WORD: No Sex Please, We’re teenagers. Mandy Hager with Ted Dawe, Karen Healey and Frances Young

This session took a good look at what is okay to represent, sex-wise, in literature for teenagers. On stage were YA authors Mandy Hager, Ted Dawe and Karen Healey, and psychologist and sex therapist Frances Young. It was a discussion worth having, and it was interesting to have the point of view from Frances as somebody who deals with the results of dangerous cultural norms being created.

The first question was about whether it is in fact okay to have sex in YA fiction: and is there a personal line you wouldn’t cross? Each of the panel says yes absolutely, and Karen made the essential point early on that positive promiscuity is a good thing in YA fiction. As a teacher, she wouldn’t write explicit erotica under her own name. She’s not worried about other students, but about their parents. And while she wouldn’t write a rape scene, she would write about the aftermath.

Ted Dawe felt compelled by his publisher to hold back with his language in Thunder Road, to allow the book to go into school libraries. However, when he wrote Into the River, he answered to the call of his narrative. “Sex is realistic when talking about teenage males.” His depiction of Devon’s “unglamorous beginning sex” wasn’t to meet a theme he wanted to tackle – he was just writing what Devon would do. He didn’t see the outrage coming: it took the gloss off the book winning the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award.

Frances is very keen on any way to get more moral, ethical information out there about real sex, to support people to be more emotionally available to themselves – so they can actually have the tools to decide whether they are “on” or “off.” She is also keen to have more sex in comics to make it more accessible – not everybody is going to delve into a novel.

The next question Mandy asked her panellists to discuss was their pet hates about the way books talk about sex. Karen Healey is very passionate about removing the shame attached to sex in people’s lives, and removing the shame and disgust for the human body. She notes this is especially important when talking to teenagers. Frances added to this later on by noting that most teens have an awareness of their sexual self by their mid-teens: making it even more important that this positivity is there.

Ted talked a little about the “Harry Potter effect”: the pushing away of realism, in favour of fantasy. He sees his book was tricky because it was a “warts and all depiction of young men.” I don’t think he’s read Karen Healey’s books, so I was very happy an audience member highlighted this later in question time. For Karen, the advantage of fantasy is that it allows her to literalise sex through metaphor. To her, a fraught relationship is even more interesting if one can set fires with their mind. She always strives for emotional realism.

This is where we got into the theme of porn: Frances’ pet hate is porn. “88% of pornography scenes are verbally or physically violent towards women. This is distorting young people’s view of what a sexual relationship should look like.” Frances says parents need to be able to support kids navigate the highways they are seeking out. This part of the talk, her descriptions of porn and the way it is affecting sexual relationships, made me want to remove all the screens in the house as soon as my boys got to age 12.

It got very interesting when we began talking a bit more about consent – the ‘dubious consent’ Ted alluded to. When you put this type of thing in a novel, are you compelled to put a counter-argument? Ted thinks if you do this, you are no longer being an author. Karen disagrees, she will introduce counter-arguments. They agreed that if writers weren’t all different, there would be nothing to talk about!

The role of schools
Educating teens about sex is a full community project, says Frances. You need buy-in, from the principal right down to the teens themselves, and of course their parents. At the moment we are in a public health crisis: she makes the note if you want to know how to talk to your teens about sex, go to Into the Picture. This is being brought into schools in New Zealand through the Public Health service.

As an English teacher, Karen Healey sees the important thing to be teaching research skills, and how to discern bias. It’s important for them to be able to read to learn, if they don’t think they can talk to parents. Karen stresses when talking about film that it is manipulative, she teaches close viewing skills – though she notes that she can’t dissect a sex scene without being fired. Ted similarly tried to impose cultural change through the curriculum, with an attempt to teach Deliverance (the book). His HOD blocked it, and incinerated all 40 copies he’d bought of the book.

Karen and Ted have both been published in NZ and in the USA – Karen has had to dial back sex in YA for the US market (so she can get into book fairs), while allowing the violence in Guardian of the Dead to stay. Ted has had no reaction other than positive reviews with the publication of Into the River in the USA – to his surprise. Frances agreed that there are differences in the way NZ and Australia approach sex in books to how the USA does. She also noted that the correlation of sex and violence together is perpetuating a culture of sexual aggression – the Roastbusters case being a good example of this.

