AWF18: Too Much – Durga Chew-Bose

AWF18: Too Much – Durga Chew-Bose

‘Durga Chew-Bose’s debut collection of self-referential essays Too Much and Not the Mood has established her as a member of the millennial intelligentsia. She is in conversation with Ella Yelich-O’Connor.’

Illustrated notes by Tara Black

AWF18 8 Lorde and Durga

illustrated notes by Tara Black


Too Much and Not the Mood
Published by Farrar, Giroux & Strauss
ISBN 9780374535957


AWF18: The Rest is Noise – Alex Ross

AWF18: The Rest is Noise – Alex Ross

We find out in the first few minutes of this session, knowingly chaired by Fergus Barrowman, that Flying Nun was the first foray for Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, into popular music. This writer, who so wonderfully filters twentieth-century history – wars, technology, social changes – through classical compositions in his widely accessible The Rest is Noise, has just risen in esteem – at least among those members of the audience who are familiar with Flying Nun. You get the feeling that this crowd is more in touch with Sibelius than Chris Knox.

Barrowman.Ross_Still_01.pngUp until this point in college only dissonance had been admissible to Alex, but ‘the lyrical and melodic’ elements of bands like The Bats and The Clean, with their ‘sweetness and straightforward nature’, encouraged him to discover popular music. Working at a student radio station, he also began listening to punk and jazz – the beginnings, perhaps, of his book Listen to This, which reveals the boundaries between pop, jazz and classical to be porous. Does he wish to remove borders between musical genres altogether? Alex believes that borders exist for a reason; that every music has its centre, but sometimes elements that lay on the outskirts may easily cross over into another.

We might think of classical music as static and unchanging, but it too alters as it moves through time. But then how do you bring, for example, improvisational openness to academic music? Some of the more interesting musicians, the ones to watch in Alex’s opinion, are the ones who easily move between genres – jazz and classical for example – as if they had grown up in both worlds or occupy the middle ground. But improvisation is something classical musicians need to get a handle on, as the newer compositions require more input and invention on the part of the performer.

And what of the condition of classical music in the public sphere? Audiences are often blamed for not attending classical concerts with new programming, but, as Fergus points out, this is essentially inviting them along to listen to new music. Alex concedes it is hard to find the balance between old and new. It was also a balance he was seeking in writing The Rest is Noise, where he tried to appeal both to the obsessive specialist and the lay reader, and where he consciously attempted not to take sides with either the avant-garde, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and atonality on the one hand, and then Sibelius and co on the other. He ‘wanted all these composers to be taken seriously as heroes of the modern’.

Alex uses episodes in The Rest is Noise with great skill to draw attention to wider movements or tendencies. One such event opens the book – the world premiere of Strauss’s Salome. Everyone gathers, expectant, wishing to be part of the sensation. Could this happen again, Fergus asks? No, for as Alex explains, these composers where huge cultural figures of their times – he tells us that The New York Times ran ‘Puccini’s boat stuck in fog’ as a front-page headline.

The issue of classical music’s reach flows through to questions from the audience. How do you attract younger and more diverse audiences to it, when it is perceived as elite? Alex takes issue with the elite angle – as classical is often compared to pop, which is elite in the systems surrounding it: it makes use of massive apparatus (from multinationals to stadiums). Classical audiences are more diverse, but not in terms of income levels. He believes a lot more work needs to be done concerning who gets to play and be played. But, like everything else in the arts, it is not for everyone.

Alex has a reworking of Schoenberg’s quote ‘If it is art, it is not for all and if it is for all, it is not art’. His approach is more pragmatic: ‘If it is art, it’s not for all and if it is for all, it does not exist’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Alex Ross will appear with STROMA
Sun, 20 May 2018, 4:00pm – 6:15pm
Great Hall, Auckland Town Hall

AWF18: The big ideas of Neal Stephenson

AWF18: The big ideas of Neal Stephenson

New York Times bestselling author Neal Stephenson is renowned for works seething with big ideas, both innovative and complex in their genius, including Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Anathem, and his latest Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O co-written with Nicole Galland.’

Tara Black took these illustrated notes during Neal Stephenson’s solo session. He was interviewed by David Larsen.

