AWF18 – In the Afterlife, with David Eagleman, Courtney Sina Meredith, Robert Webb and Neal Stephenson

AWF18 – In the Afterlife, with David Eagleman, Courtney Sina Meredith, Robert Webb and Neal Stephenson

The Heartland Festival Room is the place where music and literature mingle in the festival season. In The Afterlife, an 8:45pm session to wrap up the first night of festival goings-on, was a gently rollicking hour of words and melody from an achingly talented group of people.

The basic premise of the session was the reading of stories from Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, David Eagleman’s collection of beautiful snippets of imagined afterlives – but rather than simply David at the mic the whole time, reading duties were shared with other festival guests: Robert Webb, Neal Stephenson and Courtney Sina Meredith. Between readings, we were treated to the incredible evocative work of Claire Cowan, a member of the Blackbird Ensemble.

To go into the detail of the stories read would ruin part of the joy of absorbing them yourself – but to comment on the nature of the stories, there is beauty, there is sadness, and there is a whole lot of humour. The first story read, the titular Sum, was an especially delightful collection of statistics – the breakdown of how long the average human spends at certain kinds of activities. Personal highlight? ‘77 hours of confusion.’ – sounds about right. That story seemed like the most clear demonstration of Eagleman’s comment during his introductions – ‘I’m a neuroscientist and writer of fiction. Really they’re part of the same thing – just trying to figure out what’s going on around us.’

Through all this – and through all the readings – Claire Cowan sat to one side of the stage, head down and listening, cello unfurling towards the fabric ceiling of the tent. At each cue, she took up her cello and looping pedal (I presume – or other looping device, I was a long way from the stage!) and began weaving the most magical soundscapes as she built clicks upon breath upon layers of different cello melodies and harmonies. It always astonishes me the sound that a solo instrumentalist with looping abilities can produce – each piece was beautiful and complex.

Each reader brought a slightly different cadence to the story they read – Eagleman obviously had the easy familiarity of an author sharing his own work, while Webb brough some comedically trained lightness and Stephenson the slightly somber tone of a novelist of hefty works. Meredith’s poetic inclinations came through in her slightly more lyrical delivery. At the heart of each reading, however, was a real enthusiasm for Eagleman’s work, which was very quickly passed on to those of us in the crowd who weren’t yet familiar with his work.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
Published by Random House US
ISBN 9780307389930

Each of the guests will appear again during the festival:

NZF Writers & Readers: Poetry International

‘Featuring local featured poets Hera Lindsay BirdAnahera GildeaBill ManhireCourtney Sina Meredith and Anna Jackson together with international poetry guests Jeet ThayilPatricia LockwoodHarry Giles and Mike Ladd.’

Honestly, I’ve never been really sure where I stand with poetry. I remember Dad reading us Edward Lear as children, and memorising Wilfred Owen’s sonnet in high school (which I can still recite – ask me next time you see me). At uni I studied English, including poetry, and submitted to the belief that poetry was difficult on purpose and only those with the right number of degrees could hope to correctly interpret it.

Since returning to Aotearoa and wiggling my way into booky spaces here I’ve put my hand up to review NZ poetry several times. I always have to take a deep breath first, to try and shake off the terrible lessons of my formal education. To trust myself and my ability to read at least thoughtfully, if not expertly.

So it was with trepidation – plus a good dollop of end-of-the-festival, mind-spinning fatigue – that I turned up to review Poetry International. I hadn’t been scheduled to review it, but I was keen to see as much of Harry Josephine Giles and Patricia Lockwood as I could before they left.

Poetry_International_WR18_600x500.2e16d0ba.fill-300x250Poetry International was inspired by the February 2018 edition of Poetry magazine that celebrates NZ poets. It was a rather disjointed and long-winded event. The poets came on stage in two lots, since there were nine of them and only six seats. The chair, Chris Price, had come straight from the hospital and added a note of muted medical emergency to the proceedings by holding a bandage up to her face as she listened.

First up were Anahera Gildea, Mike Ladd, Anna Jackson, Harry Josephine Giles, and Hera Lindsay Bird. They all performed their poetry and made some remarks, and then Price briefly interviewed them. The two stand-outs for me were Gildea and Giles, who both spoke with great power. Gildea – like Emma Espiner at Tikanga Now – talked in English and Te Reo about the erasure of wāhine Māori from NZ’s Suffrage 125 celebrations. Her poem was written as a kōrero with C19th suffrage activist Meri Te Tai Mangakahia.

