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Chessie Henry. Photo/John Collie

Celebrated young author Chessie Henry headlines Womad's inaugural Book Club

The inaugural Book Club at this year’s Womad festival shines a spotlight on the moving memoir of a family rebuilding from the ruins.

It’s hard not to instantly warm to Chessie Henry. The bright young author oozes confidence and excitement, yet is genuinely humble. “I know it sounds cheesy but I literally dreamed of publishing a book,” she says. “It’s still so surreal because it really was a childhood dream.”

Her first book, We Can Make a Life, is a raw and personal account of the devastating impact of the Christchurch and Kaikōura earthquakes on her family. In 2011, her father Chris Henry, a rural GP, happened to be in Christchurch when the earth shook and spent hours at the CTV Building helping to rescue many trapped in the burning ruins. Then the 2016 Kaikōura quake destroyed the family’s homestead in the Clarence Valley.

Opening with a colourful account of her childhood, Henry’s evocative memoir culminates in a series of interviews with her parents and brother, exploring the stresses on rural GPs, the psychological cost of the earthquakes on her family, and her father’s eventual burnout, rooted in the trauma of what he experienced in Christchurch.

“The book has changed life for Dad, being in a small community and suddenly talking openly about mental health issues,” says Henry, 27, the eldest of five children. “He’s had a lot of positive feedback, and he’s taken ownership of that being part of his story. There are emotional family themes in this that a lot of people go through, so I did try to prepare my family.”

Last year, We Can Make a Life won the coveted Ockham Book Award for best first book in non-fiction. On the awards night, Henry was a little overwhelmed to find herself in a lift with acclaimed novelist Dame Fiona Kidman.

“She was like, ‘Chessie, hello,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ I never thought I would ever even be in the same room with her. I spend a lot of time feeling intimidated in the writing world. It’s so welcoming and inclusive on one hand, and on the other so formidably intelligent.”

Related articles: Chessie Henry's candid memoir about post-quake trauma | Dame Fiona Kidman on the tragic hanging of the young man who inspired her novel | The shortlist for the Ockham NZ Book Awards 2020

Henry used the Arts Foundation’s crowd-funding platform to raise $9000 to help her write the book, released by Victoria University Press in 2018 (now on its second print run). As well as a string of glowing reviews – North & South reviewer Paul Little described her writing as “vivid and sensuous” – the memoir has even made an appearance on reality TV, appearing fleetingly in a local episode of Married at First Sight when a contestant was filmed gripped to every page.

It’s success has led to her headlining the inaugural Book Club at this month’s Womad festival in New Plymouth (13-15 March), where another 2019 Ockham winner Joanne Drayton (Hudson & Halls: The Food of Love) and 2020 New Zealand Book Awards nominee Shayne Carter (Dead People I Have Known) also feature as part of the World of Words programme.

After a year in Portland, Oregon, Henry has put down some roots in Christchurch, working as a creative writer for communications agency Brown Bread.

“Christchurch definitely feels like a place now where creativity is really thriving,” she says. “I feel quite inspired by the feeling in the city.”

This article was first published in the March 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our fortnightly email for more great stories.