Matariki – the Māori New Year – will take place on Pipiri 6 June 2016. During Matariki we celebrate our unique place in the world. We give respect to the whenua on which we live, and admiration to our mother earth, Papatūānuku.
Our theme for Matariki 2016 is Akoranga: Teaching and learning – Te Kete Aronui: Third kete of knowledge.
Matariki Festival at Te Hāpua: Halswell Centre – Saturday 11 June
Don’t miss this free, family fun day! Storytelling, Science Alive Star Dome, arts, crafts, 3D printing, virtual reality, kapa haka and more! Find out more.
I am concerned, as I enter the main auditorium at the Aotea Centre, on the last day of the Auckland Writers Festival, that I may not have the brain power left to fully appreciate a session on Gravitational Waves. It’s been a long festival and I think I may have already overstuffed my brain with Big Ideas and Deep Thoughts.
As a yawn escapes, I’m expecting the worst.
Fortunately Janna Levin is a brilliant and engaging communicator. I needn’t have worried. I’m able to follow the concept of waves in gravity, caused by the distant collision of black holes… quite well, actually. She throws a couple of oranges around, as a way of demonstrating how gravity curves spacetime (without gravity, the trajectory of a thrown orange would be a straight line), and this unexpected kineticism helps cement the idea.
Basically she’s explaining the science and significance of the big scientific announcement we all remember from February of this year but which most of us are a bit unclear about, in terms of what it all means. Thanks to Professor Levin, I understand a lot more about this.
The actual working behind all these ideas requires the kind of maths that most of us find bewildering – fortunately we have people like Janna Levin to do all that complicated numbers stuff and happily almost none of that makes it into her presentation. Instead she peppers her talk with a range of pop culture references (Third Rock from the Sun, Alien, Doctor Who).
In particular, This OK GO music video, filmed in a single take on a gravity defying “vomit comet” as she calls it, shows us what gravity actually is – namely falling. Falling towards a mass, in our case, the Earth (which is itself falling through space in an orbit around the sun). Most of us think about gravity in the wrong way, as the landing.
Though the music video above could make you believe otherwise, gravity is actually quite a weak phenomenon (compared to light, for instance) and therefore difficult to detect. We feel its effects here on Earth, of course, but if a gravitational wave originating in a far off galaxy were to pass through you now, would you even notice?
The answer is it has and you didn’t. But luckily scientists have been trying to record such an event for a while now and on September 14, 2015 at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (09:51 UTC) two installations called Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO), one in Louisiana, the other in Washington State, recorded gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes that happened 1.3 billion years ago.
How? Well, they do it with mirrors…and a laser inside a 4km long concrete vacuum.
Imagine two ships bobbing on a calm ocean with a taut rope between them. Should a wave come along you’d be able to detect a change in the relative positions of the boats because of the movement of the rope. In this case, the boats are mirrors and the rope is a laser, and there’s two of these pairs stationed 3000km apart in America. And I’m sure it’s a lot more technical than that (and involves a lot of maths) but that’s the basic idea of how you detect gravitational waves. The sound of these gravitational waves is within an audible range. If they weren’t so very weak and quiet, you’d be able to hear them.
After months of checking and re-checking the maths, they made their announcement on what they’d found earlier this year.
Questions at the end of the session wondered about the possibility of multiple universes – most scientists working in this area seem to think this is likely – and one older gentleman went well out of scientific realms and into spurious sociology remarking that Levin was “a very attractive woman” and was therefore surprised that she’d be interested in science and maths since, in his opinion, those two things didn’t go together very often.
At this point you could actually feel the rest of the audience cringing and trying to collapse in on itself, like so many black holes.
Fortunately Levin had a fantastic answer for this which she communicated in a straightforward manner – if society tells women that their purpose is to be attractive, and you’ve already achieved that then why would you do anything else? But that’s not what it was like at her house.
A complex idea, communicated simply. Just like the rest of her lecture.
Whatever your political leanings or beliefs about feminism, there is no denying that Gloria Steinem’s life has been an extraordinary one.
At the Auckland Writers Festival recently she discussed her beliefs, hopes for the future, and life’s journey as encompassed in her memoir My life on the road.
The audience was full of feminists of all ages. Teenagers to grandmothers, gathered to hear what she had to say. And as it turned out, to talk to each other about it afterwards. By far, of the all the sessions I attended at this year’s festival, this was the one that had the most noticeable sense of community about it, even as disagreements occured – but more on that later.
I arrived early, and was treated to an unexpected glimpse of the woman herself – off to the side in a roped off area in the balcony concourse of Aotea Centre – Gloria Steinem was addressing a small crowd in some kind of reception hosted by the US Embassy.
