When author Kirsten Warner was honored with the inaugural MitoQ First Book Awards Prize for Fiction at the New Zealand Book Awards earlier in the year, she was lying in hospital, completely unaware of the accolade she’d been given. Discover Kirsten’s incredible story of persistence and resilience, and her uncanny early link to MitoQ’s field of science – mitochondria.
At MitoQ we like to celebrate ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and Kirsten Warner’s story is an extreme example of this. The child of a Holocaust survivor, the journalist and musician had long nurtured the hope of writing a novel, and sharing elements of her father’s story of fleeing Germany as a teenager during World War II, and arriving on the other side of the world in New Zealand as a refugee.
“Creative writing was always there but I didn’t really have the self-belief and the focus, but I made a decision to commit to this project which had been on and off,” she says. “About 10 years ago I decided I wouldn’t be happy if I hadn’t done it. That at the end of my life I could look back and go, ‘so why weren’t you a writer?’.”
The resulting book, The Sound of Breaking Glass (2018, Mākaro Press), was completed and published over an 18 year period. It tells the story of Christel – a working mother and activist (with Women Against Surplus Plastic), who deals with the suppressed fears, anger and guilt inherent in being Second Generation (the child of a Holocaust survivor) via creating a towering milk bottle sculpture which comes to life. Surreal yet humorous and magical, the book has been described as vivid, intelligent, suspenseful and inventive. “An ambitious novel in both content and style, it’s well worth the extra effort because Warner manages to bring her many plot threads together in an ending that’s both moving and satisfying,” wrote The Listener reviewer (and fellow MitoQ Hero) Catherine Robertson.
“People say the book is very complicated, some people find it too complicated,” laughs Warner. “What I was trying to do by being so bloody complicated, was show all the different levels and layers of where that inheritance was happening and what it was doing. How it enacted, how it happened, how it took place. Without being a single memoir kind of story, I wanted to show how that operated in someone, a contemporary person, a woman who’s under pressure. So by keeping on adding pressures of work and memory and loss, and grief, I could show the inheritance at work.”
Having the energy and resilience to finish the novel over an 18 year period, despite juggling full time work, family, a side gig as a musician with long-time partner Bernard Griffen, and towards the end – gruelling overnight shifts in a drug rehab, was sadly only the beginning of Kirsten’s personal story of achievement. Just weeks before the announcement of her MitoQ First Book Award, she was suddenly struck by a major ruptured brain aneurysm, fighting for her life in hospital and undergoing four brain surgeries. On the night of the awards, instead of collecting the prize herself on stage, partner Bernard was the one accepting it from MitoQ CEO Greg Macpherson in an emotional moment for all.
In fact, Kirsten has absolutely no recollection of the nine-week period following her aneurysm. “Bernard must have been contacted [about the award]. He is quite traumatised by me being sick, it was desperate for him. I came off quite lightly because I truly wasn’t aware of any of it.” The MitoQ team were also affected by Kirsten’s story at the night of the Book Awards. Along with concern for her wellbeing and sadness at her inability to experience her night of recognition, for a company dedicated to health we share many stories of illness and are a team driven to help. So it was uncanny that, when we heard of her recovery and subsequent return to writing (a second novel is already underway), we also discovered a little piece of synchronicity in her backstory.
Kirsten’s second published work was a collection of her poetry, titled Mitochondrial Eve (2018, Compound Press) - a surprising link to MitoQ’s specific field of expertise and breakthrough science. ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ is the name given to a 1970s theory that the genetics of all modern humans can be traced via their mitochondria to one common ancestor, a female located in Africa up to 200,000 years ago.
“I’d always been interested in genetics and our inheritance and where we come from, and the idea that the modern human has travelled out of Africa always interested me,” says Kirsten. “Mitochondrial Eve I think has been superseded as an idea, but it’s a symbolic idea of having descended from a common ancestor.” The title of the collection comes from the poem ‘In A Nutshell’, which presents various standards of women. “I was interested in the archetypes in that poem, of some of the female role models and how we carry some of those female role models in each one of us, starting with our common ancestress.”
MitoQ’s breakthrough science is all about supporting the healthy function of mitochondria, helping with energy levels and resilience. Not only is Kirsten Warner’s novel and her MitoQ First Book Award impressive, her own personal story is an incredible example of both these characteristics. It’s clear she’s an author with much to share, and we’re happy to be a part of this.
In A Nutshell (excerpt)
When I eat walnuts,
I am Mitochondrial Eve
a small woman
with tennis player’s haunches
and opposable thumbs.
I see in colour
or in codes
too clever by halves
cohabit with cabbage trees
up a salt river
you have to go days to find.
At night I take off my black caul
lay out my pretty lobes
in double mirrors
all the way back to Africa.
Portrait images by Mary Parker