This was my last session of the 2016 Auckland Writers Festival and it was a really lively note to end on. Paula Morris chaired a panel debate on diversity with Victor Rodger, Marlon James and Stephanie Johnson that addressed important issues with good humour, energy and intellectual rigour.
Rodger (right) is a Kiwi-Samoan playwright and screenwriter who has worked on Shortland Street, where he was always the only Pacific Islander in the writing room. He says nothing will change until there is diversity at the top levels of management. “Three of my least favourite words are level, playing, and field.” He agrees that NZ literature is too white: Pacific Island writers embrace poetry and film, but not novels so much. Rodger also sees problems with white writers creating Māori and Pacific Island characters, and in the ways these works are reviewed: “I see a lot of free passes being given across all art forms”. He told the story of a play he wrote that was criticised by a Pākehā reviewer for not having enough swearing in it: they hadn’t realised the swearing was all in Samoan.
James is a Jamaican novelist living in the US who recently won the Man Booker Prize. On the subject of writing ‘the other’ (although he has problems with that term), he says he encourages his creative writing students to do the work and try it: “90% of you are going to fail but do it anyway”. He said wryly that he’d recently given up appearing on diversity panels and is sick of talking about identity. He doesn’t like the word ‘diversity’ because it has no emotional weight. It’s like ‘tolerance’. We need to move beyond just having multiculturalism to loving it: “diversity is a sign you’re doing something right … diversity is an outcome we mistake for a goal”.
Morris brought up the problem NZ writers have of trying to get their work read overseas, and this led to an interesting discussion of whether to make the setting of one’s work as generic as possible, in order to attract an international audience. Rodger said “the more specific we make our writing, the more universal it is”.
Johnson (right) is a Pākehā writer and founding trustee of the Auckland Writers Festival. On the topic of reviewing, she said “the reviewing situation in New Zealand is diabolical and getting worse”, with reviewers being paid so little and space for book reviewing in mainstream media shrinking. I think there are signs of hope, though – I was reminded of Giovanni Tiso in the Column Inches session talking about how blogs are taking up the arts criticism slack (see the Booksellers NZ list of NZ book blogs). And in How To Review A Book, David Eggleton reminded us that Landfall and Landfall Review Online (which he edits) pay their writers, and invited everyone to send him their reviews.
The award for Best Audience Question has to go to a man who approached the mic at the end of the panel discussion and said, “I’m a gay disabled polyamorous white man – you may have to google that … why in 2016 is a panel on diversity so narrow in content?” Riotous applause. Morris acknowledged his excellent point, saying they could easily have had a diversity panel discussion every day of the festival focusing on different aspects.
After the session ended I felt a little lost. It was my fifth Auckland Writers Festival session in a row that day, and now all of a sudden it was over. I hung about a bit and chatted to some booksellers and festival staff. Sales of both tickets and books had been really strong (hooray!). Everyone looked tired and happy. People had met their heroes, stumbled across works of genius, heard extraordinary ideas spoken and sung to them. Questions has been asked and answered, persuasive conversations had changed the shape of people’s minds. We had stood in queues and smiled at each other.
So, thank you. Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to make the festival happen (and kia ora to Rachel who runs the AWF Twitter!). Thank you to all the writers and artists and speakers. Thank you to my fellow reviewers, in particular my editor Sarah Forster. Thank you to David Eggleton for his How To Review A Book session, which helped me think about my own reviewing in a more nuanced way. And a special thank you to David Larsen, who attended more AWF sessions than I thought it was possible for one human to handle. (“You don’t need a break! Come on, stay for Paul Muldoon!”) It was a pleasure to sit with him in the middle of the front row, and an honour to have all those conversations between sessions on what had just happened and what we thought about it. Steve Braunias called Larsen’s column on day one of AWF , Drunk on Information, the greatest writers festival blog he’d ever read. I think there might just be a bit of hope for professional arts criticism in Aotearoa after all.