The Politics of Indignation, and Capes and Tights: Superhero Comics, Sun 31 August, WORD Christchurch

The Politics of Indignation
finlay_mcdonald
The Politics of Indignation featured Australian writer Richard King, author of On Offence, in conversation with journalist Finlay Macdonald (right) about our culture of offence-taking, particularly in the media and politics. It was a lively, fascinating discussion that I really enjoyed.

King’s thesis is that the act of publicly taking offence has become a toxic presence in our democracy, shutting down valuable arguments where it should be the start of the debate. He spoke about how offence-taking has become part of our political currency, with politicians being rewarded for being seen to be offended with extra media coverage and headlines.

The reason we have freedom of speech, says King, is to protect the search for truth. And it is meaningless unless it includes the freedom to offend. He spoke scathingly about how a sense of victimhood has become part of our cultural self-awareness, where ‘me being offended’ is automatically ‘your problem’. King also criticised the act of being offended on behalf of others, the way the middle classes can be patronisingly protective of “the marginalised”.

There was an interesting discussion of the place of satire: the act of being deliberately offensive in a humorous manner in order to make a serious point. It reminded me of the conversation yesterday between satirist Steve Braunias and The Civilian’s Ben Uffindell. Both Uffindell and Macdonald made the point that satire in New Zealand is difficult because too many people don’t get it. Macdonald said this means that journalists get tired of being misunderstood and simply stop using satire – and this has the effect of “making us all so bloody pious”.

Of course, these days, no discussion of offence is complete without mentioning Twitter. King bemoaned the fact that Twitter, which was originally touted as being the great, international conversation-enabler, has instead become a place where vital debate is shut down. “140 characters is enough to convey strength of feeling, but not reasoned argument.”

This was a fascinating session and really got me thinking about how feelings of offence affect my own behaviour. Good on King for bringing up a topic that we all need to consider.

Capes and Tights: Superhero Comics

Capes and Tights was my last session at the 2014 WORD Christchurch Writers Festival, and it was a wonderful note to end on: lively fun with an infectious passion for books and story.
dylanhorrocks
Cartoonist Dylan Horrocks (right)  chaired a panel discussion on superhero comics with filmmaker Jonathan King, author Karen Healey and philosopher Damon Young. All four spoke with humour and real feeling about their love for superhero comics, and the different ways they had read them at different stages of their lives. For example, Young spoke movingly about being an angry teen wanting to see his own rage reflected in the characters, needing to see vengeance as noble.

No discussion of superhero comics is complete without an examination of violence. King pointed out that, since 9/11, US superhero films tend to show seriousness by having entire city blocks destroyed and people and rubble covered in dust. Young spoke about how articulate violence in comics can express character and play a valuable role in storytelling.

I was very struck by Healey’s thesis that all comics are fanfiction (she has written her PhD on this topic). All comics are built on characters, situations, stories and artwork that have come before them – there is no definitive first story or ‘right’ version. I was also interested to learn that, in this context, ‘canon’ means ‘having the official masthead’ (eg. of DC Comics or Marvel).

Horrocks asked all the participants what superpower they’d have if they could: Healey said invincibility, Young said telekinesis, and King chose the ability to fly. Horrocks said he’d had invisibility, and spoke very poignantly about his idea of his invisible self continuing after his death, observing the world.

The session ended with Horrocks inviting Rachael King, one of the WORD organisers, to come and receive a very well deserved round of applause. Horrocks praised WORD 2014 for being the year’s best literary festival – bring on 2016!

by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance writer and publisher
www.elizabethheritage.co.nz

The Margaret Mahy Lecture, by Elizabeth Knox – WORD Festival, Sun 31 August

Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, by Elizabeth Knox
An Unreal House Filled with Real Storms

I am a pretty gregarious person. I approach people at events; I call people on the phone. (When left on my own for more than a few hours, I go mad and start serenading my pet rats.) I am a natural networker, and literary events like writers festivals are like catnip to me: I get to talk to other readers, to meet authors I’ve read and discover others I’d like to read, to buy books and get them freshly signed. Having a media pass is even better − I get to interview people, hobnob with celebrities, and tune my curious book-reviewing brain to live events. My usual festival MO is to constantly make myself available for interesting conversations.

