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.

Find out more

Find titles in the catalogue by:

Melting the canon – Explosive Archaeology: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

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 Shields. Image supplied.
Jennifer Shields. Image supplied.

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 Gnanaglingam. Photo credit: Lucy Li
Brannavan Gnanaglingam. Photo credit: Lucy Li

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.

Dr Erin Harrington. Image supplied.
Dr Erin Harrington. Image supplied.

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 Tibble. Image supplied.
Tayi Tibble. Image supplied.

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.

Adventurous Women: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

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.

Adventurous women. Image supplied.
Adventurous women. Image supplied.

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:

  1. Start her own business
  2. Go to the UK and do her OE
  3. Sign up for an event each year that would challenge her
  4. 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.

CoverOur 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.

CoverAfter 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.

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.

Find out more

Find titles in the catalogue by:

Selina Tusitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia – Fast burning women: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

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.

Selina Tusitala Marsh. Image supplied.
Selina Tusitala Marsh. Image supplied.

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.

Tusiata Avia. Image supplied.
Tusiata Avia. Image supplied.

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.

Colette Squire
Papanui Library

Hollie McNish and Hera Lindsay Bird – Poetry Stars: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Kate Sylvester introduced the two poets and her assertion that poets were the antidote to a world out of kilter brought rousing applause.

Hollie McNish and Hera Lindsay Bird. Image supplied.
Hollie McNish and Hera Lindsay Bird. Image supplied.

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.

CoverCover

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.

CoverCoverCover

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.

The Body is not an Apology – Sonya Renee Taylor: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Poet and playwright Tusiata Avia, introduced Sonya Renee Taylor, the founder of The Body Is Not An Apology, and informed us that they had fourteen years of friendship.

The Body Is Not An Apology is an ideal and now also a global business committed to radical self-love and global transformation.

Sonya Renee Taylor. Image supplied.
Sonya Renee Taylor. Image supplied.

If I could only write two words about this session they would be: Inspiring and Illuminating. Taylor is, as the saying goes, a force of nature. She describes herself as a performance poet and an activist.

Tusiata and Sonya spoke about an incident when they first met at a festival where someone body shamed Taylor, but Avia took it on board as well and it has lasted with her these past fourteen years. Taylor said that “body shame is contagious” as it is often overheard by others.

The day before, Taylor had done an interview with Kim Hill who seemed sceptical that radical self-love could transform the world, but Taylor affirmed that transforming our need to be superior to others transforms the world. Taylor said “we can’t build outside if we haven’t built inside.” The message of love is a transformative tool and Avia posited that this was a message given by all the major spiritual teachers. Taylor explained that self-love should not be confused with self-confidence or self-esteem which were fleeting and externally influenced. Self-love is divine love because it acknowledges the divine within us all. Radical self-love is enduring because it affirms our inherent “enoughness”, our worthiness.

CoverTaylor explained that we never see a two-year-old who hates themselves because we all came here with love, but as we grow that essence gets buried somehow. “Love must be the foundation of the world.”

Taylor said her entire journey in writing the book, The Body Is Not An Apology, was about her learning to navigate her own self-love journey. The book was seven years of examination of the self.

The genesis of her journey began at a Poetry Slam in Knoxville, Tennessee. A female participant with cerebral palsy had excused having unprotected sex by saying that she didn’t feel she could ask the man to use protection because of the way she felt about her body. From somewhere in her subconscious, Taylor told her “your body is not an apology”. This then evolved into a poem and then a Facebook page and eventually a global organisation. It was what Taylor described as a “transformational portal” which occurs when three facets are present: honesty, vulnerability and empathy.

But while performing the poem, The Body Is Not An Apology, Taylor realised that she was transforming some of the contradictions raging inside her. This was further developed with the liberating sight of a plus-size model. Taylor asked herself “why was she hiding?”

Avia explained how through illness she had lost 40 kilos and she noticed a change in social perception of her. Taylor asserted that the concept that healthy bodies are better bodies marginalises so many body types and runs contrary to the irrefutable fact that all bodies are finite because we all die. She called the hierarchy of bodies that was promoted in Western society by media and others “body terrorism”. An example that highlighted body terrorism was the ability for TSA personnel in US airports to body scan body types that sat outside their perfect frame. Taylor said that during one such scan a TSA agent touched her genitals in an act of state-sanctioned sexual assault. New Zealand was not immune since immigrants to our country can be refused if they have a BMI over 35.