AWF18 11 Neal Stephenson

Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black


Buy some of his books! I can vouch they are all really good…

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O
Published by Borough Press
ISBN 9780008132576

Published by Borough Press
ISBN 9780008132545

AWF18: Writing the Suffrage Past

AWF18: Writing the Suffrage Past, with Alice Canton, Emma Espiner, Linda Olsson and Tusiata Avia

Feelings. FEELINGS! I have them.

One of the things I really like about Auckland Writers Festival is the way it puts me in touch with the whakapapa of NZ feminism. I remember having a great old chat with older queer women in the audience for Gloria Steinem a couple of years back about second-wave feminism and how it’s different from contemporary feminism. Sitting in the audience for Writing the Suffrage Past I got talking to my neighbours again: I had (I think) an older lesbian couple on one side, and (I think) a teenage girl and her mother on the other. The intergenerational vibe was also set with an introduction from Claire Mabey, who, like our Prime Minister, is hapū.

IMG_20180519_152841648The four writers were Alice Canton, Emma Espiner, Linda Olsson, and Tusiata Avia. Canton is a NZ-Chinese theatre artist; Espiner is Māori journalist and medical student; Olsson is a Swedish novelist; and Avia is a Samoan-NZ poet. Each writer had been given access to the “Are we there yet?” exhibition about NZ feminism at Auckland Museum, and had written a piece inspired by something from the collection. An image of their chosen piece was displayed on the screens as each writer gave their talk.

Olsson was up first. The object she had chosen was a photograph from a protest with one woman holding up a sign that read “I can’t believe I am still protesting this shit”, which got a laugh of recognition from the crowded room. She spoke about a recent Oxfam report which has found that we must achieve gender equality if we are to end financial inequality. It is not enough to integrate women into existing financial structures; the structures themselves must be changed.

Olsson read out a piece she had written that was a conversation between herself and one of her female ancestors who had been sent to prison. Prison was not sad: it was safe. The women all looked the same, so they felt safe.

Next up was Espiner, who began by speaking her mihi. The objects she had chosen were issues of Broadsheet, NZ’s seminal feminist magazine that ran from 1972 to 1997. She spoke with great humour and affection about growing up with a radical feminist lesbian mother, and how what now looks like a feminist utopia felt, to a child who just wanted to fit in with her peers, like a terrible affliction. She would choose Women’s Weekly but her mother always threw it out of the supermarket trolley: ‘Broadsheet reflected our reality’.

Espiner is studying medicine and spoke about how healthcare has often been deeply misogynistic, citing in particular Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s “An Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s”. Some progress has been made towards equality in the medical world, though: ‘the feminisation of medicine and surgery has been positive and valuable’.

Espiner honoured her mother for being a Pākehā woman who understands Māori sovereignty: ‘Doing the right thing when nobody is looking is the definition of an ally’. She ended by addressing her mother Colleen Smith directly: ‘I’m sorry for being a shit, you were right about everything’.

Next up was Canton. Her object was a black and white photograph of an unnamed servant maybe a century ago. She invited us to reconsider the way we view the suffrage movement in NZ. We tend to picture middle-class white women with their ‘spunky Elizabeth Bennet charm in the face of adversity’. But what about the no-names?

Canton used an over/under formula to invite us to think about which women are over- and under-represented in our feminism. Under: working-class women, rural women, Māori and Chinese women; disabled, queer, migrant, and indigenous women; women of colour, queer women of colour, poor women, fat women, old women, trans women. Over: cis-gendered and white women. Canton said that, even at the risk of splintering the movement, we must acknowledge that not everyone is equally benefiting from feminist achievements. As with the previous writers, she sat down to enthusiastic applause.

The final writer was Avia. Her object was a photograph of women on a protest in 1977 holding a sign on which is a photograph of a woman who has died from a backstreet abortion and “this woman died, we care” is written. Like Espiner, Avia grew up as the daughter of a lesbian feminist. She performed for us a poem she had written about being home sick one day when she was 11 years old, reading her mother’s issues of Broadsheet, and seeing the photograph on the sign. Avia looked for the photograph again in the museum’s collection for this event, because she still remembered it after all this time. Avia said of her poem: ‘Only I could have written this piece, but I don’t think it’s particularly special. It’s a glimpse into a huge female experience.’

