Among the first few events at this year’s epic WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival was “CAN BOOKS CHANGE THE WORLD?” This serious question arouses all manner of responses: Books ARE powerful! They HAVE changed the world! We cry. With fists in the air!
However, this intimate evening explored what drives writers to write in the first place – an important question – given that what we write can ripple out across earth. So, to traverse the topic of world-changing written thought, we were treated to a panel of clever literary people – children’s and short story writer Kate De Goldi, journalist and playwright Victor Rodger, and academic, writer and literary critic John Freeman – all of whom have won various awards and accolades.
The featured writers were probed with questions about “why they write”. John Freeman began by stating that you have to keep yourself in check :
If you start thinking you can change the world, then you will have a rough time”. You’ll prime yourself for disappointment.
Therefore, you “write in the hope that people will be able to identity with you”. Hopefully, you can tap into something that touches them by seeking to appreciate their worldview.
BUT, he went on to warn “there is no such thing as apolitical writing”, you either have to take a position on certain issues, or you take positions by default. There is no middle ground.
Kate De Goldi seemed to concur with these sentiments, stating that New Zealand citizens tend to have a problem “speaking truth to power” and taking provocative (and sometimes) unpopular positions and entering into heated discourse! She emphasized that writing is about “being a responsible citizen”, and that “if people dont read there is no democracy”. Therefore, we need to back ourselves.
Victor added to the discussion by revealing his own impressions of life growing up as part of a minority group – as a young Samoan New Zealander, most Kiwi books, plays and shows did not embody his point of view as a young man wrestling with his identity. So, “he really wanted to get his own impressions of life out there”, “to challenge cultural and racial stereotypes”. Which is critical, as his work has added important dimensions to New Zealand’s artistic scene and prompted Kiwis think about who we are as a society.
It was an edifying evening, I found myself taking in this good advice from those who have hacked their way through the literary jungle. Its good to be reminded that with the privilege of free literary thought comes responsibility. And sometimes, we wind up writing something world changing!