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



AWF: New Zealand Listener Gala Night, with Alan Cumming, Peter Fitzsimons, Michele A’Court and more

AWF_logoI am sitting in the second row at the Gala Opening Event of the Auckland Writers Festival 2015. The line up of authors is impressive. They each have 7 minutes to tell a true story about themselves, based on the topic of Straight Talking. Once the charming and witty Alan Cumming got his minor protest heard about being required to talk “straight”, he delivered a lesson in standing up to people as he reminisced about his interaction with director Stanley Kubrik in the film Eyes Wide Shut. He spoke back to the great man, and seemed to win his respect.

Michele A’Court, comic turned writer, was aspp_michele_acourt funny as you would expect her to be. She explained that the fastest way to get somewhere is by walking in a straight line: therefore, the same should be true for conversations. Her straight talking involved a hilarious story about trying to get to a small town Australian town for the birth of her first grandchild.

Peter FitzSimons, a man also known to us in other pursuits – he was an Australian rugby player – gave an energetic, and well-received, reminder of what it was like to face All Black greats like Buck Shelford and Inga the winger charging at you on the green fields of Eden Park over two decades ago. The passionate way he engaged the audience suggested it could have been yesterday, and maybe it was, in his storytellers’ mind.

pp_nic_lowNic Low (left), author of Arms Race and a new name to me, told us his story of becoming a writer, which included a touch of what he termed fraudessence. He talked about a writer needing a balance of skill, work, and ego, and I think, on reflection, that this balance is crucial.

Aroha Harris used as a prop, her impressive ta moko extending from her hand to her elbow. A story in itself. She spoke of being the victim of straight talking from strangers about what she had done to herself (they thought of this as a disfigurement), and why.

Continuing in the theme of third-party uninvited straight talking, Australian writer, Helen Garner, talked about repeatedly being reminded, through the action of others, of her age (she is 71).

pp_amy_bloomAmy Bloom (right), from the USA, told us a very funny story about her parents, their deaths, the sharing of cremated remains and a straight-talking (and pragmatic) pair of sisters; one of whom was Amy herself. It’s a happy ending, and one which even Amy thinks her mother will be pleased with.

When Booker winner Ben Okri took the stage as the final speaker he continued the theme of parental love and loss. You could have heard a pin drop in the ASB theatre as he told us the story of receiving a phone call to say his devoted mother had passed. A phone call that he never expected, that turned that day into the worst day of his life, but also the most transcendent.

Wow, what a night. Some many great stories, so many great thoughts, and wonderful storytellers. This evening was clearly to whet the appetite for the three days ahead: it worked for me, I’m now very hungry and keen for more.

Reviewed by Gillian Whalley Torckler

All of these authors are doing events over the next three days, at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. Go and join the literary fun!