Later when she walked out on stage to sit down with Nick Barley, The director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, there were a higher than average number of “whoops” from the crowd, which led me to wonder if the Americans in the audience might be responsible, and sure enough, Steinem herself confirmed that the mayor of Los Angeles was in attendance.
Given the incredible life that Steinem has had, it’s difficult to recap that here and this session, even with it running slightly over time, was never going to be long enough.
But here are just a few things that stood out for me the most –
Steinem reading out the dedication from her book which is to the English doctor who provided her with an abortion when she was 22 years old, had just broken off her engagement, and was en route to India. It was illegal at the time and the doctor made her swear to secrecy. This is not a topic that women often discuss this openly and plainly and for that reason alone it made an impression.
Her discovery in India of “talking circles” and the realisation that the ability to talk about terrible experiences is transformative.
All movements start this way, with consciousness raising groups – now we call them book clubs…
Her mild (I can’t believe it’s only mild) annoyance that, in her eighties, she’s still described by people as an ex-bunny because of the 1963 exposé she wrote on conditions for the women working at the Playboy Clubs. She was a journalist and went undercover for a time as a bunny in order to reveal shocking practices like telling women that they were required to undergo an gynaecological exam in order to serve liquor in New York State.
At my advanced age people still introduce me as an ex-bunny. It has been a blight in some ways… People say “What does she know? She was a bunny”.
Her thoughts regarding feminism and the trans community.
Anything that blows up the gender binary is a good thing… It’s fundamentally the right thing because it’s dispensing with false categories.
On the younger generation of feminists, and the concerns that some mothers have that their daughters aren’t sufficiently well educated about feminism.
Women say to me with some alarm, “my daughter doesn’t know who you are!”
But does she know who she is? Because that’s the whole point.
As you would expect there were some really challenging questions from the audience covering topics as broad as decriminalising prostitution, if feminism is supportive enough of women in non-Western countries with different cultural norms, how to promote feminism at your high school (answer: find something that’s sexist and unfair and fight to fix it) and abortion law in New Zealand (over which there was some confusion and disagreement in the audience, but is, as one woman asserted, covered by the Crimes Act 1961.) One woman read out a question which she had rather appropriately written on the back of her birth control prescription!
But probably the best part was that Steinem threw the mic open, not just to questions, but to women wanting to make announcements for upcoming events and “troublemaking meetings”. She also encouraged everyone, as they left, to talk to two or three other people and to try and make connections. Because, I suppose, this is how movements that aren’t just book clubs happen.
No doubt there was a lot of talking and making of connections in the book-signing queue after the session as it was so long it nearly made it out the door and into Aotea Square. An hour later Steinem was still signing.
Michel Faber’s novels defy easy categorisation. He has written in genres as varied as historical fiction (his novel The crimson petal and the white, is set in Victorian London), horror, and science fiction.
Born in the Netherlands, Faber’s family moved to Australia when he was 7 years old, and he describes himself as something of an outsider, an alien, an outlier. He now lives in Scotland, which for a migraine sufferer, has a much more overcast and hospitable environment.
When he sat down to talk at the Auckland Writers Festival with Kiwi writer Paula Morris about his work (and life), I was woefully unprepared for how raw and heartbreaking the conversation would become.
This unexpected poignancy was largely due to his discussion of the loss of his wife Eva, who died in 2014 from cancer. Her diagnosis was made while he was writing his latest (and what he claims will be his last) novel, The book of strange new things, and he admitted that her illness had an affect on how the book developed. The novel has a dystopian, futuristic setting, with a pastor sent to a far-off planet to minister to the indigenous population there. He is separated from his wife and themes of love and loss permeate the tale.
Although the setting is sci-fi one, this Faber says, is just “the furniture”, and to some degree is there for the entertainment aspect. At its heart the story is about human beings, faith and love. Though he lost his faith himself when he was 11, he still feels that religion has a purpose for being and he’s interested in what it gives to people.
Religion is intrinsically ridiculous but there is a reason that people have needed it.
Regarding the adaptations of his books for the screen, he was very happy with The Crimson Petal and the White, and on such good terms with the star Romola Garai that he stayed at her house at one point when they needed to be in London for treatment for Eva. He’s even happier with the film version of Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson.
His feeling regarding literary fiction is that it should be interesting and entertaining as well and that’s what he tries to achieve with this books. There’s a risk, he says, that literary authors will write for the entertainment of other literary authors thus forcing ordinary readers towards entertaining but not very good fiction, that doesn’t give them anything of depth.
He doesn’t want people to regret, after several hundred pages, reading his books – “how pointless is that?”
