The Diversity Debate: Victor Rodger, Marlon James & Stephanie Johnson at #AWF16


This was my last session of the 2016 Auckland Writers Festival and it was a really lively note to end on. Paula Morris chaired a panel debate on diversity with Victor Rodger, Marlon James and Stephanie Johnson that addressed important issues with good humour, energy and intellectual rigour.

pp_victor_rodgerRodger (right) is a Kiwi-Samoan playwright and screenwriter who has worked on Shortland Street, where he was always the only Pacific Islander in the writing room. He says nothing will change until there is diversity at the top levels of management. “Three of my least favourite words are level, playing, and field.” He agrees that NZ literature is too white: Pacific Island writers embrace poetry and film, but not novels so much. Rodger also sees problems with white writers creating Māori and Pacific Island characters, and in the ways these works are reviewed: “I see a lot of free passes being given across all art forms”. He told the story of a play he wrote that was criticised by a Pākehā reviewer for not having enough swearing in it: they hadn’t realised the swearing was all in Samoan.

marlon_jamesJames is a Jamaican novelist living in the US who recently won the Man Booker Prize. On the subject of writing ‘the other’ (although he has problems with that term), he says he encourages his creative writing students to do the work and try it: “90% of you are going to fail but do it anyway”. He said wryly that he’d recently given up appearing on diversity panels and is sick of talking about identity. He doesn’t like the word ‘diversity’ because it has no emotional weight. It’s like ‘tolerance’. We need to move beyond just having multiculturalism to loving it: “diversity is a sign you’re doing something right … diversity is an outcome we mistake for a goal”.

Morris brought up the problem NZ writers have of trying to get their work read overseas, and this led to an interesting discussion of whether to make the setting of one’s work as generic as possible, in order to attract an international audience. Rodger said “the more specific we make our writing, the more universal it is”.

stephanie_johnsonJohnson (right) is a Pākehā writer and founding trustee of the Auckland Writers Festival. On the topic of reviewing, she said “the reviewing situation in New Zealand is diabolical and getting worse”, with reviewers being paid so little and space for book reviewing in mainstream media shrinking. I think there are signs of hope, though – I was reminded of Giovanni Tiso in the Column Inches session talking about how blogs are taking up the arts criticism slack (see the Booksellers NZ list of NZ book blogs). And in How To Review A Book, David Eggleton reminded us that Landfall and Landfall Review Online (which he edits) pay their writers, and invited everyone to send him their reviews.

The award for Best Audience Question has to go to a man who approached the mic at the end of the panel discussion and said, “I’m a gay disabled polyamorous white man – you may have to google that … why in 2016 is a panel on diversity so narrow in content?” Riotous applause. Morris acknowledged his excellent point, saying they could easily have had a diversity panel discussion every day of the festival focusing on different aspects.

After the session ended I felt a little lost. It was my fifth Auckland Writers Festival session in a row that day, and now all of a sudden it was over. I hung about a bit and chatted to some booksellers and festival staff. Sales of both tickets and books had been really strong (hooray!). Everyone looked tired and happy. People had met their heroes, stumbled across works of genius, heard extraordinary ideas spoken and sung to them. Questions has been asked and answered, persuasive conversations had changed the shape of people’s minds. We had stood in queues and smiled at each other.

So, thank you. Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to make the festival happen (and kia ora to Rachel who runs the AWF Twitter!). Thank you to all the writers and artists and speakers. Thank you to my fellow reviewers, in particular my editor Sarah Forster. Thank you to David Eggleton for his How To Review A Book session, which helped me think about my own reviewing in a more nuanced way. And a special thank you to David Larsen, who attended more AWF sessions than I thought it was possible for one human to handle. (“You don’t need a break! Come on, stay for Paul Muldoon!”) It was a pleasure to sit with him in the middle of the front row, and an honour to have all those conversations between sessions on what had just happened and what we thought about it. Steve Braunias called Larsen’s column on day one of AWF , Drunk on Information, the greatest writers festival blog he’d ever read. I think there might just be a bit of hope for professional arts criticism in Aotearoa after all.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Here on Twitter.

Check out the other reviews by Elizabeth, Claire Mabey, Matthias Metzler and Felicity Murray (and myself) of sessions during the 2016 Auckland Writers Festival.

Marlon James: A History in Seven Killings, at #AWF16

marlon_jamesGetting to listen to Marlon James talk about himself and his book, A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2015, made for a very good reason to rise early this Saturday morning. A very intelligent and thoughtful conversation flowed  naturally from the stage, punctuated by funny remarks, insightful comments, and thought-provoking discussions. As though this great novel wasn’t riveting enough, hard enough to put down, James himself was a joy to listen to, a voice I could happily hear in conversation for many hours.

Half a year on from his winning of the Man Booker Prize, James was asked to reflect on his experience, and interestingly enough he turned to the other authors on the shortlist, saying that the dust won’t settle until the next recipient of the award is announced. Instead he says that he thinks of the other works nominated and how reading them is an important part of the experience.

a brief history in seven killingsThe conversation between James and Noelle McCarthy moved from the novel, to his personal life and experiences, and to Jamaica and its culture and history. A Brief History of Seven Killings is brought together by the shooting of Bob Marley in 1976, an event that James, despite talking in great detail about it, says wasn’t introduced into the novel until he realized it was a common point between the characters. Instead this novel is driven by voice, and unlike his previous novel, The Book of Night Women, it uses many different voices. This change in style reflects many different elements in the story and form, and the ideas James engages with. He says that “the only voice I was not interested in was mine,” and so he used different voices and characters to express different desires and a changing point of view about a single point of history.

