Today I sat amongst a crowd of young girls, clutching their favourite horsey books – some even with their riding helmets on – to listen to Stacy Gregg and Soraya Nicholas telling Horse Tales at WORD Christchurch. I expected to enjoy myself, but I didn’t expect to feel myself brought to tears!
Stacy, in her wonderful, silver stiletto boots, told us the moving story of Princess Haya, the girl behind her first based-on-a-true-story book, The Princess and the Foal. Stacy had been in the middle of writing the Pony Club Rivals series when she saw a newspaper story about Princess Haya of Jordan, president of the International Federation for Equestrian Sports, and knew that she had to write about this courageous, gutsy girl. At first she had thought of adding her as a character in the series she was writing, and tucked the newspaper clipping away to refer back to. But as she thought about the Princess, she soon realised that Haya needed to have her own book. And so The Princess and the Foal came to be.
I first read Stacy Gregg’s books years ago, beginning with Mystic and the Midnight ride, which I gave to Miss Missy for Christmas. And I enjoyed reading the Pony Club Secrets series along with her, as I added each new book to her shelf. I hadn’t gotten round to reading all the more recent books, but believe me, as soon as I get home, I’ll be raiding her Stacy Gregg shelf, and reading The Princess and the Foal.
Princess Haya is the daughter of the Lion of Jordan, whose mother was killed in a helicopter crash when Haya was just 3 years old. And of course the little girl didn’t really understand what had happened, and thought that it was all her fault. She had lost her mother, and her father was too busy ruling his country to be able to spend much time with her, but he saw how sad and lonely she was becoming, and gave her a new-born motherless foal for her 6th birthday. And Princess Haya’s life found new meaning. By the age of 13, she was riding at international level, and she went on to become an Olympic show jumper.
I can’t wait to read it! I can’t wait for The Fire Stallion to come out either! (It’s on order already, so you can place a hold).
I’m also exited to read Soraya Nicholas’ Starlight Stables books. Although at 15, Miss Missy may be getting a bit old for these stories, I know that a few years ago, she would have just loved them! Soraya, also in shiny metallic shoes* – gold this time! — loved reading pony stories as a kid, and read the authors I read, like the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and dreamed of one day writing the kinds of books she loved to read. Just as much as the exciting excerpts from her books, I enjoyed hearing of her determination to become an author, even though people sometimes laughed at her dream. “Dream big” she told all those horse- and book-mad girls. Don’t let people who lack faith in you stop you from going after your biggest dreams.
What could be a better message than that?
*These two authors are definitely the most stylish of children’s authors, as Kate De Goldi said in her introduction.
Go YA brought together three writers for young adults – Juno Dawson, Whiti Hereaka, and Yaba Badoe – to read from their novels.
First to read was Juno Dawson whose latest novel Clean is a confronting depiction of heroin addiction and withdrawal as told by a teenage socialite, Lexi Volkov. Paula Morris described Clean as being about “the lure of self-destruction” and the teenage pressure “of being something they’re not”. She compared Lexi’s narrative to that of real-world figures in the media who struggled with addiction such as Peaches Geldof.
Paula Morris had previously warned the audience that there would be some swearing and Juno Dawson jokingly referred to Clean as “degenerate filth” before beginning her reading. Lexi’s choice of language as she lashes out at the world challenged the 12+ rating given to this ‘family’ event. Lexi speaks directly to the reader, sharing her every thought and feeling. As a result, it was a performative reading. Juno Dawson rolled her eyes, pouted, and screeched, as she read from the opening chapter in which Lexi – waking from a night of partying and heroin in a car – realises that her brother is admitting her to a rehabilitation clinic away from the familiar lights of London.
Our second reader was Yaba Badoe whose novel, A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars, was described as an “exploration of our rich inheritance of myth and legend, pain and love”. A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is a magical realist novel about a young girl, Sante, whose family attempted to migrate from Africa to Europe by sea but were killed when the ship was purposefully sunk. Sante, washed ashore in a chest laden with treasure, is rescued by Mama Rose and becomes part of her travelling circus. She yearns to know more about her family’s story. Yaba Badoe read from a later passage in the book in which Mama Rose begins to tell Sante about her origins. Like Clean, A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars, has serious themes, this time human trafficking and migration. As Sante recalls seeing brown bodies washed up on a beach and herself being thrown aboard as an infant, it’s hard not to recall the images of the body of Alan Kurdi, a young victim of the refugee crisis and human trafficking. Yaba Badoe spoke more on magical realism and migration during ‘Yaba Badoe: Fire, Stars and Witches’.
