Ted Chiang – Arrival: WORD Christchurch

American science fiction writer Ted Chiang has a very particular way of speaking. He pauses a lot to gather his thoughts, and the intonation, or melody, of his voice doesn’t vary much. This can have the effect of making it feel that he is taking a very long time to get to the point. Fortunately, Arrival is the third WORD Christchurch session of his that I’m attending so I’ve become somewhat accustomed to it. Because once you get past the quality of his voice, he actually does have some interesting things to say.

It also helps that Arrival (the only sci-fi movie I’ve every watched with a middle-aged female linguist as its hero – feel free to recommend others if you know of any) is a recent favourite of mine, and that I’m part way through reading The story of your life, the novella on which the movie is based.

Arrival

Local sci-fi and fantasy author, Karen Healey happily lets Chiang talk about the things that interest him about the genre he writes in. You get the impression from Ted Chiang that he spends a lot of time thinking generally, and about science fiction especially, so his thoughts, when he does finally express them are fully-formed. His lines are not throwaway ones. He’s considered these things from a variety of angles.

For instance, he rejects the notion that his writing “transcends genre”, as, in his opinion, this is the kind of thing that people who don’t usually like science fiction say – the implication being that the rest of the genre isn’t very good, and that this thing that they somehow like is some kind of aberration.

Hollywood sci-fi vs literary sci-fi

Ted Chiang - Science Fiction Triple Feature
Ted Chiang reads one of his short stories at New Regent Street Pop-up Festival. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0120

I especially enjoy hearing about his views on the nature of science fiction storytelling in movies versus in fiction because, as a fan of sci-fi cinema, I recognise that his observations have the unerring ring of truth to them and I may never watch an MCU movie in the same way again.

In Hollywood sci-fi, he says, there’s very often a good vs. evil scenario in which the world is in a good/peaceful/stable state then something evil/monstrous/destructive comes along and there is a struggle to overcome this force of evil and return the world to a state of goodness, peace, and harmony. It’s a very conservative formula in that it’s looking to restore the status quo. This immediately makes me think of Make America Great Again (MAGA) and just how powerful narratives that resonate with people can be. Human beings love stories and we like to use the same patterns of story over and over again.

The kind of science fiction that Chiang is interested in is entirely different. In these kinds of stories the world is changed by some kind of disruption or discovery and the change is irrevocable. There is no going back to the way things were before. At the end of the story the world is a very different place from what it was at the beginning, and more than that it’s not necessarily a better place, just a different one. This is a much more progressive storyline and one that you don’t get much in Hollywood movies, if for no other reason than that they are not easy to make a sequel to.

For instance, all the Jurassic Park franchise (currently on its 5th film – a 6th is planned) needs for there to be another dinosaurs-cause-chaos story is for some scientists to make the same errors of judgement the first lot did and the “oh no, who could have foreseen this dinosaur-related catastrophe happening again?” scenario can and will happen again.

Compare this with Chiang’s favourite science fiction film, The Matrix. In many ways it looks like a battle between good vs. evil story but it’s not. The world is a radically different place at the end of the movie. “Neo’s monologue at the very end of the film,” says Chiang “has really stuck with me”. And just in case we didn’t believe him, he quotes it, word for word:

 I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

To Chiang this quote perfectly captures what it is to be a radical or a revolutionary. It is not the status quo and it is not comforting, which good vs. evil stories often are. Ted Chiang is not interested in writing “comforting” fiction.

Humanity, curiosity and evidence

What he is interested in is what it means to be human and for him a sense of curiosity, which Healey points out is often present in his characters, is essential.

To be fully human is to be actively engaged with the world around us…

Trying to learn more about the universe is a really noble pursuit and “profoundly meaningful”. And though a lot of his stories have a theoretical question or “though experiment” at their core he feels that science fiction, by tying these ideas to a character with an emotional storyline, can make them more accessible to people.

Philosophy doesn’t have to be so radically removed from our lived experience. I think it’s interesting because it does apply to our lived experience.

Chiang is an Atheist but has an interest in religion. In one of his stories he imagines a world in which there is irrefutable evidence of the existence of God and explores whether that would make it easier or harder to have faith. In some ways, he thinks it would be harder.

In response to a question from Healey about how you approach people from the past as a topic for science fiction, Chiang is magnanimous – people in the past had a different way of viewing the world. Given the observations they had at the time, their interpretations often make sense. Subsequent observations can change this view, of course. They were engaged in the same general practise as modern scientists are engaged in.

It was perhaps this train of conversation that prompted the first of the audience questions, as a very forthright arm shot up a couple of rows in front of me, and an older gentleman asked what Chiang’s thoughts were on the question of “settled science”, a phrase that he felt was being used to shut down debate in such areas as Climate Change (a topic, it should be noted, on which the vast majority of the scientific community is in agreement).

Chiang, as is his habit, takes a while to get to the point of his answer but to summarise it is basically this: Science is practised by human beings who have biases, but scientists are far more aware of their biases than other people (in particular, politicians, who are the worst at recognising their own vested interests). Science fiction in general aligns with scientists. And science by its nature doesn’t really get to an end point.