Avia is an extraordinary performance poet and, despite the fact that she had recently  fainted backstage, this occasion was no exception. She sat and spoke calmly but we were hanging on her every word. The poem was about backstreet abortions, and it was visceral. ‘I flinch for forty years.’ We groaned and grimaced. The photograph of the dead woman shows her lying on the bathroom floor naked. Avia called the V of her legs ‘her final vanishing point’ and said ‘I have not misremembered her aloneness / I never forgot that’.

This was a really powerful session that gave me a great sense of community and of the whakapapa of mana wāhine in Aotearoa. In a similar vein, I recommend the podcast On the Rag from The Spinoff about Kiwi feminism. (I am a massive fan and keep secretly hoping they will invite me to join them.)

Words and photos by Elizabeth Heritage

Books by each of the writers participating are available nationwide.

AWF18: Dear Oliver – Peter Wells

AWF18: Dear Oliver – Peter Wells

The brilliant mind of Peter Wells was out in full force in his session, where he was in conversation with writer and producer David Herkt. Herkt introduced Wells as ‘an author who writes both with a fountain pen and mobile’ – an apt and literal descriptor of a man who has penned – and typed – in venues both traditional and modern.

As the session name – Dear Oliver – suggested, the primary focus was on Wells’ most recent release, Dear Oliver, while also touching on his cancer diaries, which recently won him the gong for Best First-Person Essay or Feature at the Voyager Media Awards.

‘Wells has never simply been an writer, not that writing is ever simple,’ Herkt said, and Wells agreed.

‘In terms of the shape of my career, it has this social activist impulse threaded through it – it’s not a strictly literary career in that way.’

Herkt rattled off just a few of the different aspects of Wells’s background – from his involvement in the early days of gay liberation in Auckland, to his ‘instrumental’ role in saving the Civic Theatre from demolition, to co-founding (with Stephanie Johnson) this very festival.


Peter Wells, photo courtesy and copyright Auckland Writers Festival

Such a path has not been without challenges.

‘New Zealand has a really abrasive culture. It’s not particularly supportive for those in the arts,’ Wells commented (to nods around the audience). Expounding on his literary and artistic influence, he went on to comment that ‘probably the most important thing in my life in relation to my writing was my keeping a diary. I kept a diary from childhood onwards – religiously through my morbid teenage years and episodically through my adult years.’

Segueing from discussion of using his phone and Facebook to write what became the ongoing cancer diaries, Herkt asked Wells about the 140-characters or less, Twitter-esque version. ‘Well, I’m not so sure about Twitter,’ Wells hedged. ‘But it’s the history of Pākehā New Zealand told through one family.’

The title Dear Oliver is taken from the fact that the book is addressed to Oliver­ – ‘a young boy growing up in San Francisco with two gay mothers… with the hope that he would understand some of his New Zealand past.’

So it dove deeper into his family history, in Napier, positioning the book as part of a pseudo-trilogy of sorts about Napier (following on from The Hungry Heart (his book on William Colenso) and Journey to a Hanging (a portrait of Kereopa Te Rau). But this title was intensely personal and close to home, as he described some of the influences feeding into its writing and its tone.

‘[Moving to New Zealand] was quite a dystopian experience for most Pākehā migrants… they left everything behind,’ he commented, making specific reference to the economic positioning and according history of his own British tīpuna. ‘Because middle class families wrote so many letters, you tend to get a history of the middle class. But this family was sort of lower-middle class, so we ended up with a story that isn’t told as much.’

But now it is. And if the discussion around it – and the readings from it – are anything to go by, it’s a story very well told. This blogger definitely needs to put it on her to-read list!


Peter Wells, photo courtesy of and copyright of Auckland Writers Festival

There was also some briefer discussion of ‘Hello Darkness’, the title Wells has given to his cancer diaries. Wells commented that Hello Darkness has many of the same characteristics as Dear Oliver – the same highly personal tone, for one. In introducing how it came about, Wells self-aware-ly said that ‘on November 12th last year, I found myself in hospital with a “very bad case of cancer”, which sounds ridiculous’ – but was, ultimately the truth of it. ‘I had prostate cancer, and it had gotten into my bones without me being aware of it.’