There is actually nothing worse than a really dull work of literary fiction.
Shortly after the session started, a member of staff appeared carrying a pair of red women’s ankle boots. They were placed next to Faber’s chair, he uttered a quick thank you and carried on with what he was saying. Later on as Paula Morris asked him about what Faber would be working on in the future, since no more novels were in the pipeline, he talked about the projects that involved his wife and explained the mystery of the red boots.
His next projects will be working on Eva’s unfinished short stories as well as writing a biography of her life, not for publication, but for the family. As for the boots, he was taking them to parts of the world to which she had never gone and taking pictures of them in contexts in which he thought she’d be happy…
Then he read several poems from a new book called “Undying” (due out in July) which deals with Eva’s illness, her death, and the grieving process. And this was when everyone started crying. In particular, the poem “You were ugly” which describes the physical changes to Eva’s appearance in illness is brutally honest and heartbreaking with its revelation that after death those changes are forgotten, that her beauty returns. Even Paula Morris was seen to be dabbing her eyes after that one.
Michael Grant is the author of some 150+ books, including the very popular young adult Gone series. He also co-wrote the Animorphs books with his wife, Katherine Applegate.
At the Auckland Writers Festival last week he sat down with Kiwi young adult author Jane Higgins to discuss his books, how he comes up with his ideas, and his approach to writing. He spoke with a good deal of humour, to an audience that was a little younger than most at the festival, and had an easy, affable manner (and dimples, which I am rather fond of on a person).
His latest book, Front Lines, the first in a trilogy, is set during WWII but with one key fact changed – a US Supreme Court decision means that women may be drafted to fight in the war.
In some ways a war setting is one that suits Grant well as he was raised in a military family with a dad who was a “lifer”. Despite this background, he has no love of guns, having misfired one in his youth, which left him having to explain to the downstairs neighbour why there was suddenly a hole in his ceiling. He’s sworn off having a gun in the house ever since. These days his only interaction with firearms are for research – viewing WWII training films on YouTube, for instance.
Research for books also forms the foundation of his holiday plans – his upcoming trip to Europe might not be what the younger members of the family were hoping for when he announced – “Kids, we’re going to Buchenwald*!”
He has a strong interest in history which he described as “the backstory of the human race” and he compared trying to view current events without this as akin to watching the most recent Marvel movie and not understanding why Iron Man and Captain America are fighting. You need the backstory of these characters to understand their motivations.
Grant admits to being a horrible workaholic, typically writing two books a year, and he becomes agitated and irritated when he’s not working – to the extent that he felt a little out of sorts taking a few days off to be part of a literary festival.
This compulsion probably explains his attitude towards the notion of “writers’ block” –
Writers’ block is self-pitying nonsense for lazy writers… If you just keep going, you tend, in the end, to get somewhere.
When the discussion turned towards the Gone series, a young man in the row in front of me did a double fist pump, which gives you an idea of how popular those books have been.
When asked about his inspirations for the series which features a world suddenly without adults and which the survivors live under a dome, Grant is keen to point out that he wrote the first book before Stephen King’s “Under the dome” came out (so no, he wasn’t copying that idea). Rather the inspiration for the books came from the TV show Lost, and Robinson Crusoe, both of which he believes to be riffs on the biblical tale of the expulsion of humanity from the Garden of Eden.
Fans of the Gone series may be interested to know that he is planning, not a sequel exactly, but another novel set four years down the track in the same universe, in which some old characters may appear.
As a writer of fiction for young adults, he does his best to keep the language clean, but not for the reasons you might think. He doesn’t have a problem with swearing, and doesn’t think young people doing it is something to be concerned about, rather the lack of bad language in his books is for the benefit of… librarians.
Grant likes librarians (in a former life he was a law librarian), and doesn’t want them to get “wrath of God” grief (presumably from parents and school boards?) for stocking his books in their libraries.
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Good morning, Charlie (and also people not named Charlie)!
This week the Auckland Writers Festival 2016 begins (10-15 May) and again Christchurch City Libraries is sending a crack team of librarians up to the Big Smoke to absorb, experience and share the excitement of being in the midst of great writers of all kinds.
Myself, Masha and Roberta will be your festival “angels” blogging, tweeting, snapping and interviewing our way through the fest beginning on Thursday 12 May and wrapping up on Sunday 15 May. So keep an eye here on the blog or the #awf16 hashtag if you want to stay updated on the festival comings and goings.
There are some extraordinary writers taking part in the festival this year from 81 year-old feminist legend, Gloria Steinem to Man Booker prize winner Marlon James and literary darling Hanya Yanagihara. For fans of smash bestseller (and soon to be released movie) The Girl on The Train, the presence of author Paula Hawkins is sure to raise some interest. Not to mention there being a raft of talented local writers of all stripes attending.