This is so successfully diplomatic a response that the questioner, judging by the nodding of his head, felt he was being agreed with. Sir, you were not being agreed with. You were being disagreed with in a slow, patient manner.

Movies again

The only other audience question was, shockingly, about science fiction and picked up on Chiang’s earlier discussion of The Matrix, which the audience member wondering what he made of the sequels. Like most of us, he found them disappointing calling them “the prime example of the harmful effects” of Hollywood’s demand for sequels, when “commerce runs counter to artistic goals”.

Which led nicely into a discussion of how the film Arrival got made.

Arrival

The movie’s genesis was rather different route than what’s usual, as the screenwriter Eric Heisserer had read Chiang’s story and wanted to adapt it, but then had to find someone to produce it. Chiang is at pains to point out that Heisserer deserves all the credit for making The Story of your life work as a movie, as Chiang himself considered it “unfilmable” due to its very “internal” nature. And Chiang himself offered a few comments on the screenplay but mostly stayed out of it.

The movie-making business is so, so weird and it’s not something I want to be closely involved in.

Diversity in science fiction

Chiang is happy about the shift in science fiction that has seen increasing diversity in its authors and writing, though this hasn’t been without its conflicts, Chiang describing sci-fi’s “own version of the Alt-Right” laying seige to the Hugo Awards for a number of years. These efforts, in his opinion, have ultimately proved unsuccessful. N. K. Jemisin, a queer, African-American woman winning the Hugo for best novel for an unprecedented three years running.

Chiang also points out that the popularity of The three body problem by Cixin Liu, a work translated into English from Chinese, is another example of a growning openness in science fiction.

I think it’s great because for a long time science fiction, despite it being very forward looking – in practice it’s been very conservative.

Not to mention the tropes. So. Many. Tropes. And conventions and little in-jokes. Science fiction, Chiang seems to be saying, in some quarters has become unchallenging and… comfortable.

I very much want [science fiction] to be filled with surprising reading experiences. I think science fiction should be about questioning your assumptions… It should make you wonder about things you took for granted, things you assumed to be true but actually are just a societal convention.

The more different science fiction writers there are, he says, the more likely it is that you get that experience.

And there he goes again, advocating against the status quo. Ted Chiang: the slow-spoken, thoughtful revolutionary.

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Kīwaha: Te reo Māori phrases

For Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori we’ve been suggesting ways to help improve your te reo Māori skills.

Learning kupu (words) and wetereo (grammar) are obviously quite important if you’re trying to strengthen your reo. But phrases (idioms or colloquial sayings) can also be really helpful and add a bit of flourish to your conversations.

Try out some of the these:

tapatapahi ana

Meaning: Flash, stylie, stylish, smart, with-it, outstanding, remarkable, inspired, creative, primo
– An idiom to express appreciation of attractiveness of something that has been created.

Everyday use:
Damien: Tapatapahi ana! Those are mean sunglasses Kat, where did you get them?

kei runga noa atu [koe]

Meaning: [You’re] top-notch! [You’re] great! [You’re] too much! [You’re] outstanding! [You’re] on to it! [You’re] the bomb!
– An idiom praising someone for his/her outstanding work.

Everyday use:
Denise: Man, I just cleaned up the worst mess in the public toilet!
Maatakiwi: auē, kei runga noa atu koe e hine! Far out that’s gross, but you’re really on to it Denise, awesome work!

me rawa ake

Meaning: Very soon, next minute

Everyday use:
Rochelle: Left my scooter outside the Dairy, mea rawa ake, someone stole it!

paia!

Meaning: Awesome

Everyday use:
Tania: Paia! Tūranga, the new central library opens on Friday 12th October, can’t wait!

āna

Meaning: (Interjection) yes, yes indeed, just so! Yes it is! Yeah, agreed
– a supportive response to a statement or question.

Everyday use:
Damien: Did you see the game on Saturday, man Joe Moody was on fire!
Kate: Āna! He was spectacular.

he raru kei te haere

Meaning: trouble is on the horizon / trouble is brewing
– an expression indicating a problem is about to occur.

Everyday use:
Alan: Oh heck, he raru kei te haere, look at Kim’s face.
Fiona: True! Might be a good time to go for a coffee.

me noa ake au!

Meaning: Just saying / my suggestion

Everyday use:
Julia: Bronwyn makes the best sausage rolls ever, me noa ake au!

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Throughout Te Wiki o te Reo Māori we’ll be blogging about ways you can help strengthen the reo.

In the library collection

Collated by Damien Taylor for Ngā Kaiāwhina 

Paraweta, Poo Bum, and stories in te reo

Like most kids my son enjoys stories before bedtime (which is just as well because his mum is a librarian and he was going to be getting them regardless).

Like a lot of Kiwi parents I do my best to add some te reo Māori into the mix where I can, but my own Māori language knowledge is a bit patchy in places – I’m a work in progress. So how to expose my 4 year old to some te reo, but also read a story so we’ll both understand it and enjoy the experience?

I’ve found that reading te reo Māori versions of books we already know really well in English has been a fun way to do it. It helps if it’s a book that you’ve read so many times, you’ve practically got it memorised. That way you can “read” the English language version (out loud from memory), and then read the te reo version from the page.