Understandably, such a diagnosis provoked an emotional response. ‘I began questioning my own mortality and mortality in general.’ The Facebook posts started simply as a way of making sense of his situation, and sharing his goings on with his friends – and obviously grew significantly in audience and appreciation from there.

The overall tone of the event was upbeat, a sense of banter between friends despite the ‘Big C’ looming over things. Herkt had plenty curveballs to send Wells’ way. ‘In some ways, it’s a writer’s duty to blab, is that what you’re saying?’

‘To be truthful, yes,’ Wells replied – an almost agreement, and a suitable summary of his art of the non-fiction craft.



Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Dear Oliver
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994147363

AWF18: The Art of the Critic, with Charlotte Grimshaw, Alan Taylor and Diana Wichtel

AWF18: The Art of the Critic, with Charlotte Grimshaw, Alan Taylor and Diana Wichtel

To the chair, Dione Joseph, who began and ended this session in beautifully spoken te reo: ngā mihi nui ki a koe. It was a real pleasure to hear you.

The upper NZI room was packed out to hear Joseph chair a discussion with Diana Wichtel, Charlotte Grimshaw, and Alan Taylor about the art and practice of criticism. Wichtel is a long-time TV reviewer for The Listener who has just won a national book award; Grimshaw writes and reviews fiction; and Taylor is the editor of the Scottish Review of Books.

Wichtel said that a review has to be a thing in itself; something interesting to read. I was surprised how down she was on TV reviewing, given how good she is at it: ‘I don’t think anyone’s going to claim that a TV review is art’. (Taylor disagreed, as I would too.)

Grimshaw said she used to do real hatchet jobs on books she disliked: ‘A huge amount of what you read is absolute shit – I had this mad idea that people would be grateful to hear the truth’. She said that Kiwis refusing to review local literature for fear of backlash is
‘understandable but not laudable’.

There is always a danger with this kind of session that it will devolve into a moan fest about how the internet is killing ‘proper’ culture. It is undoubtedly true that there is less space for cultural criticism in the mainstream media and that reviewing as we have known it is in danger of becoming a dying art. I myself know very well how hard it is to earn any kind of living as a critic: Steve Braunias recently did a run-down at The Spinoff of how much book reviewers are paid in Aotearoa. (Spoiler: not much.)

The chair tried to keep things upbeat and future-focussed, but the person who ended up talking the most was Taylor. The list of things he dislikes includes but is not limited to:
Young people
Young people who write books
Books written by young people
Sentences that lack “cadence”
Books written by JK Rowling
The 44 Scotland Sreet novels (actually I agree with him on that one)
Genre novels
People who write genre novels
People who have opinions that have not been culturally sanctioned
John Bayley’s memoirs about Iris Murdoch
People who judge the Booker Prize these days (not like when Taylor did in the 90s)
People who enter the Booker Prize these days, especially Americans
The Booker Prize these days
Writers who persist in being alive when everyone knows all the “greats” are properly dead
Writers who put themselves forward instead of remaining in morally incorruptible seclusion
Writers who appear in literary festivals, thereby proving they have no goddam self-respect
People who make him feel old by persistently being younger than him

(In Taylor’s defence, I must note that when I went to chat to him afterwards he was perfectly nice to me, despite my (relative) youth and incurable habit of putting myself forward, and gave me some valuable career advice that I will be following. Kia ora Alan.)

At one point the chair pointed out that the panel comprised three women including a woman of colour and one man, and invited the panellists to reflect on diversity and privilege. Unfortunately this discussion didn’t go very far.

I would have been interested to hear more on that topic, and on the reality that, as so much of reviewing is paid either poorly or not at all, we are at risk of only hearing from people rich enough to be able to write for free, thus losing valuable perspectives. Joseph also asked the panellists how we can support the next generation of critics: I was poised to take detailed notes for my own career, but unfortunately, again, there was no real answer. In Scotland they have a mentoring programme for young critics that sounds wonderful. If anyone from Creative New Zealand is reading: let’s talk.

