Simon Winchester: Pacific Future, with Greg O’Brien

pp_simon_winchesterSimon Winchester still remembers the phone number that ultimately led to his success. He had written twelve books, and was well into planning on his thirteenth (having already bought a tramp steamer with his publishers’ money to staff for a book on trade routes around the world) when by chance, he saw a book called Chasing the Sun, by Jonathon Green – about dictionaries. In it, while relaxing in the bath, he read about Dr W.C. Minor, who was a major contributor to the Oxford Dictionary, and was fascinated by this murderous lunatic. He called a lexicographer friend – she of the number – and what she told him led him to write what was titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne in the UK, and The Madman and the Professor in the USA.

pp_gregory_obrienGreg O’Brien chaired this event, and his questions were perfectly pitched between levity and a clear admiration for what Winchester has achieved. Winchester was told by a Korean fortune teller that he would write 38 books exactly: so far, he is at 30, so eight more to come then. He is a non-conformist scholar, and the most general you can get when speaking of his books is that he studies the human record of things, though his degree was in geology.

One of the great things about Winchester’s books, says O’Brien, is that he has stood in the places he is speaking about – he doesn’t just read it, he lives it. Asked whether he serves Literature or Journalism as a master, Winchester said, “To write something in 12,000 words is easy; to write something in 100,000 words is easy, it just takes longer. But once you pare it down, it becomes more difficult.” He hasn’t done journalism, except long-form journalism, for some time now; his books are not what he would call journalism.

He started his life as a geologist until he read a book by James Morris, and wondered if perhaps he could write books instead. At Morris’ suggestion, he dropped geology and became a journalist, ultimately becoming a war correspondent. His first book was about Northern Island, where he had been stationed during the uprisings. His second, American Heartbeat, has still only sold 13 copies. I couldn’t help thinking then that if he had been publishing in today’s environment, that would have been his final opportunity! As it was, he got to 12 books before The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which he wrote in his early 50’s, just as he was worried he was being ‘put out to grass’ as a war correspondent.

cv_the_surgeon_of_crowthorneHis US publisher didn’t like the idea of this new book (as opposed to that of the ‘tramp steamer’ above) so they cancelled his contract, as books about a single person at that time were just not as popular in the trade. Ultimately, once the book was published, his agent found a USA publisher for it, and the rest was history. At the time it exploded, he was researching another book in Canada, tramping across the icy wastelands of the north when he received a radio transmission to make it to the nearest phone. This phone call ended in his being flown out of Canada, to New York, then back again to rejoin his expedition, for an interview with Mel Gusso, which ended (three months later) in a 4,000-word feature about Winchester and The Professor and the Madman in the Arts pages of the New York Times.

While the success of The Surgeon of Crowthorne gave him security as an author, Winchester thought that now his publishers had decided he can only write sure-fire bestsellers. This is a feeling echoed by Cornelia Funke in The Kids are All Right – there is a level of obscurity that can be helpful to creative freedom, it seems!

Winchester always writes on big topics, says O’Brien, often beginning with one person but ultimately enclosing a much broader topic. More recently, of course, he has begun writing books about oceans. “I had written a previous book about the Pacific,” said Winchester, “But it was bad. I wanted to right the wrongs.”

As Winchester works across so many topics and writes in such broad strokes, O’Brien asked him whether he gets in trouble with scholars when he publishes his books. While it doesn’t often happen, said Winchester, when he wrote The Map that Changed the World, he did get in trouble with a biographer of William Smith who had given him help with his research while he was writing the book. The expert’s book deal was cancelled thanks to Winchester’s book, so he accused Winchester publicly of plagiarism – luckily, this accusation never saw the light of day as it didn’t check out.

This was a fascinating session, which took in many dog-legs, including a long story about a well-known surveyor who successfully led a double life, simultaneously as a white man and a black man. This only became known upon his deathbed.

Simon Winchester is now working on a book about precision, and how it took over the world. This book will be a homage to his father, who was a precision engineer.

If you weren’t in the 700-odd-strong audience at The Embassy on Thursday, I suggest your have a listen to the Radio NZ recording of this session here. In the meantime, check some of Winchester’s books out – I certainly intend to.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

Simon Winchester: Pacific Future
4.30pm, Thursday 10 March, Embassy Theatre
NZ Festival Writer’s Week

NB: This was actually the first event I attended at the Writer’s Festival, but the notes were trapped on my work computer until today. Apologies for the delay in reportage!