“History is moulded by the those who tell it” Paula Morris told the audience before Whiti Hereaka took the stage. She read from her newest novel Legacy which is about the experiences of the Māori Contingent during World War One and where their stories sit in that ANZAC narrative that strongly permeates New Zealand culture. The protagonist of Legacy, Riki, is drawn to the idea of enlisting in the army. Each generation of his family has enlisted and his mother shares with him stories of his great-great-grandfather who fought in Egypt in World War One as part of the Māori Contingent. Whiti Hereaka’s reading highlighted the theme of legacy as Riki ruminates on his likeness to this legendary family figure and the repetition of the war through its commemoration. The reading ended with a cliff-hanger as Riki read a text revealing why his girlfriend has been avoiding him and stepped straight into the path of a bus on Lambton Quay.
This drew a big gasp from the audience and started off question time with a request to know if Riki survives. Whiti Hereaka cheekily held the cover up and plugged the UBS stall in the foyer for those who needed to know what happened next.
There wasn’t much time for questions. The first question asked the authors how they created their characters. Juno Dawson remarked that she “sometimes has to spend more time devising the character” but sometimes they come to her fully fledged, like Lexi did. Yaba Badoe similarly remarked about Sante: “Once she came to me, it was really fun writing her. I loved her company.” Whiti Hereaka admitted that she’s a “bit of a creeper” and sits at the back of the bus with her headphones in, but not listening to anything, to eavesdrop on the conversations. It’s great way to capture the voice of young people and pick up new slang. Juno Dawson commented that voice is the most powerful part of a character development and once you have that voice and you can firmly say that your character wouldn’t say or do something, you know you’ve got it. In this way characters are like “imaginary friends” or “voices in your head”, she laughed.
The second question from audience was about writing for adults versus young adults. Yaba Badoe told the audience that her editor defines YA as “12 to 120”, that it’s writing for anyone and everyone. She remarked that YA is a “marketing term” and novels such as Catcher in the Rye and Jane Eyre, generally put in the basic of (adult) ‘classics’, could be considered YA. Sadly, we ran out of time to continue unpacking this question. What is (or isn’t) YA was the subject of a university course I took so I was a little disappointed not to be able to hear more about the authors’ thoughts on it. However, if these selections of readings are anything to go by, YA isn’t afraid to tackle complex topics and is about discovering your voice and place in this often-difficult world. I would highly recommend picking up these authors’ books and giving YA a Go.
… Literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; …
(from “On being ill” by Virginia Woolf)
Sonya Renee Taylor opened up the particular body struggles of black women, and said:
I have a PhD in whiteness.
In her every WORD appearance, Sonya has been a revelation. She was here too, asking so many deep questions:
What does body positivity mean if black bodies are indiscriminately killed?
She explained the immense frustration of people telling you are not experiencing what you are experiencing. Sonya paraphrased WORD author Rajorsh Chakraborti’s view of privilege:
The function of privilege exists in not having to look at anything other than your own existence.
Annaleese Jochems read from her novel Baby with touching of armpits, and bodies that are disasters. The book is all about neediness, she said.
Helen Heath read poems from her brilliant collection Are Friends electric?: Anatomical Venus, Illuminated, and My Body as a leaky vessel, and Spilling out all over:
I ask if you would like a body.
You say, ‘No I’m beyond bodies now,
I’m ready to be fluid, spilling out all over.
Helen noted that AI is now moving towards intelligences with bodies, not brains in jars.
Tayi Tibble read Vampires versus Werewolves from Poūkahangatus, a Twilight (and FKA Twigs) referencing journey into high school bodies:
Because we crave otherness, and hate otherness.
Tayi talked about how post-colonialism plays out in interpersonal relationships, and the sense as a Māori wahine of “colonial entitlement to your body”. Charlotte asked if young women talk to her about this stuff? “Hard out!” said Tayi:
Lots of wahine tell me that it matters.
Ray Shipley read a series of poems about X and their gender issues. Filling out forms, toilets with Ladies and Gents indicated by a Handbag and a Pipe and X had neither … and a kid that asks “Are you a boy or a girl?”. Coming to the answer “Yes”. A journey.