Our latest success with this method has been with Stephanie Blake’s Poo Bum aka Paraweta, which has just come out in te reo.

Mother and son read Poo bum and Paraweta together

I let my tamaiti hold the original version and turn the pages of that one, while I hold the Māori language version, and he yells out “Paraweta!” at the appropriate points in the story.

Here are some other te reo Māori versions of children’s classics we’ve enjoyed that you might like to try:

   

Or try something from our Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori modern classic picture books list

If you’re a te reo beginner then start with simple stories like The very hungry caterpillar, Where’s Spot or even Kei te pehea koe? / How do you feel? (which is in both English and Māori and is really easy to follow).

Or try stories in English that incorporate some te reo Māori words like The kuia and the spider (because it’s never to early to learn words like “hōha“), or Row, kiwi, row your boat, which you can sing together and includes simple Māori greetings (and a full te reo version for more confident speakers/singers).

Even if I trip up on a word here and there I’ve found that as long as I’m doing the silly voices and engaging with the story, my son is pretty happy to have a te reo Māori story at bedtime, in fact… Paraweta is his new favourite.

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Throughout Te Wiki o te Reo Māori we’ll be blogging about ways you can help strengthen the reo.

In the library collection

Mortification: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

There are few things I enjoy as much as a true tale of shame and embarrassment told by a gifted spinner of yarns. Even better if the story in question doesn’t have me as its protagonist, though this isn’t compulsory. In fact, many’s the time I’ve found myself in some ridiculous predicament only to think “ah well, at least this’ll make a good story”.

Such was the basis, I suspect, of Robin Robertson‘s 2003 anthology Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame, a book that grew out of his work in publishing that required him to travel the country talking with writers. He discovered both a rich vein of mortifying stories, and certain one-upmanship in storytelling (I have certainly experienced this myself, and the phrase “you think that’s bad…” is usually in the mix).

In this WORD Christchurch Festival session Robertson revived Mortification in a live format. It’s one thing writing an embarrassing anecdote down for publication – is it better or worse to have to read it in front of an audience? It’s hard to know if the writers involved are Robertson’s victims, or simply masochists but they all acquitted themselves with dignity… or at least as much as could reasonably be mustered. Which in the case of Jarrod Gilbert (whom we’ll get to later) wasn’t much.

Jarrod Gilbert, Megan Dunn, Steve Braunias, Paula Morris, and Robin Robertson, with Rachael King, Mortification
Jarrod Gilbert, Megan Dunn, Steve Braunias, Paula Morris, and Robin Robertson being introduced by Rachael King, Mortification, WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Saturday 1 September August 2018. File reference: 2018-09-01-IMG_1570

The session kicked off with a pre-recorded yarn from Irvine Welsh who, due to a family bereavement, was unable to attend in person. While I’m sure it would have been even more entertaining to hear Welsh tell his appalling tale of gastric misadventure and horrifying toilet facilities in person, I didn’t feel let down by his absence at all. Talking down the barrel of a cellphone camera, Welsh was devastatingly matter of fact in describing his attempts to “get away” with his unexpected befoulment, believing that he had done so… only to have his shame revealed by the unfortunate arrival of a group of pub-crawling Glaswegians. Welsh admitted that he is no stranger to public shame or the subsequent “crumbling down effect when your face collapses”, saying:

I’ve become really inured to the kind of embarrassment that really f***s up other people.

Apparently if you’re mortified often enough it sort of stops bothering you.

Paula Morris, respected writer and mainstay of the New Zealand literary scene, might beg to differ. She offered up, not a single, horrifying tale, but a thousand small humiliations instead, ranging from critical underwear failure at an operatic recital to childhood trauma via angry goat. Shorts that inexplicably opened during a speech. The shame of being at a signing table where noone wants your signature. Repeatedly being mistaken for poet Paula Green. And most significantly, her failed attempt at guiding a blind woman and her dog between London tube stations. It was a hard act to follow Welsh, but Morris can hold her head up high… in shame.

Steve Braunias told a clever and complex tale set during a period of unemployment, when his lodgings were less than salubrious. Braunias is a great storyteller – you don’t quite see the punchline coming, even as the clues of it are laid out carefully as he goes along, the slightly dopey loser persona he adopts adding to the comedic effect. The audience were in stitches. And yet… to me it felt very much like carefully crafted humorous story… that didn’t really happen. Which is fine as far as humorous stories go, but there’s something about the vulnerability of a true story, told by the person it happened to that is far more affecting. Being clever isn’t the point. Being shamefacedly honest is. Call me cynical, if you will, but I struggle to believe that Steve Braunias did, in fact, give Helen Clark fleas at a classical guitar concert.

On the other hand, I didn’t have any trouble believing that Megan Dunn (author of Tinderbox) attended a mermaid class in Florida, nor that she was not particularly gifted in the art of mermaiding. Synchronised swimmers aside, who would be? One of the reasons I believe this story is that Megan Dunn is currently writing a nonfiction book about mermaids (the pretend adult woman kind, not the mythical creature kind – no, I didn’t know there were different kinds either) and because if you’re going to invent a story that involves shimmying into a lycra mermaid “tail” it’s not going to be orange. Still, I felt like the actual mortification levels in this story were comparatively low because “failing to be sufficiently mermaidy” just isn’t that embarrassing. Fascinating, yes. A topic you’d rather didn’t come up round the Christmas dinner table? Not so much.