Also on the theme of (de)colonisation, Scottish poet Giles said that most of the places they go around the world they’re following their people, who ‘chose to steal and murder and orchestrate genocide’. Giles is trying to remake the world, but acknowledged that they were doing so ‘in and through system of racialised capitalism from which I benefit’. They then blew up the earnestness of the event by enthusiastically performing a poem in the Scots language about butt plugs. Hashtag festival highlight.

The next tranche of poets comprised Patricia Lockwood, Courtney Sina Meredith, Jeet Thayil, and Bill Manhire. Meredith spoke with understandable exasperation of being constantly required to ‘diversity up’ the place a bit, since she is a queer Samoan-Kiwi woman (triple whammy!). I was particularly struck by her remark that ‘opportunities are often just mountains of hard work’. Too true.

I had been looking forward to seeing more of Lockwood, and enjoyed her poem about being on the plane where John Ashbery no longer exists – although, due to my aforementioned lack of poetry expertise, I didn’t know who Ashbery was or why I should care. Unfortunately Price’s brief interview with Lockwood fell flat: a mismatch between Price’s earnest intellect and Lockwood’s acerbic wit. I had managed to catch the first half of Blazing Stars (Charlotte Graham-McLay chairing Lockwood and Bird) and noticed a similar thing. Lockwood and Bird together were hilarious and I would have preferred to see them by themselves just riffing off each other without the chair interrupting with serious questions.

Thayil, an Indian poet and musician, was the only person I noticed in this festival to mention rats (an extremely underappreciated literary topic – festival organisers please note I have a keynote prepared to remedy this lack). He performed a poem called How To Be A Bandicoot and explained that bandicoots are ‘large unkillable rats’, which of course prejudiced me immediately in favour of them. He also performed a poem called The Consolations of Ageing which comprised him standing on the stage in silence. Do you get it, it’s because there aren’t any. He helpfully held up his book of poetry to demonstrate the blank page.

After three solid days of performing, talking, tweeting, and reviewing, my note-taking skills were faltering. (Under Bill Manhire I’ve written ‘dead All Black’.) I had failed to read the programme correctly and wasn’t prepared for Poetry International to last longer than an hour. Towards the end I slid off my chair and typed rather forlornly on the floor. Emily Perkins smiled at me kindly. Later, Elizabeth Knox very generously described my festival reviewing as ‘a service to humanity’. Over and out, my friends. Ka kite anō au i a koutou.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage 



NZF Writers & Readers: Outer Space Saloon Salon

Tara Black reviewed the Outer Space Saloon Salon.

Outer Space Saloon Salon featured LaQuisha St Redfern, Charlie Jane Anders, Harry Giles, Ian Tregillis, David Larsen, Courtney Sina Meredith and Chris Tse. With Mark Cubey.

NWF18 Outerspace Saloon Salon

You can see Ian Tregillis at Ian Tregillis: Robots, Faith and Free Will on Sunday, 11 March at 10.00am.

You can see Harry Giles at Harry Giles: Poetry on Sunday, 11 March at 11.30am.

You can catch Courtney Sina Meredith in Poetry International on Sunday, 11 March at 4.15pm.


Book Review: Tail of the Taniwha, by Courtney Sina Meredith

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tail_of_the_taniwhaThe gold hardcover of Courtney Sina Meredith’s short story collection, Tail of The Taniwha, catches the light in a magical way. The writing inside is just as beautiful. Meredith’s lyrical style stems from her background in not only prose but also poetry, and she’s not afraid to push at the boundaries between the two. In her story The Coconut King, Meredith tags the beginning of each line with a slash in a way that’s reminiscent of poetry, while retaining the kind of full-formed narrative expected of prose.

Other ways of telling stories are explored in this lovely collection. In Patriarch, Eldest Son, Ghost Son, Daughter, Meredith strips back the text to just its dialogue. Stylisation, such as the use of italics, is the only means of assigning parts of speech to certain characters. Dialogue is what uncovers the relationships between them. This backstory is crafted up in such a subtle way that by the time I got to the ending, I had to turn back a couple pages and read it all over again. My second reading was with this newfound knowledge of what these characters meant to each other.

