I Asked My Sister Some Awkward Questions About Starting NZ's First Erotica Journal

"Aotearotica" is for a nation of people who statistically have lots of sex, but are rubbish at talking about it.

James Borrowdale

Image supplied

Aotearotica editor Laura Borrowdale and her brother James, the author. Image supplied.

When I asked my sister, Laura Borrowdale, what made her want to edit Aotearotica—Aotearoa/New Zealand's first literary journal devoted entirely to erotica—she told me about finding an old copy of an Anaïs Nin's The Woman on the Dunes at the back of a closet in the bedroom I'd shared with my brother as a kid.

The book tells, in part, the story of a woman who's fucked from behind by an unknown man in a crowd gathered to watch a condemned man be hanged. She reaches her climax as the man expires on the gallows. A somewhat morbid entry into the world of erotica, perhaps, but one that obviously stayed Laura, and one that serves somewhat as her model for how literary erotica differs from porn: writing that is both cerebral and sexual.

Earlier this year, Laura's own writing took a turn for the erotic. She thought her story "Night Swimming"—which conflates a shark gliding through black night-time water with a sexual act between two protagonists—would be too risqué for New Zealand's existing literary journals. So Aotearotica was born.

As a journalist, I wanted to ask Laura about starting her own publication. As a brother, I knew talking to your sister about erotica could be weird. Here's what happened:

Detail from First Time by Ant Sang. Image supplied.

VICE: Hi Laura. Let's just jump in. Did you get turned on when editing Aotearotica?
Laura Borrowdale: Well, yes. But... Yes, I think you do. I think if you're writing erotica, as well as if you're reading it, if it doesn't do anything for you, why are you bothering, right? The problem with being the editor is that you lose that quite quickly. It's probably the response you have the first time you read something, but by the time you've read it another ten times, you're not actually thinking about the titillation factor, but the other merits of the piece. Good writing gets me going anyway.

How much of the success of a piece of erotica can be judged on how... I don't know what other word to use... How "horny" (sorry) it makes you?
The writing and images that I've chosen have either turned me on mentally or turned me on physically, basically. All writing has a purpose, all authors have a reason for writing, and I think erotica is there to get that primary response from the reader, to elicit some kind of sensory reaction to it. I also think there can be a deeper purpose to it, and some of the pieces that I've chosen are for more political reasons in that I think there is another purpose in that piece that is important outside of that primary response.

Detail from First Time by Ant Sang. Image supplied.

Was it hard to find content?
It didn't feel like a struggle to get material. It felt like people were writing this material, but just not knowing what to do with it, the same way that I was. I approached some writers directly and I reached out to the writing schools around the country and just tried to get the word spread as widely as possible.

You now must have a wide overview of Aotearoa's erotic life. Are there any conclusions you can draw about the sex we're having?
There are statistics that suggest that New Zealanders have a lot of sex, or a lot of sexual partners compared with other countries, but from the submissions I've got, it's not terribly surprising sex that we're having. There's definitely a theme that comes through the writing, there's a lightness of tone in a lot of places, there's a sense of humour often about what's going on. Nothing's made me blush yet—I don't know if I'm daring people to make me blush, but I haven't been embarrassed by anything I've read.

Two Penis Meeting by Richard McCoy. Image supplied.

How erotic is Aotearoa/New Zealand?
I think it is something we haven't traditionally spoken about. We're good at not talking about things and I think this is one subject that has been taboo and people still feel like they need to keep it really private, and so it is hard to express a degree of the erotic or the sensual because our conventional societal measure of that is pornography, which is not appropriate in lots of contexts.

What's the difference between erotica and porn?
That's something I've been thinking about a lot recently. I think it's something to do with quality, and partly it's about how you as a reader or viewer behave—if you are an active part of the process where you are filling in blanks, where you are working alongside the story rather than just being a receptive vessel that's being filled up with titillation. I think that might be the difference with erotica: it's supposed to appeal to your brain, as well as your... hands.

Cross Cocks by Richard McCoy. Image supplied.

What pieces in the collection scream New Zealand to you?
There's a poem by Keith Nunes called "Zenith" and I think what I loved about it was the strong sense of a New Zealand landscape, which evokes a Kiwi bach on the beach, and the final two words which are just a really lovely image. It reads: "when I orgasm/I collapse on her like an astonished marquee". I like the directness, I like the voice, I like the sense of humour, and that final line seems to epitomise that to me: it is so unexpected, but I can completely visualise it.

What makes each person "feel good" is very particular. How did you balance that with what, personally, turns you on as an editor and an individual?Ultimately, it's all my own personal taste. But I haven't been the only person looking at them and selecting them. There have been quite a few readings around the kitchen bench, where I'll read something and evaluate the response I'm getting, which was quite often a breathless, "Yep, that one."

You mentioned the political aspect of some of the pieces. What do you mean by that?
I've described Aotearotica as an erotic journal, but I've also tried to make it clear that our focus is on sex, sexuality and gender expression. So there are definitely erotic pieces, there are also pieces that are more focused on gender expression and sexuality than sex itself. I want a narrative that's more open and more constructive about sex and sexuality and part of that is not just celebrating what turns people on, but also telling stories that are a little bit more difficult, and celebrating sexualities that don't usually get mainstream celebration. Like in porn, lesbianism and bisexuality is often treated as something that is there to turn men on rather than a thing in its own right and it's important to have sexual stories about women with other women that are not designed to titillate a male audience but are just celebrating that sexuality.

Laura, along with two other contributors to Aotearotica, will read during WORD Christchurch, the 2016 Writers and Readers Festival, New Regent St Pop-Up, August 25, from 6pm. Copies of Aotearotica are available at here.

Follow James on Twitter.