Cultural Storytellers: Donna Banicevich Gera

Wellington playwright Donna Banicevich Gera.

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What is the place of migrant stories in our literature?  Back from 'holiday', Renee Liang interviews Croatian-Kiwi playwright Donna Banicevich Gera and finds some answers - and a lot of energy.

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Holidays, for those of us lucky to have them, are great opportunities for navel-gazing. And for the rest.... well writers are never on holiday anyway, are they? I'm sure I'm not unique in feeling like a giant radar dish, antennae secretly pulling in any loose words or stories that might be used for a current project or stashed for slow ripening. 

For those of us so afflicted, there's no "off" button.  But I've learnt never to say things like "Ooo, that would make a good story" around my friends.  It tends to make them touchy.

Being 'switched-on' brings a feeling of aliveness which can be addictive.  Call it the writer's drug. But super-sensitivity can get a bit draining after a while. 

Recently I've noticed I'm becoming slovenly in scribbling in my little black notebook. (We all have one, right?)  Maybe it's because of all the past notebooks unopened for a while and piling higher, maybe I ate too much for Christmas, maybe it's just a fatigue that happens to all of us sooner or later. Maybe it's a fear of doing enough justice to the stories we are entrusted with, whether the giver realises they are entrusting us with it or not.

I'm slowly realising that I will never have enough time or energy to tell all the stories I want to tell.  But choosing just one or a few is hard when they all seem so important.

This week I interviewed Wellington playwright Donna Banicevich Gera, another writer who is driven by the power of stories.  Although like me she started because of an urge to tell the stories of her community (in her case the Croatian-NZ one), she is now "out there exploring, diving into other cultures and experiences."  It's a common evolution, I'm told, and one which I'm experiencing myself.  So it was great to hear Donna's take on it, and especially to latch onto her fresh enthusiasm and drive.

Renee: How did you start writing?

Donna:  I started by being a reader, feeling the power of a story, getting ideas, thinking about the world out there…imagining stuff, contemplating and wanting more. Anything is possible. I like that.

Renee: What are the driving forces in your writing?

Donna: Exploring change, never being content, wanting to produce work reflecting on identity and history, wanting to inform through artistic practise. Memory fascinates me, telling those stories – the real and the unreal, the past and the present, and blending those scenes and events together. 

Renee: Are you a migrant yourself?

Donna: No, I was the grand daughter of a migrant, who grew up with a strange sounding name, a difference, and a fascination for that ‘other’ place they called the homeland. 

Renee: How important are family stories in your work?

Donna: Not important at all anymore. I think I’ve moved on. I’m now out there exploring, diving into other cultures and experiences. A good story will always get me – no matter where it comes from. I’m excited by the beating heart of culture and what that means within New Zealand communities. 

Renee: How much of your writing is real and how much is made up? Or does it become blurred after a while?

Donna: It’s all real of course. All made up too. It’s all a balance between fiction and reality. I always remember what the trigger is that starts the creative process though – it’s quite bizarre.

Renee: Do you call your work fiction, autobiography or history?

Donna: Fiction. I enjoy revisiting the past, doing research, hearing personal experiences, but then visually imagining what it was like, and recreating a fictitious world.

Renee: What‘s the most moving response you’ve had to your work?

Donna: There are many. Most of which have come from the Croatian Community. One in particular stands out though. I wrote a play ‘Anton’s Women’ about a gum digger. I researched the immigration of the Croatian people who came to New Zealand to dig for gum on the gum fields of Northland. After a performance at the Maidment Theatre in February 2008 a man approached me and told me he’d worked on those gum fields as a 14 year old boy. I’d never met a real gum digger before. I was blown away – it’s a past that doesn’t exist anymore. He held out his hands, big calloused working mans hands, he told me they used to be stained pitch black, and it had taken years to get the residue of gum resin off them. He had tears in his eyes recalling the memory. Emotionally he had me, sitting right there in the palms of those hands. And I wished I’d known him before I wrote the play. My gum digger would have had black hands.

Renee: What do you feel is the place of migrant stories in NZ Literature?

Donna: Everything! We’re a young country, a country full of migrants. We’re very lucky. We can still reach out, find the stories, trace our roots, and touch our past. We’re changing all the time. That’s exciting; a wonderful opportunity for keeping our migrant history alive. 

Renee: What are you working on at the moment?

Donna: A play, a one woman show, ‘My Name is Ruhi’, it’s about a woman who lost her name, lost her children, and lost control of her life when she ran off with an Irish immigrant. How her actions affected her for the rest of her life. It’s a New Zealand woman’s story. My intention is for it to debut on International Women’s Day, the 8th of March somewhere in New Zealand. I have a wonderful actor for the part, just looking for a suitable venue.

And another project, ‘Unheard’ – writing a play for the Deaf community based on their stories and personal experiences for Deaf Awareness Week.

Written by

Renee Liang

15 Jan 2010

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

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