Finally, Dr. Jarrod Gilbert, award-winning author, University of Canterbury lecturer and, according to Braunias, “the thinking man’s drinking man” shared an inspiring* tale of bloody-minded determination vs good sense, reason and dignity (but who needs them anyway?). As is often the case with tales of humiliation it began with guys egging each other on – a friend simply said that Gilbert couldn’t run a marathon in 3.5 hours. So rather than let his friend be right about something, Gilbert endeavoured to do just that. What resulted was hallucinatory levels of physical and mental pain, and a impromptu bowel movement – Gilbert walking to the centre of the stage and adopting a crouching posture so as to paint a more vivid image in our minds (that wasn’t really necessary). This took place on the Sumner Causeway, or as Gilbert described it, “possibly the most exposed piece of geography on Earth”.

But there’s a happy ending! Gilbert achieved his marathon goal (thereby disproving his friend’s assertion) with less than 2 minutes to spare… admitting “it’s very difficult for me to describe just how little satisfaction that gave me”. It’s almost as if a person shouldn’t undertake a massively time-consuming and difficult task just to prove a point wasn’t in great need of being made.

Though saying that, it’s probably not in the spirit of the evening to try and extract a moral from any of these stories. Then again, “beware inopportune Glaswegians” does have a certain ring to it.

*Nope.

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Timey-wimey stuff: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Last year, as part of WORD Christchurch’s Autumn Season, James Gleick spoke on his wide-ranging cultural history of Time Travel. If you have any interest in, as Doctor Who puts it, “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff” it’s a great read.

This WORD Christchurch Festival session brought together American author, Ted Chiang (whose novella, The Story of Your Life, became the acclaimed film, Arrival) and kiwis Whiti Hereaka (author of YA novel Legacy), and Michael Bennett (author, with Ant Sang of graphic novel, Helen and the Go-go ninjas). What, I wondered, would the writers of such temporally transformative works have to say on the topic?

As it was, I was feeling a little like I’d slipped forward in time myself – I woke up that morning to discover that it was September already. How had that happened?

Ted Chiang, Whiti Hereaka and Michael Bennett. Image supplied.

In fact, the first question made reference to James Gleick’s aforementioned book – Ted Chiang disagreeing with Gleick’s assertion that The Time Machine by H. G. Wells represents the first example of a story featuring time travel, and that Wells is the originator of time travel in that sense. Rather, he feels that time travel tales are more a modern take on a prophecy story, a common tale since ancient times. The fact that story prophecies always came true was a reflection of the ancient world’s belief in fate. Your destiny lay ahead of you, and no matter what you might do to try and change it it would always find you. If there was a shift, Chiang believes, it was one away from believing in fate towards believing in free will.

This is something you can see in a story like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge, having travelled to a possible future, escapes his fate by changing his ways. He exerts free will and the course of his life is altered. By comparison, The Time Machine’s protagonist doesn’t engage with the possibilities of time travel at all, moving through time but not making any attempts to alter its course (which, now that I think about it, is kind of the point of time travel stories, by and large).

Michael Bennett and Whiti Hereaka both made comments as to the importance of prophecy in Māori culture. And Bennett pointed out that Māui himself fought time, slowing the sun to extend the length of our days.

When asked about the pervasiveness of the genre, Bennett reflected that we all understand “the unfairness of time” and deployed a rather splendid extended metaphor of the time as a river – we have not choice but to flow with the current, which at certain times in our lives seems too slow, though as we continue along we try to slow it down, looking for the eddies that might delay our arrival at our ultimate destination.

Chiang’s motivation for writing The story of your life was, through the character of Louise, exploring an aspect of human nature “the knowledge that in the future comes great joy and great sadness and coming to accept that both things lay ahead of her”.

Hereaka’s reason for writing a time travel story grew out of her desire to tell the stories of soldiers in the First World War’s Māori Contingent – she hadn’t previously been aware of this part of our history and wanted a way to share it, moreover she wanted to have those characters speak in their own voices, not via a modern one. Later on, in response to an audience question about creating voices from the past, she says that her theatre background helped but it also took some research, reading novels of the time, oral histories and where available listening to recordings.

She also had a really interesting perspective on the relationship between the writer and the reader saying:

I believe writing books is an act of manaakitanga – welcoming people into your world.

When asked about their favourite time travel stories Hereaka admitted that television was her go to – series like Life on Mars and Ashes to ashes as well as Doctor Who (Jon Pertwee was her Doctor but the imminent arrival of a female Doctor is something she’s really excited about). Bennett, somewhat unsettlingly, admitted to reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five at the tender age of ten, and it has remained a favourite. Chiang favoured the movie Back to the future which he says is “a Swiss clock of plotting” for which he has “immense affection”.