When Elizabeth Knox’s lecture ended, I did none of these things. I couldn’t wait to get out of the room. I saw many people I knew, who I enjoy conversing with, but I approached none of them. I headed straight outside into the calming Christchurch cold and towards the cardboard cathedral.

I didn’t know what to think. It was just before 11 in the morning on a Sunday and my mind was in whirring turmoil. What had I just experienced? Some kind of profound and disruptive event of the mind. I wasn’t ready to be around other people, wasn’t ready to discuss the experience we’d all just had. I couldn’t even put it into words in my own head. And why was I striding so desperately towards the cathedral? I am an atheist, and have never, from my compulsory-Catholicism childhood onwards, viewed houses of worship as places of consolation.

Perhaps it was that Knox had spoken so matter-of-factly about experiencing the presence of god in her own life; doing what she had credited Mahy with; “making the supernatural natural”. Perhaps it was because, when Kate De Goldi came back onstage to do the end-of-event wrap-up, she suggested that, rather than ask questions, the audience just file silently out, as from a church. We did. Many of us had been crying.

Either way, I was stymied. It was a Sunday morning and the cathedral was being used for its primary purpose: there was a service on, and I didn’t want to join in. So I walked around outside, touched the cardboard, admired the stark, fresh lines of the architecture, and listened to the singing − borrowed sounds of beauty and calm.

I thought about Knox, about her talking about the experience Mahy had had on her as a reader: “she opened up a room in New Zealand literature that I wanted to hang out in”. And I thought about how the same is true of my discovery of Knox. I was living in England and feeling a bit distanced from New Zealandness. One day in a bookshop I discovered a book that had been written by a fellow Kiwi called Elizabeth: The Vintner’s Luck. I bought and read it.

It was so strange, almost uncomfortable. Was it literary fiction? Fantasy? Paranormal slash? (One of my favourite Knox quotes is a tweet she once sent: “I am a genre-tunneling monster!”) Was it New Zealand literature? It wasn’t set in Aotearoa and it didn’t have that NZ lit feel at all. But in that book I met something, someone, that has stayed with me ever since. Knox opened up a room for me in New Zealand literature that I value enormously. I revisit it whenever I need to be prodded in the mind, pushed off my comfortable perch and forced to fly. Knox’s writing reminds me that the world is strange and that I can be better in it. Ehara koe i a ia, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Knox’s inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, entitled ‘An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms’, will be coming to national radio soon, and Knox promises to publish it as prose as well. Make sure you go there.

by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance writer and publisher

www.elizabethheritage.co.nz

Supernaturally – Laini Taylor and Elizabeth Knox, WORD Christchurch, 31 August

Laini Taylor is one of my writing idols. When her attendance at the WORDword-LainiTaylor
Christchurch festival was announced I was absolutely delighted. I would like to think I was among the first to purchase my ticket for this event − in which she and Elizabeth Knox discuss the supernatural world of Young Adult writing. This discussion was hosted by local speculative
fiction writer, Helen Lowe.

I enjoy the panel-style format such as this, where it rather resembles a friendly discussion, to which I am a welcome eavesdropper. The camaderie between Elizabeth, Laini and Helen was open and friendly, and it was
wonderful to see that each participant was familiar with the other’s
work. Neither dominated the discussion and comments bounced back and
forth in a lively, animated manner.

Helen’s questions were insightful, both to readers and aspiring authors. She began with asking why they create supernatural/fantastic worlds – in which Laini admitted to tricking people into reading high fantasy (her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy starts from an urban fantasy
perspective). Elizabeth attributed it to her older sister, who made the world magical. Other topics took us through the laws of magic, the hero’s journey trope (which elizabeth_knoxneither author follow consciously), and other such popular Young Adult themes as strong female characters, insta-love and love triangles. Elizabeth Knox (left)  described the latest trend towards paranormal romance as “the cuckoo laid in the nest of fantasy”.

I also learned that the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, one of the
best I have ever read, began when Laini was seeking relief from a
challenging novel and began with free writing and discovery of the
characters of Karou and Brimstone. Certainly a most serendipitous
occurance, and one that I (and I imagine many others) am most grateful
for. Writing a novel, she informed us, is a little like swimming from
buoy to buoy, capturing spontaneity in short bursts.

