The thing I really enjoy about comedy podcast, The Nerd Degree, is that though there’s generally a theme running through the episodes, you really never know what you’re going to get. And neither do the panelists, for the most part. But a safe bet is that there’ll be amazing facts, nerdy knowledge and plenty of laughs.
If you’ve never experienced The Nerd Degree either in person, or in podcast, then the best way to describe it is as a local comedy quiz show for nerds of all stripes (there are many varieties). It’s QI meets the MCU (or MMORPG or… LARP) . There are two teams, the host asks the questions, and points are distributed in a rather haphazard fashion.
The nerds at last month’s very special episode at WORD Christchurch were local YA author Karen Healey and Jolisa “Tell you what” Gracewood competing as team Comparatively Literate with scary movie specialist Dr. Erin Harrington and Ngāi Tahu writer and artist Nic Low as Essentially Illiterate. With Brendon Bennetts in charge of time-keeping and correct answers.
The theme of the episode was “adventure” and we sure were taken on a journey. It’s hard to talk about the content of the episode without spoiling it though I can say that Nic Low is a man who has an amazing story about seemingly everything (if he ever writes a memoir it will be a must-read), that Karen Healey has missed her calling as a writer for Macgyver and that apparently armadillo tastes a bit like duck.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
During the chaos of dashing between WORD sessions, writer and co-editor Laurence Fearnley kindly agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about her new anthology To the Mountains and other works.
What brought you to writing about mountaineering?
My parents used to do a lot of climbing in Scotland and Wales after the war [before moving to Christchurch]. We spent a lot of weekends tramping — dad went on a couple of expeditions to the Himalayas, my brother was a keen climber… When I was doing research for my novel The Hut Builder I read a lot of Alpine Club articles and ended up with boxes and boxes of material, so I thought it would be quite nice to do something with that. There hadn’t been an anthology of mountain writing since Ray Knox’s A Thousand Mountains Shining in the 80s, so it seemed a good time. I hadn’t really kept up to date with modern mountaineering writing but [co-editor] Paul Hersey edited the Alpine Journal and is a climber, so he had that sort of knowledge.
You researched a lot in the Hocken Collection. What was that like?
They have full archives from the Alpine Club, which was established in 1891. It’s interesting because they allowed women to join as members right from the start, compared to others like the Canterbury Mountaineering Club which didn’t allow women in until the 1980s. I got material from those archives and also from notebooks, journals, and letters that individuals have donated to the collection. It’s an amazing archival record, it’s incredible. It does taper off from the 1970s/80s onwards so it would be great if people continued to donate to the collection, if this could be our central repository of mountain writing.
A lot of voices chosen for this anthology aren’t those most people would associate with alpine writing — usually we only hear from those at the cutting edge of mountaineering.
That’s the sad thing because that’s how you get the same old voices coming through, if they’re not disrupted by allowing different voices. Mountains are a big part of our sporting identity, it would be nice if it was seen as something families do, not just rugged individuals. There are so many reasons why people go into the mountains — photography, art, for somewhere quiet and restful, to admire the beauty… The public perception of conquest [of the Alps] doesn’t really hold true, it’s not necessarily a motivation for most people.
At the same time a lot of the 1930s Canterbury Mountaineering Club articles are of trips in the Port Hills because it was difficult to get good transport to the Alps — they might only be able to get into the mountains once or twice a year but they were very fit. It was a class orientated sport, particularly in the early days. It’s interesting when the boundaries start breaking down between the upper middle class mountaineers and the working class mountain guides. Guides weren’t allowed in the Alpine Club because they were professionals.
Which doesn’t give credit to the fact that the guides were doing a lot of the work putting up tents, cutting steps, carrying the equipment…
Yes, you get someone like Dora De Beer on an expedition overseas in China, they walked 400 miles before they even got to the mountain, it was a real Victorian expedition. They would expect shelter from whatever was available, from monasteries to embassies, just take over their house. She was an amazing woman — during the 30s just before the war she would drive from London through Holland, Germany and Switzerland to get to Italy, on her own a lot of the time. Her diaries are from 1936-37, a lot of her entries are things like “Very inconvenienced getting across the border,” such a sense of imperious entitlement with no mention of the political climate. People like her were so curious and enthusiastic, in New Zealand they’d set off on horseback across Otira to the West Coast, just loving the absolute freedom of being out of that rigid society. They thought it was a great hoot.
Some of my favourite parts of the book are letters from the 1800s, there were some really funny excerpts. You must have had a lot of fun finding these in the Hocken collection. Do you have any favourites?
The ones I liked were the quieter, reflective pieces, people going back later in life and just enjoying being in the outdoors with their friends. I guess Jill Tremain had a big impact on me as a kid when she did the [1971 traverse of the Southern Alps] with Graeme Dingle — I can remember it being on the radio, there was a lot of controversy about them sharing a tent as she wasn’t married. From her letters she seemed to have such a generous outlook on life.
Voices I like least would be the 1970s slightly macho hard men stuff, that’s not a voice that appeals to me but quite a big part of the literature of the time. When you compare those writers with Aat Vervoorn, so reflective and spiritual, learning from the landscape… The ones who enjoy being in the space rather than needing to prove themselves or get a reputation, those would be the voices I like.
What are you currently working on?
I’m two-thirds of the way through a novel looking at landscape through scent and identity, under the umbrella narrative of a woman who loses her job when the university Humanities department is done away with. That one will be coming out next year. I’m also looking at doing an anthology of New Zealand women mountaineers. This will be more historical, it will be worthwhile to have a chronology of women mountaineers as there are so many of them.
What are you reading at the moment?
Just read a couple of books that I reviewed for Landfall, one called Oxygen by [New Zealand freediver) William Trubridge — not a book I’d necessarily be drawn to but interesting to see just how determined and focussed he has to be. The other is a beautiful book about hunting called Dark Forest Deep Water by Richard Fall, which would normally be something that turns me off but hearing him reflecting on why he hunts and the emotional journeys of hunting… It’s a great book, I’d really recommend it.
Thanks Laurence for a lovely interview, and I look forward to reading your next books!
Once again, WORD Christchurch was fabulous. All the session I went to were thoroughly interesting and enjoyable, and reading all the fabulous write ups of other sessions caused some serious past-tense FOMO. My holds list has also got rather long…
However, I’ve also been thinking about some of the connections between different sessions. One very sparkly connection was Stacy Gregg‘s silver boots, another around leaving New Zealand – or not. At the very wonderful Mortification session Steve Braunias told a beautifully crafted story about giving a well-known politician fleas, but one of the points he made was about how he wasn’t particularly keen to do a big OE – he was settled in New Zealand. In Explosive ArchaeologyBrannavan Gnanalingam noted that Robin Hyde developed her career in New Zealand, rather than going overseas to do so. Sometimes it seems that some Kiwis have to go away to achieve in order to come back and be successful, but as these stories show that isn’t always the case. New Zealand is more than enough.
As we found out, when you are mortified you are very vulnerable – think inopportune periods, an inopportune goat in the buttocks, assorted inopportune number twos and buttocks exposed to the elements. I enjoyed hearing people talk about things in life that had not gone so well – we need to be open about our screw ups. Sex also makes us vulnerable. Sharing your wibbly bits with someone else is risky, as is showing your mum poems you’ve written which contain a lot of sex. Tayi Tibble was nervous showing her mum her more sexual poetry, but her mum was fine with it. Her risk paid off.
But, as Chris Henry reminds us, it really is ok to be vulnerable. Looking after our mental health is so very important, and reaching out to people and telling them how we feel is huge and so worthwhile. Chris demonstrates very well how you can be a hero and vulnerable. ‘We can make a life‘ not only covers family stories and the earthquakes, it also advocates for the amazing work that rural GPs do, which Chessie feels is sometimes under appreciated.
Advocacy came up again in Explosive Archaeology – in terms of making sure we are speaking about underappreciated artists and genres, and also in terms of making sure we are leaving doors open for those that come after us. When we succeed – who do we take with us? Who do we raise up?
I love events that make me think and WORD certainly did that. I’m going to make sure that I’m ok with my vulnerability, and that if I like something I tell people about it.
I like the WORD Christchurch Festival, and I’ve enjoyed telling you about it.
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.
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.
This fantastic session included no stripey jumpers or whips or trowels – the archaeology was metaphorical, asking us to look back, elevate, uncover and dig up those who have been excluded from the literary canon. Poet Tayi Tibble, academic Erin Harrington, novelist Brannavan Gnanalingam and curator Jennifer Shields were asked by session chair Pantograph Punch editor Lana Lopesi to wrestle with the canon and to share their favourite underappreciated artists and genres.
Jennifer told us about Wellington-based emerging musical talent Hybrid Rose and Christchurch contemporary art collective The Social, who specialise in making cheap, accessible and engaging public art in a post-quake environment.
Brannavan talked about Merata Mita, also the subject of a recent documentary, who made protest documentaries like Bastion Point: Day 507 and Patu! which do not fit with the ‘man alone’ narrative of the emerging New Zealand film industry. Someone else who doesn’t fit into an established narrative is political journalist and social realist Robin Hyde. Unlike the ‘Mansfield narrative’ she didn’t need to leave New Zealand in order to find her purpose. Let’s widen out the canon so people don’t have to ‘fit’ and can be as they are.
Erin spoke about children’s material, and how formative influences can be left out of the canon, referencing Karen Healey‘s article about absences in the New Zealand Book Awards. She talked about Aotearoa’s special relationship with Badjelly the Witch, played regularly on Sunday morning kids’ radio and how this helped learn to be listeners and to understand story and narrative. BTW, childhood influences are something that I have explored on Library Whisperers with Christchurch’s good friend Matt Finch.
Tayi introduced us to two up and coming poets Jessica Thompson Carr and Joy Holley, advocating for their work by reading us some of their poetry. Finally Lana spoke about artist Leofa Wilson who has mentored and opened so many doors for Pasifika women.
Opening doors was a big theme of the questions that followed. How do people get to that place where you become an overnight success? How can doors be left open for the people that come after? What are the best ways to advocate and champion others and build networks and relationships? This was an interesting debate, suggesting that we must be mindful of who we promote, always have our wings open so people can be taken under them, keep making connection, and above all speak about the the things, and the people, we love.
Broadcaster and writer Miriama Kamo introduced the lineup for WORD Christchurch’s final session by prefacing with a definition of the topic:
adventure (n.) a wild and exciting undertaking (not necessarily lawful)
All four women featured fully fit the description, from extreme endurance to joyous risk-taking while travelling. The only thing I have in common with these ladies and their incredible lives is our gender, but while I won’t be running off to the Greenland ice cap anytime soon, their talks have inspired me to be a little more adventurous in my own life.
Hollie Woodhouse began her adventures with an Outward Bound course in her late twenties. While alone in the bush she wrote down four goals she wanted to achieve:
Start her own business
Go to the UK and do her OE
Sign up for an event each year that would challenge her
Get a tattoo
For me a challenging event would be speaking in front of a crowded auditorium at The Piano, but for Hollie that meant signing up for the Coast to Coast with no prior experience, after which she headed to London and now publishes a magazine called Say Yes to Adventure, which combines her love of design, adventures and the written word. So that’s three checked off her list, but instead of resting on her laurels she decided to apply for an expedition to the Greenland ice cap — a natural next step, I’m sure you’ll agree.
This part of the talk had me putting multiple question marks and exclamation points next to my notes: for 29 days Hollie and three others would walk from 8-14 hours on the ice, pulling a 60kg sled behind them. The weather was unseasonably bad, causing at one point a hurricane that kept them shut up in their tents for so long that a necessary toilet break was made, and in the 20 seconds they were outside the frostbite already set in. The delay caused them to take longer than anticipated, resulting in a grueling 30+ hour trek on the last day to get to the helicopter. (Who does this to themselves?!) Really puts my holiday food poisoning in perspective.
Our next speaker, Lilia Tarawa, thankfully began her talk with something I could relate to: growing up on the idyllic West Coast, surrounded by rivers, trees, bush, and mountains. She was close with her friends and family, loved going camping, and excelled at learning musical instruments. At age six she was proud to receive a glowing first school report with excellent grades and the comment that “Lilia demonstrates leadership qualities which could be useful when she gets older.” Lilia’s grandfather read this out to their gathered community at the evening dinner, and as her heart swelled with pride he popped it by saying: “We don’t need women like you.”
Lilia grew up in the cult of Gloriavale, and this was her first inkling that her world was not as wonderful as it seemed. The use of shame and humiliation to control others made it difficult for her to see herself raising children in that environment, and after the mistreatment of her best friend as an older teen she resolved to leave. Luckily the rest of her family were already on board (her two elder brothers had already left) so they were able to escape together. Despite leaving the environment it hasn’t been easy to shrug off her upbringing:
They began by using shame and guilt to degrade my self worth. Every day I was told I was a worthless sinner so when people treated me badly I thought maybe I deserve this, maybe this is my fault. My love for others broke the chains that shackled me — why was I willing to stand up for them but not for myself?