Roastbusters was described recently by the Chief Censor as an ‘example of societal moral decay.’ However, Ted doesn’t think this culture is new at all, but social media has put it on steroids. We explored the concept of ‘differing degrees of rape.’ Karen pointed out that we have so many people walking around not knowing that they’re rapists, thinking because they were drunk, or the girl was, it didn’t count.

David Hill asked a question about teen reviewers: do the writers on the panel find them as judgemental as parents? Karen and Ted saw this differently – Karen says yes, but Ted has never had any complaints. I wonder if this is a gender thing, young women may be more confident in complaining about this type of thing – guys don’t think it is ‘masculine’ enough to be worried about bad language.

As with all sessions in this festival, this has once again left me with food for thought. And that is what a literary festival is for.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

No sex please: We’re teenagers
WORD CHristchurch, 26 August

Karen Healey also appears in:
The Nerd Degree,Sun 28 Aug, 5pm

 

WORD: Being Chinese / White / Other, with Helene Wong and Alice Canton

Event_Being-ChineseWhiteOtherBeing Chinese / White / Other is the fullest session I’ve been in so far, and began with the fullest Maori greeting I’ve heard so far this festival. Alice Canton was born on the West Coast, grew up in Canterbury, and has spent much of her life battling being ‘othered.’ Helene Wong was born in Taihape, and grew up in Lower Hutt. She has worked in social policy, and is currently a full-time writer and occasional actor. We are talking today about Helene’s book Being Chinese, and the session is sold out.

The book is looking not only at the notion of Chinese as an ethnic group – but that of being Chinese in New Zealand. What is it to be a Chinese New Zealander? Helene says, “The same thing as it is for everybody else – about shared values we try to practise.” Most relevant to settlers is the idea of a fair go, not only in fair play, but in giving things a go too – rolling up your sleeves and just doing things.

Helene was born in New Zealand in the 1950’s. Her family assimilated as kiwis – Helene was brought up as a New Zealander. And New Zealand allowed it through the 1970’s: she was being cast in plays as a daughter within a white family; as a French princess. She went into the 80’s feeling pretty relaxed about her Chineseness. And then came the 90’s, when the new immigrants came in. She suddenly became Chinese again: that is when she realised that she needed to write this book. She is wondering whether we have to go through this all again: do we have to turn it upside-down again? Helene then went back and examined the history. There is a cycle of racism that has gone up and down, and back up again.

NZ has, right now, stopped giving immigrants a fair go. Chinese have been set aside and othered more than once before: New Zealanders need, now, to monitor ourselves through our commentary to bring us back into the equilibrium we would like to have. The fact that Alice is again encountering what Helene encountered trying to work in theatre 30 years ago, is disturbing and wrong.

What role does the media have to play in moving this discourse forward around equality? Helene sees the media playing negative role at times, shown in the way that stories are presented and written with all sorts of insinuations – eg. The ‘Chinese Real Estate Agent’ that wrote what Winston Peters wanted to hear. “Anybody who read that letter could smell a dead fish. Yet the NZ Herald got the ‘Agent’ to write an opinion piece.”

And the equality issue isn’t only about race, it’s about gender. The stereotypes of women and vixens, prostitutes, grumpy mothers, tiger mothers, oversexualised bookish nerds, are still being perpetuated. And the race issue is overarching – a role for a Chinese person must be specifically for them. There is no such thing as colour blind casting at the moment in New Zealand.

Alice and Helene discussed the trouble of how to talk about racism without drawing negative attention to yourselves – it is easier to try to be invisible, but that allows it to continue unchecked. I am horrified to see this growing again – every time I see a new media editorial about immigrants being responsible for the insane Auckland housing market, I flinch. It seems xenophobia is alive and well and living in New Zealand. Helene says, “It’s scary speaking up in this world.”

