AWF18: Between Two Worlds, featuring Alison Jones and Redmer Yska

AWF: Between Two Worlds, featuring Alison Jones and Redmer Yska

The regimented nature of the festival is clearest when sitting in sessions in the Heartland Festival Room or the Upper NZI Room – both of which edge onto Aotea Square and are well within earshot of the Auckland Town Hall Clock Tower. It chimed 10am right as the speakers took their seats. Tick!

Chair Geoff Walker gave a brief introduction to the session itself and the featured authors. Kuni Kaa Jenkins was unable to make the session, but her co-author Alison Jones was present, as was the session’s other featured author, Redmer Yska. Both books being focused on in the session, Jones’ and Jenkins’ Ockham-winning Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds (Bridget Williams Books) and Yska’s A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington (Otago University Press), share a parallel of citizens of Aotearoa travelling to the other side of the world, in a manner that Yska described as resembling the journey of godwits.

‘’They’re both doing a form of OE, really. That hunger for what’s out there in the world… that wide-eyed tradition that comes from being so far-flung.’
While both Tuai and KM (as Mansfield was fondly referred to by chair and author alike throughout the session) did hail from New Zealand, they were from entirely different worlds – temporally (Tuai’s early 19th century vs. KM’s late 19th century/early 20th), geographically (Bay of Islands vs. Karori) and of course, the tangata whenua vs. pākehā divide.

Both authors provided a bit of backstory into the whys and hows they decided to undertake these particular projects. Jones spoke of Tuai popping up while she and Jenkins were working on their earlier collaboration He Kōrero. ‘He sort of threw himself at us,’ Jones commented. ‘He wanted to be written about!’

Meanwhile, Yska described how ‘our famous writer with the bob and the faraway gaze’ is well biographied… but not necessarily by New Zealanders who have a full understanding of her formative years in Thorndon and Karori. ‘They’re in Wellington for 10 minutes, they acknowledge the wind and then go.’ So Yska took it upon himself to tell these Wellington stories, creating ‘an intimate atlas’.

Jones spoke on Tuai’s place in the establishment of wary trust between colonial travellers and Māori. ‘He was of that first generation of Māori who were confident with Pākehā ships coming into New Zealand.’ That same generation, she said, were the ones who began to see the exciting possibilities across the sea, as they witnessed both white men coming and going, and Māori travelling to Australia and returning.

In lovely little insights into his personality quirks, there was recurring reference to Tuai’s penchant for European fashion. ‘Māori are still fashion mavens!’ Jones said. There was also commentary on Tuai’s terse relationship with missionaries, with Jones noting that he was never convinced of the need for the Pākehā god in Aotearoa – after all, that god lived in England! ‘There were plenty of atua in New Zealand – why did they need another one?’

A contrast in the two protagonists can be seen in their relationship with their people and families. While Tuai was deeply connected to his people, as a young chief of his Ngare Raumati hapū, KM was ‘such a punk, really’ according to Yska. ‘She was quite anarchistic, with no allegiance to anyone’.

In examining KM’s other traits, Yska also described her as ‘a hustler. She was a businesswoman in many ways, and quite mercantilist.’ Tuai meanwhile had his ‘cultural flexibility’ highlighted by Jones. ‘They were able to move within these cultural frames [of New Zealand and Europe] with dignity and integrity.’

Before things wrapped up with question time, there was a brief discussion of the sense of shared ownership that both books would potentially have. For Tuai, this was due to his place within the whakapapa of a hapū and iwi that neither Jones nor Jenkins had any immediate connection to (‘I was Pākehā, Kuni was Ngāti Porou, I wasn’t sure about who was more out of place asking these questions up north!’). Meanwhile with KM, it was more about the sense of the ardent fans out there, always seeking a new tidbit of information to get new insights into their (our, to be honest – there are Mansfield tattoo plans in the works for this reviewer) short story pioneering heroine.

A great hour spent looking into two figures of New Zealand history that brought their own versions of the Kiwi experience with them to Europe – and brought those experience back home again.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Click through the links below to see any further sessions. Both books mentioned are available at bookshops nationwide.

Alison Jones

Kuni Kaa Jenkins

Redmer Yska


AWF18 – The Absent Sea: Carlos Franz

The Absent Sea: Carlos Franz, Friday 18 May, 10 – 11am at Auckland Writers Festival 2018

Chilean writer Carlos Franz, who arrived in Auckland some 24 hours before his conversation with Tom Moody, has spent the little time he has had in Auckland trying to find traces of Katherine Mansfield in the city, with little success. When you come to a country you don’t know, he levels, you spend your time looking for the elements familiar to you from literature.