So French: Muriel Barbery & Nicolas Fargues in conversation with Andrew Johnston

I had heard of Nicolas Fargues, though I’d only read one of his books. Well, one and a half. You see his latest book, I Was Behind You, has finally been translated into English. Fingers crossed they’ll follow suit with the other 9. In particular One Man Show. I’ve heard so much about it, I even read a third of it with a friend when I was in Paris about a decade ago. The problem was he read so slowly it drove me batty! I wanted to sit and have him read it to me all at once; he wanted to do other things. Like leave the house. How rude. Alas Fargues’ writing is far above my rudimentary schoolgirl French.

elegance_of_the_hedgehogMuriel Barbery also writes beyond my level of comprehension, but at least she’s frequently translated. Her novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been translated into many languages, it’s a New York Times best seller and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Her latest novel, The Life of Elves has also been translated and just as Hedgehog made a delightful film, I believe Elves will, too.

Apart from the fact they’re both French, it would be hard to find two more different writers. Barbery writes in a delicate, pleasantly bubbling style of warm interactions and discoveries of human nature. Of secrets uncovered to unite and build. Fargues on the other hand, writes with a pen dripping in scorn and insolence. His characters are mean; taunting karma and enraging the fates. They’re opposing factions – darkness and light. Perhaps that’s why they were a good match for this session.

Chair Andrew Johnson started the sold-out discussion by asking about French stereotypes. What is with that bored, disaffected, malaise that the French seem to have perfected?
Barbery went first. “It’s because we believe we could all be kings. We are the best. We are never satisfied. We have an eternal desire to make others look and feel ridiculous.”

Fargues agreed meanness was at the centre of the French way. “It’s bitterness really. We are bitter. As a French man you cannot merely admire. We can admire, but there MUST be a but… Being completely full of joy is impossible.” Speaking of his time traveling, and of the number of young French people who would rather work in places like New Zealand, Australia or Canada making coffee than go home to France and the troubled culture there, he summed it up succinctly. “We are a rich country but we’re not happy.”

muriel_barberyMuriel Barbery also spoke of France in terms of its abundance of assets. “We have everything we need but we still want more. We are spoiled. We are like spoiled children. The rest of the world knows this more than we do I think.”

Barbery also spoke about Romanian writer Emil Cioran, who was as successful writing in French as he was in his native language. Citing the way he mastered the language and wrote with a fluid beauty that only non-native speakers can find, his subject matter was often of the nature of France and her people, their spiritual and cultural unrest and dissatisfaction. Harsh realities wrapped in exquisite words.

nicolas farguesAgain Fargues took a more direct approach.”I love my country but I don’t want to live there anymore. It’s like loving a member of your family who isn’t taking care of themselves anymore. It’s too hard. You are better to love them from afar.

“You (in New Zealand) believe in your commonwealth. All of the countries in the French Republic, all the overseas collectivités and territories believe in the republic. Except one. France! We mock how they speak French. We laugh at how they claim to be French. It is wrong. We are wrong.

“We are ready for a change.”

chanel allure homme adsWhen it comes to change, we all know that the polished creatures we meet at Writers Festivals didn’t start out that way. Not all, but most, had other professions when they began their writing careers.

Muriel Barbery taught philosophy at a university, then at a teachers college before dedicating herself to writing full time. Nicolas Fargues has worked as a journalist and ran Alliance Française in Madagascar for a period of time. He also – and this is the first time I’ve ever found an author with this on their resume – modelled for Chanel as the face of their Allure: pour homme fragrance back in 2002. (left)

Currently the writer in residence at Randell Cottage, in Thorndon, Wellington; Fargues is here until the end of June. From there he’s unsure where he will go, though Quebec sounds like a distinct possibility.  The one place he’s sure it won’t be is Paris.

“Paris Syndrome is a real thing.” says Muriel Barbery. “People arrive and they’re disappointed. It’s not like the books. Or the movies.”

Right on cue, as if an author had written it, a lady in the front row spoke up “You’re right. It’s just not as French anymore.”

