NZF Writers & Readers: Cousins Talk it Out, reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Yes you have seen this session reviewed in pictures, but it was so good we’ve got some words from Elizabeth Heritage as well.

This session was cousins Tusiata Avia and Victor Rodger in conversation, chaired by Anton Carter. Avia and Rodger are both Samoan New Zealanders from Christchurch who have become writers and performers.

tusiataRodger is known for his work as a playwright. He said he wanted to be an actor as a child, but after hearing Kirk Douglas say ‘there are no roles for fat leading men’, he changed his career trajectory and focussed on writing. He had ‘a fire to tell the story’ of his tumultuous relationship with his father, who he never lived with. His Samoan father left his Palagi mother when she was a pregnant 15yo. ‘I couldn’t respect him even though I came to love him in my own way.’

Avia, who is now known as a performance poet, said her poems started coming when she was about ten years gold, but that by the age of 15 she had cut them off. ‘I became aware of who I was in my society – a brown girl in Christchurch in the 80s, at the bottom of the pyramid. I had internalised that girls like me don’t become writers, so I decided to aim lower.’ As a young adult she backpacked around the world and had all kinds of crazy adventures, but it caused her ‘beautiful pain’ to read really great writing because ‘that was the thing I most wanted’. It wasn’t until her mid 30s that she gave herself permission to write.

Both Rodger and Avia talked about the importance of role models; of seeing other Pasifika people write and make art and succeed, and then thinking, I could do that.

Avia read her poem about having epilepsy, which in Samoan translates to ‘death sickness’, and Rodger read from his essay in the Journal of Urgent Writing about his journey towards embracing his Samoan self. ‘I went from factually brown to actually brown.’ He credits the work of James Baldwin for helping him become ‘woke’ as a young man.

Although the session title was “Cousins Talk it Out”, and both Avia and Rodger are normally charismatic performers, I was struck by how little they interacted with each other and by the quiet, almost stilted vibe of the session. Often they would say their piece and then silence would fall. Carter asked good questions, and, although he hadn’t been billed as part of the event, I was glad he was there to keep things moving.

Carter asked about the risks of writing openly about difficulties in their families. Rodger said his first play, Sons, was very autobiographical. ‘I had a strong desire to speak my truth, in fact so strong that I didn’t really take into account that I was speaking other people’s truths.’ His mother sees herself as the villain in Sons, which is painful for Rodger because he wrote that role as a tribute to her. He’s still not sure whether he has a right to tell her story.

Avia said, ‘I’ve been writing my family since the beginning’. She sees writing as a release: ‘I just had to get that shit out’. Her father, who is now dead, never read her work but always carried around her books in his satchel. Avia lives now with her 10yo daughter and 84yo mother. Her mother said ‘it’s all got to come out’. Avia is working on a performance with her mother and daughter.

Carter asked about what it was like growing up Pasifika in Christchurch, a city not known for its diverse population or excellent race relations. Rodger said: ‘There’s a real tension between me and Christchurch. I love people in that city but I do hate the city itself. It gets my back up.’

Rodger and Avia both spoke about Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, a play written by Avia a while back that she has performed as a one-woman show. The current production at the NZ Festival, starring six Pasifika women, is co-produced by FCC, the production “entity” that Rodger set up to connect Pasifika practitioners. ‘It’s for doing the stuff that wins people awards, rather than serving a Palagi narrative.’

Avia spoke about her experience being racially profiled at Unity Books 15 years ago. ‘It remains a breach in the va.’ She has received a written apology from Unity, from which Avia has just this week created a found poem. She performed it for us in the session. ‘In this poem I take their words and I choreograph the dance for once, to reveal what lies behind the innocuous language of racism.’ It was a powerful poem, repurposing words from the email and repeating phrases such as ‘which you feel was racist / you feel’.

Both Rodger and Avia have lots of projects on the go. Rodger will be releasing a collection of short fiction later this year called Warmish Pacific Greetings, and is working on a film adaptation of his play Black Faggot. Avia will be at WOMAD and is writing a novel and another collection of poems.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Cousins Talk it Out


NZF Writers & Readers Festival: Cousins Talk it Out – Victor Rodger & Tusiata Avia

Tara Black reviews Cousins Talk it Out – Victor Rodger & Tusiata Avia. Images copyright Tara Black.

Tusiata Avia joins her cousin Victor Rodger to talk about family, growing up in Canterbury and their collaboration on the play Wild Dogs Under My Skirt.

NWF18 Cousins Talk it Out

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is on at the NZ Festival until Sunday, 11 March.




