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The cover of Henrietta Bollinger's book, Articulations, featuring a stylised illustration of their face, is framed in the centre of the image. Alongside hands reaching out from the book.

Image description

The cover of Henrietta Bollinger's book, Articulations, featuring a stylised illustration of their face, is framed in the centre of the image. Alongside hands reaching out from the book.

Pocket money and periods: An interview with Henrietta Bollinger

Wellington writer Henrietta Bollinger speaks with The D*List about their new book Articulations which explores disability, queerness and being a twin.

  • Olivia Shivas: It's Olivia here from The D*List and I'm speaking with Henrietta Bollinger who's just launched their new book, Articulations, and there's no shying away that I'm a big fan. So congratulations, Etta. It's been like a week since it's been in the world - how does it feel? And how are you?

    Henrietta Bollinger: I'm good. Yeah, it's been a really amazing response and it's quite surreal that you build up to these things for like, well in my case, the actual writing of the book was three years and the kind of ideas that led to the book came from a column that I was writing in 2017. So it's been a number of years and I suppose it's that interesting thing of, for me, publication was kind of the end point, but actually for the, for readers and the rest of the community, publication is the beginning. So you get through that whole process of editing- well, drafting, editing, typesetting, design, all those conversations, and then launching and then think, okay, we have the launch party, that's my bit done. And actually I'm now receiving all these incredible responses and having to just experience what it means for it to be in the world and to have people respond to it. And that's kind of quite an emotional process. 

    OS: You talked a lot about feedback in your audience. Who did you have in mind when you wrote the book?

    HB: So the column that I wrote in university was kind of a Disability 101, so the audience was people that hadn't come across disability before, but I also got to see what it meant. The column was developed- the editors wanted a whole lot of different diverse voices and I was one of them, and I got to see how having disability represented in amongst those meant something to disabled students. And then I started living with other disabled people and we were having the kinds of conversations you can only have when you're talking to people that are inside the experience with you. And so I got more and more interested as the process went along in not writing something that was educational, but writing something that was for other disabled people.

    OS: Tell us the difference between writing for a disabled and a non-disabled audience.

    HB: I hope that it works on two levels, but in that you can engage with it and enjoy it. And if you're a non-disabled person then you can also engage with it and enjoy it if you are a disabled person. But I think it's that with minority experiences and especially with disability, and I think I actually touch on this in the book, there's this kind of expectation of people and what that we will explain ourselves, that we will explain how bodies work or how we get around or how we do basic things or why, despite disability, we still kind of want to be around and that we still have goals and dreams and reasons for living. And those are things you don't have to explain to other non-disabled people. Like somebody who's read it recently said to me, "Oh, I need to ask you what a spoon is." And of course with having a disabled audience in mind, I didn't think to explain that at all. It's just my spoons are my spoons, and we all know, 'cause we all understand that experience of having to sort of apportion your energy to different things. And even if you explain it on that level and kind of give people a definition, I think that there's like, well, there's a bodily experience. You know it in your own body as a disabled person or in your own mind in a way that even if you have the definition and you sort of understand ideologically as a non-disabled person, it might just be a turn of phrase to you rather than a way of living.

Image description: Henrietta is a pākehā person with short brown hair with highlights and sitting in a powered wheelchair. They are smiling away from the camera in front of an audience.

Photo credit: Sarah Booher

  • Henrietta is a pākehā person with short brown hair with highlights and sitting in a powered wheelchair. They are smiling away from the camera in front of an audience.
  • OS: If there was like a recorder as I was reading the book you'd hear me go, "Oh my gosh, yes!" Like literally I'd be like verbalising that as I was reading the book. As a disabled reader, you put things into words that I've experienced or I've felt, but I haven't had the words before. You talk a lot about bodies and things like having your period. I've had similar feelings about my period, that it's an indication my body is functioning well, when all other kind of like medical professionals or society doesn't see it as functioning as it should or reaching its capacity as to what it should be doing. How did you decide what stories to include, balancing vulnerability and intimacy versus oversharing or being too open, knowing the world's going to read all of this?

    HB: Yeah, in a funny way, when you start writing, or at least for me, you have to write one quite selfish draft, I think, where you're not thinking about who's going to read this, so that you don't censor yourself. But I was very, very conscious of, or tried to be, I don't know if I've completely succeeded in places, I was trying to be conscious of other people's privacy, especially when you're writing about your own life and, you know, those relationships are always going to be more important to me than the stories.

    But in terms of my own, I think part of that is deciding that you yourself are going to be the most vulnerable character in that. If I'm going to bring other people in, I have to be the one who's the most on display in those stories because I've got control of the narrative. And that's not to say, I mean, I think you're always writing into tropes and people can interpret it in whatever way they're going to interpret it. But yet you make a decision that you're going to be the most vulnerable. And then I think every time I sort of had a thought about, is this something I want to say in some of the stories in there, I did, you know, think long and hard about, 'okay, well, I've written that, but I can still take it out or leave it in'. I kept coming back to, who am I writing this for? And it kept coming back to being disabled people. So even if there were some stories that I didn't necessarily want everyone to see, it's like the importance of having that represented for disabled people kind of outweighed any vulnerability that I was feeling about it. 

    And I also kept coming back to myself, as especially in terms of that story about periods, which originally came from a prompt for an All Is For All piece, I sort of kept thinking about who I was as a teenager and how kind of important it was to me and significant it would have been to read something like that as a disabled young person, and so that I would be able to go into those sort of medical appointments about, 'is your period something that we stop?' or the level of uncertainty that the medical profession has about whether we're going to have kids as disabled people, that I would have been able to go into those conversations with a lot more ways of articulating myself rather than just saying 'no' because that's the only offer of an explanation because those are the only words that you've got in that situation.