I got up at the end and asked the panel to recommend their favourite critics to read. Here is the list for your reading pleasure: Andy O’Hagan, Ali Smith, James Wood, Anthony Lane, Elizabeth Hardwick, Clive James, AA Gill, Grace Dent, Nancy Banks-Smith, and The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis. I’d like to end by echoing Taylor’s remark: readers have power. If you’d like to see more and better quality reviewing in our media, get in touch with the editors and tell them so.

And if anyone would like to review my review of the reviewers, I’m all ears. Kia kaha.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Other events that participants are in:

Sun, 20 May 2018 4:30pm – 5:30pm
ASB Theatre
Charlotte Grimshaw is in:
Sun, 20 May 2018 1:30pm – 2:20pm

Limelight Theatre

Alan Taylor is in:
Dear Muriel
Sunday, 20 May 2018 3:00pm – 4:00pm
Lower NZI Room, Aotea Centre

AWF18: Big History – David Christian

AWF18: Big History – David Christian

In the ASB Theatre, chair Geraint Martin announced to the audience that we were going to traverse 13.7 billion years – from the atom to the present day – during the course of this session. Professor David Christian’s big history was on the table and the view was set to be panoramic.

The origin of this ‘big history’ is found within David’s idea for a history of humanity. Concerned that universities and educational institutions were primarily teaching national histories, he believed that, in the context of a world where nuclear power exists, it was important to tell the history of humanity – it would cultivate an understanding, perhaps, that we were all in this together. As he thought about how he would achieve such a thing, he looked back in time, and eventually arrived at the conclusion that he would need to start right back at the Big Bang.

david christian

David Christian

Moving through the disciplines (from cosmology to physics and archaeology), navigating their particular jargon and ideas, he searched for the concepts that were shared across them in order to form an origin story – to take the knowledge that exists and present it as a whole. This is an old concept, he told us, it is just that it has disappeared from view in recent times.

In terms of jargon and the ideas represented therein, there was no ignoring or avoiding the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Explaining these concepts to the audience, he paraphrased Joseph Campbell’s explanation of Shiva’s cosmic dance that brought the world into being: the energy of the dance is the first law – it makes it possible for things to occur; the forms of the dance, which change endlessly, the second. But while forms appear, they too will disappear. Eventually only energy will survive.

And entropy is ever present, hovering in the background – that inevitable and gradual decline. David has been called pessimistic, but he now takes a purposefully optimistic view on the future challenges facing us – inspired in part by his son’s observation that he wanted to turn to the drink whenever he listened to his father speak about big history, entropy aside.

His optimism is rightfully cautious. We are the first species to exert such power over the biosphere, David reminded us, which we could destroy in the time frame of 24 hours. He compared our species to children driving jumbo jets, needing to learn to control our power and to live in a manner that doesn’t negatively impact the earth. He believes that there is the possibility that we can solve the crisis of the environment and manage ourselves better if we get the political technology right to facilitate agreements.


Photo of David Christian, copyright Auckland Writers Festival 2018

How did we become this powerful? Information. Once we crossed the Rubicon of language, our capacity to communicate what we had learned turned us into information accumulating machines. Communication and collective learning have driven our greatest achievements and will perhaps also drive our undoing, if we go on unable to check ourselves. David believe this management, of self and of the biosphere, to be the great challenge facing the next generation.

David shares this framing of the past to encourage care of the future – it is ultimately a project of empathy. Big history is ambitious in scope, and like many new ideas, was met with scepticism at first. Scholars, after all, are used to highly specialised areas of analysis and instinctively reject this broad picture approach. However, it is not an either-or situation, it can be a both-and. David responds to these critiques by saying that ‘you may lose view of the familiar, but what you will see is new’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

David Christian’s current book is:

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything
Published by Allen Lane
ISBN 9780241254684



AWF18: Still Lives: A.S. King

AWF18: Still Lives: A.S. King

‘Praised for her “difficult, resonant and compelling characters and stories” (Kirkus Reviews), A.S. King is also heralded by the New York Times Book Review as one of the best YA writers working today.’