Book Review: Black Faggot and other plays, by Victor Rodger

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_Black_Faggot_Reading playscripts is something I used to do for pleasure as a teenager. (Fair to say I was maybe a bit besotted with theatre then, not to mention being a bit of an oddball as well!)

So putting my hand up to read some about 60 years later is either a sign of regressing, or a renewed interest.  I’m going for renewed interest.

It was absolutely fascinating to read a script again. Victor Rodger certainly packs a punch in his dialogue, but it’s what lies beneath the script that provides the real substance – values, stereotypes, pre- and mis-conceptions are all challenged in these three plays.

They are sometimes shocking, often funny, and above all they challenge the reader in many ways, so I can only guess at the power which must emanate from the stage productions when the challenge is really laid down.

Black Faggot, (the book title, and the first play) grew from a response to Destiny Church and their position on same-sex marriage, and it’s a powerful and thought-provoking work. VUP has kindly allowed me to quote from the comments by Tanu Gago:

‘I never understood what it took to love another man until I was transformed by the love of another man…………………….on the other side of all that pain and fear we are also capable of experiencing real love. The type of love that saves our lives.’

This, to me, is the essence of Black Faggot. There is a very positive message here for young men, in particular, struggling with their gender identity.

The other plays, At the Wake and Club Paradiso give equally thought-provoking messages. At the Wake shows the difficulty some of us have with acceptance of the other, in whatever shape or persona that comes, and again is a deeply moving play.

Club Paradiso challenged me more; the violence is too much for me and the play shocked me deeply on several fronts – the mindless violence, fuelled presumably by methamphetamine, the sexual bullying and the graphic details depict a kind of place where, fortunately, I have never been. However the play has a innate truthfulness, and that is perhaps why I struggled with it – as a straight pakeha woman of a certain age, I hate to think that behaviour like this exists, even though I know that it does.

More power to Victor Rodger, is all I can say. It takes a brave and accomplished writer to deliver work like this.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Black Faggot and other plays
by Victor Rodger
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561032



DWRF 2017 Showcase Gala: Metamorphosis

Although I arrived 20 minutes into the ‘drink and nibbles’ introduction to this event, it was clear upon entering the beautiful Toitu Settlers Museum building that things were pumping. Gala Showcase: Metamorphosis was a sold out event, and the room was packed. When the call was made for the audience to take their seats, the attendees had to make their way from one end of the museum to the other – a canny move as this meant the best of the museum was showcased before the event had even started.

Kate De Goldi emceed this meditation on ‘metamorphosis’ and introduced each author before they responded to a selected book (or books) that embraced this concept. Whilst it was a treat to hear each author give mostly prepared talks on this topic, it was also an excellent ‘taster’ as all authors have further events this weekend.

ian-rankin_5Ian Rankin (left) was the first to speak, and his thoughts centred around metamorphic considerations in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. He talked of how his books were influenced by this one, and shared anecdotes of macabre body snatchers and dichotomous laboratories in the times before bodies could be legally left to science.

Stella Duffy gave an impassioned speech about the power of words and the way they can change readers. She used the touchstones of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban and Janet Frame’s fiction to explore this concept in her own life. She particularly marveled at the way these texts created music for the reader through words alone – no mean feat.

John Lanchester was softly spoken but exceptionally articulate in explaining the effect the poetry collection Ariel by Sylvia Plath had on him as an 18 year old school leaver. He talked of the way Plath took seemingly nebulous emotions and feelings and nailed them to the page in astonishing ways. His explanation of the literal metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly was beautiful and a fitting metaphorical end to his talk.

hannahkent-2016-credit-lauren-bamford_origThe story Hannah Kent (right, photo Lauren Banford) wove about her school exchange from South Australia to Iceland was atmospheric and gripping. She explained how she felt literature saved her life in the early days of that time, in the dark winter days next to an Icelandic fjord. She talked of how To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf opened up her understanding of what it means to be human, and how, ultimately, this is what people are searching for.

When Bill Manhire stepped up to the microphone few would have expected his choice – The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton – but his exceptional discussion of Blyton’s dreamlike sequences in this selection convinced many of the extraordinary value of transformation in children’s texts.

The night ended with Victor Rodger speaking to his experiences in mid-1980’s Christchurch as a closeted gay, half-Samoan teenager and the moment of reckoning and solace found in Another Country by James Baldwin, the gay, African-American author with anger in his veins. It was great to have Rodgers back in Dunedin, as he almost feels like ‘ours’, having been the Burns Fellow in 2016.