Overall, a very rewarding discussion that both intrigued me as a reader
and inspired me as a writer. I could have listened to the two of them
all day!

by Angela Oliver, writer, artist and reviewer for Booksellers NZ

Exciting Tales and All Right Release, and Creating Worlds, at WORD Christchurch, Saturday 30 August

As a writer, bookseller and dedicated bibliophile, I make it my practice to attend as many literary events as I can. It is fun to recognise faces, and engage in networking, as well as meeting some of the authors that I admire. Today, at the Christchurch WORD festival, there was the chance to do a bit of both, along with making some new discoveries. Today, I attended three of the events, the following two of which were free.

The first event was Exciting Tales and All Right? Book Launch at 11.30 am, hosted by librarian and children’s book blogger/expert, Zac Harding. cv_felix and the red ratsThree authors, two of which are local faces, read selected pieces from their books. The first to take the stand was James Norcliffe, poet, writer and educator.  He had selected two passages from his tale x and the Red Rats, a finalist in the Junior Fiction category of the NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. This tale is an entwined narrative of two different words − blending the modern and the fantastical. In his strong, expressive manner, Norcliffe first revealed to us the mystery of the red rats, then took us on a pig-bound flight of fancy.

He was followed up by Desna Wallace, school librarian, bookseller and author, reading from her story, Earthquake. Part of the “My Story” range for Scholastic, it is written in diary format. She took us back to April, 2011, after the second of the major earthquakes, and to a time of relative calm, allowing us to re-live the royal wedding through the eyes of her (fictional) narrator.

Third up was Melinda Syzmanik, cv_a_winters_day_in_1939a prolific and experienced professional author. Her chosen reading was taken from A Winter’s Day in 1939, another NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults finalist – and winner of the Librarian’s Choice Award at the LIANZA Book Awards. Whilst a fictional story, this tale developed from her father’s own experiences in Poland during World War II. Beautifully told, it transported us into 12-year old Adam’s world, and the uncertainity he faced as he and his family were transported to a Russian work camp. Her language is compelling, and left me eager to learn more.

With the readings finished, it was time for the All Right? book launch. This nifty little staple-bound chapbook was available for free, and contains poetry from the very talented students from the School for Young Writers. After a brief introduction, we were treated to short readings from the children, ranging in age from Year 5 to Year 11. All spoke with confidence and clarity, stepping boldly up to the microphone (in some cases they were barely visible over the podium) and reading out their imagery-rich pieces. Their evocative prose, to say so much in so few words, left me feeling like a rank amateur. A particular favourite of mine was “Dust Mite Mountains”.

After that, it was time for a short break before the next event, Creating Worlds, in which five wonderful young adult novelists − two international − read from their works. This was one of the events I was most excited about, as two of the authors are particular favourites of mine. Once again, each guest was skilfully introduced by Zac Harding.

The first to step up to the elizabeth_knoxpodium was Elizabeth Knox, author of The Vintner’s Luck and the Dreamhunter duet. She read a passage from Mortal Fire, winner of the NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, in the Young Adult category. Her selected passage tied in loosely with the “Dreamhunter / Dreamquake” duo.

word-LainiTaylorFollowing her up was Laini Taylor, from Portland, America. One of my favourite writers, her writing has enchanted me since I first discovered it, and she selected a passage from the wonderful Daughter of Smoke and Bone, first announcing that she had chosen the most embarrasing chapter for her to read aloud, and then keeping us spellbound through it. With her lyrical language combined with the wry humour and her rather charming accent, it was an excellent way to re-experience her writing.

Next up, Karen Healey took the stage. She is both author and a school teacher with a strength of character and charisma that added extra charm to her tellings. Instead of reading to us from one of her books, of which there are four, she read us a short story from her smart phone. Entitled “Careful Magic” it is to feature in an anthology, and one I shall definitely consider purchasing. Her tongue-in-cheek humour and rich use of language shone through.

Tania Roxborogh then read us a passage from her novel Third Degree. Her dialogue was very clever, and her rather descriptive prose as her narrator was being treated for serious burns had us wincing at the imagery.