Image description: Henrietta's book cover is held by a person's two hands.

Photo credit: Sarah Booher

  • Image description: Henrietta's book cover is held by a person's two hands.
  • OS: So coming to some more like specific things in your book, I've like got my list of notes that I wrote as I was reading it. You got pocket money for your doctor appointments, how much money? I never got any pocket money!

    HB: I think that was a short-lived bribe that my mum doesn't even remember. So that is a contested fact.

    OS: Yeah

    HB: But yeah, I do remember that happening. And I actually think it was a nice acknowledgement, I suppose, of how much work it is to show up as a disabled person. I think as an adult, as a disabled adult, it's still a drag, but you are choosing to engage with those systems yourself. And as a kid, yourself and your parents are just all being told, 'this is what's good for you'. And you're just having an onslaught of adult voices. And I think it was a nice acknowledgement that it was taking away from my time to be just a kid.

    OS: Yeah, that's so relatable. Another thing I wanted to ask is you talk about, and I was the same: crawling around to like kind of an older age that most kids are. And you talked about your preference of floor material. So is it wood, lino or carpet? (laughs)

    HB: When I think about wood, I think about the sort of wooden hallways between my bedroom, which was carpet, and down this kind of wooden hallway to my parents' bedroom. So there's always that association of getting up in the morning to go and see them, and it slides better.

    OS: Yeah, it slides better, but it's harder on the knees, that's the thing.

    HB: Harder on the knees. And if you're sort of commando crawling as well, then it's colder if your shirt rides up and stuff like that. Worse than wood, if it's not winter and carpet, but you know, then carpet, there's the carpet.

    OS: Yeah, the extra friction doesn't work.

    HB: Indirect, I would say wood, I think.

    OS: Okay, wood gets the vote. Another thing that I laughed about was the term ‘city-slicker-crip’. Can you describe what that is?

    HB: Yeah, when we were in Ihumātao there were these disabled people there who were very, very prepared to be parked up on the front line of this protest and land occupation and owning their space and showing up, I guess, for their whānau. And for me, there I was in sort of probably quite unreliable shoes and in a chair that's quite sort of skinny and titanium and just not prepared for that environment at all. And yeah, so it's a bit of a dig at myself for being a townie I think.

    OS: I'd fit in that same box as well. Over the weekend we did a giveaway with your book and we asked people to send us their favourite books by disabled authors. So we're going to put together a list and share that. So do you have a favourite disabled author or any kind of book recommendations for disabled people?

    HB: Oh, so there's a bit of an epigraph at the front of the book, which has Rebekah Taussig and Amy Kenny, and then I also quote in the book Alison Kafer and Harriet McBryde Johnson, both of them. Harriet McBryde Johnson wrote a fiction, and I've talked about this before, called Accidents of Nature, and it was about the Crip Camp era of disability rights, and this young woman kind of going away on her- having been in a quite sheltered upbringing and quite sort of reliant on her family - going away for the first time to this camp and sort of simultaneously finding community with other disabled people but then also having to, at the end of camp, go back to her family and realising that that growing up can bring you sort of community in one direction and also quite a lot of loneliness, the loneliness of kind of self-reliance or realising that there are elements of your identity that the people that are closest to you and love you the most are not going to understand purely, I guess, because of ableism as a force in our world. So that really got at the nuance of what I was feeling as a disabled teenager. And then I think there are some amazing local writers that we have here. And I was really lucky that Robyn Hunt launched the book, and she has been a big proponent of kind of creating space for disabled writers through herself and Trish Harris through Crip the Lit. And I've met some wonderful people who are doing their own thing through that.

Image description: An audience of disabled and non-disabled people are mesmerised by Henrietta reading from their book.

Photo credit: Sarah Booher

  • Image description: An audience of disabled and non-disabled people are mesmerised by Henrietta reading from their book. 
  • OS: Cool. And then last question, because I know I've been talking to other people who like just gobbled your book up so quickly. What's happening next, apart from having a rest? 

    HB: Definitely rest, if I didn't, I think advocating for anything else would be against the ethos of the book, but no, there are some things I'm interested in writing about around queerness and family history, and at some point I'd be really interested, I think, maybe not from, I'm not sure who from, but I think that the world it would be. I'm very interested in sort of gathering together in a disability rights history. I'm not sure whose job that is, but I think it's something that we need if we know our history as New Zealand disability rights advocates then we're not just drawing on things like the Americans, the American context because we have very different histories and very different sort of change, I guess, legislatively and stuff. You look at how long it's taken us to get anywhere near the conversation around access legislation versus America having it for 30 years and that makes a difference.

    OS: Cool. Well, I guess with this book, you've added so much to New Zealand literature of disability, that's one part. So thank you for your contribution. Thank you for helping so many disabled people feel seen and enjoy your rest.

    HB: Oh thank you. You know that's been a real joy of kind of the response is that writing can be, I mean I was lucky enough to have mentorship and stuff like that, but it can be quite a solo endeavour and yeah to see it resonating with people and sort of of speaking to the community. And I sort of am getting, especially from friends and stuff, I'm getting updates when, you know, I'll get a picture message of somebody opening my book for the first time, or somebody will send me a paragraph underlined, and there's something really satisfying about seeing it do that work in the world.

    OS: That's so cool. Well, enjoy it and yeah, enjoy the moment and congratulations again.

    Articulations is available for purchase as paperback, audiobook and ebook. It is published by Tender Press and cover art is by Stace Robertson.