And with a wry smile and a cocked eyebrow from the guests of honour, SO FRENCH came to an end, and so did my Writers Week for 2016. Bring on 2018!


So French: Muriel Barbery & Nicolas Fargues in conversation with Andrew Johnston
2pm, Sunday 13 March, The Bats, Dome Theatre

The Elegance of the Hedgehog 
by Muriel Barbery
ISBN: 9781933372600

The Life of Elves 
by Muriel Barbery
ISBN: 9781609453152

One Man Show
by Nicolas Fargues
ISBN: 9782070428861 (French edition)

I Was Behind You 
by Nicolas Fargues
ISBN: 9781906548056

A Short History of Decay
by Emil Cioran
ISBN: 9781559704649

Fits and Starts
by Andrew Johnston
ISBN: 9781776560615

Five Poets And A Prize

Five Poets And A Prize involved the reading of five poets’ work plus the presentation of the 2016 winner of the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award. Funded by Victoria University Press and the New Zealand Poetry Society, this award is given to a poet who has contributed greatly to New Zealand poetry.

Frances Edmond, Lauris’ daughter, starts the readings with one of Lauris’ own pieces: a poem titled In Position. She then introduces Dinah Hawken, a past recipient of the prize, as the first reader. Her poems are exact yet grand, and she explains that many of the poems she’s reading are about women and children, since they remind her of Lauris.

It is this threading of Lauris’ memory with each writer that makes the event feel whole. Bob Orr, the next poet, knew Lauris personally and reads samples of his latest book, Odysseus in Woolloomooloo. I loved the way he introduced his poems, sometimes giving an insight into the story and inspiration behind his pieces.

I especially loved listening to Claire Orchard read, since I enjoyed her debut poetry collection, Cold Water Cure, which was inspired by the life of Charles Darwin. Orchard reads snippets from this collection while also expanding the reason for this focus on Darwin: an interest in comparing the similarities between Victorian life and her own.It is this imaginary correspondence between Orchard and Darwin that fuels her pieces.

The fourth poet, Chris Tse, recently had his poetry collection How to be dead in a year of snakes shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards. Before the event, I’d never read his work, but such a striking title promises good poetry. Tse definitely delivers; his voice is strong and steady, detailing the metaphor of the snake found in man and humanity.

Next up is Harry Ricketts, and his first poem is a fitting piece that’s both about Lauris and BATS,the theme and venue of the event. In between his readings are small interludes where he talks about his own interactions with Lauris, including a little story about how someone in a café declared that Lauris definitely looked like someone famous… before deciding that she had to be Janet Frame.

The variation between these five poets covered a stunning breadth of place and time from both well-seasoned and newer writers. And when Frances Edmond announces that the 2016 winner of the award is Bob Orr, the audience bursts into applause. Shocked and humbled, Orr gives his thank yous. Like all great writers, he simply loves to write, stating, “I thought I’d just come here to read some poetry”. Overall, the event was a lovely selection of five poets who I will definitely be reading more of, including the worthy winner of a brilliant prize.

Attended and reviewed by Emma Shi

Five Poets and a Prize: Dinah Hawken, Bob Orr, Claire Orchard, Chris Tse and Harry Ricketts
BATS, Saturday 12 March
NZ Festival Writer’s Week

Debating New Zealand: Morgan Godfery, Holly Walker, Courtney Sina Meredith

All Writers Week events have rightly started with thanks to the sponsors, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank some people as well. Firstly, thanks to Sarah Forster at Booksellers NZ for regularly commissioning me to cover NZ literary festivals. [ed: no worries, E!] Thanks to Kathryn Carmody and Claire Mabey for putting together such an extraordinarily rich and stimulating Writers Week. Thank you to all my fellow reviewers, especially Charlotte Graham and Ellen Falconer of Radio NZ for their heroic live-blogging efforts. It’s great to feel part of a crowd (and helpful to have someone to cross-check my quotes against!).

Thanks to all the volunteers and staff of Writers Week, the NZ Festival, the Embassy Theatre, Bats Theatre, Unity Books, and Ticketek, who have been uniformly charming and helpful. Thanks to Harriet Elworthy for giving me the pro tip about the good food and quick service at Five Boroughs (no coffee queues!) so that I could dash out between sessions and fend off dehydration and/or general collapse. (Yes, I know I ought to have brought snacks from home, but my handbag is full of books.)