Avia posed the question: “How do we achieve radical self-love?” Taylor responded by saying that we all have to interrogate “Body oppression” and change it. We must be willing to change our negative internal messages. Every person has their own sphere of influence in which to practise this. Avia pointed out that there were many tools in the book to help readers with this process.

Gleefully introducing science into her book (Taylor said she was not good at science in school), she compared body shame to pathogens. In order for body shame to thrive there needed to be a triad: host, environment and pathogen. We were the hosts, society was the environment, and body shame was the pathogen. Taylor claimed that when we interrupt that triad, it stops the process of disease.

Te Ao Hou – Weaving indigenous identity back into Ōtautahi: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

It was a chilly, damp, blustery and all-over a very Christchurch kind of day on Friday. Sheltered in the foyer of the Piano was a small and well-wrapped group of people, both long-term locals and people visiting just for the weekend, waiting for our 90 minute tour of the central city with Joseph Hullen (Ngāi Tūāhuriri/Ngāti Hinematua). I was really looking forward to it – I love finding out the stories behind a place, how human histories are represented in art and design. Joseph, and Ōtautahi – did not disappoint. The work that Matapopore has put into Ōtautahi Christchurch is incredible.

We started the tour in Victoria Square, near the site of Puari, a Waitaha Pā. The square was later known as Market Square after colonial settlement, and Joseph talked about the European design of the square and how it’s a bit… higgledy-piggledy (my word there, not his). Queen Victoria faces toward a building that isn’t named after her, faces away from a street that is named after her, and the closest figure to her is James Cook, a man she shares no whakapapa with. Their life spans never even crossed over.

In 1857, Ngāi Tahu rangatira, Matiaha Tiramōrehu, wrote a letter to Queen Victoria calling “That the law be made one, that the commandments be made one, that the nation be made one, that the white skin be made just as equal with the dark skin.” These words, and more from his letter, now adorn the tall windows of the Hereford Street entrance of Te Hononga, the Christchurch Civic building. A lovely link between Victoria Square and the Council building.

Joseph Hullen surrounded by the group who attended Friday’s walking tour of the city, in front of Tūranga.

Our second stop was our very own Tūranga, the new Central Library. Joseph told us the story behind the naming of the building as he explained the artwork carved into the stone above our heads. Tūranga was the place that Ngāi Tahu ancestor Paikea landed in Aotearoa, after his journey from Hawaiki on the back of a whale. It is a fitting name for a library – a repository of knowledge – as Paikea bought with him all the wisdom and knowledge from his homeland. The art on the side of Tūranga represents migration stories, and the pathways that bring people from all over the world to our shores.

Another thing to note, when standing directly under Tūranga and looking up at the building, is how ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE it is! Phwoar!

Joseph Hullen speaks to the Kirihao – Resilience sculpture in the Pita Te Hore Centre

Next we ventured down toward Te Hononga on Hereford Street to see Matiaha Tiramōrehu’s words on the windows, and explored the art and the rain gardens across the road at the Pita Te Hore Centre, where the old King Edward Barracks used to stand. Before the barracks, it was at the edge of the Puari Pā site. Joseph drew our attention to the banks of the river and the fact that the side we stood on was higher ground than the other – a very sensible place to build as it was much safer when the river flooded!

There’s a lot to see in the Pita Te Hore Centre, the landscaped courtyard in the centre of the office buildings is gorgeous. The stormwater is all treated on site in the rain gardens which are full of native plants. A moving sculpture, called Pupu Harakiki, commemorates Lisa Willems who died in the 2011 earthquake. Another sculpture, Kirihau – Resilience, speaks of the kaha – the strength and resilience of the tuna – the long finned eels – to adapt to their environment and it acknowledge the durability and adaptation of the people who live here as well.

The tiles under our feet are laid out in a poutama pattern – it looks like a series of steps, climbing toward excellence. The pattern also represents the pathway that the local soldiers took during World War One – out of the King Edward Barracks, across the river, toward the train station, over to the port at Lyttelton, and off to war.