Kirsten McDougall read an excerpt from her novel Tess. One of those encounters a woman has with men on the streets, who just want to say Hello …
What was ok? Not raped, not dead, the bar was pretty low.
Juno Dawson read from Gender Games, telling about an encounter at The Attitude Awards. The phenomenal scrutiny of transwomen’s bodies. Why don’t cisgender people have to talk on breakfast tv about their bodies? Identity has nothing to do with genitals. Juno’s birth certificate said boy, but is also said weight 6 pounds. Things change.
Women are objectified all the time … transwomen are no different. For all women, objectification is deadly.
Daisy is a local poet and performed her rugby league poem “Body Gospel”:
Your “fat girls” do not define us
and one on her traditional Malu tattoo piece “Laei”. She was astonishing, and held us in the palm of her hand, as she slapped her thighs, joyfully reclaiming her body as she was tattooed:
The woman that I do, the woman that i is!
Other topics covered included safety in public, ‘ethical periods’, eating disorders, and the poem Notes for Critics by Tusiata Avia was name checked. The talk turned to the importance of compassion and kindness, learning emotional literacy and intelligence, and finding support in groups, collectives and networks.
Ray noted that people are finding their networks of love and support, but that can come at the expense of being heard. We need to listen to each other.
The Body Issue is a big one, and this was a diverse and fascinating walk in and around it:
Most of our answers are actually in our questions. (Sonya Renee Taylor)
Friday night was Starry, Starry and then things took a turn. We headed off to Cafe 1851 in the newly opened Crowne Plaza for Bad Diaries Salon – a literary series created by Melbourne writer Jenny Ackland. This sold out sesh was co-curated by Jenny and the fabulous Wellington writer Tracy Farr, our MC.
I love the events in WORD Christchurch Festival that take you off piste a little, and it’s a joy that there are plenty of them. Adventurousness isn’t just about extreme sports.
Bad Diaries Salon at WORD was the first to take place outside of Oz. Local comedian/poet/librarian Ray Shipley, author of pony novels Stacy Gregg, AJ Finn – all the way from New York, and NZ blogger and writer Emily Writes were the brave souls who fronted up and shared …
But the first rule of Bad Diaries Salon is I can’t tell you a THING about what they shared. Suffice to say, I snort laughed myself silly. Bravo and Brava to the Salonistas – you were KA RAWE and TU MEKE. What I can share are some photos from the Bad Diaries Salon, and urge you to go to a Bad Diaries Salon if you ever get the chance.
Bad Diaries Salon was established mid-2017 when Jenny Ackland pondered on Twitter – were there any writers who still had their teenage diaries? Would they front up and read from them, live?Turns out heaps of them were more than willing.
The Bad Diaries Salon format is the writers read stuff from their diaries or other unpublished juvenilia. Each BDS has its own theme.
What you really want from a session called “You write funny!” is for there to be writers and for them to be humorous. It’s pretty much right there in the title. You’re expecting to laugh a bit. And certainly this Friday night session at WORD Christcchurch Festival 2018 MCed by the affable Ray Shipley filled the bill.
The laughing, however, was expedited by Shipley’s careful, “kindly primary school teacher” style coaching, leading the audience through some “little titters” to start with, and eventually even, some good, old-fashioned cackling. “All laughs,” we were told “are valid and important“.
So that was a good place to start from.
The line-up of reading authors was largely unfamiliar to me but the feelings of amusement and genuine laughter (did the coaching and practice beforehand make for a better quality of chuckle?) weren’t. This is what funny sounds like.
First up was Erik Kennedy (author of poetry collection There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime) who read three poems all with a wry serve of humour, “You cannot teach creative writing”, “Get a pet with a longer live span than humans have”, and in between, a strange take on Christmas heavily influenced by the content of spam emails. I can’t really explain this poem except to say that it was simultaneously more AND less weird than it sounds.
Megan Dunn read excerpts from her book Tinderbox, about her time working at a Borders bookstore. Much of the time Dunn read with a sly, knowing smirk on her face… that was fully justified. Her tales of retail reminded me more than a little of my experiences working in libraries as well as the self-confessional style of David Sedaris, in particular the essay Santaland Diaries about his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s Department store.
It eventuates that I find both David Sedaris and Megan Dunn hilarious.