Back to this afternoon’s first session. In Debating New Zealand, Linda Clark chaired a panel discussion at Bats Theatre with political commentator Morgan Godfery, former Green Party MP Holly Walker and poet Courtney Sina Meredith, all contributors to the latest of the BWB Texts, The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand. If you haven’t yet discovered the Bridget Williams Books Texts series, I highly recommend them.


Clark was, as you’d expect, a superb chair, keeping the conversation flowing and the ideas sparking. She quipped “once upon a time I used to be well known”, before saying the festival couldn’t find a journalist currently working who would attack neo-liberalism. Although I know she meant this as a joke, I think it is neither true nor helpful; there are plenty of journalists working in NZ today who are criticising the dominant ideology. However, it was just one misstep among a generally excellent discussion.

As Charlotte Graham points out in her review, this session wasn’t a debate by any stretch, and Clark acknowledged that they were preaching to the choir. Nonetheless, it was useful to discuss these important ideas, and I was heartened by the fact that Bats Theatre was completely packed out.

morgan godferyGodfery, who works a lot with trade unions, spoke about the demand he sees within Aotearoa to radically reshape politics. We have two options: disruption or resignation. He says that young people are increasingly choosing the former, although he acknowledges that this is reflected neither in political polls nor in voter turnout. He spoke about the attack on traditional institutions of dissent (eg media, unions).

Walker said “I came out of three years of Parliament much more cynical than when I went in”. She revealed how her experience in government had made her feel like she had lost her voice entirely. “I found that I lost my ability to reflect and think about what am I here for.” It was an exhausting, two-person job. Interestingly, Walker reported how her conversations with students have changed over the years. A decade ago, students were agitating for the end of the student loan scheme. Now, they’re so used to it that they’ve stopped questioning the rationale behind it. “The dominance of the status quo makes it really difficult to imagine how things could change. Things like the universal basic wage feel like a fantasy.”

courtney sina meredithMeredith works at MIT in Otara. “So many young people are degree pioneers in their family, and they’re paying for an education we can’t even confirm will happen. Critical thinking won’t feed anyone.” She pointed out that debates about home ownership ignore the fact that different cultures have different concepts of ownership. Families living in communities where they have social housing can also feel that they own their homes, even if their names aren’t on the title deeds. “People stay within their communities just to survive”, where they are part of a group to which they add value just by being alive.

Naturally there was an audience question about the flag referendum. Godfery said “it’s a really weird debate”; it’s strange to not acknowledge that the flag only has the meaning that we put on it. Meredith commented that the flag debate has engaged people who were previously politically disengaged, and that that can only be a good thing. The session ended with an upbeat call to embrace the politics of aroha: “Let love be our rallying cry!”

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Debating New Zealand: Holly Walker, Morgan Godfery and Courtney Sina Meredith
Chaired by Linda Clark
All attendees had written BWB Texts, get this fantastic range of short books on big subjects at bookshops nationwide.

Better Together, with Richard Bartlett and Nigel Dalton

Helen Heath chaired a panel discussion on how collaborative technology can encourage radical cultural change in business, with Loomio co-founder Richard Bartlett and REA Group CIO Nigel Dalton.

Richard_bartlettHeath’s chairing style was unobtrusive, which is generally welcome. Unfortunately, in this instance, I think Bartlett in particular could have done with quite a lot of reining in. Invited to give a quick introduction to Loomio, Bartlett spent some time talking in detail about his feelings about Occupy Wellington and how his experiences there contributed to his spiritual development. “It was a totally singular experience in my life … it’s hard to describe what it’s like to be part of a global superhuman collective intelligence, but it was pretty sweet.”

He related how reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had profoundly affected him. Bartlett described at length how Occupy Wellington had really made him check his privilege, and then proceeded to explain social justice. He said several times that “if you’re not explicitly challenging structural oppression you end up perpetuating it”. During the Q & A section at the end an audience member asked Bartlett, not unreasonably, how his product Loomio (a digital decision-making tool) challenges oppressive power structures. He said that people are less aggressive on the internet (?) and that “software can passively and automatically change power dynamics”. It’s an intriguing concept, but unfortunately by that point we’d run out of time to learn more.

nigel_daltonDalton was a much better panel member: articulate, comparatively concise, and entertaining (his opening line was “my name is Nigel Dalton and I work for Rupert Murdoch: I’ll see myself out”). He summarised Bartlett’s point about the dissonance between collective decision-making and inclusiveness – “the problem is you have to include the assholes” – before saying that, in his experience, “a magical thing happens when engineers turn 34” in that they tend to get over themselves a bit and learn to work well with others. (Bartlett is an engineer and looks to be around that age. Dalton is, at a guess, in his 60s.)