Another side of being Chinese in New Zealand is trying to recognise your own Chinese-ness as valuable. In 1980, Helene went to her parents’ “home” village, and it was utterly alien. She describes the effect it had on her in Being Chinese. The shock of realising where she might have ended up, and realising also that she was part of this world – her world was much bigger than she had considered, was hugely emotional and physical. Alice has also travelled to Borneo, to her mother’s home. She never learned to speak her mother tongue so she was confronted with people who undeniably looked like her, were part of her, but whom she felt had to make an effort in communicating with her.

In writing the book, Helene recognised that her primary identity now is as a New Zealander. But she’s no longer ashamed of being a Chinese person ancestrally. “I see my identity as a pie chart, with wedges that represent certain part of your identity. I no longer step tentatively into my Chinese wedge.”

Helene’s response to this time in NZ history is that we all need to accept it is time to make something new. “There is no one superior culture. I have always seen culture as sky and clouds. Once, all the clouds were non-white, with the white culture as the sky. She now sees the white culture as just another cloud. When you butt up against one another yes there is conflict, but in the collision of two quite different things is creativity.” When artists bring their different interests together, they will come up with something unique, which reflects the unique NZ identity.

Alice ended by talking a little about the word ‘diversity’. She sees it on a page and automatically replaces it with inclusivity. “We don’t want to all go for the same goal – it is the difference that is the most joyful part of that inclusivity.”

This session has forced me to take a look at how I can help a change in New Zealand culture happen. Like one of the audience members who asked the question how do I reach out to these new Chinese immigrants, I am considering this myself, in the context of how I read the world. I bought the book.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Being Chinese / White / Other, with Helene Wong and Alice Canton
Friday 26 August, 12.45 – 1.45pm

Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story
by Helene Wong
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492380

 

WORD: The Stars Are On Fire, with Tipene O’Regan, Caitlin Doughty, Stephen Daisley, Tusiata Avia, Steve Hely, Ivan E. Coyote and Hollie Fullbrook

Festival Director Rachael King opened this fsampler event to rapturous applause, speaking about the theme of the festival – how can we look after the planet and its people. This was followed by Kim Hill, who was suffering from the condition (not uncommon) of not being John Campbell (who was meant to do the introductions). She managed to find a quirky fact about each performer to announce them, and in no way was inferior to the great Campbell – and I prefer her voice, anyway.

The first performer was Sir Tipene O’Regan. It was an honour to hear one of the first Polynesian creation myths from such a legendary Ngai Tahu figure. His telling included humour, and felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience to savour. “First there was nothing, and then there were darks. All sorts of darks.”

The second performer was Caitlin Doughty, who took us through the routine of cremation. Caitlin is an undertaker, and runs a crematorium. She first got a sense of how many in the audience were intending to be cremated – about 50%, which she says is about average for New Zealand. I now know that it takes about 2 hours to burn a body (at around 815 degrees celcius) to the stage that it is ready to be placed in the Cremulator to be turned to ashes.

Next up was Stephen Daisley, who talked a little about emotions and family. He then, slightly bafflingly, treated us to a sample of an excellent review that Owen Marshall did of Coming Rain on The Spinoff. Daisley seems to me like somebody who can’t quite believe his talent is finally being acknowledged, so I’m happy to see him finding his space in the literary community.

Tusiata Avia performed two poems next: first, one from her new collection Fale Aitu | Spirit House, then one called ‘My body’. I have seen Avia perform many times, and each time I am newly grateful that she shares her talent with us. She is a dynamic reader, who knows how to play her audiences, and how to lose them in the beauty of her language.

Steve Hely was up next: he is an award-winning comic writer for TV shows in the US, including The Office. He talked about a bus trip he took through the Atacama in Chile. Most of the men on the bus were Coal Miners, heading home after long periods away: the attendant on the bus though chose Austenland, as the DVD to help take away some of the boredom. It does seem an odd choice, and I think Hely may have hit the nail on the head when he decided the attendant chose it solely to annoy the miners, who wouldn’t have had a hope of understanding it.

The absolute stand-out for everybody in the audience tonight, I think, was Ivan E. Coyote. They were such a stunning storyteller, that in telling about the females that they were influenced by while growing up made everybody in the audience feel they wanted to have known these great women of the Yukon. Elizabeth Heritage will be reviewing their solo event on Sunday.