Dunn was followed by poet Chris Tse (author of poetry collection He’s so MASC) and his poem, Wasted, was a hit with the audience. Wasted is a treatise on the sort of men who don’t get drinks thrown in their faces nearly as often as they deserve. Though he admits there are few workable alternatives,
Only a monster would throw a bowl of chips in this economy.
Lastly Annaleese Jochems took the stage reading, from her book Baby, an exquisitely awkward scene of backyard fitness instruction that made me feel more squirmy than amused, but many people in the audience let loose their best cackles in response, so I might have been alone in that.
All in all, You write funny! gave my laughing muscles a good, solid workout.
Much like Juno Dawson’s fiction, this talk covered a wide range of topics, from her latest novel Clean — a realistic look at heroin addiction and withdrawal through the lens of its socialite heroine, Lexi Volkov — to her shared love of the Spice Girls with interviewer and fellow Young Adult author Karen Healey, to Doctor Who and Juno’s upcoming tie-in novel featuring the new reincarnation of the Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker.
Asked about the genesis of Clean, Juno talked about her own experience with drug education as a teen (similar to the sex education talk in Mean Girls), her stint travelling around teaching teachers how to deliver sex and drugs education, and her research into what leads people into addiction. From speaking to a range of participants in the 12 steps programme she found that what they all had in common was that they could trace the seeds of their addiction back to when they were in their early teens.
When I was a teenager people we knew were starting to experiment with drugs, and we couldn’t help but notice that they didn’t die. You take drugs and nothing happens, you don’t take them and immediately end up on the streets. That’s how you become addicted: it’s a slow process, addiction creeps up on you and you have this constant sense of unrealistic optimism, that you’re in control. You’ll think it’s fine until three or four years down the line when it’s not.
From drugs to girl power: What made the Spice Girls such a revelation for so many young people? “They were five ordinary girls who got out.” Rather than the refined, polished pop stars of today, the Spice Girls looked like the local girl gang scrounging for cigarettes outside the fish and chip shop. Aspirational but in a relatable way. Identifying as a presenting male fan of the Spice Girls wasn’t easy, however, and it was then that Juno began to opt out of the mainstream and gave up on the notion of being a boy.
What about the phenomenon of male authors being praised for writing about teen girls while female authors get sidelined? Juno had two responses, one being support for more platforms and publishing deals for authors from minority groups – “we need those voices, those are the people who’ll do it the best, who’ll have that authenticity” — but also as a writer the job is literally to imagine what it’s like to be other people. “Otherwise we’ll all be writing memoirs until the end of time.” A lot of the praise for male authors writing female protagonists also stems from the idea that those experiences are difficult for someone else to imagine, as opposed to the default of straight boyhood which anyone could identify with. “It’s frustrating when male authors are disproportionately praised… That said, a lot of the big names in YA are people like Judy Blume. I feel very privileged to write under the legacy of women like her.”
Speaking of identifying with the other, what’s it like writing about the alien, two-hearted traveller in a magic police box?
I always imagined myself (and still imagine myself) as the companion. The companions are the audience discovering the universe, the Doctor is actually the sidekick. The Doctor should always be a slightly unknown quantity. Fans [reading my book] will quickly recognise that Jodie Whittaker is still the Doctor, there’s no difference — it’s the same character as the thirteen men who have played this alien. If you can’t handle her being the Doctor then you’re going to struggle with the notion of fantasy as a genre.
Is it a Young Adult author’s responsibility to provide hope in their books?
Sometimes we react to triggers, but is it fear of tackling something, fear you might need to change something in your life? Or is it putting you in danger? Is reading this book going to damage you? You need to decide for yourself whether you’re just scared (in which case the book might help) or you’re in trouble and aren’t in a place to read it.
That said, Karen posited that addressing difficult topics in fiction can make it easier to discuss, Juno agreeing:
It provides just two of three degrees of separation so you can deal with real things in a safe space.
I doubt there are many literary – or related – events where you have the author, one of their subjects and an audience made up of people who have been through many of the events described, to a greater or lesser extent, in the place where one of the events took place.
This was the setting for ‘Earthquakes and Family Ties’, a discussion about Chessie Henry’s new book We can make a life, which was also officially launched on Thursday night. Bronwyn Hayward was hosting and Chessie’s dad, Chris, was also part of a fascinating and moving conversation.
This was they first time that Chessie and Chris had talked about the book in public, [pause while I take a call from someone requesting this very book] a memoir of their family, their relationships, brushes with disasters, and a reflection on grief and loss in its many forms.