Dalton evangelised enthusiastically about ‘agile’, although unfortunately he forgot to begin by defining it. The most I managed to gather in the session was that it has something to do with people choosing their own teams to work with. I have since looked it up: dear old Wikipedia says “Agile management is an iterative, incremental method of managing the design and build activities for engineering, information technology, and other business areas … in a highly flexible and interactive manner.” Or, as Dalton said, “Work teams that self-select are infinitely more productive … There’s a flow to the world that delivers what’s right in the end.”

We didn’t reach the meat of the session until quite near the end of the hour, which was a shame, because I would have liked to have heard more about, for example, the ways in which the Lonely Planet publishing house (where Dalton used to work) failed to respond to the advent of smartphones: “it was a fascinating failure to transform … our inability to predict the future is epic”. Dalton said “the lowest common denominator of modern organisations has become resilience … there is scientific evidence that diversity of thinking increases resilience … business today is chaotic.”

I am continually fascinated by the ways in which the internet changes the way we read. Dalton commented “every digital Kindle book makes a real book more precious”, and I would have liked to have heard more discussion on that point. He also said that the difference between the internet and a book is that with a book you have to finish your idea. Bartlett said that the problem was that “publishers haven’t gone through the grieving process [like we did in Occupy Wellington] and they’ve been bought up by Rupert Murdoch, centralising power instead of distributing it”.

Since the session today, Bartlett has written a blog post entitled “The speech I wrote about patriarchy but didn’t have the courage to deliver on stage today” about all the things he wishes he could have said to us. He ends: “patriarchy and capitalism and colonialism [have] turned me into the self-centered loud-mouthed know-it-all that keeps trying to grab the microphone.” Maybe he just needs to get more agile.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Better Together: Nigel Dalton and Richard Bartlett, with Helen Heath
Saturday 12 March, BATS Theatre
NZ Festival Writer’s Week

Editor’s Note: We have, at Helen’s request and with Elizabeth’s permission, removed the indication of time period from the second paragraph of this review. It now reads ‘some time.’

The Kids are All Right: Cornelia Funke, Sally Gardner, Ted Dawe, Mandy Hager

Mandy Hager was the best chair I have seen in action this Writer’s Week. She introduced Cornelia Funke, Ted Dawe, Sally Gardner as award-winning writers that “write the sort of books that you put down and think about for hours afterwards.” I could not agree more.

The first pitched question was about the very concept of writing for children and YA. Each of the authors came from uniquely intelligent perspectives, they all allowed each other to hold opinions and were respectful of these.

Funke doesn’t agree with the concept of YA – she loves to write for children, the stories will be heard where they may. Ted Dawe has been put into a YA box because of the type of novels he writes, and he is at peace with this. Meanwhile, Sally Gardner said it best: “The Y is Why? And the A is the attempted answer. Many adult novels only answer. And I’d rather read books with the Y? Wouldn’t you?”

As this panel included Ted Dawe, there was a discussion about the banning of Into the River. Though I am familiar with the stoush, I was interested in Ted’s perspective:

“There were two interesting things that came out: One was the role of librarians as guardian angels, the second was how staunchly the judging panel believed in their decision. They were told by the sponsor, to go back and rethink their decision. They said ‘this was the book that deserved the prize.’” But it was Auckland libraries that led the call for review, which despite seeing the book banned temporarily, was ultimately successful in getting the restriction removed.

The other writers hadn’t had their books banned, but they agreed that publishers have a tendency to require a certain amount of censorship. Gardner had to place Maggot Moon with a different publisher because her usual one told her to bury it. It has a teacher brutality scene that ends in the death of a student, and a boys-kissing scene. She did allow the kissing to be removed for the United Arab Emirates, reluctantly. Maggot Moon won both the Carnegie Medal and the Costa. But Gardner’s favourite prize was the French prize for imagination.