The final performer was the talented Hollie Fullbrook aka Tiny Ruins. She also sang about a bus journey, and the space between individual experience.

I now want to see each and every one of these people in action again. Judging from Twitter, the near to sold-out audience was all with me. Get ready for another ticket sales spike, WORD!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Caitlin Doughty is appearing in:
Embracing Death, Sat 27 Aug, 9.30am
Ask a Mortician: Caitlin Doughty, Sun 28 Aug, 2pm
The Nerd Degree, Sun 28 Aug, 5pm

Stephen Daisley is appearing in:
Writing War Stories, Sat 27 Aug, 3.15pm
Coming Rain, Sun 28 Aug, 11am

Tusiata Avia is appearing in:
Hear My Voice, Sat 27 Aug, 5.30pm
Spirit House/ Unity, Sun 28 Aug, 2pm

Steve Hely is appearing in:
How to be a Writer: Steve Hely, Sat 27 Aug, 3.30pm
The Great NZ Crime Debate, Sat 27 Aug, 7.30pm
The State of America, Sun 28 Aug, 12.30pm

Ivan E. Coyote is appearing in:
Taku Kupu Ki Te Ao: My Word to the World, Sat 27 Aug, 1-4pm
Hear My Voice, Sat 27 Aug, 5.30pm
The Storyteller: Ivan E. Coyote, Sun 28 Aug, 11am

Hollie Fullbrook is appearing in:
Workshop: Songwriting with Hollie Fullbrook, Sat 27 Aug, 9.30am
Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?, Sat 27 Aug, 12.30pm
In Love With These Times, Sat 27 Aug, 7.30pm

 

 

WORD: The Power of Poetry: Dr Paul Millar with CK Stead, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Fiona Kidman and Bill Manhire

While it was raining and bleak out in the street
We had wonderful words to finish the week.

So National Poetry Day saw five craftspeople read and discuss their poetry, in this, the second poetry-focused event of today. Dr Paul Millar from the University of Canterbury had cleverly selected a number of poems to introduce the guests.Auden was read to introduce CK Stead, because Stead has a great love of Auden.

Stead shared some of his tasks as Poet Laureate and the guidelines that come with such a commission. WW100 was written for the Navy on the 100th anniversary of WW1. He read a series of beautiful vignettes; each a glimpse of some aspect of war. They were very visual and included Mansfield reflecting on the loss of her brother, ‘Gallipoli’, ‘Passchendaele’ and ‘In Memorium’. This final poem was for his Great Uncle.

We then moved to the more lyrical poetry of Selina Tusitala Marsh. ‘Eviction Notice 113’ was written on the death of her mother and links the family home to her mother, as gradually one becomes the other. Her reading was rhythmic and musical and urgent. It really made the words come to life, truly put them in orbit. Her next offering was the poem she was commissioned to write for Queen Elizabeth. We had the conditions, the guidelines, the performance and the response. It was a very clever way to use words, to unite 53 Commonwealth nations.

Ali Cobby Eckerman is an Australian poet who weaves her Aboriginal experiences into her poems. Meeting her removed son at 18, her own Mother at 35. This was gritty writing, raw and difficult. ‘I Can’t stop Drinking’ says much about how experiences shape us, and the danger of judging on appearances. “…don’t judge too hard, cos you don’t know what sorrows we are nursing.”

Fiona Kidman took us to her childhood memories of country living, ‘living at the end of Darwin road’. The landscape plays a big part in her poetry. She reflected on the Irishness of her Dad and her memories of Christmas.

Finally Bill Manhire launched us into a list of all the things we had as kids in the 1950’s. It was brilliant and I just itched to rush off and create a visual. I loved his quote from Emily Dickinson about poetry, “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense”. He also shared a poem commissioned for the war memorial services. ‘Known Unto God’ brought the Somme experience to the current time, and finished with a young girl in the Mediterranean.

It was a powerful hour of wondrous words. I was reminded of the importance of spoken poetry, rather than my silent personal reading.

We ventured back out to the dark, wet streets with a song of words in our hearts to keep us warm.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

(ed’s note: books to come. Possibly also pictures.)