The craft of storytelling was highlighted by an audience question about the constraints that time travel places on the story. Bennett confirmed that not making it too hard for the reader to follow can be a concern. And Chiang pointed out that Time Travel as a device is “the universal acid that will dissolve any container you put it in” in terms of story. Suddenly your protagonist’s problems can be fixed by going back in time and doing it again. For that reason Time Travel stories usually have some “rules” or constraints applied to them to stop the easy fix from occurring. And no, these constraints may not hold up to close inspection – but you’re only looking to suspend disbelief for a time, to tell a story.

Hereaka was in agreement with Chiang on this saying:

That’s what stories are… It’s about solving problems and humans finding out what it is to be human.

When asked if they could time travel what they think they would do, Hereaka said that period dramas sometimes make her wish she could live in another era but she’d come to a realisation – “no, you wish you were rich”. So wherever she goes in time she wants to be well funded.

Chiang doesn’t think that “there’s any period in history that I would be better off in than right now” and that trying to change history at all is not a good idea as you can’t have any confidence that the changes you make would work out.

For fans of sci-fi and time travel fiction this session gave some interesting insights into what these kinds of stories can tell us about ourselves, and the challenges they pose to the storyteller. A session that I’m happy enough to have spent some forward travelling time in.

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Starry, starry night: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

It certainly was a rather star-studded affair on Friday night at the Isaac Theatre Royal for WORD Christchurch’s gala event. Everywhere a person turned there were famous faces about; Helen Clark striding past on the footpath out front, Michele A’Court queuing at the bar in the foyer, Georgina Beyer chatting in the row in front of me metres away from Ted Chiang in one direction and Juno Dawson in another. What fine company to be in of an evening.

Festival director Rachael King opened proceedings with a valiantly lengthy introduction in te reo Māori (with help, it turned out from Ngāi Tahu Māori language advocate and educator Hana O’Regan). She admitted that the programme she and her team and brought together was “unashamedly feminist” and challenging, exhorting the audience to “see one session a day that scares you”*.

From there MC John Campbell took the reins, confessing that he can be a difficult man to pin down, refusing as he does to reply to any kind of communications (phone calls, emails and the like), but that King is “as tenacious and unbowed as the city itself” and hence his appearance at this event.

I don’t know what John Campbell is like as a gift-giver (if his Christmas presents are rushed affairs or precisely wrapped and carefully considered) but his compliments… his compliments are like finely crafted jewels – cut and polished, thoroughly researched, and presented in a bespoke arrangement you’ll never have the like of again. Each writer, in their turn, was the recipient of John Campbell Compliments™ and I can’t imagine I’m the only one who felt jealous.

IMG_0168
John Campbell compliments the heck out of everybody, Starry, starry night. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018.Friday 31 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-31-IMG_0168

The usual pattern for these events is for each of seven writers to take seven minutes to read something or tell a story with the MC making introductions in between. But rather than disturb the flow like a “judderbar” in the evening, Campbell preferred to bring all the writers out in a line-up (like a literary beauty pageant), and introduce (and compliment) them in the beginning, making links and connections between them as he went on.

The overriding them between, he thought, was the shared struggle to be human. What I am and what I am not. The question we all ask.

First up was Ngāi Tahu storyteller Joseph Hullen who reflected on what it had been like growing up in Christchurch, and how his mother’s Ngāi Tahu whakapapa was barely visible in the city, with only a few places like Te Hepara Pai (Church of the Good Shepherd) on Ferry Road or Rehua Marae on Springfield Road that reflected any sense of a Māori presence or identity in the city. But things have changed and his hapu, Ngai Tuahūriri now have Matapopore, a organisation that is adding touches of his people’s identity into the fabric of Christchurch. The name of the new central library, Tūranga being a prime example of this, referencing as it does, the arrival place of Paikea the father of Ngāi Tahu’s eponymous ancestor, Tahu Pōtiki, and the knowledge he brought with him.

Scot, Robin Robertson took the stage next and brought a voice filled with menace and foreboding telling several dark tales in poem form, including one about a cat dying of cancer. His last piece, an invented Scots narrative about selkies, he dedicated to King, the author of Red Rocks, and children’s novel about the self-same mythic seal-creatures.

Robertson was followed by Yaba Badoe reading the opening chapter of her book A jigsaw of fire and stars. In it a baby is set adrift to escape a devastating event, bringing to mind mythic versions of the “floating foundling baby” like that of Moses, Maui, or even Superman.

Hollie McNish read some of her poetry and I found my eyes moistening as she spoke of her daughter in poems like “Wow”. The power of seeing a new, young person figuring out the world and their place in it conjures up powerful emotions for McNish, and secondhand, for me.

Wellingtonian novellist Rajorshi Chakraborti talked about the genesis of his book The man who would not see. It started out as what became “the book that could not be” – a nonfiction tale about the disappearance of his father’s sister. After hours and hours of research that led to a re-connection of estranged segments of his family it became apparent that publishing the book would damage that family connection. in the end, he says “the family member in me trumped the writer”. And so he repurposed and reshaped his research into a novel instead.

Whale-lover Philip Hoare read a couple of extracts from RisingTideFallingStar, stepping out from behind the podium and reading in a most kinetic way, gets his whole body into the reading, acting out certain actions and movements of the protagonist as he went. The language is sensuous and descriptive and you can nearly smell the salt air.

