19 Apr 2020

Laurence Fearnley and Long Litt Woon discuss grief, loss and the power of scent in their writing and lives

From Smart Talk, 4:06 pm on 19 April 2020
Foraging for mushrooms in the wild

Foraging for mushrooms in the wild Photo: Telluride Mushroom Festival

Sensory awareness links the work of two authors speaking at the New Zealand Arts Festival in March 2020. In the memoir of Malaysian writer Long Litt Woon The Way Through the Woods, foraging in the wild for mushrooms provides her first experience of joy after the death of her husband. And it allows her to find her path out of mourning into eventually being able to celebrate the pleasures of life.

Woon talks not only of her scientific interest in mycology, but of the way in which the publication of her memoir has introduced her to a world of mushroom celebrations such as the Telluride Festival in the USA.

For Dunedin writer Laurence Fearnley, the world of scent – so powerful in her own life – frames the discovery the principal character of her novel Scented makes about herself. Having lost an academic position due to the downsizing of the university’s humanities division, she becomes absorbed not only in the process of creating perfume, but in discovering the scents of the natural world which surround her.

Aerial view of Signal Hill

Aerial view of Signal Hill Photo: Dunedin City Council

Fearnley talks vividly about the power of smell, and its role in evoking the past. Having fallen out of her love affair with the outdoors seen from the great New Zealand hiking trails, she turned instead to thinking of landscape in terms of how it smells. And so although Signal Hill overlooking Otago Harbour has a lot of rather unattractive slash – scrubby regrowth occurring after logging – it has a rich variety of flowering plants which create scent at different times of year.

For someone as interested in the world of smell, her experience in this location has transformed her idea of what is beautiful. 

 About the speakers

Long Litt Woon and her memoir

Long Litt Woon and her memoir Photo: NZ Festival of the Arts

Long Litt Woon

Born in 1958 in Malaysia, Long Litt Woon is an anthropologist and Norwegian Mycological Association-certified mushroom professional. She first visited Norway as a young exchange student. There she met and married Norwegian Eiolf Olsen. She currently lives in Oslo, Norway. According to Chinese naming tradition, ‘Long’ is her surname and ‘Litt Woon’ her first name.

Long Litt Woon’s memoir The Way Through the Woods is discussed in the session.

Laurence Fearnley

Laurence Fearnley Photo: Penguin Books

Laurence Fearnley

Laurence Fearnley is an award-winning novelist. Her novel The Hut Builder won the fiction category of the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards and was shortlisted for the international 2010 Boardman Tasker Prize for mountain writing. Her novels Reach, Edwin and Matilda and Room have been shortlisted for a variety of literary awards.

In 2017 she was the joint winner of the Landfall essay competition and in 2016 she won the NZSA/Janet Frame Memorial Award. She has participated in the Artists to Antarctica Fellowship and the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago, and received an Arts Foundation Laureateship for literature. Fearnley lives in Dunedin with her husband and son.

In Fearnley’s novel Scented, the protagonist rebuilds her sense of self through discovering the art of perfumery.

Jessie Bray-Sharpin

Jessie Bray-Sharpin Photo: NZ Festival of the Arts

Jessie Bray-Sharpin

Jessie Bray-Sharpin describes herself as a renegade historian. She has worked as a gallery assistant, social history curator and bookseller. She runs Sass History walking tours to achieve her main priority in life: to reclaim women’s rightful place in history.

NZ Festival of the Arts logo

Photo: NZ Festival of the Arts

This audio was recorded in partnership with the writers’ programme at the 2020 New Zealand Festival of the Arts in Wellington. https://www.festival.nz/