voices out there who are hungry to tell their stories.”
Keenan agrees - “reading about characters that are different to yourself fosters empathy and understanding. And when you're diverse yourself, reading about people like you helps you on your journey to finding belonging and place.
“It also helps you understand the world and the context in which others operate - whether that context be literal, geographical or mental. The world is such an interesting and varied place. When we learn more about it in ways we later remember, we are better for it.”
The pair have more common ground - they’ve each been supported to help their voices be heard after receiving one of the four annual Copyright Licensing New Zealand/ New Zealand Society of Authors $5000 research grants, which support both fiction and non-fiction writers and are open for 2022 applicants until 8 June.
One of the four Research Grants is targeted at diverse writers and diverse and new topics, and writers who propose to write on issues or subjects that are topical in present day Aotearoa.
It’s Aotearoa's past that motivates Keenan (Te Ātiawa ki Taranaki), who has carved a unique niche for creating stories steeped in New Zealand history with a Māori worldview.
“I've always loved history - it's a lifelong passion of mine,” Keenan enthuses. “I gravitated toward historical fiction as a kid and studied it to Masters' level at university. Even now, I love reading both fiction set in the past and historical non-fiction about times that have gone before.
“The thing with history, though, is there seems to be a popular trend of telling a narrow range of stories about specific events over and over.
“I wanted to write about aspects of our history that haven't been explored as often in fiction. Especially children's fiction.”
Lauren Keenan. Photo: Supplied.
Keenan's forthcoming novel Rākau: The Lost Tree is a sequel to the recently released Amorangi and Millie’s Trip Through Time. It draws on parts of the motu that hold significance to Keenan, raised in Palmerston North but living in the capital these days.
“It follows two children as they seek to find where in history the pieces of a rimu have ended up. I won't give away any spoilers, but parts of the tree have spread far and wide - including to historic Wellington; to the famous hotel that was damaged during the Tarawera Eruption; and on board the Wahine. The majority of the book, however, is set in New Plymouth during the outbreak of the first Taranaki War in 1860. We follow both the settlers and local iwi as they grapple with the conflict as it unfolds.
“My hope is that in telling these stories in this way, it both entertains and educates children and adults alike.”
Storytelling is also in Golbakhsh’s blood.
She has proven herself across a range of mediums - a filmmaker who helped bring Muslim New Zealanders’ stories in documentary This is Us, a writer, actor and director on Shortland Street and one of the creatives behind upcoming New Zealand International Film Festival entrant Kāinga - not to mention a Fulbright scholar with a PhD.
But the desire to write a book has always been a driving motivator, and she opted to take an intimately personal approach with the much acclaimed The Girl From Revolution Road, a series of personal essays.
Ghazaleh Golbakhsh. Photo: Ainsley Duyvestyn Smith.
She describes writing it as a “lifelong dream”, adding “I was really influenced by the new influx of personal essay books such as Ashleigh Young's Can you Tolerate This? and Rose Lu's All Those Who Live on Islands. I felt that the stories I had and wanted to tell would fit perfectly in this type of format and so that was what I chose.”
Born in Tehran, Golbakhsh and her family moved to Auckland in 1987 after “a turbulent and traumatic experience in Iran”, with her parents seeking a better life for their two daughters.
Golbakhsh recalls that as a six-year-old, “one of my first memories is not knowing the language so I set about reading as much as I could and that is where part of my love of literature came about. My mum was also a budding writer back in Iran, and both her and my dad worked in television so I guess the arts have always been a big part of my life.”
Keenan’s family has also played a crucial part in her creative journey. “The kids are my biggest supporters and the single most useful source of constructive criticism for my writing. I think of ‘the child edit’ - the version of a book that I read to them - as being the most important and gruelling.”
But she describes getting external support from the CLNZ/NZSA research grant as “amazing”, something that had a huge practical impact on her Rākau: The Lost Tree project.
“It (the grant) allowed me to travel to the places I was writing about and see both the whenua and the remaining historical artefacts with my own eyes. I also benefited from the ability to purchase some key books and sources about the times.
“Sometimes you read about a place or visit as a tourist, but without seeing it up close with your writer-eyes on, something is lost. Not only did I learn through seeing, but it made the historical events more vivid in my mind - an essential aspect of translating it to the page for others.”
For Golbakhsh, the personal satisfaction of completing The Girl From Revolution Road has been translated into international appreciation.
Photo: Ainsley Duyvestyn Smith.
“It's still incredible to be honest. Just recently it was released in the UK where readers can buy it at Waterstones or even the Telegraph website!
“In saying that, I do love seeing it at the independent stores here in Aotearoa where it did quite well - such as Unity Books, the Women's Bookshop, TimeOut, BooketyBookBooks and so many other wonderful Kiwi-owned stores.”
But before it was an international hit - Golbakhsh’s project needed backing. That included the CLNZ/NZSA research grant.
“I was so honoured to have received the grant as it not only helped me financially but it also validated my work in a way.
“It's always terrifying to send your work to someone, or to have another person review it so this was a great step in overcoming that fear.”
Golbakhsh continues “when I was in film school in Los Angeles, I wrote a draft of a comedy screenplay that followed two young Iranian women who take a road trip from Auckland to Gisborne. We always had to read our work aloud in the class and I was very worried that a class made up of Americans would not care much about such a NZ specific story.
“I was very wrong. In fact, the parts the class responded to the most were the specifics as these actually make the story more universal. I used to say to my students and people applying for funding, that what readers are most drawn to are things that are personal and specific as that is its point of difference.
“We need art that both supports and challenges the different viewpoints.”
When asked if she had any further advice she’d offer anyone thinking about applying for the grant - Golbakhsh is unequivocal.
“Do it. A great filmmaker once gave me the best advice: Apply for everything. Get your name out there. If anything, it will give you a deadline!”
That extra push strikes a chord with Keenan. “Knowing I would one day have to answer questions like this about the book's progress was hugely motivating on the days all I wanted to do was watch Netflix and eat cheese…
“In my book The 52 Week Project I write about how easy it is to get excited about things you might do in the theoretical future, but then life gets in the way and it never actually happens.
“It would be all too easy for that to happen with writing, especially as it's such a glacial process that can so often feel like running on the spot. Encouragement is essential to push forward.”
Written in partnership with the Copyright New Zealand/ New Zealand Society of Authors Research Grant. 2022 Applications are open until 4pm Wednesday 8 June - for writers both experienced and fledgling, nonfiction or fiction, to put their hands up for selection.