Writers & Readers Festival: Women Changing the World

Drawn by, and copyright of Tara Black

Featuring New Zealand Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh, broadcaster Kim Hill, novelist Charlotte Wood, fantasy champion Charlie Jane Anders, poet and memoirist Patricia Lockwood, poet and games maker Harry Giles, free-range celebrity cook Annabel Langbein, poets Anahera Gildea and Maraea Rakuraku, poets Jenny Bornholdt, Louise Wallace and Tayi Tibble, activist and author Marianne Elliott, and playwright, novelist and memoirist Renée, introduced by Performer, broadcaster and author Michèle A’Court. NWF18 Women changing the world(1)NWF18 Women changing the world 2(1)

Go to the Writers & Readers Festival! Three days of scintillating conversation live on stage: Be There!

AWF 17: Women and Power

Some years, I have entered into the spirit of a literary festival gently – an off-site poetry launch bearing the festival’s branding, a small session in a side room in the middle of the day. Others, it’s a hiss and roar – and the Auckland Writers Festival of 2017 has been one of those occasions.

So, here is the first of several reviews to come – starting on a high note that will hopefully be maintained over the weekend. Because an event with any of Roxane Gay, Mpho Tutu van Furth or Michele A’Court would be a stellar one – and to have all three women on stage together, chaired by the indomitable Susie Ferguson, and talking about the various complex intersections of power and women was something very special indeed.

roxane gay

As is tradition, things kicked off with introductions. Roxane Gay (photo above by Jay Grabiec): academic, competitive Scrabble player and unabashed fan of The Bachelor. Mpho Tutu van Furth: priest, charitable foundation director and daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Michele A’Court: stand-up comedian, self-identified ‘strident feminist’ and Aunty-with-a-capital-A.

And it goes without saying that ‘writer’ can be added to that list for all three.

But if introductions are easy enough, that was where the straight-forward part of the session ended, with Susie diving right on into it, asking for the panel’s Trump-related feelings.

The nature of the material in combination with the style and temperament of the women on the stage meant that there were great shifts between laughter and more somber nodding of agreement. Roxane’s opening point focused on the wide-reaching harm that the Trump administration is having and will continue to have on all but the middle-aged, middle-class white men of the world.


On the other hand, Michele (above, photo by Kate Little) had the crowd cackling with her theory about why people have found themselves paying so much attention to him in the political arena – comparing his appearance in Washington to the unexpected appearance of a stripper in the middle of a classical ballet performance. It’s at odds with the surroundings, but you’re not going to be able to look away.

mpho tutuThe question of the line of succession came up, more than once. Roxane, as a resident of Indiana, where Vice President Pence was once Governor, described it as ‘a sh*tshow from the start’, while the somewhat more gently spoken Mpho (left) referred to ‘Trump, Pence, Ryan… or whatever swamp creature comes next’.

It was Mpho who spun the longer responses, by and large, likely owing to a family aptitute for delivering heart-felt messages to a crowd. When discussing her own experience as a voice for change and empowerment as both a woman married to another woman and as a woman with a platform provided (in part) by virtue of her birth, Mpho was clear about her position’s responsibilities:

‘Having a platform doesn’t make me a hero. It just means that the ocean of people who have been screaming for years have a chance to be heard.’

Roxane went in guns blazing when it came to keeping a stash of one-liners in her back pocket. From bringing out ‘God, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man’, to responding to a question regarding the oft maligned reputation of outspoken feminists with ‘who cares if people call us bra-burning whatever-the-f*cks’ to setting off a chain of nodding around the crowd by pointing out ‘if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention’, she spoke with the practised ease of someone well-acquainted with the festival circuit.

The discussion continued into the broader discussion of feminism as identity and ethos, and the sense of either needing to earn the right to be called a feminist through actions and simultaneously struggling with the label due to the misconceptions by others. Michele described a brief period of her life when she stopepd overtly referring to herself as a feminist, while still maintaining the same politics and attitudes. ‘I think I was trying to Trojan horse feminism in – sharing those ideas without calling them that.’

With Roxane’s best known work probably her essay collection Bad Feminist, the issue is one of being feminist ‘enough’, or doing it ‘properly’. ‘I was uncomfortable reclaiming the word – because I was so bad at it.’Meanwhile Mpho brought up the issue of the “global” feminism all too often being very white and western, focusing on a very specific image of what it is to be a powerful woman.

