Some years, I have entered into the spirit of a literary festival gently – an off-site poetry launch bearing the festival’s branding, a small session in a side room in the middle of the day. Others, it’s a hiss and roar – and the Auckland Writers Festival of 2017 has been one of those occasions.
So, here is the first of several reviews to come – starting on a high note that will hopefully be maintained over the weekend. Because an event with any of Roxane Gay, Mpho Tutu van Furth or Michele A’Court would be a stellar one – and to have all three women on stage together, chaired by the indomitable Susie Ferguson, and talking about the various complex intersections of power and women was something very special indeed.
As is tradition, things kicked off with introductions. Roxane Gay (photo above by Jay Grabiec): academic, competitive Scrabble player and unabashed fan of The Bachelor. Mpho Tutu van Furth: priest, charitable foundation director and daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Michele A’Court: stand-up comedian, self-identified ‘strident feminist’ and Aunty-with-a-capital-A.
And it goes without saying that ‘writer’ can be added to that list for all three.
But if introductions are easy enough, that was where the straight-forward part of the session ended, with Susie diving right on into it, asking for the panel’s Trump-related feelings.
The nature of the material in combination with the style and temperament of the women on the stage meant that there were great shifts between laughter and more somber nodding of agreement. Roxane’s opening point focused on the wide-reaching harm that the Trump administration is having and will continue to have on all but the middle-aged, middle-class white men of the world.
On the other hand, Michele (above, photo by Kate Little) had the crowd cackling with her theory about why people have found themselves paying so much attention to him in the political arena – comparing his appearance in Washington to the unexpected appearance of a stripper in the middle of a classical ballet performance. It’s at odds with the surroundings, but you’re not going to be able to look away.
The question of the line of succession came up, more than once. Roxane, as a resident of Indiana, where Vice President Pence was once Governor, described it as ‘a sh*tshow from the start’, while the somewhat more gently spoken Mpho (left) referred to ‘Trump, Pence, Ryan… or whatever swamp creature comes next’.
It was Mpho who spun the longer responses, by and large, likely owing to a family aptitute for delivering heart-felt messages to a crowd. When discussing her own experience as a voice for change and empowerment as both a woman married to another woman and as a woman with a platform provided (in part) by virtue of her birth, Mpho was clear about her position’s responsibilities:
‘Having a platform doesn’t make me a hero. It just means that the ocean of people who have been screaming for years have a chance to be heard.’
Roxane went in guns blazing when it came to keeping a stash of one-liners in her back pocket. From bringing out ‘God, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man’, to responding to a question regarding the oft maligned reputation of outspoken feminists with ‘who cares if people call us bra-burning whatever-the-f*cks’ to setting off a chain of nodding around the crowd by pointing out ‘if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention’, she spoke with the practised ease of someone well-acquainted with the festival circuit.
The discussion continued into the broader discussion of feminism as identity and ethos, and the sense of either needing to earn the right to be called a feminist through actions and simultaneously struggling with the label due to the misconceptions by others. Michele described a brief period of her life when she stopepd overtly referring to herself as a feminist, while still maintaining the same politics and attitudes. ‘I think I was trying to Trojan horse feminism in – sharing those ideas without calling them that.’
With Roxane’s best known work probably her essay collection Bad Feminist, the issue is one of being feminist ‘enough’, or doing it ‘properly’. ‘I was uncomfortable reclaiming the word – because I was so bad at it.’Meanwhile Mpho brought up the issue of the “global” feminism all too often being very white and western, focusing on a very specific image of what it is to be a powerful woman.
The passion about the topic was palpable from all four women – Susie included – and it made for an engaging exploration of the shared experiences of being a woman in the world today. Roxane, Mpho and Michele are all women worth listening to, worth reading, worth continuing to raise up to ensure that their voices are heard widely and strongly – and the packed out stalls of the ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre would suggest that a great many AWF attendees will be spreading their messages far and wide.
Attended and Reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