Funke moved the conversation on to publishers and how things can change once you are a bestselling author. “If you are a best-selling author, you are put in the box marked ‘money.’” While a reader may draw the conclusion that that would lead to more freedom, but actually at that point you are assumed to only write things that sell, in trends. Sally Gardner agreed, calling it the “Versace effect”. The minute you write to a trend though, she says, you stop following your heart. Publishers also, added Funke, seem to dream that you are always writing for a movie deal. “They try to put books in tidy boxes.”

The discussion turned then to morality in books, with Ted Dawe asserting “I didn’t realise it to start with, but I am a social awareness writer.” He sees Into the River as being about the consequences of bad decision-making, not morality per se. Gardner finds it horrendous that parents will jump on books that have the F-word in them, yet not realise what their TV being on is doing to their children. She said of novelists, “We are the guardians.” Funke pointed out that perhaps the reason that people have picked up the theme of bullying because they are themselves guilty of this behaviour – not something Dawe had considered.

The discussion turned on to the power of books, with Mandy saying “The fantastic thing about the book ban was that nobody argued that books weren’t these powerful things.” Gardner added, “The power of words is just fantastic. The power words have to get you to dream and define your situation.” Dawe added that this was why he started writing for boys and why he became an evangelist for boys reading novels, “Otherwise they are trapped like birds in a cage.”

I will be honest, I was blown away by the things these authors were saying, the power behind their words. I have always read fantasy, as escapism – not guiltily, but with an awareness that perhaps it wasn’t the best way to enrich my mind. Funke gave me the perfect reason, as did Hager: “Sometimes you see better through the other side of the mirror.”

Hager moved on to concerns about children today. The biggest concern for Gardner is social media bullying. “I am alarmed that young children are allowed these tools. The potential for torture is too real.” She says, “We live life looking into a machine. What happens when they go blank? What happens when all the pictures are gone?”

Funke doesn’t dislike social media, as it has connected her with fans in Japan, in Norway, in Argentina – and all of these fans start talking together. Note to readers of Funke – if you send her a tweet, she will respond to it. She only has book people following her, so she sees it as a “community of nerds.” Her biggest concern isn’t that children don’t read – she worries that they don’t live. Schoool eats up their whole lives. She would finish school at 1pm, and send the kids to work on the environment – a real concern. But, Funke says, “Society can’t get much worse, I’m optimistic about the future.”

I will relate one more story from this session, because I teared up. Cornelia Funke has a lot of fanmail – she has had some from abused children, from soldiers, from those that were dying. They say to her “You gave me shelter with your words.” Now this is true power. She added, “We can change things, even if we just give comfort. Sometimes we don’t have to do more.”

I will give the final word to Cornelia Funke: “How did I get to have this job? It’s fantastic!”

You will have a chance to see the tremendous Cornelia Funke at The Embassy for Cornelia Funke: Reckless, Fearless, Heartless tomorrow at 2pm. Sally Gardner is also at the Embassy at 11am for Sally Gardner: Maggot Moon.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Kids are All Right
The Embassy, 2pm, Saturday 12 March
NZ Festival Writers Week

Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner
Hot Key Books
ISBN 9781471400445

What’s so funny? with James Nokise, Jackie van Beek and Chris Parker

My final session for today was called What’s so funny?, a panel discussion of comedy in Aotearoa with James Nokise, Jackie van Beek and Chris Parker. It was meant to have been chaired by Jo Randerson, but she’d been “sentenced to Hamilton” and was unable to come.

Talking about comedy is a bit of an odd one. Because they’re all professional comedians, and because the topic was comedy, I kept expecting laughs. But, although there was the odd giggle here and there, and although they’re all very personable and are professional entertainers, the session didn’t quite gel. Perhaps it was the absence of the chair. A lot of the discussion was unstructured and was basically them talking about which shows they’d been in and what they were working on now and with whom. This was my first Writer’s Week session where my attention began to wander (admittedly it was my third in a row that afternoon and I was under-caffeinated). The session this morning with Mallory Ortberg talking about her writing had been a lot funnier.

Perhaps I am being unfair: after all, what have I come to a literary festival for if not to discover new artists and hear them talk about their lives and work? Maybe indie comedy just isn’t my scene. Certainly, since the advent of broadband and Netflix, I don’t watch nearly as much NZ TV as I used to, so I missed a lot of the references.