Finally Sonya Renee Taylor explains that there are two kinds of fear, fear of the unknown and fear of the dangerous. We should try not “the fog of the unknown” because there may well be nothing there to harm us. As the free-diver she met in the Bahamas, who dives down into the depths of the unknown, says “every metre is a tiny freedom”. Her poem about her mother’s belly made me cry again, but her “The body is not an apology” ends the night on a triumphant and defiant note.

Starry, starry night - Sonya Renee Taylor
Sonia Renee Taylor, WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Friday 31 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-31-IMG_0164

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*So that’ll be Robin Robertson in most cases. Terrifying.

You write funny!: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

What you really want from a session called “You write funny!” is for there to be writers and for them to be humorous. It’s pretty much right there in the title. You’re expecting to laugh a bit. And certainly this Friday night session at WORD Christcchurch Festival 2018 MCed by the affable Ray Shipley filled the bill.

The laughing, however, was expedited by Shipley’s careful, “kindly primary school teacher” style coaching, leading the audience through some “little titters” to start with, and eventually even, some good, old-fashioned cackling. “All laughs,” we were told “are valid and important“.

So that was a good place to start from.

The line-up of reading authors was largely unfamiliar to me but the feelings of amusement and genuine laughter (did the coaching and practice beforehand make for a better quality of chuckle?) weren’t. This is what funny sounds like.

First up was Erik Kennedy (author of poetry collection There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime) who read three poems all with a wry serve of humour, “You cannot teach creative writing”, “Get a pet with a longer live span than humans have”, and in between, a strange take on Christmas heavily influenced by the content of spam emails. I can’t really explain this poem except to say that it was simultaneously more AND less weird than it sounds.

Megan Dunn’s face. Image supplied.

Megan Dunn read excerpts from her book Tinderbox, about her time working at a Borders bookstore. Much of the time Dunn read with a sly, knowing smirk on her face… that was fully justified. Her tales of retail reminded me more than a little of my experiences working in libraries as well as the self-confessional style of David Sedaris, in particular the essay Santaland Diaries about his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s Department store.

It eventuates that I find both David Sedaris and Megan Dunn hilarious.

Dunn was followed by poet Chris Tse (author of poetry collection He’s so MASC) and his poem, Wasted, was a hit with the audience. Wasted is a treatise on the sort of men who don’t get drinks thrown in their faces nearly as often as they deserve. Though he admits there are few workable alternatives,

Only a monster would throw a bowl of chips in this economy.

Lastly Annaleese Jochems took the stage reading, from her book Baby, an exquisitely awkward scene of backyard fitness instruction that made me feel more squirmy than amused, but many people in the audience let loose their best cackles in response, so I might have been alone in that.

All in all, You write funny! gave my laughing muscles a good, solid workout.

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New Regent Street Pop-up Festival: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

The New Regent Street Pop-up Festival is like the whole of WORD Christchurch distilled into an hour and twenty minutes, and if that sounds intense well, yes, that would be an accurate assessment.

In some ways it’s like trying to pick something off a menu – how do you know what you’ll like the best? What if you choose and don’t enjoy your choice? And just to extend the dining out metaphor, the pop-up festival offers three “sets” of readings in much the same manner as restaurant courses, allowing you to mix and match.

For my pop-up dinner I chose the following:

Entrée: Gory Bits at Crate Escape

Main: Science Fiction Triple Feature at Rollickin’ Gelato

Dessert: FIKA and Friends at Fiksate Gallery

So how did I do choosing a great meal?

Entrée

Robin Robertson reads at Gory Bits
Robin Robertson about to make everyone feel uneasy. Crate Escape. New Regent Street Pop Up Festival. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0109

Meaty, blood-soaked and best served cold, this was a very enjoyable way to start. True, it’s rather a full-bodied choice for an entree, but if you’re going to have tales of death and fear read to you in the confines of a strange, wooden Antarctic hut fashioned from a shipping container you may as well do it early so it’s still daylight when you leave.

WORD Christchurch Festival director, Rachael King read a suitably gothic, Wuthering Heights inspired passage from her book Magpie Hall, and Brindi Joy’s flash fiction story of the dead that don’t necessarily stay buried had a pleasing rhythm and exotic (for Christchurch) US locale.

But certainly the standout of this “course” was Robin Robertson‘s readings of gruesome death and murder, his voice dragging on certain words, and fairly growling others – at one point his hands held out in the pose of a man strangling his beloved and… well, lovely man though I’m sure he is, should I bump into him in a dark alley while he’s here in Christchurch I’ll probably squeal and run the other way, so affecting was his performance. And I fancied as I left, to the screams of children playing at the Margaret Mahy Playground across the road, that they might not all be squeals of delight…

Mains

After that kind of darkness what you need is something different, distracting and refreshing. Science Fiction Triple Feature offered a trio of writers of different flavours reading stories and excerpts.