I especially loved how Meredith worked with format in her story Aotahi. This story begins with five sentences, lyrical but seemingly unrelated to each other, from “You were very small, Aotahi” to “It’s like swimming back to yourself from a great distance”. However, with each page, Meredith added gaps to the story, edging out details and building up the plot. My assumptions were changed and expectations deformed. Each addition felt like a new star coming to the horizon, with all of these stars eventually creating a whole galaxy at the end, a whole new story.

The tension of this format was further evoked in the story Leaning Trees. Along with forming details about the central character, various news headlines were used to fill in these gaps. These headlines became a sort of distraction, or possibly even a solace to the narrator, who seemed to be trying to avoid the acknowledgment of her situation until the last crucial detail was revealed on the final page.

These little details brought complexity to the lives of Meredith’s characters. In The Youthful Dead, Meredith presents a girl called Ava who is dreams of someday being like her sister, of moving away from home and living her own life. Meredith crafts a haunting scene of loneliness where Ava is reduced to a shadow, forever following the orders of others. The moon becomes an eerie guardian in the sky as Ava “unfolds her bucket list in the moonlight”. “I will”, she thinks, “I will visit Greece… I will feel the sun on my face”.

Meredith’s style is poetic and beautiful, and Tail of The Taniwha is a striking collection of the many forms that the short story can take. Meredith’s style is also a voice that’s strong and fearless. In her stories, she dreams and wishes. But she is also a woman of action, who mulls over what these dreams mean, who wants to “find all the black holes”. It is a voice that is aware of what others expect of her, whilst acknowledging that she is much more multi-faceted than these expectations could ever be.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Tail of The Taniwha
by Courtney Sina Meredith
Published by Beatnik Publishing
ISBN 9780992264895

Debating New Zealand: Morgan Godfery, Holly Walker, Courtney Sina Meredith

All Writers Week events have rightly started with thanks to the sponsors, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank some people as well. Firstly, thanks to Sarah Forster at Booksellers NZ for regularly commissioning me to cover NZ literary festivals. [ed: no worries, E!] Thanks to Kathryn Carmody and Claire Mabey for putting together such an extraordinarily rich and stimulating Writers Week. Thank you to all my fellow reviewers, especially Charlotte Graham and Ellen Falconer of Radio NZ for their heroic live-blogging efforts. It’s great to feel part of a crowd (and helpful to have someone to cross-check my quotes against!).

Thanks to all the volunteers and staff of Writers Week, the NZ Festival, the Embassy Theatre, Bats Theatre, Unity Books, and Ticketek, who have been uniformly charming and helpful. Thanks to Harriet Elworthy for giving me the pro tip about the good food and quick service at Five Boroughs (no coffee queues!) so that I could dash out between sessions and fend off dehydration and/or general collapse. (Yes, I know I ought to have brought snacks from home, but my handbag is full of books.)

Back to this afternoon’s first session. In Debating New Zealand, Linda Clark chaired a panel discussion at Bats Theatre with political commentator Morgan Godfery, former Green Party MP Holly Walker and poet Courtney Sina Meredith, all contributors to the latest of the BWB Texts, The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand. If you haven’t yet discovered the Bridget Williams Books Texts series, I highly recommend them.


Clark was, as you’d expect, a superb chair, keeping the conversation flowing and the ideas sparking. She quipped “once upon a time I used to be well known”, before saying the festival couldn’t find a journalist currently working who would attack neo-liberalism. Although I know she meant this as a joke, I think it is neither true nor helpful; there are plenty of journalists working in NZ today who are criticising the dominant ideology. However, it was just one misstep among a generally excellent discussion.

As Charlotte Graham points out in her review, this session wasn’t a debate by any stretch, and Clark acknowledged that they were preaching to the choir. Nonetheless, it was useful to discuss these important ideas, and I was heartened by the fact that Bats Theatre was completely packed out.

morgan godferyGodfery, who works a lot with trade unions, spoke about the demand he sees within Aotearoa to radically reshape politics. We have two options: disruption or resignation. He says that young people are increasingly choosing the former, although he acknowledges that this is reflected neither in political polls nor in voter turnout. He spoke about the attack on traditional institutions of dissent (eg media, unions).