 

WORD: Reading Favourites, with David Hill, Jolisa Gracewood and Paula Morris

I’ve seen Paula Morris chair a few sessions at various writers festivals, and was reminded again today why she’s one of my favourite chairs: funny, engaging, doesn’t talk over her panellists, keeps discussion ticking along in a lively manner.

Today she was chairing Reading Favourites, discussing with David Hill and Jolisa gracewood-and-andrew_cMarti-Friedlander their favourite NZ books and how more reading of NZ books can be generally encouraged. Unfortunately Chris Tse was unable to attend – Morris quipped this was either because he was sick or because Hill had offended him.

As today is National Poetry Day, each panelist started with a poem. Hill read Elizabeth Smither’s ‘Two Adorable Things about Mozart’, commenting that “there are certain lines I’d give an index finger to have written”.

Gracewood (right, on the right, photo by Marti Friedlander) read from a “very subversive poetry anthology” in which the names of the poets are not published on the same page as their poems. She read us ‘Telephone Wires’, which turned out to have been written by a 12yo girl in the 1950s. Morris read ‘Going Outside’ by Bill Manhire. The audience hummed in appreciation.

The panellists had been asked to bring along their two favourite New Zealand books. Gracewood showed us her copy of Wednesday’s Children by Robin Hyde, an ex-library book that had been stamped every week in 1951. She said it’s about a woman who wins Lotto and can live as she pleases – a “really magical book” that rewards rereading. She spoke about how Wednesday’s Children has “deep historical reminiscence … [and] continues to be fresh”.

wednesdays childrenIt’s also out of print – which, as Gracewood pointed out, is a problem we need to discuss. Her other favourite book – The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy – is also out of print, although Gracewood hopes that the upcoming film adaptation of Mahy’s The Changeover (one of my personal favourite YA books of all time) will incite publishers to reprint these works. About The Tricksters, Gracewood said “I love it when a book asks you to take on faith that there are worlds alongside ours”.

Hill’s two favourite books were Kate De Goldi’s The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle and Maurice Gee’s Going West. Of the former, he said “The writing is crystalline … I really wept, put the book down and wept … [and] I smiled with delight.” He said that children’s writing has to suggest a world order in which there is still hope, and noted the wonderful respect for adults shown in The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle.

Hill called Gee “the great chronicler of NZ adult life [and] the least show-off writer I know … [with] restrained craft but also a relentless evisceration of personal relationships.” He said that any book of Gee’s makes him think “Yes, that’s it … He’s so good I come away with no envy whatsoever.” I was thrilled to learn from Harriet Allen in the audience that Gee is publishing a new YA novel next year.

cv_Maori_boyMorris’s two favourite books were The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones and Māori Boy by Witi Ihimaera: “they’re both ‘our story’ books”. She said Lloyd writes in the communal voice and gives a great insight into colonialism: “it is really a great NZ novel”. Ihimaera writes as “someone resolutely from outside the centre” – his is a “very important book”.

Discussion then turned to the general problem of why Kiwis don’t tend to buy large quantities of NZ fiction. I liked Hill’s idea that we should have billboards with the opening sentences of NZ novels on them. (eds note: NZ Book Council did this in the early 00’s in bus stops.) Audience members suggested that NZ Book Month should be just about NZ books, and that our school curriculum should feature more work by Kiwi writers – although it was pointed out that this can have a downside, in that forced reading of books at school can put readers off, sometimes for life. (Although this tends only to be the case for NZ fiction: reading a book you dislike at school by a US author, for example, does not tend to put people off US fiction.)

Morris mentioned that she too had been in the Canadian Tales session earlier with Elizabeth Hay, who had spoken about the difficulties of persuading Canadian publishers to back specifically Canadian books – so this is not just a problem for us here. Morris said that our children aren’t making the transition from reading NZ children’s books and YA to NZ adult fiction.

Gracewood and Morris spoke about research they have done for the NZ Book Council into Kiwis’ attitudes to NZ literature. For some reason NZ literature has a distinctly negative aura. Whereas Kiwis support NZ sports teams because they’re ours, NZ literature runs up against the spinach effect: people reading it because they feel they should. Gracewood said “we get excited about supporting our cuddly native birds; what would it take to make NZ books that charismatic piece of literary fauna?”