A. J. Fitzwater, a local writer of Spec-Fic (Speculative Fiction) opened with a really interesting take on post-apocalyptic tales, telling the story of a trans vlogger and traveller making their way across Europe in the wake of some catastrophic outbreak. They are on the hunt for… tampons. Which is an amusing twist on the usual dystopian scavenging one usually expects from tales like this, and one that I have always wondered about myself. Sure, the characters in The Walking Dead always look sufficiently unwashed and grimey… but they still seem to be able to find their colour of hair dye and everyone’s top lip is still getting waxed so how post-apocalyptic is it really? Yes, I do have tampons in my emergency kit, and yes, so should you.

Another local sci-fi/fantasy writer, Karen Healey then took the mic (in a Thor-themed dress that I am most covetous of) and read from her version of Beauty and the Beast in which Beauty’s quest involves dark, spooky creatures who have possessed her beloved father, a malady that only a strapping magical beast might be able to cure. And American author Ted Chiang read a strange and perplexing story of science used to support fiction – a comment on the nature of faith and truth, perhaps.

Ted Chiang - Science Fiction Triple Feature
Ted Chiang with A. J Fitzwater and Karen Healey. New Regent Street Pop-up Festival. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0119

Dessert

A small sorbet of something completely different was on offer at Fiksate Gallery (a place that I would very much like to go back to) in the form of touching, poignant poetry. Personal tales of a loved one’s dementia, or legendary tales of some guy called “Maui”. Short and bittersweet. The perfect ending course to this pop-up adventure.

New Regent Street Pop Up Festival
New Regent Street Pop Up Festival, WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0096

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125 Years – Are We There Yet?: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Are we there yet? 125 years on from the historic law change that granted New Zealand women the right to vote, an impressive line-up of women gathered in a WORD Christchurch panel at The Piano to discuss this question. Georgina Beyer, Dame Anne Salmond, Sacha McMeeking, Lizzie Marvelly, and Paula Penfold were chaired by the indomitable Kim Hill.

Things kicked off  in an unexpectedly musical fashion with sparkles and a ukulele as Gemma Gracewood and Megan Salole of the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra led in with a waiata, the workers’ anthem “Bread and roses”, even managing to get the crowd chiming in with a refrain at the end, Gracewood quipping that “it’s in Kim Hill’s contract to be introduced like this at every event she does”, which is most certainly a lie but it’s nice to pretend it’s not.

In panel discussions it can sometimes be a challenge to make sure that each person gets space to share their thoughts though for this event each panellist got their own turn at the podium. Unsurprisingly all of them answered in the negative but were good enough to elaborate on why, and to speculate on how we could, indeed, get there.

125 Years: Are we there yet? WORD Christchurch Festival 2018
Dame Anne Salmond, Georgina Beyer, Paula Penfold, Sacha McMeeking, Lizzie Marvelly, and Kim Hill. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0132

Dame Anne Salmond bemoaned the “experiment” that’s seen public services turned into businesses and the damage it’s done to our communities. “What price work,” she asked “if you have to trade away some of your desires and dreams? What price a thriving economy if we’ve got children dying of Third World diseases?”. Change, she felt,  must be a shared task.

She also queried why, as someone who has an academic background in New Zealand history, and the Treaty she is always being asked by journalists about comments made by Don Brash, someone who has never deigned to study these topics. “Why am I still hearing the same voices?” she wondered.

Georgina Beyer remembered and paid tribute to Sonia Davies, the “lovely little piece of firework” who talked her into joining and running for the Labour Party. Davies’ autobiography (later turned into a movie) took it’s name from the waiata that opened the session.

Beyer outlined the slow, but building momentum leading on from 1893, pointing out that it took many years before a woman was elected into parliament (Lytteltonian MP, Elizabeth McCombs in 1933) but that change has been more rapid in the last few decades. Though parliament is still much more balanced in its distribution of power than the boardroom is.

She acknowledged that in some corners of feminism there was a pushing back against transgender activism, that some felt perhaps that all the work and achievements up to this point were being “ridden on the coattails by this ‘transgender lot’.” But she felt that this division wasn’t helpful and that we need to move forward together.

Although initially reticent to offend – egged on by a throaty “Oh, go ON!” by Kim Hill – Beyer confessed that she felt religious dogma had a lot to answer for, citing Brian Tamaki’s “Man up” campaign as just another way of saying “women, go back to the kitchen”, expressing outrage at Gloriavale as “detrimental” to both men and women, and that “conversion therapy is a breach of human rights”.

Journalist Paula Penfold, who is involved with Stuff’s #MeTooNZ campaign, used her time at the podium to present a “listicle” of good news/bad news facts including such sobering statements as “New Zealand has the worst rate of family and intimate partner violence in the world”, an estimated 80% of which is unreported. That the gender gap is closing… but her mother probably won’t live to see it. But she was hopeful, watching her teenage children engage with these issues, that the “young people are seeing a way forward with this”. Which was something of a life-raft in a sea of not great news, which I’m sure was her intention.

Sacha McMeeking, though thwarted initially by screeching feedback, had the audience in the palm of her hand as she gently and wittily guided us through the complicated topic of how you effect social change, noting that we often try to do this from a very top level way, via laws, or on an individual level but that we need to focus on the part in the middle where we collectively create new social habits. She used the metaphor of desire paths, those well-trodden dirt path “shortcuts” that show where people have chosen to diverge from a paved walkway, the implication being that it’s a repeated wearing down by many feet on many trips that can leave a trail for others to follow.