Still, it was interesting to hear about the creative process in all of their various roles: writing, performing, acting, improv, theatre, stand-up, TV, and film. They all spoke about the importance of collaboration, and of writing comedy that you personally feel is funny, rather than trying to pander to the market. Nokise, who does a lot of political comedy, spoke about finding the ridiculousness of serious situations (eg Nick Smith going swimming in the Manawatu).

It was heartening too to hear that people can make a living as professional comedians in Aotearoa these days; a welcome change from days of yore (even a few years ago). There was a funny moment when Parker related how he broke his foot just before the opening of one of his shows. His father told him “Richie McCaw won the rugby world cup with a broken foot, you can finish your gay autobiographical dance show.” Parker described himself as a comedy “addict”: “My tendency is to go for the cheap gag, because I want to be loved by everyone.”

The other thing that was a bit odd about this session was the explicit diversity line-up: the gay one, the Pacific Islander one, the woman. They each spoke to their respective ‘ism’ – and then that thing happened. That thing that so often happens in a room when a woman speaks up about sexism: the men immediately chimed in to prove how sexist they weren’t, by saying how they can’t believe sexism is even still a thing, and then sitting back, job done, unconscious of the power structures that helped them to where they are today. In fact, Parker even interrupted van Beek when she was speaking about sexism, and spoke over her to prove how not-sexist he is by listing lots of female comedians. He seemed completely unaware of his textbook mansplaining. It was even more stark because the equivalent thing didn’t happen when Parker spoke about homophobia or when Nokise spoke about racism.

Van Beek inadvertently summed this session up for me when she said “I can’t think of anything funny”. In essence I think I was the wrong audience – others who were there (including the reviewer for Radio New Zealand) – seemed to enjoy themselves more, and the comedy and theatre people in the audience seemed to get a lot out of it. It did inspire me to check out more home-grown comedy, though, starting with Funny Girls.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

What’s so funny? with James Nokise, Jackie van Beek and Chris Parker
3.30pm Friday, at Bats Theatre, part of NZ Festival Writer’s Week


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



Etgar Keret: This Israeli Life

pp_etgar_keretThis was one of those events that I picked at random, on the grounds that Etgar Keret sounded like an interesting name, and I don’t know many Israeli people and would like to hear from one. I’m so glad I did.

Damien Wilkins interviewed Israeli author, filmmaker and cartoonist Etgar Keret at the Embassy Theatre. Keret was warm, funny, thoughtful and compassionate. I made an immediate resolution to read all his books.

He spoke about ‘the wandering Jew’, saying that the concept of a Jew living in their own country is pretty new. For example, a Kiwi Jew can think of themselves as a Jew (as distinct from New Zealanders) and as a Kiwi (as distinct from Jews). Reflexiveness is a fundamental Jewish trait, but that two-tier thinking is the first thing you give up when you have your own country. Keret travels a lot, and he says this travel enables him to reintroduce himself to Israel, and to be more aware of change.

Keret spoke about fighting, both in the sense of war and in the sense of the artistic struggle. He said his mother told him if he must fight, to fight someone smaller. He joked about his own small stature, saying in New Zealand maybe he could wrestle some possums. “I became a writer because it’s the only way I know how to fight and not to hurt anybody. I want to create in an environment that has some kind of friction; I want to to feel courageous in the creative sphere.”

He spoke about the subversive power of literature, saying “There’s nothing cultural about a boycott … You never know what you’re going to find in a book. I want people to read books and be affected by them.” Keret admires “the ambiguity of existence”, although “it’s difficult to keep this ambiguity when you live in a horrifying reality.” He spoke about how literature enables us to see all people, even people who do terrible things, as humans, and akin to us in their humanity.

Keret says the constant politicisation is tiring. “I have a yearning to live in Golden Bay and write a story about a kid who finds a crab and no one tries to figure out whether the crab is the Palestinians.” With his strong accent and beautiful voice, Keret was a pleasure to listen to.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Etgar Keret: This Israeli Life
12.30pm, Friday 11 March, at The Embassy
NZ Festival Writer’s Week, Wellington

Etgar will take the stage once more as a judge of Literary Idol, on Sunday, 13 March.

Nnedi Okorafor: Magic Futurist, with Tina Makereti

pp_nnedi_okoraforTina Makereti introduced Nnedi Okorafor beautifully, as somebody who brings “a kete overflowing with stories.” Nnedi has written works for adults, youth and children – a tweeter reviewed her work as “like swallowing the sun.”

Nnedi wasn’t always going to be a writer, unlike several of the writers I have seen this writer’s week. The likes of Simon Winchester, Patrick Gale – they always went towards that as a journey , from an assumed privileged background – even Mallory Ortberg. For Nnedi, her first love was athletics. She and her sister toured the USA playing Tennis as kids and teens, and their parents were both Olympic-level athletes. She became a writer after an operation she had for scoliosis led to her being paralysed aged 19 – there was a 1% chance this would happen.

As she learned to walk again, she stopped herself from going insane by writing stories. She went back to university, dropped Sciences and took a Creative Writing course – it was that which started her journey. She feels that her early life as an athlete was accidentally good training for her particular style of magical realism. As an athlete, you come close to having supernatural senses about physical things – as a writer she could use this to create realistic superpowers.

Her Nigerian upbringing was very much a part of her life experience – her parents would take her back frequently throughout her childhood. She said, “When I sat down and wrote these stories, I see the world through my unique perspective, as a NigeAmerican” The barriers between life and afterlife are a lot more fluid for the Igbo people.

“One of the things that pushed me to start writing (I read books like I eat candy) was my life as reader. Once I could read, I would at any time I wasn’t on the tennis court or on the track.” She couldn’t see herself in a story – she thinks every reader deserves to have stories where they are the main character, and also where they aren’t. Writing, for her, was a way to fill in the blanks she had found in literature. These blanks were mainly in the area of writing about strong, complex, feminine characters. She says, “I wanted to see them making mistakes – doing wonderful, and also terrible things.” Like so many writers, she was telling stories she wanted to read.

I read one of her books to prepare for this – Lagoon – which has the fantastic character of Adaora, a marine biologist that becomes one of the first humans to meet the aliens that have landed in the Atlanti, going underwater from Bar Beach in Lagos. She and her luck-met companions all have superpowers of a type, that they must use as a group to change the world to allow these aliens to live peacefully.

She was surprised but grateful for the response: “Finally, I am reading this type of character.” Nnedi says that she is grateful to connect with so many people, through this character.

Nnedi read a hugely powerful piece from Who Fears Death – it took her six years to write, because she had to overcome the death of her father, which had initially prompted the prologue. The book she wrote first was too long, and it was quite a long journey to get it published.

As I mentioned earlier, Nnedi refers to herself as NigeAmerican – she likes to put this together and make a new word, because it is a metaphor for how she sees herself. She has always been on a lot of borders, through being bookish and athletic. She is an insider and an outsider, and an ‘other’. She has a different history from African-Americans (those descended from the stolen people), and was always not quite accepted by them as equal in experience. Meanwhile, in Nigeria she was called oyibo, which means ‘white’. She thinks this may have led to her to write science fiction: trying to go outside the roles, and outside the demarcations.

She was incredibly frustrated that Nigerians were portrayed as outlaws in District 9 – the first science-fiction blockbuster to be set in Africa. Lagoon was written in response to this portrayal, to write the wrongs. When writing Lagoon, about aliens coming to Lagos – she wanted to see everybody’s reactions. She wrote from fragments of perspective, rather than deep inside one voice, which is usual for her. “I see all of Earth’s creatures are people.” The tale was from the voice of spiders, spirits, very enlightened bats, and so much more. She had noticed that first contact narratives always begin with aliens interacting with human beings – Lagoon begins with contact with a (soon to be giant) swordfish.

Sitting in this session was fascinating. It made me think more deeply about race, identity and gender. Nnedi is a powerful speaker, and a fantastic presence. She will appear again tomorrow at at 9.30am in Bats, at ‘Three Soul Writers’, with Janie Chang and Tina Makereti. Go along and hear from three magical writers.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Nnedi Okorafor: Magic Futurist
2pm, Bats as part of the NZ Festival Writer’s Week
Writer’s Week goes all weekend – get your tickets here!

by Nnedi Okorafor
Published by Hodder
ISBN 9781444762761