I am bordering on late when I arrive at a packed out Upper NZI Room at the Aotea Centre for a session that, as a South Islander, I feel duty-bound to attend.
I’m pointed in the direction of of a clutch of empty seats near the back by one of the friendly festival ushers/helpers.
This session dares to ask – is the South Island, home to 23% of New Zealanders, another country? Is there something distinctive and different about hailing from the Mainland?
Ready to answer these, and similarly not-that-serious questions are Christchurch writer Fiona Farrell, Otagoan, poet, and former sportsman Brian Turner, and transplanted Banks Peninsula raconteur, dog enthusiast and columnist Joe Bennett.
Radio New Zealand presenter (and non-Mainlander) Jesse Mulligan is in charge of wrangling this trio and extracting what wisdom he could on the topic of Te Waipounamu.
As a dyed in the wool Cantabrian myself the notion that the South Island might be considered sufficiently “different” and “special” from the rest of New Zealand to warrant it’s own hour of discussion was in itself a little off-putting. We’re the normal ones by which the rest of the country may be judged, thanks – I said to myself in a way that somewhat alarmingly reinforced the stereotype, and caused me to peer out from behind my metaphorical eyepatch. But I am not alone. When Mulligan asks who in the crowd was a Mainlander, a sea of arms waved in unison. No red and black stripey scarves were seen, nor are any couches set alight, but early days…
Yes, it seems that this corner of the Aotea Centre was packed to the gunwales with South Islanders. Here we had all converged…to hear us discuss ourselves. But perhaps if you’re a Mainlander who lives in Auckland, the chances to gather like this are rare? Kia kaha, my southern brothers and sisters, kia kaha.
Each representative of The Other Big Island is asked to read something that speaks to their identity as a South Islander.
Farrell chooses a poignant passage from her book The Villa at the Edge of the Empire about solastalgia, the feeling of distress caused by the loss of a familiar landscape or environment. My one Cantabrian eye moistens noticeably.
Turner chooses to read several things by different authors including Margaret Atwood and Ronald Wright. I can’t remember the exact details but the theme seems to be that of the rural landscape being irretrieveably altered and damaged in the name of “progress”. What definitely sticks with me was how he describes himself as “a cussett sort of a coot”, because who, outside of a Larry McMurtry novel, talks that way? Splendid.
Bennett is rather less lyrical in his description of Turner who claims to sometimes call “my pet rock”. Certainly the difference between the two men is stark – Bennett all rambunctious energy, Turner barely moving and thoughtful. Mulligan, to his credit, manages almost to reign Bennett in at times, which is generally the best you can hope for, in my experience.
Bennett’s reading is of a very brief passage from a Owen Marshall short story “Cabernet Sauvignon with my brother”, which he chooses for a very specific description of dryness that he feels really perfectly captures that place.
I love the accumulated heat of the Canterbury autumn. When you rest on the ground you can feel the sustained warmth coming up into your body, and there are pools of dust like talcum powder along the roads. It’s not the mock tropicality of the Far North, but the real New Zealand summer. It dries the flat of your tongue if you dare to breathe through your mouth. After spending the vacation working on the coast, I was happy to be back in Canterbury.
Mulligan then asks a questioned designed to provoke, “why don’t you move to Auckland?”
Farrell quips that she “probably couldn’t afford it” (A ha! An Auckland property market joke – they’re easy… but they’re still funny), and Bennett says it has never crossed his mind and points out how wrongheaded, presumptuous and arrogant the question is in the first place.
Discussion moves on to the portrayal of the South Island in the media and Bennett claims that the northern-driven media are often patronising and fall back on the trope of the South Island as “a visitable theme park of prejudice”. Cripes.
Farrell, recalls with dismay how, after reviewing the covers of a weekly publication that may also be a sponsor of the festival so shall not be named, *cough* The Listener *cough*, for the year 2013, found that 25 were about food, and Christchurch didn’t feature once. You can almost but not quite, hear the “tsking” from the audience.
Farrell also paints an interesting picture when discussion of a South Island personality comes up when she says that the myth of two old codgers meandering down a country road discussing cheese really is a myth – they’ve likely sold their farms to foreign interests and are incredibly wealthy, meanwhile the majority of the rivers have been left unswimmable. And yet, we should fight to try and keep some part of this myth of wide open spaces, and bucolic beauty alive and real.
In the end, did we learn anything about what it is to be a South Islander from this session? Maybe the northerners in attendance did? It was certainly entertaining enough to hear the conversation, though I couldn’t help thinking, since all the panelists were of a different generation from me, that what being a Mainlander means to them, might be quite different to what it means to a part-Māori Gen Xer from Linwood. But maybe that’s a different discussion again?
Find out more
- Titles by Joe Bennett in our catalogue
- Titles by Fiona Farrell in our catalogue
- Titles by Brian Turner in our catalogue
- Find out more about the Auckland Writers Festival 2016
- Browse all our Auckland Writers Festival posts
- Read Masha, Moata and Roberta’s Auckland Writers Festival 2016 recommended booklist
- See photos from the Festival