“Society,” she said “is inherently conservative. The status quo is given every possibility to replicate”. It’s about consciously looking, then, for ways to subvert this. Looking for places to blaze (or just wear down, slowly over time) a different trail. And what was this audience, if not a core of people who might help do that? This was about as uplifting as the evening got, and as such, received the largest round of applause.

Musician and columnist Lizzie Marvelly was at her most compelling when describing the culture shock she felt when, after being raised in a family that valued gender equality and attending the female-centric Rotorua Girls High, she changed schools and became one of a minority of female pupils at Kings College in Auckland. Being rated out of ten for attractiveness by boys via the unexpected medium of vegemite-smeared pieces of toast, or having chants of “get back in the kitchen” called out to girls on the sportsfield. And of course, the sad realisation that she was not allowed to be head prefect because that was a title reserved for boys only.

When questioned by Hill on whether exerting the right to make choices is, in and of itself feminist, Marvelly had this to say:

The fact that we have choices is a feminist victory but that doesn’t mean that every choice you make is a feminist one.

For her, unless the choice you’re making in is in support of gender equality then it’s not a feminist one. I’ve never heard this stated so simply, and it makes complete sense to me, though I imagine, as with most things, the devil is in the details/interpretation.

During question time, the questions were, well, largely musings masquerading as questions. Interesting issues were raised, certainly, but it was hard for most of the panellists to grasp onto an answer when questions were somewhat fuzzy. The exception being Georgina Beyer’s recollection of the pack-rape she suffered as a young woman in Sydney – it was devastating in content, sure, but also in her matter of factness about it. And it exposed the flaw in the questioner’s definition of women as “people with vaginas”, introduced as it was with the wryly delivered, “prior to my having a vagina…”

It was a very sobering and downbeat story to end the evening on, but it was also a session that went significantly over time. And I suspect many of the people in the audience did as I did and talked over the issues with their companion on the journey home.

Are we there yet? No, but not for want of trying.

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Te Wiki o te Reo Māori – Māori Language Week 2018

This year Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week) is on from 10 to 16 Mahuru (September).

The theme for this year’s Māori Language Week is –

Kia kaha te reo Māori – Let’s make the Māori language strong

Join in with Ngā Kete Wānanga o Ōtautahi (Christchurch City Libraries) and our efforts to strengthen te reo Māori.

Te Wiki o te Reo Māori events at the library

We’ll be celebrating Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori with a range of events taking place during te wiki.

For kids/whānau

During te wiki our normal Wā Kōrero (Storytime) sessions for preschoolers will have added stories and songs in te reo Māori.

We’ll be having a couple of Ngā Pakiwaitara (bilingual storytimes) sessions with even more te reo, delivered by Whaea Rochelle from our Ngā Ratonga Māori team.

And our wharewhare (housie) event at Linwood Library, 3.30-4.30pm Thursday 13 September is perfect for the whole whānau to join in with.

Whaea Rochelle is the star of bilingual storytimes during Te Wiki o te Reo Māori

Kapa haka

If you enjoy some waiata (and why wouldn’t you?) head along to one of the kapa haka performances by local tamariki that we’ll be hosting during the week.

Court Theatre in the Shelves

As part of New Zealand Theatre Month, during September actors from the Court Theatre will read extracts from their favourite Kiwi plays – including a very special Māori Language Week performance which will take place on Thursday, 13 September at Upper Riccarton Library at 10.30am, and at South Library at 3.30pm.

After their readings, the performers will tell you why they’re drawn to the piece they perform, what it is to be a theatre practitioner in this country and answer any questions you might have. So, come along to see the best Kiwi theatre amongst the shelves at your local library.

Te Reo Māori at the library

Adding te reo Māori to your library experience can be as straightforward as the tap of a screen – why not simply try out the reo Māori option on our māu e tuku (self issue) machines?

Using māu e tuku/self issue
There are a variety of language options on our self-issue machines including Te Reo Māori.

Or learn a new kupu (word) by reading our bilingual library signs or even just learn to say the Māori name of your local library.

Practise your reo at a library café

Order your drink of choice in te reo Māori at any of the cafés in our libraries (South, Upper Riccarton and Te Hāpua: Halswell Centre) or at The Kitchen café on the first floor of the Christchurch City Council building on Hereford Street and from 10-16 September you’ll get an extra sweet treat to go with your drink. Need help with how to place your cafe order in te reo? Te Taura Whiri o Te Reo Māori (The Māori Language Commission) has produced this fantastic guide to awhi you.

Find Te Reo Māori resources at the library

Cover of Māori at home

There are many resources available for anyone wanting to strengthen their te reo Māori knowledge, for both adults and children.

In our catalogue

We’ve also made lists of modern classic picture books in Te Reo Māori and Māori stories for older children.

Some other places you might like to try include:

If you know of other resources, events or initiatives in Ōtautahi to help people celebrate Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, please feel free to let us know about them in the comments below.