Tara Black attended and reviewed her session with Kate De Goldi.

AWF18 9 AS King
Read Sarah Forster’s review of Amy Sarig King’s Schools Fest session too!

And go and buy one or four of A.S. King’s books. We promise they are amazing.

Her most recent release is :

Still Life with Tornado
Published by Text
ISBN 9781925498646





AWF18: Sour Heart – Jenny Zhang

AWF18: Sour Heart – Jenny Zhang

‘Praised as ingenious by The New Yorker for its “technical artistry with an unfettered emotional directness” Jenny Zhang’s debut short-story collection Sour Heart interrogates the immigrant experience in eight linked stories…’

AWF18 6 Jenny Zhang.jpeg

Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black

Full notes by Emma Johnson

Jenny Zhang’s work has been described as ‘obscene, beautiful, moving’ – familial co-dependence, suffocation, love and cruelty all intermingle in vivid prose. In keeping with the nuances of the book, this session examined burdens and privilege, pushes and pulls, the grey areas of Jenny’s experience. But, also like the book, it was not cloying or earnest or too serious, for Jenny is funny. The audience was treated to an intelligent and illuminating two-way conversation, where Rosabel Tan asked questions that engaged both with Jenny’s work and the wider societal context in which it was created and received.

Sour Heart is a collection of seven loosely connected stories of six young girls from the immigrant community, young girls on the cusp of puberty. So why focus on this period? Because the time a young girl can be innocent, Jenny explained, the time when the body is just a vessel that gets you from A to B, is incredibly short. It is not long before ‘someone makes you aware it is something else’. This brief span of time is ripe for literature – where there is a freedom, a blissful ignorance of labels like Asian and immigrant.

Rosabel traced the lineage of Sour Heart – it is a descendent of that ‘singular story of immigrant struggle then success’, of ‘an Asian angel making it in the white world’, but this work was refreshing in that it ‘resists this as the primary narrative’. The drive for her approach, Jenny explained, was that she felt there had been a white fetish for the pain of the immigrant experience, and that ultimately the American Dream was bullshit – its messages of tolerance, understanding and that anyone could make it were certainly not reflective of her experience. She had tried so long to love it, but ultimately, there was only so much abuse one can take. So, she quipped, she had to ‘have boundaries with this bitch of a country’.

The conversation turned to the problems of lineage: the guilt that second generation immigrants carry for the sacrifices their parents have made. But Jenny interpreted this lineage problem in another way – through language. She spoke of a private language established between herself and her parents, the mix of Chinese and English particular to them that reflected their interests, which she, as the last bearer of this language, will not be able to pass on.

And how has she grappled with what Rosabel termed the ‘mythologising of the book’, where certain aspects are focused on and others ignored by critics, and an identity is forced upon her by others? It was made clear that the burden of writing stories in an area where there are very few examples is exhausting and potentially disruptive to the creative process, with seemingly competing impulses – to not let people down in her community and a wish to not be provincial or to ‘ be used as a proxy in some sort of cultural war’. There is a particular pressure when you are one of the few.

She also pointed to a disrespect and almost willful ignorance by those claiming that in this current climate, her voice was ‘needed now more than ever’. As she articulated, this not only suggests that immigrant experiences are only relevant when lives are imperiled, but closes down the conversations. It also conflates the experiences of undocumented Latin Americans with those of the community she is describing.

This funny, insightful and honest conversation will no doubt encourage many in the audience to read Jenny Zhang and head along to her reading on Sunday.

Sour Heart
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing

Jenny Zhang will also appear in Strangers in a New Land
SUN, 20 MAY 2018 12:00pm – 12:50pm
Limelight Room, Aotea Centre


AWF18: Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

AWF18: Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

‘Fiction, sci-fi, fantasy and short story writer Karen Joy Fowler is the author of New York Times bestseller The Jane Austen Book Club and the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award Winner / Booker shortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.’

Tara Black attended her session with Kate De Goldi at Auckland Writers Festival.

Karen Joy Fowler by Tara Black

Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black


Karen Joy Fowler will also appear in:

Ode to Ursula
Sun, 20 May 2018, 1:30pm – 2:30pm
Heartland Festival Room, Aotea Square