Chris is a GP and worked in Lyttelton a few years back before taking his family to Tokelau. Unfortunately Chessie and her brothers caught dengue fever and were very seriously ill – and Chris was pretty much the only doctor. Serious at the time, they now laugh about the experience, a powerful shared family memory.
The nucleus of the book is a conversation between Chessie and Chris that took place when they were driving down from Kaikōura in early 2017, where Chris is now based. In it Chris finally tells his story of the work he did as an early responder at the CTV building on 22nd February 2011, working to rescue those trapped. You can read an extract in The Spinoff, but tread carefully as it is a powerful story.
There are so many stories of that time, many that are still being uncovered and shared. It is so important to record these events, not just as history, but – as Chris says – as a practical response to disasters. We learned so many lessons and it’s crucial to record and share them.
Chris received a bravery award for his work at the CTV site. Yet doing so was confusing for him – he was glad to have this this difficult experience acknowledged, but he didn’t like being singled out and felt some kind of impostor syndrome. This huge event had, not surprisingly, a big effect on him. The conversation with Chessie forced him to open up and was like a dam bursting. Chris wasn’t okay. He was burnt out. But by acknowledging that and admitting vulnerability he was able to work through things.
I could easily write a lot more – about lost homes and Kaikōura, about advocating for rural GPs, and about the CTV families who spoke afterwards – reminding us that no one has been held responsible for the disaster. This was an incredible session. Kia ora Chessie, Chris and Bronwyn.
Dame Anne Salmond: anthropologist, professor, environmentalist, writer, eloquent speaker, and still frequently asked to refute the opinions of the same old ex-politicans giving their ill-informed reckons about te ao Māori and its place in New Zealand. A tiresome task for someone who has spent their lifetime learning as much as possible about tikanga Māori and has literally written several books on the subject, so it was a treat to listen to Eruera Tarena engage Dame Anne in conversation.
Eruera Tarena started off the session by asking Dame Anne to expand on their shared connections to his namesake, ancestors and prominent elders Eruera and Amiria Manutahi Stirling, inspiration for several books. While on a scholarship in the States she was often asked to speak about New Zealand and realised she didn’t know an awful lot about some aspects of our country, and therefore resolved to learn te reo Māori on her return. This she did, and it was while studying the subject at university that she met the Stirlings, hitting it off immediately with Amiria. A strong friendship ensued, involving a lot of storytelling and singing on Amiria’s part, and a gradual mentorship in te reo and tikanga Māori from Eruera Stirling. Upon the completion of Dame Anne’s masters, Eruera declared that “the marae is the university for you now.” This involved what sounds like two years of fun road trips in their little blue VW to different marae, soaking up the knowledge of kaumātua around the country and hearing about Amiria’s life as they drove.
I learnt as much through the skin as through reading or recording. When you talk to someone for a year about their life, marvelling at the stories you’re hearing, your lives become mingled. It’s a very intimate thing to do, and a huge gesture of trust to let your life be filtered through someone else’s pen.
Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds, Dame Anne Salmond’s most recent book, focusses more on the meeting of two cultures in early New Zealand history, bringing a more nuanced view to a time often written about solely as one of conflict. Dame Anne said in response to those that see European arrival as an enlightening influence on “savage” Māori that “they obviously don’t know much about European history”, referring to the frequent conflict in Europe at the time.
Regarding climate change and how we can come together to preserve our waterways and environment for future generations, Dame Anne spoke about the exploration in her book of how we can expand our ways of thinking of living with waterways — especially understanding that these are living system on which we rely, and therefore the necessity of restoring our rivers and springs. Some of this thinking emerged from work on a local eco-sanctuary and seeing the positive growth from that effort, seeing birds and native plant species return.
Tears of Rangi is about first encounters, asking deep questions about what’s the potential for us and our future. It’s an attempt to round off what I’ve been thinking about for a lifetime, to indicate some possibilities of what we can do together. I think we can do a lot. We’re trying, but we could do more.
The session closed with a tauparapara beloved of Eruera Stirling, speaking of what binds us and the coming together of spirits.
Held in The Piano this was a small select audience of self-confessed book lovers, book accumulators and book collectors. The speakers were Shaun Bythell owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland (and author of novel The diary of a bookseller)and Brian Phillips who has after a long career in publishing in New Zealand now sells collectable New Zealand books.
Shaun, I’m pleased to say, was rocking a “Black Books” Dylan Moran look with a delightfully frayed sports jacket and generally casually disheveled vibe. Excellent. He modestly introduced himself as a general bookseller and someone “generally knowing not very much about everything”.
To warm us up we played a guess the value of some dusty old books game. With seven second hand titles from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to James Clavell’s Shogun, and with a little Harry Potter and Hone Tuwhare thrown in, the books ranged in value from $10 to $500. I can report that everyone including Shaun Bythell got the valuations wrong showing the vagaries and conundrum of book selling and collecting. The book with the highest value turned out to be Shogun.
The conversation meandered somewhat but generally covered: how to sell your own book collections, what to keep and what to collect.
Brian’s advice for would-be sellers was to consider selling books with a value over $500 at auction, and lower valued stock yourselves online using Trade Me.
What to keep was easily answered by what you love, book collecting is about passion.
Finally, what to collect? Shaun praised Folio Society books for their high production standards, beautifully decorated covers and great illustrations. They are relatively inexpensive to buy but exquisite and would hold their value.
Brian recommended several New Zealand titles to keep an eye out for including Wash day at the Pa originally published by the Department of Education as a bulletin for schools and later withdrawn because of its unflattering picture of Maori rural life, Man Alone by John Mulgan (the 1939 English edition) and South Island of New Zealand from the Road by Robin Morrison, preferably with dust jacket intact.
There was some discussion on the added value of author signatures on books. Here Shaun took the view that an author signature only added 10% to the value of the book unless the author was very famous or very reclusive. Janet Frame was considered a good example of an author who signed relatively few books and was very collectable. Establishing the provenance of the book, and the authenticity of the signature was also something to consider, and several online sites hosting authenticated author signatures were mentioned.
Featherston got, for me, an unexpected shout-out as New Zealand’s first booktown. With an increasing number of second hand bookshops Featherston is positioning itself to join the likes of Wigtown in Scotland and Hay-on-Wye in Wales as a book buying and book event destination. Shaun visited Featherston this week and described it as “rough and ready, not too polished but worth a visit”. He hopes the book trade will help reverse the area’s economic decline.
On a less positive note Shaun described the activities of megalisters, online sellers of second hand books with more than 100,000 listings. In the UK second hand books can be bought from institutions for as little as 10 pence per kilo. These pallets of books are then processed at huge warehouses with little or no attention paid to the individual titles. Re-sold on Amazon and Abe Books these books often make more money for the supplier from the hiked up postage charges than from the value of the book itself but through economy of scale profits are made, and the sustainability of the independent secondhand bookseller made more tenuous.
Shaun also saved some scorn for librarians, and our irritating habit of covering library books with plastic covers that leak glue, tape and labels that yellow and cancellation stamps that blot endpapers, not to mention RFID tags, barcodes and all the other staff and customer created mayhem that a poor public library book endures over its short, brutal life. When challenged he did mutter something about libraries as cornerstones of democracy and bastions of learning but I might have imagined that.
A bit more Shaun and a little less Brian, affable and knowledgeable though he is, would have created a better balanced and less parochial workshop but overall this was a super interesting insight into the joys and perils of book collecting and book selling.
Are we there yet? 125 years on from the historic law change that granted New Zealand women the right to vote, an impressive line-up of women gathered in a WORD Christchurch panel at The Piano to discuss this question. Georgina Beyer, Dame Anne Salmond, Sacha McMeeking, Lizzie Marvelly, and Paula Penfold were chaired by the indomitable Kim Hill.
Things kicked off in an unexpectedly musical fashion with sparkles and a ukulele as Gemma Gracewood and Megan Salole of the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra led in with a waiata, the workers’ anthem “Bread and roses”, even managing to get the crowd chiming in with a refrain at the end, Gracewood quipping that “it’s in Kim Hill’s contract to be introduced like this at every event she does”, which is most certainly a lie but it’s nice to pretend it’s not.
In panel discussions it can sometimes be a challenge to make sure that each person gets space to share their thoughts though for this event each panellist got their own turn at the podium. Unsurprisingly all of them answered in the negative but were good enough to elaborate on why, and to speculate on how we could, indeed, get there.
Dame Anne Salmond bemoaned the “experiment” that’s seen public services turned into businesses and the damage it’s done to our communities. “What price work,” she asked “if you have to trade away some of your desires and dreams? What price a thriving economy if we’ve got children dying of Third World diseases?”. Change, she felt, must be a shared task.