Lilia now fulfills the prediction of that early report card, standing up for both herself and others as a strong leader. “I want to tell my six year old self that she can do anything she wants to do, and never let anyone tell her otherwise.”
From the sobering reality of escaping a cult to the wry humour of Margaret Austin, who prefaced her speech with two confessions. 1) She is not Margaret Austin the former Labour MP, and 2) She grew up in Palmerston North. I forgave her these defects when she continued on to detail her escape, first from her home town and later from a cottage in Port Chalmers, fleeing overseas for 14 years. After some good experiences (Amsterdam) and bad (Athens), she ended up on a street in Paris described by Henry Miller as full of pimps and prostitutes. Perhaps that explains why, when looking for a job as a dancer, she was directed to Les Folies Bergère. (If you’re not familiar, think Moulin Rouge.) It wasn’t until she saw the picture of topless dancers on the wall of the director’s office that she realised quite what she was auditioning for. Luckily Margaret is nothing if not game, and that is how an ex-Sunday School girl from Palmerston North became a Paris cabaret dancer.
I’ve taken a lot of risks, and most of them have worked out well. If you’re going to take a risk, why take a calculated risk?
Her parting shot to the audience was the advice that if someone tells you that you shouldn’t do this or can’t do that, do it. An appealingly contrary attitude that describes Margaret perfectly.
After three incredible speakers you might be thinking that the fourth couldn’t possibly live up to the others, but Dr Michelle Dickinson put that thought to bed with the revelation that not only is she a competitive kitesurfer, she also does snow-kiting, mountain biking, runs ultra marathons, swims with sharks, goes rock climbing, and used to do competitive martial arts and cagefighting for money(!!). This is all in addition to her work as an engineer, nanotechnologist, lecturer, and now founder and Director of Nanogirl Labs Ltd. Whew! Despite being intimidatingly smart, Michelle didn’t come from a home of academic excellence — both parents dropped out of school early and Michelle herself failed the exams needed to get into nursing college, the only career option the school advisor recommended for girls. No one recognised her skills with a soldering iron and electronics at home as being valuable, or that being bad at tests didn’t mean you weren’t smart. Luckily she got into university a couple of years later and studied “the art of breaking shit and never having to put it back together!”.
Despite her many challenging hobbies, Michelle says one of the hardest things she’s done is be a woman engineer. It’s a lonely position to be in, with only 11% of engineers in Aotearoa being female. Often she has literally been the only woman in the room. As a lecturer in Auckland she struggled with letting her female engineering graduates out into the workplace, as she recognised that many won’t be safe in their jobs. The audience was treated to a range of sexist adverts and logos from engineering firms across New Zealand to illustrate her point. This situation is unlikely to change while we continue to reinforce job stereotypes, confirmed by a survey done on age 5-8 year olds where they were asked to draw a picture of an engineer. 100% were of a man. Since Michelle has started Nanogirl Labs Ltd and has brought female engineers into schools to talk about their jobs, the survey results have changed drastically. “Every one of you is a role model,” she told us (no pressure), “Every one of us can do a tiny thing that shifts New Zealand into a brand new space.”
We’re so afraid of failure in New Zealand. Take a risk! If it works, you’ll be happy. If you fail, you’ll be wise.
The perfect conclusion to a literary festival celebrating adventure and the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage, recognised by a standing ovation by the audience. I’m already looking forward to the next one.
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?
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.
Selina Tusitala Marsh is impressive. Tall and exuding warmth with an open, smiley countenance topped by a mass of long dark curls, she enters carrying her tokotoko which is topped with long hair mirroring her own.
One immediately feels drawn to her and the packed audience settles down to be entertained. Selina is in conversation with her sister poet and friend, Tusiata Avia. They are obviously at ease with each other and enjoy talking together.
Selina is New Zealand’s current Poet Laureate, the fifth woman to hold this position and the first woman of colour. She feels she has an obligation and responsibility to make everyone feel included as well as showcasing her Pasifika heritage.
Her mission is to get the story of the tokotoko out there and she regularly invites people to come along and touch it. It is fitting that she is the 11th Poet Laureate and the tokotoko breaks down into eleven pieces which is necessary for travel.