The passion about the topic was palpable from all four women – Susie included – and it made for an engaging exploration of the shared experiences of being a woman in the world today. Roxane, Mpho and Michele are all women worth listening to, worth reading, worth continuing to raise up to ensure that their voices are heard widely and strongly – and the packed out stalls of the ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre would suggest that a great many AWF attendees will be spreading their messages far and wide.  

Attended and Reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Further events with Roxane Gay
Further events with Mpho Tutu van Furth
Further Events with Michele A’Court

NWF: The Great Debate: Toby Manhire, Michele A’Court, Paula Morris & Leilani Tamu with Te Radar


Te Radar

Okay, I’ll admit it – after the release of the now-infamous NZ Book Council research report, I was disappointed that these four debaters emerged from this session with their limbs still attached. The moot “Do New Zealand Books Need Special Treatment?” has become so topical in the past week that the organisers of the National Writers Forum must have been delighted by both their foresight and brilliant luck. I myself reveled in the pre-glow of what I hoped would be a bitter bloodbath, ending with Te Radar’s tender hand floating across the tops of long stems of golden wheat. But Te Radar isn’t Russell Crowe, and this was no Gladiator.


Overall this session was less battle to the death and more battle of the wits, and boy, did Manhire come out swinging. Leader of the affirmative team, Manhire suggested that, yes, New Zealand books do need special treatment – in almost every sense of the phrase. Not only do they need to be stroked, cared for, given attention, and lovingly durasealed – and New Zealand writers given resources and plenty of biscuits – but sometimes New Zealand books also need “special” treatment – their prices slashed as they’re chucked into the Whitcoulls cheap basket.

Paula Morris followed up with a compelling argument from the negative team, stating that Manhire and A’Court are both “strange and volatile people”. She argued that New Zealand books aren’t basket cases, and that they need to be given the opportunity to stand up and skirmish with international titles on general fiction shelves – very sensible.

Michele A’Court responded on behalf of the affirmative team, explaining that reading New Zealand’s special books gave her permission to be a writer. Separating New Zealand literature was not a way to weed out New Zealand titles from the good books, but to wave, to say “I’m like you, come and find me.”

Leilani Tamu replied with a poignant anecdote of her child’s first take-home reader – about the importance of engaging with and bonding over a love of story, not identity. New Zealand books need to assert themselves, she said, because they are worthy of the world stage.

What do I think? I have no bloody idea. The treatment of New Zealand books is currently so contentious, with so many credible arguments for each side, that it’s not an issue that I feel my small voice would progress. Perhaps, as Te Radar said, “it really doesn’t make any difference who won this debate”. Another brilliant you-really-had-to-be-there session by the National Writers Forum.

Event attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

Image of Te Radar from: http://johnsonlaird.com/our-mcs-entertainers-speakers/Te_Radar


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!

Book Review: Stuff I Forgot to Tell My Daughter, by Michèle A’Court

Available now in bookstores nationwide.

I usually approach books by comedians with some trepidation. The reality is, many cv_stuff_i_forgot_to_tell_my_daugthercomedians aren’t actually that funny. Worse is the fact that the label ‘comedian’ is being slapped on all kinds of people who don’t qualify on a good day let alone in 200 pages of print. Thankfully, Michèle A’Court is the real deal.

Within 5 pages of Stuff I Forgot to Tell My Daughter, I was laughing out loud, already making mental notes of what I should share with my mum. 75 pages in, I knew I’d just buy Mum her own copy. By the end of the book the list of people I’ll buy this for had expanded to my 18 year old “little sister”, good friends who are mums to my goddaughters and my little brother who is about to become a dad.

A mix of anecdotes, salient advice for life and considered musings on what it means to be a modern woman in NZ, A’Court’s style is a genuine delight to read. Never too hefty even when tackling “serious issues”, she’s wise, honest and undeniably funny.

Michèle A’Court is not the kind of comedian to crack jokes with punchlines. She’s the kind of comedian who knows how to tell a great story, how to share information of all types in a way that’s engaging and memorable. A natural born entertainer, she’s a natural born writer as well.

As far as I’m concerned, buying this is the natural choice for Mothers’ Day.

by Sarah McMullan
nzsarahmcmullan@gmail.com @SarahMcMullanNZ

Stuff I Forgot to Tell My Daughter
by Michèle A’Court
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775540519

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