What we’re looking forward to at Auckland Writers Festival 2016
Masha, Roberta and I share our picks for what’s good at this year’s event.
The author I am most looking forward to seeing is Liz Pichon, the creator of the amusing and very likeable character Tom Gates. Not only does Liz write every page of Tom’s story by hand, she also draws them – doodling is as important part of her narative as is writing. Hopefully she will teach Auckland’s audience how to doodle and eat caramel wafers at the same time. Very important for future pacifists!
Liz is not the only super-all-in-one-author at the festival. Edward Carey also illustrates his own stories, though his ones are much more darker, eccentric and peculiar. His award-winning young adult Iremonger trilogy has been praised highly by many writers for its truly innovative and unusual imagination.
The rest of the authors that I’m going to see at the festival are all ramblers on the dark side (but another kind of dark): John Boyne with his World War II inspired young adult novels (The boy in the striped pyjamas, The boy at the top of the mountain), this years Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James with A brief history of seven killings (so dark I stopped reading after the first few chapters) and Paula Hawkins with last year’s domestic thriller hit The girl on the train. But please, do not fear! The vibe at the Aotea centre is so uplifiting, I can already see myself floating through the festival days with a big grin on my face, unwrapping each chocolate like it’s the last one!
I adored The Goodies when I was kid so I would be lying if I said being in the presence of one Mr Bill Oddie isn’t looking like being a highlight for me. As well known for his conservation work and bird-watching as he is for his comedy (and music), it will be interesting to hear what he has to say.
As a science enthuisiast I’m also really looking forward to a session by Janna Levin. She is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University and has the inside word on all that recent hub-bub about the discovery of gravitational waves resulting from black holes crashing into one another. I expect her Gravitational Sensations session will be heady stuff. I hope I understand some of it!
Levin also features in my other top pick for the festival, The State of America, a session that couldn’t be any more timely, what with the eyes of the world turning towards the US presidential race – and widening at what they see there. Levin, with legendary feminist writer Gloria Steinem (I was gutted to miss out on tickets to her solo session but at least I can get to this one) and historical novelist, essayist and critic Thomas Mallon are set to discus and unpack their homeland (chaired by Guyon Espiner). I’m secretly hoping it’s equal parts brainy and scathing.
Best I give you three short quotes to whet your appetite:
Jane Smiley on how we love our children in different ways: “Who you are shapes how you are loved”. “You didn’t love us equally” said Debbie. “We loved you individually” answered her father. (Early Warning)
These sentiments seem true to me. I have lived these things: the creative crises, the sibling rivalry and the bonds of best friends. And yet I could not have explained them better – or even half as well. So, Auckland here I come, ready to have my eyes opened, my brain prodded and my heart filled. Ready to be amazed.
Indeed. We’re all ready to be amazed. Please do come along and be amazed with us.
Observations from the 2016 New Zealand Festival Writers Week
Every person I sat beside had a fit bit thingy instead of a watch.
Science sells – by far the biggest attendance at any of the sessions I went to was at Adam Rutherford (no relation). The person I sat beside there went to sleep immediately and stayed that way for the entire hour. Perhaps her fit bit was able to tell her if it was REM sleep or not.
Some sessions featured Sleater-Kinney T-shirts and Lea DeLaria haircuts, most did not.
Things some of the writers love
Ted Dawe loves librarians – “they are my heroes”. He was reading A Little Life and he couldn’t put it down. On the strength of this recommendation I bought it at Wellington Airport and now I can’t put it down but sometimes I can’t hold it either, due to sobbing.
Friday 25 March is Good Friday (note: not Easter Friday, I’m a stickler about that one). In New Zealand both the Friday (Good Friday) and the Monday of Easter are statutory public holidays, so libraries will be closed. But Saturday and Sunday aren’t public hols – libraries will be open their normal hours, except Linwood Library at Eastgate which will be closed on Easter Sunday.
Friday 25 March
Saturday 26 March
Open normal hours
Sunday 27 March
Open normal hours (except Linwood Library at Eastgate – closed)
Last March, I went to the University of Canterbury for a panel on How to be a feminist and a session live from the Sydney Opera House. It was brilliant! Just before International Women’s Day, the Sydney Opera House brings you All about women. There was going to be a live simulcast shown at University of Canterbury, but unfortunately this has been cancelled. Hopefully the session will be recorded, as last year’s was.
If you could change the world overnight, what would you do first? What needs to change? We ask our panel to tell us what crucial levers they would pull if they had the power to change things overnight.