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.

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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!

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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

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Book Review: I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess, by Petra Kotrotsos and Christina Irini Arathimos

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_Id_rather_be_a_fairy_princessLike many 6 year olds, Petra wants to be a fairy princess. Unfortunately, she becomes ill with the cancer neuroblastoma, and has to become a warrior princess to survive the disease.

Written when she was 7 and published at 20, I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess is Petra Kotrotsos’ own story of her battle with cancer. It shows her strength and determination to overcome her cancer with the support of her family and friends. Told with a mixture of innocent imagination and matter-of-factness, the story explains the diagnosis, the treatments and the reality of living with cancer.

The pictures in I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess are lovely, with a softness to them which belies the hard topic that the book deals with. They suit the word beautifully, by matching the hope of the text perfectly.

I’m not sure how to recommend this book. It would definitely be a good book for a family trying to explain cancer to a younger child, or even within a classroom setting if it were relevant. The tone of hope and determination is a useful one, and the descriptions of x-rays, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and the helpful and caring nurses would help to take some of the fear away that a child may have about themselves or someone they care about following a diagnosis. I don’t know about recommending it as a general book for bedtime reading or the like – I think it would depend on the child. As the adult who knows your child best, have a read through first, and see what you think.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess
by Petra Kotrotsos and Christina Irini
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994137944

Book Review: One Hundred Days of Happiness, by Fausto Brizzi

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_one_hundred_days_of_happinessIt’s a maudlin thought that’s crossed everyone’s mind: what would YOU do if you had 3 months left to live?

Well it’s not just an abstract maudlin thought anymore for Personal Trainer Lucio Battistini. He’s just found out he has terminal liver cancer. His wife has just found out he’s been having a fling with a client at his gym. And his father-in-law has just found out Lucio will be living in his bakery’s storeroom for a while.

Lucio really doesn’t know why he cheated — it meant nothing; it means less than nothing now. What DOES matter is that he has 100 days left on this planet and he’s going to make the most of every single of one them. And that means making things right with his wife, his children and moving out of the storeroom.

Flippant at times, this sweet, genuinely funny book may skim over the grim realities of death by cancer, but still manages to address the emotional realities that come with a terminal diagnoses.

Lucio is refreshingly normal. Flawed, average, clumsy and desperate to make things as right as he can be. Frantically making lists, I suspect you’ll see flashes of yourself in Lucio — I certainly did; and that’s the brilliance in Fausto Brizzi’s writing.

I expect to see a film adaptation of this sometime soon so get in first and read it now.

Reviewed by  Sarah McMullan

One Hundred Days of Happiness
by Fausto Brizzi
Published by Picador Australia
ISBN  9781743533116