Walker said “I came out of three years of Parliament much more cynical than when I went in”. She revealed how her experience in government had made her feel like she had lost her voice entirely. “I found that I lost my ability to reflect and think about what am I here for.” It was an exhausting, two-person job. Interestingly, Walker reported how her conversations with students have changed over the years. A decade ago, students were agitating for the end of the student loan scheme. Now, they’re so used to it that they’ve stopped questioning the rationale behind it. “The dominance of the status quo makes it really difficult to imagine how things could change. Things like the universal basic wage feel like a fantasy.”

courtney sina meredithMeredith works at MIT in Otara. “So many young people are degree pioneers in their family, and they’re paying for an education we can’t even confirm will happen. Critical thinking won’t feed anyone.” She pointed out that debates about home ownership ignore the fact that different cultures have different concepts of ownership. Families living in communities where they have social housing can also feel that they own their homes, even if their names aren’t on the title deeds. “People stay within their communities just to survive”, where they are part of a group to which they add value just by being alive.

Naturally there was an audience question about the flag referendum. Godfery said “it’s a really weird debate”; it’s strange to not acknowledge that the flag only has the meaning that we put on it. Meredith commented that the flag debate has engaged people who were previously politically disengaged, and that that can only be a good thing. The session ended with an upbeat call to embrace the politics of aroha: “Let love be our rallying cry!”

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Debating New Zealand: Holly Walker, Morgan Godfery and Courtney Sina Meredith
Chaired by Linda Clark
All attendees had written BWB Texts, get this fantastic range of short books on big subjects at bookshops nationwide.

Taking Form, with Mariko Tamaki, Kerry Ann Lee, Courtney Sina Meredith and Sarah Laing

Taking Form was a discussion between four writers who have dabbled with different artistic forms. Mariko Tamaki’s work includes graphic novels, Kerry Ann Lee is also a visual artist, Courtney Sina Meredith a musician, and Sarah Laing a graphic designer.

courtney sina meredithThe idea of being a writer and someone creative was a key idea in Taking Form.In reference to Miranda July’s talk on Wednesday, Laing begins the conversation with the idea of “origin stories”, stories about our own origins as writers. Meredith describes how she was a “creative unicorn” as a child and that it was hard to stay different when transitioning into the real world. Her need to create was just a necessity that she “consciously felt since I (she) was a child”.

Laing then poses the question of whether writers have good memories or simply pay attention and therefore notice things that others don’t. Lee talks about how she, like many writers, has a second job: teaching at the design school. She beautifully describes how crossing from this job to her more creative mind is like going into a field, collecting objects and putting them into her pockets. Inevitably, however, she must “cross fields and come back to it”, it being reality. Nevertheless, when she comes back she also now has these new tokens in her pockets, tokens that will allow her to produce more creative work.tamaki

Tamaki both agrees with and develops this idea; it’s good to talk to others and discover but also good to be able to go away to this field and be alone. She describes being creative as a fragile “tenuous space”. This leads to the four talking about how,when writing, even one little disruption can be a giant disturbance; Tamaki says with a smile, “I don’t think writers should have to take out the garbage”.

Meredith also has an interesting take on the nature of writing and states that she, as a writer, has to “live three times more than anyone else”; writers have to live a moment, describe that moment, then condense that moment into a creative piece. To her, writing and being creative is like another world. She talks about how going to law school was like a different universe where she had to separate two worlds: one world that focused on certainties while her creative voice and voice was more uncertain.

They end with a discussion on collaboration, including how the idea of something as ‘yours’ is complex, and briefly delve into what happens when collaboration goes wrong and ideas are taken without credit, a situation that is not often talked about. Nevertheless, Tamaki asserts that it is important to “unclench a little”, to let other people into what you’re doing and to have faith in the power of what you have to create.

The four mainly talked about what it means to be a writer and I was a little disappointed since the description promised “a conversation about letting a story find its form”; there was little talk about these different kinds of art. I would have enjoyed a greater discussion about how these creatives incorporate different forms into their writing. Nevertheless, the four were all poignant and entertaining. Laing was an excellent chair, who offered up questions for discussion but also let the others speak freely, allowing them to give a greater insight into what it means to be a writer.

Attended and reviewed by Emma Shi


Gala Opening: Fighting Talk, feat Mariko Tamaki, Etger Keret, Robert Dessaix, Sally Gardner

Paul Diamond opened Fighting Talk with a mihi, which spoke of the death of Ranginui Walker, then Chris Price set the scene with a brief introduction of the writers. The format was like a True stories told live’ format, but all of our writers had prepared speeches – in a couple of cases this meant the immediacy of the story-telling was lost, but all of the topics raised were fascinating.

tamakiThe stories began with one from Mariko Tamaki (right), a Canadian cartoonist who spoke about linguistics and the use of speech to refer to gender. Etger Keret, an Israeli short story writer, was up next, telling us a story about a terrifying taxi ride. Essayist Robert Dessaix had us just short of rolling in the aisles with his talk about how babies were made (and how gossip ruins family reputations). Children’s novelist Sally Gardner’s lexical ability had us all agape in awe, and Courtney Sina Meredith told a powerful story about race and identity to round it off.