Reading Favourites was a lively session with a full house and a very engaged audience – so maybe there’s hope for NZ literature yet!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Reading Favourites, by David Hill, Jolisa Gracewood and Paula Morris

Enemy Camp
by David Hill
Published by PuffinISBN  9780143309123

Tell You What 2
edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408442

On Coming Home
by Paula Morris
BWB Texts
ISBN 9780908321117

WORD: A Literary Life: John Freeman, chaired by Paula Morris

This session began with a poetry reading from each writer. John Freeman chose a poem called ‘Wild’ by Tracey K Smith, from Freeman’s Literary Journal: Family; while Paula Morris read ‘The Curator’ by Selina Tusitala Marsh. Freeman is a very giving guest, and there seemed to be no areas of criticism that he had failed to consider. It was a very satisfying session, despite the occasional rapid pivot in topic which I’ll admit makes it tricky to pin down.

JohnFreeman-no-credit-copyJohn Freeman (above) is the son of two social workers. A defining moment in his life was his move as a 10-year-old , from Pennsylvania to Sacramento CA. In California, the culture is sport – and the only way to blend in as a child was to play a lot of sport – so he did. His father didn’t think much of Californian schools, so Freeman was forced into his father’s own summer reading programme, to keep up with what he would be reading if they’d remained in Pennsylvania. He went mainly to Quaker schools, and admired them for their proud, vehement, anti-war stance. “A lot of wars are underwritten with the approval, tacit or otherwise, of churches. The Quakers don’t silo spiritual and intellectual life.”

The three books Freeman credits with started him reading with volition are Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, 1984 by Orwell, and Wuthering Heights. He went after college from being a reader, to being a writer of genre fiction (a self-describedly terrible NASCAR book), to becoming a critic, writing for multiple magazines and online sources.

freemans_arrivalIs now a golden age of reviewing? Freeman says, “The internet is one of the greatest epistemological changes of recent time. People are drowning in taste. There is a lot of sharing passion for books, but we still need context.” He noted that back in the 1950s, instead of wanting to be writers themselves – going to courses to do this, everybody wanted to be a literary critic. But now “the idea that there is a centre has really collapsed.”

Freeman left America to be the editor of Granta. He was going into something which was already legendary, but which was nonetheless bleeding subscriptions. He worked there for five years, under an extremely eccentric billionaire boss – he said the key to doing this successfully was to pretend money meant the same to him as it did to them. One of his most lasting contributions to Granta was to establish international editions, the first being in Bulgaria.

The challenge of editing a quarterly literary magazine is there is no excuse for getting anything wrong. Everything has to be the best possible thing that it can be. So once he was having to explain what everybody added to the mix at Granta, he had to get out of there. And though he acknowledges that there are 1000s of literary journals in America, he went and started his own: Freeman’s.

freemans_familyFreeman’s is about the world, rather than about writing, as many literary journals are. Freeman says, “Writing has to be within the world, it can’t be separate from it. Narrative is as powerful a way of viewing the world as science is.” The storytelling he is seeking is the type that makes you fizz, that knocks out bad parts of your brain and replaces them. So far he has done two issues of the journal – the first is themed Arriving, the second themed Family. He has deliberately made this journal a venture that needs to break even financially – he doesn’t want to go into the non-profit zone, of trying to be as important as those raising money for crises.

Morris moved on to a talk about the Paris Review. Freeman says “Their interview series is quite important in American literary culture, making writers important.” However he notes that this, and other journals haven’t done very well is recognising the diversity of voices in the US. The editor came to talk to Freeman’s class at (his University) and said he is deliberately only publishing what he is interested in. This is extraordinary, to narrow the world to one man’s zone of interest. Freeman noted on this “If there is a gap between a journal, and what the culture reflects back at them, that is a problem.”

Freeman noted his own freedom to speak in cultural context. A heterosexual white male, he doesn’t get put on a diversity panel. He doesn’t need to explain who he is. He sees those of other cultures wondering why they need to scaffold everything. He is aware of his own perspective, whereas some don’t realise that they are involved in endlessly perpetuating their own views – Morris gave an example of an NZ magazine, that seems only to employ white male writers.

