“It’s really beautiful, exquisite, empathetic, tender … so many adjectives I could keep throwing at you. I loved it. And it’s a real page-turner,” says Melissa Oliver from Unity Books in a review of Henrietta Bollinger’s debut essay collection,
Henrietta, a Wellington writer, activist and disability rights advocate, is listening to the review of their book on RNZ’s Nine to Noon programme. They look down at the phone on their lap, listening. As the praise continues, they throw back their head, laughing.
“Wow, amazing,” they say. Joy lights their face. It’s their first review. And then two days later on RNZ’s new arts programme, Culture 101, presenter Mark Amery calls Henrietta a “trail blazer” and describes the collection as “smart, funny and unflinchingly honest”.
They discuss the use of the terms “crip time”, “crip lit” and “crip creativity”, and other language around disability.
Published by Tender Press, Articulations is a “love letter” to the community, to their twin sister, to family. It’s also a protest song about ableism.
The final paragraph of the collection reads: “This is a love letter because it’s these acts of inclusion that are in sharp contrast to lots of what makes up the daily grind of being a disabled person. I call it love because it feels like the appropriate antidote to often not being valued by the non-disabled world. It feels political.”
Henrietta says a lot of things give her joy. “The community, cups of tea, languages, verbal and written communication.”
And angry? “Ableism as a force that shapes how we talk about disability, make policy and value the lives of disabled people.”
Inviting non-disabled readers to challenge themselves
Towards the end of the collection, the author invites non-disabled readers to challenge themselves and continue reading about ableism, and gender-based and racially motivated violence. There is pain and grief in We should be able to be human, an essay about the murder of Auckland woman Lena Zhang.
And in Brunch: On hearing Peter Singer was due to speak in New Zealand, the essay starts: “For some strange reason, the sun is always shining when they say it.”
Henrietta is enjoying brunch with a friend. The company and the hollandaise are perfect. The sun is shining. “The stranger comes over, all deliberate movement and casual tones, as though everyone opens conversations like this: Personally, I’d kill myself if I had to live like you.”
It’s shocking. A punch in the guts for the reader. And, more importantly, for the writer? “I felt like it needed to be in there because it happens so often. You’d think I wouldn’t be shocked by now but every time it happens, my day is disrupted.”
Writing, theatre and activism in Henrietta's blood
Henrietta has writing, theatre and activism in their blood. Their parents are musician and writer Nick Bollinger and actor and director Katherine McRae. Their grandmother is icon of New Zealand theatre Elizabeth McRae. They also have German heritage and speak German.
“My sisters and I grew up surrounded by theatre, stages, music and stories,” Henrietta says. “My family has always been political, and we grew up feeling empowered to speak our minds and express ourselves. Writing has always felt natural to me.”
In 2017, award-winning writer Pip Adam told sociology student Henrietta that she loved their column in Salient, Victoria University’s student magazine, called Token Cripple. “You should write a book,” Pip said.
Three years later, Henrietta received a grant from Creative New Zealand to write the collection of essays. with the support of a mentor – Pip Adam.
An audio book of Articulations
And now, Wellington Access Radio, where Pip is the station manager, has produced an audio book of Articulations, read by Henrietta. You can buy the audio book from Tender Press
Other accessible formats of the collection will be available on their new website.
As Henrietta got more into the writing of the collection, its aim changed. “I became more and more interested in writing a book that I needed to read as a young disabled person. A lot of us are doing the mahi but not a lot of it is getting out there. My impression is that a lot of disabled people get asked to write about their experience for the benefit of non-disabled people but I wanted to write for my community.”
Indeed, the collection’s dedication is “For my friends who are living to crip time.”
The cover of Articulations, designed by Yen-Wen Ho, features a striking illustration by Stace Robertson, Henrietta’s former flatmate and Arts Access Aotearoa’s Lead Accessibility Advisor.
“I wanted to avoid the usual tropes of disability such as an empty wheelchair. As a friend and disabled artist, Stace understands the complexity of being disabled and really captured my essence.”
As disabled writer Robyn Hunt says of the book: “I finished reading wanting more.”
Henrietta says they don’t want to be pigeon-holed. They’re also a poet, playwright and co-author with Nathan Mudge of Working together: Accessibility in Aotearoa theatre.
“I’d like to write another collection, more poetry and plays,” Henrietta says. “I have a few fiction ideas too but at the moment, I’m really interested in more stories about real people.”