James also says that this novel was a new experience for him, and not only because of the change in narrative voice. One of his most famous quotes is “you have to risk pornography,” something he got from when he was told he had to “risk sentimentality” in response to his unwillingness to write about love. This risk is what fiction is all about, a place where we can explore the interesting and visceral, a place of escapism. When asked whether he though of this book as a screenplay, he noted that there is a certain something that he says only the novel form can do, in that it can have a conversation with the reader with the immediacy of the present, haunted by the past, with a fear of the future. “The novel already comes with the fourth wall down.”

As the session finished, James read a short extract from the novel, bringing moments of laughter and moments of silence from the audience. Overall, this feels like a good representation of James, a mix of all the things that we look for in a great piece of fiction.

Event attended and reviewed by Matthias Metzler

A Brief History of Seven Killings, published by Oneworld Publications, ISBN 9781780746357
John Crow’s Devil, published by Oneworld Publications, ISBN 9781780748498 The Book of Night Women, published by Oneworld Publication, ISBN 9781780746524

Creative book-building: How to create 17 video vignettes in one day

Last year during the Man Booker Prize run-up, the Booker publicity group came up with the great idea of creating Vines for each of the shortlisted finalists, and encouraging others to do the same. So I thought, why not? Never mind that there are only six titles on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, while we have 16 finalists, and three best first books… luckily two of the best first books are also on the finalist list.


The view at the beginning of our day, Friday 11 July

While what we ended up creating were a bit long for Vines as it turned out, but this is how we created them:

Step One: 
Decide how you want to use your footage, as this will inform your materials. We ended up deciding that because we will be using our video clips as illustrations for the finalists as they are announced at the ceremony, we would heed a professional photographer to create them on a hi-def camera. We also needed a cohesive plan for how to approach each book, from somebody a lot more creative than us. Which brings me to Step Two!IMG_0821

Step Two:
Come up with some great ideas. We had as our art director, Leon Mackie (right, in director mode). Leon and his wife (our former Awards Executive, Lilly Mackie) came up with the ideas over a glass of wine, and sent them through to us. This is their track record – we knew we were in safe hands.

Step Three:
Source anything extra you need for the shoot. In our case, there wasn’t a lot – but we did need some sound effects. Amie and I spent a fantastic morning on finding the appropriate sound effects – our most tentative search was for the sound of a man grunting, our most difficult was for some WW1 sound effects.

Step Four:
Early on in the piece we asked Mark Tantrum, our event photographer, to be part of this process, and he came in and shot all of the videos for us, rather awesomely. He acted as our Director of Photography, with his assistant Elias Rodriguez as his Best Boy!

From here, we convened on Friday 11 July to shoot our videos. Our only props were black backdrops, a gavel and one book display aid. We had LED lights of various sizes and a couple of fancy camera accessories to help with the effects – we also used a handy stack of Women’s Day magazines to get the height correct. Leon’s concepts worked with the books themselves, in stacks, groups, sculptures and patterns.

Occasionally, we had a moment of panic, like when our Totara fell after just one (luckily successful) shoot.

And when the original concept of ripping a books’ cover was agreed to be a little bit too damaging, we had to come up with something different.

Books as horses legs are difficult to get right.

But Leon’s dog was spot on.

And his Twiss sculpture was fantastic.

And we got the History of Silence perfectly quiet.

We will be carrying on rolling out these clips throughout the promotion period for the People’s Choice Award. For the full finalist list please head through here, for resources for publishers and booksellers here, and for the media kit, here is where you need to go.

Please don’t forget you don’t have to vote for a finalist or one of the bestsellers’ pictured – as long as the book was published in New Zealand from 1 June 2013 – 31 May 2014, it is eligible to win the People’s Choice Award.

By Sarah Forster

Email Digest: Wednesday, 11 September 2013

This is a digest of our Twitter feed that we email out most Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sign up here for free if you’d like it emailed to you.

Book reviews
Lincoln Gould reviews Passchendaele by Andrew MacDonald

Book Review: Rebecca and the Queen of Nations, by Deborah Burnside 

New Releases
New Release: Hero of the Hill, by Joy Cowley and Philip Webb 

Author interviews

Sam Hunt on RadioNZ discussing Sarah Broom and the prize established in her memory @Carcanet
A Monstrous Author Interview with Matt & Debbie Cowens: Mansfield with Monsters

Lloyd Jones at the Christchurch Arts Festival  tonight
Pip Adam’s new book I’m Working on a Building will be launched…

Come hear Sarah Laing chat with Dylan Horrocks about her novel The Fall of Light & her comics this Sunday at Going West

Want to create meaning in your life? Hear Lloyd Geering on “Living this Life” in Christchurch this Saturday

Book News
Congratulations to Majella Cullinane and Melinda Szymanik on their Otago residencies
Two weeks left to Kickstart an amazing shared world fantasy comic Dylan Horrocks helped create. HURRY!

Children’s authors respond to the Learning Media news

Quote Unquote: A guest post from Paula Browning

Getting excited about the Mr Pip movie?

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Excitement building for The Luminaries – on the shortlist. Yay!
A WIP #storify: The Luminaries has been shortlisted for the Man Booker #manbookerprize #manbooker
Want to know what the #ManBookerPrize judges think of the shortlist? Read Robert Macfarlane’s Kindle Post here

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was last night named on #ManBooker shortlist. Here’s her interview in The Listener

From around the internet

Are ladies of literature secret clotheshorses?

Some great images on this tumblr 

I am going in for Serious Literature – a comic

NZ Book Council’s Best of Now: a newsy round-up of recent happenings from the world of reading

Can your favourite author help you find a job? Some sage advice.

A Perfectly Written Used Bookstore Description