WORD Christchurch Festival, 29 August to 2 September 2018
I used to be a writers’ festival sceptic. Aside from attending the odd book launch growing up, I never felt a great need to listen to my favourite writers present or discuss their work, let alone many writers at the same time. It struck me as an odd idea: surely this was something they all would be better suited to doing in writing, if they absolutely had to?
The rise of the writers’ festivals is a very contemporary phenomenon, although it fits within the much longer and complex history of the relationship between the written word and its performance. In the nineteenth century, the likes of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens embarked upon long and highly profitable international tours, which in Twain’s case stretched as far as New Zealand. Nowadays, the practice is far more widespread and is regulated by a dense calendar of festivals. These events are usually expensive to organise and often also to attend but are now firmly part of the support system of the publishing industry. They give readers the opportunity to meet writers as well as other readers. They give writers the opportunity to meet readers and, yes, other writers. While the institution of the festival grew around me I could see that this was happening but not what value exactly it might bring.
Although I have been a partial convert for some time, if I had to explain what this value is I would now point to a particular session at this year’s Christchurch WORD festival.
The first thing to note is that it was a free session and that the room—which seats 100—was packed. Several people had to be turned away. Those who made it were a diverse group, visibly younger than the typical audience at a literary festival event. This matters.
The authors all these people had come to see were poets Tusiata Avia and Selina Tusitala Marsh. Their session was a performance but not primarily a performance of their published work. It was, rather, a conversation in poetry. You can listen to it, and you definitely should, but it’s also true to say that you had to be there in order to fully understand it and be a part of it. This matters too. A successful literary event brings people together. Ideas resonate when they’re carried from session to session, from place to place. And if something worked just as well on the page or in a recording then you simply wouldn’t need to be there, except perhaps as a prop, to supply the crowd noise.
The ideas woven by Avia and Marsh in their early afternoon conversation were some of the key themes of this year’s WORD. Above all was the work of writing, and the question of who gets to be a writer—or a reader, for that matter, as illustrated in the only poem delivered by Marsh, ‘Working Mother’s Guide to Reading Seventy Books a Year’. This poem begins:
Don’t have the babies
Don’t have a full-time job
Don’t be working class
Don’t be time poor and extended family rich
Appositely, the poem was written in response to a male writer declaring at another festival attended by Marsh that everyone should read 70 novels a year; meanwhile his partner was looking after their six-week-old baby at the other end of the country.
If asking who can be a writer and what should be expected of them raises issues of race, class and gender, these were put into sharper relief when Avia spoke of the physical breakdown she suffered in early 2017, which confined her to her bed for 18 months. What followed was the story of her taking stock of the demands of her work, and undergoing a recovery mediated by frequent phone conversations with Marsh: one of them in bed, the other one running on the hills of Waiheke. This involved each reading cues from the other, supporting the other: Marsh being there for her friend; Avia keeping track of Marsh’s migraines; each helping the other to ‘hold the fire without burning out’.
I make it sound terribly serious—which, deep down, it was—but the two of them infused the session with the humour that marks their work, as exemplified by Marsh’s ‘Working Mother’s Guide’ (part of her new collection) or Avia’s ‘Some Notes for Critics’.
Successful and superbly entertaining as it was, the session posed an implicit challenge to the rest of the festival—and to our literary festivals generally. Especially in light of the significant and growing investment that Creative New Zealand makes towards these events, we should expect them to speak to a broader public than their traditional upper-middle-class paying audience, and engage with them in a critical conversation about our literature.
On these fronts, WORD continues to be singularly successful. This comes not only from the festival’s accessiblity (it’s open to students on weekdays and has a number of free sessions such as Marsh and Avia’s). It also arises from the fact that programme director Rachael King, building on two previous iterations (the festival was rebranded in 2014), assembled not just writers of sufficient renown, but also diverse enough, critical enough, bold enough to steer the entire event toward a pursuit of what Barbara Else—in delivering this year’s Margaret Mahy lecture—called ‘better fictions, more enabling fictions, fictions not at the expense of others’. (And the same of course could be said of non-fictions.)
And so the session with Tina Makereti and Paula Morris raised the question of how far the context of our stories travels, while Pip Adam, Rajorshi Chakraborti and Brannavan Gnanalingam debated the politics of their works, but of necessity also of the literature that gets published in Aotearoa New Zealand. Gnanalingam went on to join poet Tayi Tibble, curator Jennifer Shields and academic Erin Harrington for a discussion of their favourite under-appreciated artists and what it means to be part of the national canon, or on the outside looking in.
Emily Writes and Scottish poet Hollie McNish read from their work during an hour-long session on motherhood in front of an audience stacked with incredibly well-behaved babies (again, this was not your average literary festival audience). In the most ambitious programming feats of all, eight authors—literally more than the Christchurch Art Gallery stage could accommodate—took turns for 90 minutes delving into the role of the body in (their) literature, reprising an earlier session programmed by Avia (but with a different cast) on ‘being comfortable in your own skin’. This time I feared the format had been pushed to excess, that it might fall apart. But it didn’t. Profound, touching and funny in turns, the session just held us there, never preaching at us. Any time you can watch authors as different as Ray Shipley (softly spoken librarian and author of short poems that use not a single word more than it takes) and the loud, glorious, pulpit-smashing Sonya Renee Taylor perform on the same stage like it’s the most natural thing in the world, you know the person who put this together knew what they were doing.
Of course none of these questions—about who gets to be a writer or what counts as a person, about the correct way of looking at a body or the global boundaries of New Zealand literature—came close to being resolved. They weren’t meant to. But there is a great deal of value in the asking.
I hope it’s not too grandiose to suggest that it may just be what literature is for.
Tusiata Avia and Selina Tusitala Marsh. Credit: WORD Christchurch/Johannes van Kan
Pati Solomona Tyrell. Credit: WORD Christchurch/Johannes van Kan
GIOVANNI TISO is an Italian writer and translator based in Wellington. He is a contributing editor to the Australian literary journal Overland.