WORD-Web-Event-INTERESTINGWe concluded with American author Meg Wotlizer, whom I am ashamed to say I was unfamiliar with previously. This is something I intend to remedy! Her chosen piece was taken from the not-yet-released-in-NZ Belzhar,  a novel inspried by Sylvia Platt’s The Bell Jar (which all of the authors, but few in the audience, had read).  The short piece she read to us had me instantly hooked, and I am definitely going to be hunting down a copy of this one to read in full!

Overall, it was a wonderful opportunity to hear the authors read their work, giving it the passion that it clearly deserves, and I felt privileged to be able to attend.

by Angela Oliver, writer, artist, bookseller and reviewer

Reading Favourites – another take – from WORD Christchurch Readers & Writers festival, Friday 29 August

My first session for the WORD Christchurch Writers Festival this year was Reading Favourites: Kate De Goldi, Sarah Laing and Carl Nixon in conversation with Guy Somerset about their favourite New Zealand books. It was an excellent way into WORD, which celebrates reading and writing in the context of Aotearoa.

Author and children’s book reviewer Kate De Goldi was first up, recommending to us Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne – a gothic mystery with an unreliable narrator, and hailed by many as the great unread Kiwi novel. De Goldi said it’s the kind of book you love so much that you give it to someone you fancy as a sort of compatibility test. She spoke very movingly about her love for this novel and introduced what would become a theme: the lack of recognition for the work within New Zealand (although a cult following is now developing), with it consequently going out of print and becoming difficult to find. Happily, Sydney Bridge Upside Down has now been republished by Text Publishing in Australia and is available in NZ bookshops – for example, at the excellent UBS Canterbury stall right here at the festival.
southseas
De Goldi’s second choice was Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People (Auckland University Press) by Gregory O’Brien. She said it entirely lacks that “instructive worthiness” so prevalent amongst children’s non-fiction, and is instead accessible, personal and engaging – for adults as well as kids. And after she read aloud from the book, I immediately wanted to sit down with it and read the rest. Welcome to the South Seas is due to be re-published by AUP, with two companion volumes soon.

cv_hicksvilleAuthor and cartoonist Sarah Laing’s first pick for her favourite NZ book was Hicksville (Victoria University Press, 2012; but ), a graphic novel by Dylan Horrocks, who was in the audience. Laing said she devoured comics as a child, but, as a young woman, found comic book shops to be “scary” and off-putting. But she is rediscovering comics now, and incorporates cartoons in her own novels (as well as publishing the webcomic and blog, Let Me Be Frank). Laing praised Hicksville for its multi-layered, intertextual nature, and the way it creates a utopian version of Aotearoa where comics thrive and are loved by all. There was also a very interesting discussion of the way graphic novels force to you read in a different way.

Laing commented that, due to their ephemeral nature (both in terms of magazine-like publishing and in the sense of not being part of the literary mainstream), comics can be hard to track down. Horrocks is now published in NZ, but for a long time was only published overseas.

fromearthsendLaing’s second choice was From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics by Adrian Kinnaird (Random House NZ), which she praised as a unique and extremely useful history of cartooning in New Zealand. Guy Somerset commented that he was interested to learn that NZ used to have a thriving comics publishing industry in the mid-twentieth century, until the moral panic about the effects of cartoons on children’s minds effectively shut it all down.

Novelist Carl Nixon’s first choice was The Day Hemingway Died and other stories by Owen Marshall, which he said was one of the first NZ books he read without being told to. He praised the way Marshall perfectly illustrates human foibles while also producing writing that is laugh-out-loud funny. Nixon then proved this last point by reading an excerpt, which did indeed make us all laugh.
gifted
Nixon also enthusiastically recommended to us Gifted by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press), a novel about the real-life working relationship between iconic Kiwi authors Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson. Nixon praised Evans for “capturing what you believe to be Sargeson’s voice”. Like Sydney Bridge Upside Down, Gifted has been adapted for the stage.

Finally, Guy Somerset, Books and Culture editor for The Listener, recommended Arena by John Cranna, a futuristic novel of a brutalised dystopia. Somerset said it’s the first NZ book he read, in order to impress his new Kiwi wife.

Reading Favourites was an excellent session, and I was pleased to see many people head straight to the book stall afterwards. I came away with some excellent additions to my (teetering, infinite) To Read Pile – always a good sign that a writers festival has done its job. Looking forward to more to come!

by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance writer and publisher
www.elizabethheritage.co.nz