What you want from an official opening event is to be set up mentally for what is to come, and this certainly delivered that. None of these authors were well-known to me, and each engaged a different part of my brain, making them well worth seeing.

Mariko Tamaki has her solo session on Sunday, and I am really looking forward to it. Tonight she reflected on how annoyed she was when an older man approached her after a keynote speech and criticised how she delivered it – and what she should have said. She is curious about why people think that things they find annoying – such as ‘verbal fry’ and ‘uptalk’ – should be banned. She briefly alluded to Debbie Cameron, a linguist, as a fantastic person to read, on the topic of speaking.

I agree that telling somebody how to talk “is telling them what to say” – and certainly we saw tonight that each speaker had a palette of speaking styles at their disposal. If I am ever policed on my verbal presence I will definitely use her take-away line,”I didn’t ask, so don’t tell me how to talk.”

pp_etgar_keretEtgar Keret’s son asked him to Google something one night recently. “What is that son?” “I want you to Google a place that nobody kills each other.” “I’m not going to do that son, because it doesn’t exist.” “But grandma says it might be New Zealand.” He is concerned about fighting, as living in Israel, his son will be conscripted to the Israeli Army when he reaches his 18th Birthday. Keret read a piece out about a taxi ride, where the driver was erratic and angry, and yelled at Keret’s then 3-year-old son for “breaking” the taxi. The driver had been spoiling for a fight, but it took the wisdom of a 3-year-old to help ease tensions.

dessaixRobert Dessaix (right) was hilarious, telling a story about how as a 5-year-old, he told his 6-year-old female neighbour where children came from. She pressed him on it, saying it was ‘disgusting’, then asking him where all other living things came from, until she got to Jesus. Dessaix said, “He came from an egg; an Easter Egg, everyone knows that.” As news tends to do in small neighbourhoods, his neighbour told her friend, who told hers, who told her piano teacher, who happened to be a nun. The Dessaix family were ostracised for weeks, until the aunty of his neighbour brought them a pop-up toaster in apology.

Dessaix will be speaking tonight about the Famous Five, and between his engaging voice and conspiratorial air, and the fact he will be talking about my childhood favourite series, I cannot wait .

sally_gardnerSally Gardner (left) is dyslexic, and is a spokesperson for dyslexia in the UK. She told us about her trip around the South Island prior to coming to the festival, which led into a wonderful talk about the failure of the education system, particularly in the UK. She said, “The Educational system seems to want rows of conifer trees – when the world needs these different thinkers. There is no nation without imagination – many of our modern geniuses – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs – were dyslexic. The time has come to celebrate the diversity of our children. It doesn’t matter how we spell words, it matters what we say.”

Sally is doing her solo event tomorrow at the Embassy, which I have deemed unmissable. She writes for kids of all ages, from picture books up to junior fiction, and YA.

courtney sina meredithCourtney Sina Meredith jumped through several instances in her life where she has been made rudely aware of her race. She realised at school, as an 8-year-old, while giving a speech in front of the assembly, that she was one of five brown faces at the school. “I started to notice who gets to speak and who doesn’t,” she said. As a 12-year-old, she called out an intermediate school teacher for being racist regarding Australian Aboriginals. And as a 21-year old, in her third year of a law degree, her friends created a petition to keep “weirdos and minorities” out of law school. She left soon after, to complete a BA and work in the arts. She says, “I have no idea how to keep my soul inside of my skin.”

The gala opening presented many moments to remember, and plenty of moments to delve further into; you can see our review of Etgar Keret’s session here, and we will soon have a report about Mariko’s first panel session. While I am posting this at the halfway mark, I am by no means writered out. There is still so much to see and learn from to come.

A last remark, courtesy of Courtney Sina Meredith, who will appear tomorrow at Debating New Zealand:
“People will break themselves against you and it’s your life’s work to keep going, regardless.”

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster and Elizabeth Heritage

Gala Opening: Fighting Talk
with Mariko Tamaki, Etger Keret, Robert Dessaix, Sally Gardner and Courtney Sina Meredith
Thursday 10 March, NZ Festival Writer’s Week