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May 27, 2006 | by  | in Books |
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Terra Incognito

Imagine losing your partner and close friends all in one year, while suffering the consequences of being HIV positive and feeling incapable of returning to your work, about which you are passionate and successful. This is the position Douglas Wright found himself in last year, after the death of his partner, Malcolm, and several of his close friends, including Janet Frame. This is the unfamiliar territory referred to in Wright’s latest book’s title.

I approached this book gingerly, assuming I’d churn through it slowly and reluctantly, as I usually do with autobiographies based, on a terrible condition that has changed the life of the writer. There’s a risk that a book of this sort will ride on its subject matter rather than be well written in its own right (I have David Pelzer in mind). After all, child abuse, grief and terminal illness are almost certainly going to sell.

If I’d read Ghost Dance, Wright’s first book, which won the best first non-fiction work at the Montana Book Awards in 2005, I would have realized that Wright is not merely writing for therapy or money. It’s not milking his experiences, but rather using his imagination, emotional insight and lyrical coherence to make sense of a difficult period of his life, and to expose the process of making a dance.

Wright may be better known as one of New Zealand’s most accomplished choreographers and dancers, creating risqué and sensuous performances that have travelled around the world. A dance is not dissimilar to a good piece of writing; writers and choreographers both must scavenge, gathering ideas from unlikely places, they must feel in the dark, working from an initial idea and following it through. Terra Incognito builds from a visceral description of a half wakeful coma, induced by taking nearly two hundred panadol to escape the depression that comes from living around death. This memory is the peak of a year’s accumulated pain; it is clarified throughout the book, with a chronological explanation of how that moment came about. Flashbacks to a part-time job, disasterous holidays and euphoric dancing punctuate the daily grind of waking up with depression, of which readers are given an extraordinarily candid impression. Sketches for dance moves, photographs and photocopied pages from Wright’s diary act in a similar way.

Dealing with this subject matter, it seems that no language can be overblown or melodramatic, yet so often you find this type of book to be written so lushly that its almost unreadable. There were moments in this book where I flinched, but overall the writing was expressive and fresh in a way that does justice to its topic.

Throughout this book, Wright is struggling to create a new dance. This process is stalled by his illness, but is never abandoned completely. After Wright’s suicide attempt, a new respect for life gave him the energy to complete the dance – Black Milk. The end product will be performed in Wellington in April, and I am keen to see it having read the book. Releasing the book of the dance and the dance of the book simultaneously is a clever marketing ploy – one will undoubtedly advertise the other. But as I said, Terra Incognito is not simply a product to be marketed, as books of its genre so often are, it is genuine non-fiction in its own right.

Douglas Wright
Penguin

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