She also queried why, as someone who has an academic background in New Zealand history, and the Treaty she is always being asked by journalists about comments made by Don Brash, someone who has never deigned to study these topics. “Why am I still hearing the same voices?” she wondered.
Georgina Beyer remembered and paid tribute to Sonia Davies, the “lovely little piece of firework” who talked her into joining and running for the Labour Party. Davies’ autobiography (later turned into a movie) took it’s name from the waiata that opened the session.
Beyer outlined the slow, but building momentum leading on from 1893, pointing out that it took many years before a woman was elected into parliament (Lytteltonian MP, Elizabeth McCombs in 1933) but that change has been more rapid in the last few decades. Though parliament is still much more balanced in its distribution of power than the boardroom is.
She acknowledged that in some corners of feminism there was a pushing back against transgender activism, that some felt perhaps that all the work and achievements up to this point were being “ridden on the coattails by this ‘transgender lot’.” But she felt that this division wasn’t helpful and that we need to move forward together.
Although initially reticent to offend – egged on by a throaty “Oh, go ON!” by Kim Hill – Beyer confessed that she felt religious dogma had a lot to answer for, citing Brian Tamaki’s “Man up” campaign as just another way of saying “women, go back to the kitchen”, expressing outrage at Gloriavale as “detrimental” to both men and women, and that “conversion therapy is a breach of human rights”.
Journalist Paula Penfold, who is involved with Stuff’s #MeTooNZ campaign, used her time at the podium to present a “listicle” of good news/bad news facts including such sobering statements as “New Zealand has the worst rate of family and intimate partner violence in the world”, an estimated 80% of which is unreported. That the gender gap is closing… but her mother probably won’t live to see it. But she was hopeful, watching her teenage children engage with these issues, that the “young people are seeing a way forward with this”. Which was something of a life-raft in a sea of not great news, which I’m sure was her intention.
Sacha McMeeking, though thwarted initially by screeching feedback, had the audience in the palm of her hand as she gently and wittily guided us through the complicated topic of how you effect social change, noting that we often try to do this from a very top level way, via laws, or on an individual level but that we need to focus on the part in the middle where we collectively create new social habits. She used the metaphor of desire paths, those well-trodden dirt path “shortcuts” that show where people have chosen to diverge from a paved walkway, the implication being that it’s a repeated wearing down by many feet on many trips that can leave a trail for others to follow.
“Society,” she said “is inherently conservative. The status quo is given every possibility to replicate”. It’s about consciously looking, then, for ways to subvert this. Looking for places to blaze (or just wear down, slowly over time) a different trail. And what was this audience, if not a core of people who might help do that? This was about as uplifting as the evening got, and as such, received the largest round of applause.
Musician and columnist Lizzie Marvelly was at her most compelling when describing the culture shock she felt when, after being raised in a family that valued gender equality and attending the female-centric Rotorua Girls High, she changed schools and became one of a minority of female pupils at Kings College in Auckland. Being rated out of ten for attractiveness by boys via the unexpected medium of vegemite-smeared pieces of toast, or having chants of “get back in the kitchen” called out to girls on the sportsfield. And of course, the sad realisation that she was not allowed to be head prefect because that was a title reserved for boys only.
When questioned by Hill on whether exerting the right to make choices is, in and of itself feminist, Marvelly had this to say:
The fact that we have choices is a feminist victory but that doesn’t mean that every choice you make is a feminist one.
For her, unless the choice you’re making in is in support of gender equality then it’s not a feminist one. I’ve never heard this stated so simply, and it makes complete sense to me, though I imagine, as with most things, the devil is in the details/interpretation.
During question time, the questions were, well, largely musings masquerading as questions. Interesting issues were raised, certainly, but it was hard for most of the panellists to grasp onto an answer when questions were somewhat fuzzy. The exception being Georgina Beyer’s recollection of the pack-rape she suffered as a young woman in Sydney – it was devastating in content, sure, but also in her matter of factness about it. And it exposed the flaw in the questioner’s definition of women as “people with vaginas”, introduced as it was with the wryly delivered, “prior to my having a vagina…”
It was a very sobering and downbeat story to end the evening on, but it was also a session that went significantly over time. And I suspect many of the people in the audience did as I did and talked over the issues with their companion on the journey home.