Paula Green, NZ poet, says “Hone Tuwhare and Sam Hunt are the two poets that are so beloved by our nation. I predict Selina is our third.”
One wonders how she manages to fit everything in in her extremely packed schedule. She has composed and performed for the Queen and welcomed Barack Obama to New Zealand. As well as travelling extensively both here and abroad, she is involved in the Writers in Schools Programme which is booked up for the next two years.
She feels women find it hard to value their self-worth and to ask for help. With the help of her friend Tusiata, she is learning to be more forthright. She equates life to four burners – Family, Health, Work and Friendship. For a long time the friendship burner was missing. She felt guilty about leaning on friends when she had so little time to reciprocate. She is definitely in the fast burning lane.
Tusiata meanwhile is recovering from burnout, suffering ill health from her fast pace of life. Whilst recuperating at home, they spent many hours on the phone talking. Selina was thrilled. She could now talk whilst running around Waiheke Island, where she lives and maintain two burners at once – exercising for health and friendship by being each other’s sounding board. She also advocates movement of mind and body for relaxation. This is achieved by running, yoga, writing and creating. Running is also where she has inspiration for her poetry. She has boundaries surrounding her family time and makes sure she spends weekends with them when she is in New Zealand, hence her 4pm flight back to Auckland following her appearance.
We were treated to Selina reading a poem from her latest book Tightrope titled ‘The Working Mother’s Guide to Reading Seventy Books a Year‘.
Where to now? Her latest project is a graphic mini memoir very aptly titled “Mophead to Poet Laureate” which is due out in 2019.
Kate Sylvester introduced the two poets and her assertion that poets were the antidote to a world out of kilter brought rousing applause.
It’s not an easy thing to report on a poetry reading. You listen with different ears to poetry than you would to a speaker.
Being tagged with the epithet “poetry stars”, might bring with it an unfair burden of expectation and if Hera Lindsay Bird, who was first up, felt that she didn’t show it as she appeared quite at ease on the stage. The poems she read were generally dealing with love and sex, but often in a tangential and quirky way. She read the poems: Jealousy, Love is like laying down in a major intersection, Monica (about the character, Monica Geller, from the sitcom, Friends), Da Vinci Code, Six Seasons of the Nanny and Pyramid Scheme.
Now, I confess, I’m a sucker for humour in poetry because poetry can often take itself very seriously. There was a strong vein of humour running through all the poems that Bird read and the audience chuckled a lot during her reading.
I’ve read that the poet, Lord Byron, was treated like a rock star in his day with people, mainly women, queueing for hours outside booksellers when Byron released a new book of poetry. He died a rock star’s kind of death too, dying at Missolonghi, aged 36, while helping the Greeks battle the Turks for their independence.
Perhaps Hera Lindsay Bird will revive the “poet as rock star” phenomenon if the reception of her eponymous debut is anything to go by.
Hollie McNish came to poetry fame via that most 21st century medium, YouTube. A little older and a little more experienced than her reading companion, McNish read poems that traversed her life from childhood to pregnancy in her thirties. She read the poems: Yanking (a variation on what she claimed was a Kiwi-ism “giving a wristy”), Call On Me (about the nature of friendships changing as we get older), Hiccups (for her daughter), A Dead Pig I Mean (about a bizarre ritual David Cameron indulged in at private school), Wow (about her one-year old daughter admiring her naked body in a mirror), Sex (about not wanting sex for six-and-a-half months after her daughter was born, Bricks (talking with her 92-year-old grandmother about what turned Hollie on) and McNish ended with a poignant poem dedicated to her Grandad called Cherry Pie with its echoes of post-war trauma.
I’ll be first to put my hand up and say that I am all for the popularising of poetry (being a poet myself and wanting to get my books out there in the hands of poetry readers), but there are still ivory tower elements fiercely guarding poetry for the elitist few as evidenced by the poet, Rebecca Watts, refusing to review Plum, McNish’s latest poetry collection, for P. N. Review. Watts instead wrote a polemical article titled Cult of the Noble Amateur in which she wrote: “Plum is the product not of a poet but of a personality. I was supposed to be reviewing it, but to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry. Besides, I was too distracted by the pathological attitude of its faux-naïve author, and too offended by its editor’s exemplary bad faith, to ignore the broader questions it provokes.” Watts’ article subsequently received broad coverage in several English news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC.