Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winners are:

Best First Book: Mohammad Hanif – A case of exploding mangoes.

Hanif paid thanks to Jill Rawnsley, festival director. Hanif said his son even stopped playing PSP for a minute!

Dedicated award to Dept of Immigration and Customs – he was delayed by them for two hours. Apparently they wouldn’t let his son (or someone in the group) go to the toilet.

He ended his speech by saying: Thank you very much I’ll now go and pee!

Best Book: Christos Tsiolkas The Slap.

He said: Great pride to be in the company of other fantastic and brilliant writers and comrades and generous people. There is no competition in art. I can’t believe I’m gonna meet the Queen and my mum said I have to ask for the Parthenon marbles back.

Vanda Symon is our guest on the wrap up tonight – to be recorded at the Aotea Centre.

Middle-class terrorists a “story looking for an author”

How did a bunch of middle-class activists end up in a web of international terror and murder?

Stefan Aust has spent his career finding out, saying it was a once in a lifetime case of a “story looking for an author”. The Baader Meinhoff complex examines in gripping detail the lives of a group of German revolutionaries known as the Red Army Faction (RAF). They began as protesters against war and the state in the sixties and ended up committing arson, bombings, murders and kidnappings. In prison they went on hunger strikes, and won sympathy when the authorities force fed them.

Some of the of the group died in prison – there were questions over whether it was murder or suicides? Two had shot themselves, one had hung herself – but even though they were closely guarded, no-one heard the shots or found them until the following morning.

At his festival session with Mark Sainsbury, Aust decribed this chapter of German history as “the most interesting and dramatic time after the Second World War”.

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Sonya Renee, performance poet

One of the great things about festivals is the range of styles you encounter – the variations of eloquences, as an astute audience member described it on the opening night. I have yet to meet Sonya Renee, but here is an interview we did by email – I hope to catch up with her tomorrow in person. Listen to some performances online.

The poetry slam has reinvigorated poetry. What’s more appealing to you – the passion and energy of the performance moment or the well-crafted, considered printed version?

I am in love with both. I am mesmerized by the beauty and craft of language and gifted poetry. I am equally in love with the expression on the face of a person as they experience being moved by a poem and performance. Nothing brings me more joy than watching a talented poet and perform bring a piece to life. Nothing is more painful than having to watch a terribly written poem on stage.

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Love, food, wine and travel

Who could resist a session with a name like this? After Richard Dawkins provoked a breakfast discussion that involved some food but little love, and which made me wish for wine and travel, I’m going the Rachael King way. I saw her in the foyer of the Aotea Centre and she said she’s strictly fiction, which has a nice ring to it.

Sarah-Kate Lynch and Nicky Pellegrino sparked off each other really well and were similar in many ways. They have both been editors of the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, they both write popular women’s fiction and reviews and they are both very funny but it’s the meticulous versus the organic as far as approaches to their work goes.

Lynch has to have quiet and the right chair, Pellegrino writes in an annex to her dining room known as the dining hovel with her husband watching motor sport a mere arm’s length away.

When Jim did the total spoiler and revealed the ending of On top of everything about a third of the way through the session Sarah was off – he is never going to be allowed to forget this.

What does it say about the New Zealand psyche that this book has done the best here and provoked a huge response from readers but overseas publishers won’t publish it because they don’t like the ending? I don’t know but it could be that whole cinema of unease, Man alone, big dark streak through our literature thing. Except the Dutch are going to publish it, bless their dark little hearts.

Lynch is undismayed though, saying that if you think too much about what other people think and want “you can really bugger it up”.

The amazing internet

Joyce and I have both mentioned Richard Dawkins and his fantastic session last night. I wanted to add a post script.

The experience was made possible by the massive KAREN network, whose members include libraries, universities, research institutions and schools. KAREN connects to the JANET network in the UK.

The Dawkins presentation was high-definition video over the internet, and it never missed a beat. The size of the internet pipe? 2 Gigabits / second, Paul Reynolds tells me. With technology like that what wonderful discussions we can have – and it could have been a worldwide broadcast – if someone was prepared to stump up for the bandwith…

Wouldn’t it be great to have a broadcast event at the next Christchurch Writers festival??

The formula works

Auckland’s festival has attracted a lot of people – venues have been full. According to publicist Angela Radford, ticket sales are up close to 50 percent, which does not include the 6000 seats they filled for the schools part od the programme earlier in the week. That’s a very impressive effort. Great crowd for the Sam Mahon and Greg McGee session and a long queue at Christos Tsiolkas’s book signing.

I also had a very genial chat with TVNZ’s Peter Williams – his wife is on the festival board. He was enjoying the non-fiction and especially the New Yorker writers. It’s one thing thing to mingle with the celebs, but everybody at the festival has been cheerful and happy to talk to us, and genuinely interested in what we are doing. And speaking of doing, time for me to get writing. Keep sending your comments through!


Passageways with Ann Thwaite and Joanna Woods chaired by Hamish Keith

My goodness that Hamish Keith gets about! He seems to be a constant on the New Zealand literary festival circuit and I think I know why, famous though he is for courting controversy, today with wonderful wit and charm he facilitated an interesting and generous conversation between biographers Anne Thwaite and Joanna Woods.

Hamish started the ball rolling by sharing the idea of the travelling gene; that everyone however long they’ve been in New Zealand has come from somewhere else. He also mooted the idea that early migrants to New Zealand rather than flying the flag for Great Britain were keen to establish an identity for their new home as something separate and other. He added that by the 1930’s and 40’s England had become re-established as home, reinforced through the education system and government, and that many New Zealanders  had a “fantasy past and uncertain present”. This fantasy past being created both Joanna Woods and Hamish Keith felt by nationalist writers of the period like Curnow and Fairburn, men with a vested interest in bashing the cultural achievements of the past.

Joanna Woods, author of Facing the music a biography of Charles Baeyertz, spoke compellingly about New Zealand’s vibrant cultural and literary scene during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She cited a galaxy of international stars that performed in New Zealand and a host of homegrown talent that enlivened the lives of early New Zealanders. Baeyertz founded The Triad a cultural magazine which stayed in print for over 50 years and provided her with a rich source of information about New Zealand’s early cultural creations.

Ann Thwaite winner of the Whitbread Prize for Best Biography in 1990 shared her recently published family history Passageways.  She said it took her 40 years after his death before she could face opening the suitcases containing her Father’s papers and acknowledged that delving into the past was not always a joyful process and that “a photograph could be too sad to frame”. She talked about the joy of getting to know her parents as young people through their letters and diaries and read a charming passage from her Mother’s notebook detailing the appropraite behaviours that a young lady should model.

While the authors themselves seemed to find some difficulty in aligning their particular publications with the programme’s uniting theme of migration this was nonetheless an interesting session tackling in somewhat plummy tones issues of identity and culture.

Tip-toe through the minefield: Richard Dawkins on the big screen

An incredibly interesting session, and I got there feeling there weren’t too many people of any religious persuasion in the room. Dawkins had the crowd in his palm – they laughed at nearly everything he said. Sean Plunket, even with a bad case of laryngitis, did a great job, and really got the most for the audience.

I liked that Dawkins said he would be happy to change his mind if presented evidence, and how he went further to say that that is what scientists should do. He gave an example where he publically apologised and changed his stance after ridiculing the handicap theory and the scientist who put it forward.

“It’s exciting to discover you have been wrong,” he said.

He also made the point that all religions of the past have already been got rid of – such as the Greek and Roman gods – so what was one more? The crowd chortled.

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Ranginui Walker, accidental activist

Ranginui Walker never set out to be an activist. He considers himself a fairly conservative person, raised in a conservative, hard-working, farming family but as he achieved higher level education and rose in academia he was asked to take on the role of spokesperson for his people (Whakatohea of Opotiki) and it’s a responsibility that he has carried through some fairly tumultuous times for Māoridom.

His biographer, Paul Spoonley, has in his new book Mata toa : the life and times of Ranginui Walker tried to “do justice” to, not only Dr. Walker, but also the massive changes that have happened in New Zealand society in the course of his lifetime. In this way Spoonley sees himself almost as “an accidental biographer” as he sees Ranginui Walker’s story as “very intimately connected” with this period of change in New Zealand. “I don’t think one story can be told without the other,” he said.

Geoff Walker, the chair of the session pointed out how unusual it was to have the author and the subject of the biography together on the same stage to take questions and I don’t doubt that that’s true. Part of the reason it happened is that Paul Spoonley and Ranginui Walker have known each other since the seventies and seem to have an admirably congenial relationship built on mutual respect and fostered over many years.

I had hoped to get a little insight into how someone who is obviously friendly with their subject might manage to stay impartial when writing their life story. Though I sheepishly put up my hand at question time, I wasn’t lucky enough to be able to ask that question directly though Spoonley did partially address this earlier on when he described how open and forthcoming Dr Walker and his wife Deirdre had been in providing him information. In his investigations, he said, he’d found nothing to contradict anything that they had shared with him so he felt confident that their stories were accurate saying “There was never any information withheld from me as far as I could tell. They offered me as much as they could.”

It was extremely interesting to hear the way in which Dr Walker was very much the meat in the sandwich between “Pakeha New Zealand” and a generation of Māori more dislocated from their language and culture, and more angry than he. As someone who has always made himself available to speak to the media on matters Māori, he was seen by one side as more of a stirrer than a spokesman while the other considered him part of the establishment and called him a “limousine liberal” or “the Onassis of the Māori world”…because he drove a Rover.

Ranginui Walker may be neither of these things in reality, but what he is is an extremely well-educated, experienced, and astute New Zealander who has been witness to some groundbreaking moments in our history. His “life and times” are certainly worthy of a book even if his initial reaction to the proposal was “but I’m not dead yet.”

For more information on Ranginui Walker check out the following –

Kiwi Companeros

The Spanish Civil War exerted a powerful influence on our imagination as students in the 1970s, possibly because  it was so well documented by the many writers who either fought or were premature anti-Fascists, as they were branded in the McCarthy years. 

We knew all about Hemingway, Dos Passos and Orwell, even about Esmond Romilly running away at the age of 17 to join the International Brigades. I was particularly enthralled by the mad romanticism of this gesture because he went on to marry a Mitford. I concentrated less on his being invalided home suffering from dysentery as one of the two surviving members of the British Battallion.

What I don’t remember knowing anything about was any New Zealanders who fought on the side of the Republicans, or about those who supported Franco from the other side of the world.

That gap has been rectified by the publication of Kiwi Companeros, which was launched last night at the Auckland City Library. It was published by Canterbury University Press, not that you’d know that because it wasn’t mentioned once, but I must not be bitter. This is Auckland after all and the rest of the country doesn’t exist.

In fact Auckland is so important it has to have its own Bill in Parliament, a Bill that kept Phil Twyford, who was supposed to launch the book, in Wellington. Rodney (first name only necesssary) had also postponed a meeting with some people sitting behind me because he was detained in the house under urgency.

Further assiduous listening in to other people’s conversations lead to hearing that good old Christchurch question “where did you go to school” but this being Auckland he wouldn’t have a bar of it and skilfully steered the conversation onto the clubs he belonged to at University – tramping and Labour.  What a combo.

The crowd was a self-confessed bunch of old lefties (I may have spotted a Mao cap in the crowd and that’s not something you see every day) and they did the book proud. It is an amazing story, of how men and women came from the ends of the earth, antipodes to antipodes, to fight for their ideals while others placed themselves firmly on the side of Franco.

Having just come from a session featuring two writers who had written historical fiction for Young Adults it was interesting to hear Mark Darby, Kiwi Companeros’ editor, echo their thoughts on history. History is not only the past, it  is the present; it is consciousness of the past and it is real remembering. And as we were reminded at the beginning of the evening, libraries help people not to forget.