Gender Divides and the Michael King Memorial Lecture, Auckland Writer’s Festival Sunday 19 May

A lot of folk today looking pretty shattered − but still smiling. This year’s Auckland Writers Festival has been absolutely full steam ahead the whole time, packed full of fascinations and inspirations. Thank you and congratulations to the organisers for delivering extraordinary experiences.

My first session today was oneJackley_Jessica I’d been really looking forward to: Gender Divides, a
panel discussion on feminism between Sandi Toksvig, Eleanor Catton, Jessica Jackley (right), and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, chaired by Judy McGregor.
As with Science and the Big Questions yesterday, the topics were so broad as to make discussions in such a tight timeframe necessarily superficial. However, there was still a lot to be gleaned.

Catton spoke about the challenge, as a successful female artist, of having to be feminist as well as having to be heard. She said that women making good art is itself a feminist act. Toksvig commented that successful women in public life feel a responsibility to represent all womankind, not just themselves − a responsibility men never seem to feel to other men.

mark_zuckerbergI was particularly struck by Catton’s comments that she hates lists (eg of writers) that contain just one woman’s name. The presence of that one name does not legitimate the absence of all the other women. It was also very interesting to hear from Jackley, a social entrepreneur and micro-financer, about the different expectations of male and female entrepreneurs. Males are able to look scruffy (in a Zuckerbergian (left), been-up-coding-all-night kind of way), whereas females are expected to look immaculate at all times in order to be taken seriously.Author, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku

The session closed with McGregor asking the four panellists what advice they would give a 12-year-old girl, and I loved their answers. Te Awekotuku (right): never lose hope. Catton: you can do things that you’ve never seen done before. Jackley: you can write your own rules. Toksvig: look to the past and you will have the brightest future.

My final session for this year’s festival was, unfortunately, the weakest one. I went along to the Michael King Memorial Lecture expecting a high standard of considered, wide-ranging thought and communication, commensurate with King’s own impressive achievements. What we had was entrepreneur Ray Avery talking about his autobiography and his book about New Zealanders of note, which he urged us to buy.

One of the first things Avery (below) did was ask how many of us had heard of him, commenting that “being slightly famous is very complicated”. He spent nearly an hour telling us about his life, a classic rags-to-riches story. He also boasted about committing adultery, which I found alienating. However, he has undeniably had a largely positive impact on the world: as he told us repeatedly, the company he runs Avery_Ray(providing eye surgery in the developing world) has restored the sight of an impressively large number of people.

Avery’s main point seemed to be that the meaning of being a New Zealander is to be like him: entrepreneurial, resourceful and “with no respect for the status quo”. With this strong sense of identification between the traits he admires most in himself and our perceived national character, it is no wonder Aotearoa is his adopted country.

This weak point notwithstanding, this has been a superbly stimulating festival. I have discovered lots of new thinkers and authors whose ideas and works will provide food for thought in the months and years to come. Thank you to everyone who spoke – and I’ll see you all next year!

Events attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage