Extraordinary, beautiful brains
Pictured above: The southern Milky Way graces the night skies over Wai-Iti on the South Island of New Zealand. Photo courtesy of (Creative Commons license)
DECEMBER 12, 2021
Extraordinary, beautiful brains
Death in Print: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, Meet: author and brain tumour survivor Bonnie Etherington, Death on Screen: Lotje Sodderland's documentary, 'My Beautiful Broken Brain'
Listen to Episode 7 on the following podcast platforms
Or, if you've already listened to the show, scroll down for more info and links . . .
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Before You Knew My Name book cover
Image credit:
Photo by Shifaaz
In episode 7, we delve into the extraordinary literary mind of the American poet, memoirist and novelist Patricia Lockwood, and discuss her latest book, No One Is Talking About This.

The 39-year-old is often described as 'the poet laureate of Twitter' after making a name for herself with her whip-smart, weird and often provocative tweets. She and our NZ counterpart, the equally sassy and smart poet Hera Lindsay Bird, struck up a friendship in the Twitterverse. They then met on stage as part of the 2018 NZ Festival’s writers programme, in conversation with Charlotte Graham-Mclay. You can, by the way, find a fabulous comic account of this kōrero by Aotearoa cartoonist Tara Black on her website.

This festival appearance sort of makes its way into No One Is Talking About This, which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It is also one of the New York Times’ 10 best books of 2021.

Lockwood herself describes it as ‘a novel about being very inside the internet and then being very outside of it’.

No One Is Talking About This is a novel, but if you were at the NZ Festival session in 2018, you will recognise some of the scenes in the book, which kicks off with Lockwood’s unnamed protagonist finding infamy on 'the portal' (her name for the internet) then embarking on a world tour that includes a number of book festival appearances. She grapples with the omniscience of social media in our lives and what it means for her identity. (Of course, the internet is also omnipresent in many of our lives, but I really mean omniscient here, for reasons that become apparent when you read the book.)

The second part of the book is quite different. It suddenly and dramatically shifts into another realm, after the narrator’s sister gets pregnant and then shit gets real, understandably leaving Lockwood’s protagonist little time to concern herself with anything else.

Lockwood acknowledges that her novel is based on her own niece Lena's heartbreaking short life — Lena was the first person ever to be diagnosed in utero with Proteus Syndrome, a one-in-a-billion disorder whose most famous sufferer was the Elephant Man.

Lockwood’s love for her niece, and the character in her novel she inspired, oozes from the pages.

In her acknowledgements, Lockwood encourages readers to find out more about Proteus Syndrome and consider donating. She also suggests readers donate to Pets for Patients, an organisation that matches pets with the families of chronically and terminally ill children.

No One Is Talking About This is called a novel, but like all of Lockwood’s writing, it really defies such a straightforward description. (Have you noticed I'm having difficulty thinking of it as a novel?) It’s part auto-fiction, part prose poetry, and her use of language is, as always, utterly mind-blowing.
Meet Bonnie Etherington
Bonnie Etherington, who was born in Whakatū Nelson, here in Aotearoa New Zealand, but spent most of her childhood in West Papua. More recently, Bonnie has been living in the US, but returned in October 2021 after her life dramatically changed course.

Bonnie is about to join the literary and creative communication faculty at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. Previously, she was a Lecturer in Literature for the University of the South Pacific, and was the 2020-2021 Environmental Futures Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Bonnie’s first novel, The Earth Cries Out (Vintage NZ, 2017) is based on her experiences growing up in West Papua. It was shortlisted for the 2018 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and long-listed for the 2018 New Zealand Book Awards.

Bonnie was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2016, and has had poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction published in literary magazines and anthologies in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, and Malaysia.
Her personal essay, 'Naming', was published in Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety by VUP in 2018. More recently, she wrote an essay titled ‘A Fried Egg in Space’, which was commended in the 2021 Landfall Essay Competition.

So it’s pretty clear she has an extraordinarily creative mind, powered by an extraordinary brain. In today's show, we find out how extraordinary that brain is.

My interview with Bonnie begins around 6:15 in episode 7.

Bonnie nominated 'Hey There Delilah' by Plain White T's as a song she would like played at her funeral or wake. Listen to the song in our 'Farewell songs' playlist.

Atonement and healing
The Earth Cries Out was published by RHNZ Vintage in 2017
After the accidental death of Ruth's five-year-old sister, their father decides that atonement and healing are in order, and that taking on aid work in a mountain village in Irian Jaya is the way to find it. It is the late 1990s, a time of civil unrest and suppression in the Indonesian province now known as West Papua.

The family drops into what seems the middle of nowhere, where they experience a vibrant landscape, an ever-changing and disorientating world, and — for Ruth — new voices. While her parents find it a struggle to save themselves, let alone anyone else, Ruth seeks redemption in bearing witness to and passing on the stories of those who have been silenced — even as she is haunted by questions about what it means to witness and who gets to survive.
'My Beautiful Broken Brain'
In episode 7, I introduce listeners to the 2014 documentary 'My Beautiful Broken Brain', which is a film about the life of 34-year-old Lotje Sodderland, after she suffered a stroke as a result of a congenital vascular malformation. Lotje initially experienced aphasia – the complete loss of her ability to read, write, or speak coherently – and the film shows how, with the help of speech therapy, she slowly learnt how to do all three again.

Lotje began recording video-selfies just a few days after the stroke, while still in the hospital. Large parts of the film consist of material filmed by herself on her iPhone. This together with various sequences showing the world from her point-of-view at that time, including for example visual misperceptions (hallucinations). There is also a quest at the heart of the story; Lotje is a David Lynch fan and she begins recording messages to him, which he receives, as he makes an appearance towards the end of the doco and is executive director of the film.

It’s a fascinating insight into our brain and how we can rebuild neural pathways. During the recovery period, Lotje:

  • can say gobbledegook but not ‘the’
  • seems to remember pronouns, adverbs and adjectives but has difficulty remembering nouns and some verbs
  • discovers that her mathematical skills are impaired
  • experiences a heightened sense of reality that leads to euphoria
  • notices that time is elongated
  • can touch-type but can’t read.
In an intensive study that attempts to rewire her brain, she finds new neural pathways.

While there are moments of heartbreak – she says, at one point, 'Anything can happen at any time to any degree so I better not have faith in anything.' – the story is, ultimately, uplifting.