Freeman has a book of poetry coming out soon. He hasn’t always written poetry, he began when his mother passed away. It took him about 6 years of writing after that to gather enough material to consider creating a collection – without it being solely about death. “Death of a loved one forces you to reshape the world”, he said, “to explain it to the person who is absent.” “The sounds we make are defined by the holes inside of us.” Finishing his manuscript gave him huge respect for anyone who has ever published a book of poems.

When he considers the submissions to Freeman’s he doesn’t make a decision right away. He waits to see which story gives him the afterburn – the sparks. He says, “writing is a form of translating energy into the world. Some time capsules burst right away, and some have a slightly slower burn, and just keep burning.”

I’m going to be seeking out Freeman’s, and I think anybody who is interested in writing that reflects the world around us should as well. It was a privilege to hear his thoughts, to begin my time at WORD Christchurch.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

John Freeman was also in Can Books Change the World? last night.

Freeman’s: Arrival
edited by John Freeman
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925240221

Freeman’s: Family
edited by John Freeman
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355468

WORD: Canadian Tales – Elizabeth Hay

Happy National Poetry Day everyone!

I chose this session because it featured a writer called Elizabeth H. I know that sounds odd – narcissistic even – but I’ve discovered many interesting writers (and people generally) just by following the sound of my own name. And, when there are so many interesting-looking sessions to choose from, it seems as good a way as any other to discover something new.

Canadian Tales – Canadian novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Hay interviewed by Vancouver Writers Festival Director Hal Wake – was a lovely way to start my WORD 2016. It was a friendly session filled with quiet good humour.

Acknowledging that today is National Poetry Day, Hay and Wake both read some poetry to begin with: George Oppen and Raymond Carver respectively. Hay says she reads poetry first thing most mornings, because it stimulates her writing mind: “Reading something to which you respond loosens the imagination … The best moments in writing are when you’re self-forgetful”. Hay says she’s been reading Ted Hughes’ The Birthday Letters, and that the “raw, fresh, vigorous language” gives her energy. The way Hay figures out what she wants to write, she says, is she lies on the bed and thinks about what matters most to her, and the answer comes.

There was much discussion of politics. At one point Wake wryly asked “How many people in this theatre have seen a picture of our Prime Minister with his shirt off?” Many hands were raised – an audience member commented that in Aotearoa we’re “suffering from a bad case of Prime Minister envy”.

Elizabeth_HayHay (above) said “I love political stories … You get to see the characters unfold on the big screen. For me, [Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau is a character in my life … The reason I have time for Justin is the hope that he might become more than he appears to be: it is a novelist’s hope for a character. In narrative, one of most exciting things is when character finds they’re more capable than they thought they were.” Hay observes that it’s very satisfying for humans to observe people getting better at things.

Hay worked as a radio journalist for many years before becoming a professional writer. In 2007, she won the prestigious Giller Prize. Hay says: “It gave me a bigger readership and such a wonderful holiday from envy for a whole year … although by the end of the year I’d developed a serious allergy to myself, and had to employ my favourite word in the English language, which is ‘no’.” On the topic of literary awards generally, Hay said “All writers and all publishers need to be vaccinated against the awards season”.

cv_his_whole_lifeIt was interesting to hear Hay speak about being a Canadian writer writing both in and about Canada, especially in the context of the discussions we often have about the nature, place and fate of New Zealand writing. Hay says she regrets not having managed to convince her children that Canada is an interesting place to spend their lives (although her daughter does now live in Canada). She spoke about the resistance she gets from her publishers for writing specifically Canadian books: “I think Canadians are more interested in reading Canadian stories than publishers realise … In Canada, people appreciate books that give them their country.”

Hay had a quiet but warm presence, and there was a rush at the end of the session to buy her book and join the long signing queue. Hearing her read from her book was a real treat. Onwards to the rest of WORD Christchurch!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Canadian Tales – Elizabeth Hay, interviewed by Hal Wake

His Whole Life
by Elizabeth Hay
Published by Maclehose Press
ISBN 9780857055460

Other sessions featuring Elizabeth Hay:

About a Boy, Sat 27 Aug, 1.45pm