WORD Christchurch: Black Marks on the White Page: A Roundtable

Black Marks on the White Page: A Roundtable

One of the great things about festivals like WORD is that you not only get to hear from your favourite writers, you sometimes also get to sit in discussion with them, to learn from them in workshops and masterclasses. The Black Marks on the White Page roundtable was a session like this, a chance to hear from the experienced contributors to the book, but also to sit in conversation with other Māori and Pasifika writers.

Co-editor of the anthology, Tina Makereti, introduced the session as a talanoa. I am going to borrow from BMOTWP contributor Jione Havea to describe talanoa: ‘For the sake of ones who do not understand the lingo, ‘talanoa’ is a word used in several (but not all) Pasifika languages; it refers to the (three in one) triad of story, telling and conversation.’ This roundtable session definitely lived up to this definition of talanoa.

First up: story. We heard from Makereti, Nic Low, Paula Morris and Victor Rodger. Each discussed their thoughts on Black Marks on the White Page and what it meant to contribute to it. Makereti talked about the process of collaborating with co-editor Witi Ihimaera, who she described as having ‘big visions.’ Morris describes the anthology as ‘subversive.’ She says of the book, and its impact ‘We’re reshaping the Pacific.’

Rodger carried on with this train of thought: ‘Spectrum is a word I use a lot of. For a lot of people it means quite a narrow thing, but for me there’s a huge spectrum [of Pasifika experience].’ Low expanded on this, explaining that what has been expected of people generationally being put in the box of ‘Maori writer’ or ‘Pasifika writer’ has been restrictive. ‘We have global perspectives. The boxes that we’ve all been put in are totally artificial.’

Low and Rodger then read excerpts from their pieces in the anthology, both captivating and amusing tales, subversive and witty.

Telling. The second part of the roundtable session consisted of three short writing exercises. Low’s was to do with the context of our writing. He described it as ‘useful for honing in on your subject matter,’ which it really was. Rodger’s exercise was plot focused, and Morris focused on characters. With these three short exercises under our belts we came out more equipped and enthusiastic to get stuck into our own writing projects.

Conversation. After working through the exercises the talanoa moved on to more open conversation, the asking of questions and the sharing of ideas. As is typical of many talanoa, the session carried on well past it’s scheduled time slot. Long may these talanoa continue, and carry on throughout our communities.

Reviewed by Gem Wilder

Nic Low will be part of Nerd Degree on Sunday
Paula Morris is in Mortification at 5.30pm Saturday
Paula Morris introduces Go YA at 11.30am Sunday

 

WORD Christchurch: Comfortable in your Skin

WORD Christchurch: Comfortable in your Skin

In this session put together by guest programmer Tusiata Avia, Victor Roger led a panel of queer people of colour, each with different stories to tell about how they have come to be comfortable in their skin. As Roger invited each panelist to tell the audience about their journey to self-acceptance, we saw the similarities between stories that spanned continents and generations.

Comfortable-in-your-own-skin

Manu Vaeatangitau
Georgina Beyer was up first, and she led us through her fascinating tale, from leaving home at 16 with dreams of studying at the New Zealand Drama School, a stint as ‘the boyfriend’ on soap opera Close to Home, time as a stripper and sex worker, to becoming the first transsexual Mayor and then Member of Parliament. Add in renal failure and a kidney transplant, and you have what would make a seriously fantastical biopic. And who would play her in the movie of her life? Beyer is adamant: ‘First things first, it has to be a transgender person.’

Beyer is unapologetically herself. There was never a question of her being anyone else, and her ‘Fuck off’ to the haters attitude is refreshing. She says of her teenage years: ‘When I was being Georgina I was free, I was liberated, I was comfortable in my own skin.’

Sonya-Renee-Taylor

Sonya Renee Taylor

Radical Self Love activist and poet Sonya Renee Taylor is also unapologetically herself, and has made it her life mission to guide other people towards accepting themselves, exactly as they are. Roger asked Taylor how she came to this level of what she terms Radical Self Love, a movement that has it’s roots in a conversation Taylor had with a friend, which led to a poem, which led to activism and a book, The Body Is Not An Apology. Taylor answered: ‘Language creates things, so as you’re saying shit you’re making shit.’ Meaning that the more she performed her poem, the more she began living its message.

Artist and founding member of FAFSWAG, Pati Solomona Tyrell, also wants to help others become comfortable in their skin. He sees his work and the events and creations of FAFSWAG as a way to return power and knowledge to Pacific people. ‘A lot of [traditional Pacific] power and knowledge is held by the church, so it’s not accessible to queer kids.’ Tyrell talked of the close bond he has with his family, and how that bond forced his coming out to them in his first year at University, as ‘having to hold something back that was a very important part of my identity kind of wrecked me.’ Though Tyrell’s family are accepting and supportive, they can’t understand the experience of being queer. This is where the community that is FAFSWAG comes in. ‘We built, like, a little family.’

Manu Vaeatangitau is a part of that FAFSWAG family. He describes his own coming out at 15 as violent. The violence that was a constant throughout his High School years ‘made me very resilient.’ The youngest on the panel, and the last to share their story, Roger asked Vaeatangitau to reflect on whether he thought his generation have it easier than the more experienced panel members. ‘It’s a waste of energy to compare,’ responded Vaeatangitau. Drowning is drowning, no matter how deep the water. This nicely drew the panel together in a united front to wrap things up.

A last question from the audience saw Beyer respond with her same take no prisoners, give no fucks attitude, and Roger signed off ‘We end with fire from the whaea.’

 

Reviewed most excellently by Gem Wilder

Other events featuring these speakers:
Sonya Renee Taylor: The Body is not an Apology (Sunday 2 September, 1.15pm)
FAFSWAG: Vogue!  (Pati Solomona Tyrell, Manu Vaeatangitau) Workshop, 2.30pm, Saturday 1 September
The Neu! Otatahi Incident (Pati Solomona Tyrell, Manu Vaeatangitau) 7.00pm, Saturday 1 September
The Sex and Death Salon (Victor Rodger) 10pm, Saturday 1 September

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.

ENDS

 

 

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
ISBN9781775535768

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

Sons
by Victor Rodger
Published by Huia Publishing
ISBN 9781869693039