This Christchurch City Library tukutuku panel, Poutama, shares the design with the tiles of the Pita Te Hore centre. Image reference: Poutama, tukutuku panel-04.

We followed the same path as the soldiers across the river (although there is a bridge there now – the soldiers at the time trudged across the water), across the Bridge of Remembrance. In front of the bridge is one of the series of 13 Ngā Whāriki Manaaki – woven mats of welcome. This one, Maumahara, remembers the men and women fallen in battle. Images of poppies are woven into the pattern that represents the march to war, and the journey after death to the spiritual realm.

Joseph talks about the Maumahara – Remembrance tiles near the Bridge of Remembrance

Next we stepped down toward the river where little tuna were poking their heads out from beneath the steps, drawn out by Joseph’s tempting fingers on the water. This whole area was a mahinga kai – a food gathering place – rich with tuna. This started a discussion among the group about sustainability – you get heaps more protein and calories from an acre of tuna than you could ever get from an acre of cows, and farming tuna is much better for the environment than farming cows.

Onward we walked to Hine-Pāka, the Bus Interchange, where the artwork on the ground in front of the entrance understandably represents navigation. Joseph drew our attention upwards too. Ngā whetū, constellations used for navigation, adorn the ceiling.

From the exchange we looped up Manchester Street, where the high density housing in the East Frame is going in – and the greenery around it in the Rauora Park. There’s also a basketball court and climbing frame – places to play are a vital part of any residential area.

Finally we heading back past Tūranga for a group photo, then back to the Piano where members of the group thanked Joseph with a waiata, a moving close to a really brilliant tour.

Find out more

A.J. Finn – WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

CoverThe next thrill-ride is here and it’s editor-turned-bestselling-author A.J. Finn and his new book The Woman in the Window.

The newest thing in psychological crime fiction is A.J. Finn and he has joined some illustrious company, the likes of Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins. I was lucky enough to hear the author speak as part of WORD Christchurch Festival  and was impressed by his energy and his insights into the processes of writing a best selling novel.

A.J. Finn reads at the Bad Diaries Salon. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018.Friday 31 August 2018. Flickr 2018-08-31-IMG_0196
A.J. Finn reads at the Bad Diaries Salon. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018.Friday 31 August 2018. Flickr 2018-08-31-IMG_0196

A.J.’s real name is Dan Mallory and he’s a die-hard crime thriller fan. It’s very evident on reading  The Woman in the Window too, all the elements to unnerve the reader are there and the suspense increases as our protagonist starts to question her own mind. It’s part Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ (a movie and director that has had a huge impact on Dan Mallory), and part contemporary suburban gothic. Once you’re hooked in there’s no putting it down and you’re swept up on a rollercoaster ride of suspense, drama, and heavy merlot consumption.

Let’s have a look at Dan Mallory as a person and see what we know about him and how it might provide insight into his becoming the next big thing in crime fiction…

  • A.J. Finn is obviously a pseudonym and it was selected carefully to achieve a certain gender neutrality but also for the author to maintain some healthy distance between his personal life and that of his role as a best-selling author. A fun fact; “A.J.” was his cousin’s name, and “Finn” was his other cousin’s French Bulldog – great choices that really sum up his attitude to life and family!
  • He’s been a keen fan of crime stories from a young age when he was dropped at the cinema by his mother as a form of free child-minding. On the screen that day was the classic film ‘The Vanishing’ and young Dan was hooked. He then studied the genre religiously, including becoming a devotee of Hitchcock, forming a strong love of our own Ngaio Marsh, and completing formal post graduate studies on none other that Patricia Highsmith!
  • He’s an outspoken champion of people living with mental health issues – he himself has had a life long struggle with misdiagnosed depression and bipolar disorder. This book’s main character Anna Fox also has mental health concerns and Mallory has a very sound insight into her voice and attitude. She’s the perfect example of a sufferer who still engages meaningfully with society in the face of her illness.
  • The character name ‘Anna Fox’ was chosen deliberately so as to be easy to pronounce and remembered across all languages and cultures – few people will have issues with the sounds used to produce any of the names of the book’s characters – a brilliant piece of multicultural accessibility right there!
  • Before becoming a worldwide sensation Dan Mallory worked in publishing and states that he did indeed use his knowledge of the industry to help him produce The Woman In The Window. Mostly this was down to effective processes that he used for editing as he went along, but also extended to ensuring a solid architecture of twists and turns – he learned a lot as a publisher and read a lot of books, he even worked on stories by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling’s’ crime fiction pseudonym!)
  • The movie rights to ‘The Woman in the Window’ were sold well before the book was even published and the soon-to-be-released film will star Amy Adams and Gary Oldman, among other big names. Mallory is determined however to not become an author who consciously writes for film and plans to hold out until his next book is out (it’s already started and is due in early 2020) before making the desicion to sell the filming rights.