All of these showcased authors have events on this weekend, and, after seeing what was on show tonight, I highly recommend attending. I’m sure you will be in the hands of experts.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Events with Ian Rankin (also at WORD Christchurch and Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Stella Duffy  (also at WORD Christchurch and Auckland Writers Festivals)
Events with John Lanchester (also at Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Hannah Kent
Events with Bill Manhire (also at Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Victor Rodger


WORD: Can Books Change the World, with Peter Biggs as chair, Kate De Goldi, John Freeman and Victor Rodger

What a great event to begin the WORD festival with. The Piano is a brand new venue and perfect for a literary festival. This panel discussion was chaired by Peter Biggs, and drew us immediately into the ethics of being a writer. Is it about engaging with real world events, or do writers just tell stories. Is there any such thing as ‘just a story?’

pp_kate de goldiKate De Goldi had some interesting reflections on how children can be engaged morally and ethically. “Writing is an ethical act, especially as a children’s writer.” She explained that children’s literature happens in the space between knowing and not knowing. It grows out of children’s misunderstandings of the world around them. To read allows children to develop empathy and curiosity.

JohnFreeman-no-credit-copyLiterary magazine editor and writer John Freeman gave a political and American voice to the discussion. He explained that writers don’t often set out to engage in political views, rather they are addicted to writing, it is a habit, and out of it a voice grows, and you gain confidence that it speaks truthfully. It is not just about characters, but situations. Once you develop a voice you have to ask where to situate yourselves. He sees literature as a political act.

victor_rodgerVictor Rodger got all the witty lines. As a part Samoan, part Palagi gay man, his story was there, unique and ready to be told. He used writing to make sense of a confusing childhood – and to share his experiences to help others in the same situation. He sees theatre as being able to push boundaries and make people squirm, citing his popular play Black Faggot as an excellent example. He also reflected that books do change the world, something the other two didn’t commit to – citing The Bible, and the Qu’ran. Kate De Goldi noted that there are still families in which the only written word available at home is the Bible – undoubtedly this is also true of the Qu’ran.

Peter Biggs saw books as providing a slower form of narrative in this fast-paced world. “Forms of longer narrative are crucial to working out who we are, and what our world is. Books re-enlarge our idea of what a citizen is, while the world around us is reducing us to consumers.” In response, Kate noted that it was ironic in a way that books had become a commodity themselves – making the point that not all books matter. “The cul de sacs of interiority children’s books need have been ironed out by the requirement of action.”

freemans_arrivalBiggs then pulled us into a further discussion of how it is that the world is in such a state – the rise of Trump, Brexit, Australia changing Prime Ministers frequently: this world should know better – why doesn’t it? Freeman answered on behalf of America: “It is a structural problem, and related to the privatisation of the education system. When a populace is strategically de-educated, they can be controlled.” Rodger agreed –he was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Hawaii last year, and saw among those there a lack of consciousness, a failure to get angry when it was warranted.

cv_from_the_cutting_room_of_Barney_KettlyWhen considering how to educate children via fiction, Kate’s response tends to be: children’s books need more semi-colons. The use of semi-colons gives children the layers of complexity that are needed to make sense of the world.

John Freeman doesn’t think books change the world – he thinks they allow us to survive the world. “The people that are most resilient in surviving trauma are those who can narrativise it.” For him, the construction of self can be dangerous, and a book is valuable if it can allow us to see that there is a self beyond our own – to explode the notion of self.

The role of libraries and of booksellers was also noted in the conversation, with the revival of the physical book and the regeneration of independent booksellers. Children’s bookshops in particular have survived through, a) knowing their clients, and b) knowing their stock. Likewise libraries have survived, and even in places where books have been fully digitised in libraries, it is the physical book which kids still prefer.

It was an interesting discussion with the take-away concept being that of the responsibility of writers to be morally and ethically true to their readers. There were also a few book titles and names dropped that are worthwhile hunting down at your local bookshop: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Fiona Farrell’s The Villa at the End of the Empire, Susanna Andrews & Jolisa Gracewood’s Tell You What series, anything by Angela Fornoy – and Freeman noted that those who are writing the most considered work at the moment are writers of colour, queer writers, and those who are otherwise marginalised.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson and Sarah Forster

From The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle
by Kate De Goldi
Published by Longacre

Kate De Goldi appears in:
Read the World, Sat 27 Aug, 12.15pm
Writing War Stories (Chair), Sat 27 Aug, 3.15pm
Coming Rain: Stephen Daisley (Chair), Sun 28 Aug, 11am.

Freeman’s Literary Journal: Arrival
edited by John Freeman
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925240221

John Freeman also appears in:
A Literary Life: John Freeman, Fri 26 Aug, 11am

by Victor Rodger
Published by Huia Publishing
ISBN 9781869693039

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.