This relationship between literature and place, in addition to power, emerges in various guises during the course of a convivial conversation. Carlos discovered literature as a place of refuge at the age of fourteen, when both his country and domestic life were a mess (his parents were going through a bitter divorce; the country witnessed a coup). He found that he could ‘live inside the book’ and that he too could create worlds through writing.

carlos franz
It is this fourteen-year-old self that Tom asks to hear more from in relation to Allende’s overthrow. Carlos remembers being terribly disappointed and ‘instinctively against it’. The coup had practical implications: a curfew was enforced for the entirety of his youth. And psychologically: lunches at his grandfather’s would play out in the divides between left and right, ending in terrible arguments and family rifts. At the private school he attended, he was found to be an outsider again – first a reader among sporty types; now a leftist among the right.

He tells us that The Absent Sea, the only of his works to be translated into English, is his attempt to understand his relationship to Chile’s tumultuous past. The protagonist returns to Chile 20 years after the coup, to Pampa Hundida, a fictional city. It is a small town in the northern desert of Chile, a fertile and rich oasis surrounded by a menacing environment, a spiritual hub where once a year 100,000 people from across Latin America gather to celebrate the virgin and expunge their sins through rites.

For Carlos, Pampa Hundida can do something that a real city cannot. By mixing attributes found in the real world – physical, spiritual and otherwise – he was attempting to comprehend what happened in Chile – where force and the law, cruelty and compassion hung in the balance. ‘What could lead us to such cruelty? What sort of forces were latent that suddenly appeared?’

Tom guides the conversation to contemporary Chile and its literary scene, which is characterised by many small independent publishers – so many, according to Carlos, that it is in fact ‘hard to say what is happening’. The big ones are bankrupt and there is a reliance on Spanish publishing houses for distribution. We get a feel for Spain’s hegemony in Spanish-language literature – Carlos calls it the Rome for Spanish language writers, in that this is where the major critics, writers and publishing houses are. They are the gatekeepers deciding who will be lucky enough to be published beyond Latin America.

And what of the English-speaking world’s resistance to translated works? Carlos acknowledges that is notoriously difficult to be translated into English – only 2 per cent of works published in English are translated. Diplomatically, he suggests this is because the English-speaking world is vast, and has novels in English from Pakistan to South Africa, and that perhaps we are thus satisfied. But, he warns, this leads to cultural isolation. Over 40 per cent of works published in Spanish are translated; readers are better informed about the rest of the world. (As we find out during question time, he read Mansfield’s The Garden Party at age 15 – it was translated in the 30s).

Carlos rallies the audience, saying in these times of diminished outlets for literature, one can still take a stand. There is an act of rebellion in participating in literature at all: ‘Writers and readers are resisting a world that is trying to crush us’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

The Absent Sea (El desierto) 
Published by McPherson
ISBN 9781944689902

Carlos Franz will appear again at free event Disappearances
on Sunday, 20 May 1:30pm – 2:20pm
Limelight Room, Aotea Centre




Book Review: Shelf Life, by C. K. Stead

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_shelf_lifeI looked forward to reading this book by our former poet laureate and well known man of letters. It transpired, though, to be less of a read and more of a dip in and out. Stead is a thoughtful man with strong opinions which are based on a long experience of the literary world in New Zealand and the people that world has contained over the years. An argument well presented is always interesting, even if only as a comparison to one’s own opinion or beliefs, and I found myself reading an essay or interview then spending time reflecting on Stead’s words.

His writings on Mansfield and the criticisms leveled at her by those who came after her, present a microcosm of the Colonial’s dilemma – how to wrench oneself free of the home country’s influence while attempting to rise above the cultural cringe engendered by comparisons with literary giants from the past.

The book is a delight of words, valuable for that alone, when language is no longer valued for the most part. But to read the thoughts of an erudite man, familiar, as Stead is, with his subject, is to enjoy the company of those of whom he writes, whether still alive or long dead.

His reviews of others’ work are thoughtful and concise with many examples added, which enables the reader to build his own understanding and knowledge of a poet or author. The index at the back of the book gives an indication of how wide Stead’s range of interests are, and offers the reader a regular smorgasbord of subjects for contemplation and consideration.

As Stead says of Patrick Evans novel Gifted, this is “literature for the literate and the literary,” and it is certainly a treat for those such inclined. But even a mild interest in the thoughts of a man with a wide experience of New Zealand writing would be rewarded by a dip into its pages.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Shelf Life: Reviews, Replies and Reminiscences
by C. K. Stead
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408497