At his WORD session, Dan Mallory presented as a man with infectious energy. He was quick with a funny story and unashamedly successful and happy. I look forward to his next release and hope that he continues to grow into the brilliant thriller writing that he seems capable of. And if you haven’t got your copy of  The Woman in the Window yet then jump on our catalogue now and add yourself to holds queue – it’s worth the wait!

Happy reading!

The Freedom Papers: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Four people seated in leather chairs on the stage. From left to right, Lloyd Jones, Yaba Badoe, Juno Dawson, and Nick Barley.

Nick Barley – Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival – introduces the topic by sharing a story of how he came to commission authors to write essays on what freedom means to them. The essence of this captured in his state that the purpose of this is “to think about not only a word, freedom… and why literary conversations matter”. From here, the three authors on stage with Barley speak in turn about what freedom means to them.

Yaba Badoe, Lloyd Jones, and Juno Dawson. Image supplied.

Yaba Badoe spoke first. She spoke about a kind of national freedom drawing on the independence of Ghana as her example. But within this, she discussed the challenges that such national freedom brings. She spoke about how there were all these grand ideas as to what a new Ghana was going to look like and how independence in Ghana would lead to the creation of a “heaven on Earth” free from British colonial rule. However, in this instance, reality did no meet the expectations and she warned about the challenges associated with dreams of freedom and the reality of these desires.

Juno Dawson spoke next. Dawson spoke about freedom of speech. However, she was more interested in the consequences that can result from freedom of speech. Simply put by herself:

“Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.”

To her, freedom of speech does not protect people from the fallout or consequences of the “stupid things” that they say, and that people have a right to react. She drew on her own personal experience with transphobic remarks in regards to her transitioning in the public eye. The issue here was with the way people expressed surprise or derision in the way she did not accept such abuse but instead chose to protect herself through various means leading to some people claiming that she, herself, was against free speech. This is of course not the case, simply that people need to be aware that people should expect consequences for the things that they say.

Dawson also talked about how freedoms that have already been acquired should not be taken for granted: 

“Freedoms can be rolled back… often hard won, and can be taken away”. 

Most notably, the ongoing issues with reproductive rights in the United States is an issue where this can be seen.

Last to speak was New Zealand’s own Lloyd Jones. Jones took a much more skeptical approach to freedom. He talked about how it has become a politically loaded term, often used to justify certain actions that would appear to be in contradiction with freedom as a concept – he spoke here of how ‘freedom’ is used within the context of American politics, most notably American foreign policy – and how the “word has been debased” due to this. He painted a rather graphic image of what he thinks when he hears the word freedom:

When you say freedom, I just see a pile of bodies with an American flag waving on top”.

Jones used this to launch into a conversation about “the freedom to do the wrong thing” and how we see this freedom practices all to often. An example he used in the New Zealand context is the continued pollution of the waterways that occurs due the ever expanding industrial agriculture we have in New Zealand. He summed up his ideas through this statement:

The freedom to do the wrong thing is not a freedom worth having”.

Jones provided a timely and skeptical engagement with a concept so often taken for granted as being unequivocally positive.

Following this, there was a brief conversation discussing the way that freedom as a concept is present within the authors’ works.

Barley, Badoe, Dawson, and Jones all had dynamic personalities that bounced off each other in an entertaining manner. Often humorously as the four speakers engaged in conversation with each other. It was an entertaining and informative event with three different and, at times, contradictory ideas pertaining to freedom discussed. All the while, the conversation was very well facilitated by the eloquent Nick Barley.

A pleasure of an event that provided much to think about within literature and more.

Find out more

Find titles by: