I was a little nervous prior to attending The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival session (kindly hosted by the2011 Auckland Writers And Readers Festival) – was I wearing waterproof mascara? Would I sit there, squirming uncomfortably, while listening but not wanting to listen to horrific earthquake stories? Did I really want to be reminded of what is an enduring reality back home?
This session came about because last year’s The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival was cancelled due to the September quake. Then this year’s one because of the big kahuna in February. They’re now aiming to have a Festival in September 2012 – as long as a big enough venue can be found (a rather scarce commodity post-quake). I applaud their tenacity, and well done Morrin Rout and Ruth Todd (Christchurch festival organisers) for perservering to bring us a well-needed cultural diversion.
Fiona Farrell spoke of writing a poem ‘The Horse’ (to help her animal mad sister understand what was happening). She gave the quake a horse persona, and it quivered and stamped as tiny flies (aftershocks) bit it, and we, lying “on the back of a huge beast”, hang on for dear life. This was followed by ‘The Tarp’. The chimney in her Christchurch flat fell through the roof and “when the rain falls, it scribbles decay on the ceiling”. A young man placed a tarpaulin over the damaged roof and a poem was born. Last was ‘Julia At Tai Tapu’ and is about the strange beauty of liquifaction volcanoes in the night – “and Julia glides about her park, a sweet vibration in the dark”.
Tusiata Avia read a poem about driving to find her young daughter in the CBD – “everyone is leaving for their home in the sky”. She spoke about coming back later to search for the memories of buildings and read ‘St Paul’s Trinity Pacific Church’, which had the repetitive phrase “no evidence of” , referring to events that have happened in the past at the church, but now “we all fade into the archaeology”. Last was a poem about the CTV building, that had its lift shaft left standing, long after the rest of the building was removed – “the inner workings of The Rapture, sheared open for all of us to see”.
Charlotte Randall is a novelist, and as “I usually write 80,000 words, so that would have taken too long to read out” she instead discussed the exciting idea, that she is thinking of continuing Halfie’s story (new novel Hokitika Town, set in 1865 goldrush Hokitika), setting him as an adult in San Francisco during the 1905 earthquake. She then went on to talk about the benefits of natural disasters – that neighbours get to know one another, go out to dinner together, all sorts of ‘social cocooning’ going on.
Carl Nixon was only on stage briefly, and appeared to be quite upset to be talking about ‘his’ Christchurch, the one of the past, where he has set the majority of his work. He appeared at a loss as to how to incorporate the ‘new’ Christchurch into his imaginings. He read part of a short story ‘The Last Good Day Of Autumn’ because it was set near buildings that now no longer exist or are badly damaged (Antiqua Boatsheds, Museum, Arts Centre).
Joanna Preston is a poet who spends a lot of time in Australia, but had arrived back in Christchurch 24 hours before the September shake. She told of hearing car alarms ‘screaming like children’ afterwards, and the beautiful Spring day that followed – “it felt like walking in the Underworld, everything was so quiet and unreal”. She read ‘Aftershock’ written by Shaun Joyce (one of her students), ‘The Fault’ – how that word now has so many meanings, and lastly ‘The City And The City’ which had the haunting line “a bright shop front translated into a coffin lid”.
Berlin resident Sarah Quigley has written a column for The Press for the last 13 years and was due to email one through, when she heard about the February quake from a friend. Whilst frantically trying to establish whether her family and friends were alright, she wondered whether or not there would indeed be a paper published in the next while. She was amazed to find that yes, The Press would be printed, under very difficult circumstances, and her column featured on 26 February. She read out that column, (I remember sitting on my couch at home, reading that same column, marvelling at the speed with which she had written it and made it into print) and it was heartrending to imagine someone sitting on the other side of the world, unable to help, not knowing the fate of her loved ones.
Morrin Rout led a round of applause for The Press, saying that she too had been amazed to find a copy on her doorstep the morning after the February quake, and spoke of how reassuring it was to hold it in her hand and be able to read the news of the disaster, rather than just listening on the radio or following it on TV. Ruth Todd concurred heartily, as she’d been without power at the time.
So, no tears from me, though a few throat wobbles at times. At first it felt strange to be sitting in a large multi-layered building, with many, many other people in it, in a city that has skyscrapers and beautiful verandahed, brick-fronted heritage buildings, and know that it is light years away from Christchurch in every way. But, afterwards I left with a warm fuzzy feeling of comradeship, perserverance and hope. Thanks Auckland for letting a little bit of Christchurch shine.