Netta Egoz – the woman behind Christchurch’s PechaKucha Nights

The next PechaKucha night is on this Thursday 25 August,  part of the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival and the speakers include WORD guests. Some sessions are:

  • AJ Fitzwater // Science Fiction and Fantasy Author // Mary Sue vs Strong Female Character
  • Debbie Stoller // BUST Magazine founder & Stitch ‘n Bitch author // The Handmade’s Tale: Why Knitting is a Feminist Issue
  • Caitlin Doughty // Progressive Mortician // Our Corpses, Ourselves
  • Alok Jha // Science writer // on how the world could end.

I caught up with Netta Egoz, a PechaKucha Night (PKN) organizer, and no ordinary woman. On the contrary. She IS a supergirl. One can not believe all the things she fits in her day. Besides being a full-time lawyer,  she’s involved in many other projects, like Te Pūtahi – Christchurch Centre for Architecture and City-Making, Project Lyttelton and Social Enterprise Network Ōtautahi. Her legal background, coupled with her passion for creative industries, the Christchurch rebuild, social initiatives, and genuine wish for better and fairer world makes her a rare and precious find. Her skills are well sought after in the city like Christchurch.

We talked about PechaKucha, city-making, law, libraries and the essential components of a successful morning.

netta first picture
Netta Egoz. Image supplied.

You are a solicitor in the day and you are involved in many community projects in your spare time. Your professional and private interests seem very diverse. How do they relate to each other?

They still belong to two separate worlds. A lot of people that I meet outside my work ask me if I am an artist. It is a well-kept secret that I am actually a commercial lawyer. For a long time I felt like I was leading a double life, but pretty quickly I realized I wanted to bring those two worlds together. So that’s why I moved to a private sector in my professional career.

I previously worked at community law, which I thought would be a good way of having a middle ground. But the reality is that community law doesn’t interact with creative sector, it interacts with people with very high unmet legal needs and often the creativity or arts are luxury for these people. But by being a commercial lawyer I am able to do a lot more work with creative industries. From a business perspective, it is quite smart. There are not many lawyers, who work in this area, so I have a great client base. My work is more interesting because I am helping people, who are doing creative things.

My special area is social enterprise so I work a lot with charities, non-profit organizations and creative industries. I am helping them find the ways to become self-sufficient and be commercial entities as well as creating a common social good. On the other end I do a lot of board governance work, which allows me to be a lawyer for creatives.

I imagine your skills, knowledge and interests are highly valuable, there are not many people like you in Christchurch.

I am not aware of many lawyers who are involved in creative industries. There are a few, who will work pro bono for various creative entities and there are a few who will sit on boards, but I am not aware of any, who runs creative projects like I do, or yet still keep a full-time commercial legal job.

netta secondpicture
“The reality is, Christchurch has so much to offer to young creatives. Because we can be so much more important in the city like Christchurch.” Netta Egoz. Image supplied.

These are two very different worlds. Creative people often do not have time, energy or knowledge to dive into legal issues.

Yes, even more so with commercial law. It’s often seen as very dry. I have resisted commercial law for a long time because it didn’t seem like the type of law a creative person would do. But increasingly I realized that’s where my strength is and that’s actually where a lot of creative entities need help. Right through the university I never thought I would be a lawyer, let alone a commercial lawyer. I was always interested in grassroots community, creative movements. I have been running creative events for 10 years now and practicing as a lawyer for 3 years, so my initial engagement was in arts. It’s something that has carried through with me and I’ve managed to still retain it.

Let’s talk about one of your creative projects now, PechaKucha. When did you first come across it and how come you decided to organize it here in Christchurch?

PKN has been running in Christchurch for almost nine years and I have been organizing it for three, maybe three and a half years. So PKN transcends me. I first heard about it just before the earthquake – it has an unusual name that sticks in your mind. The first one I went to was the one directly after the quakes and it was one of the few creative events of this type. There was definitely a hole in our city as far as events go. We have lost a lot of them after the quakes. PKN has grown a lot in Christchurch since then as there was a real need for it and it became a real cornerstone of what the Christchurch creative community does.

The first time I got involved was in 2011, when I presented at PKN, volume 12. It was about a project I was doing with my employer at the time, the White Elephant Trust. I was working with Architecture for Humanity on a city youth venue and I was asked to present. I loved it so much, that I decided to volunteer and I stayed with them right through the university. After living overseas, I came back to Christchurch for the job interview and the day I arrived back someone offered me to be PKN city organizer. I thought wow, you just don’t get handed a torch like that! Everything fell into place that day, I was given a key to my passion and also to my home in Lyttelton. For so long I was feeling very lost and I felt I needed to move on from Christchurch. But the reality is Christchurch has so much to offer to young creatives. Because we can be so much more important in the city like Christchurch.

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It seems to me that PKN in Christchurch is in some way at the core of the rebuild activity. It follows what is happening and reopening in the central city.

I am definitely biased here, but I think we are very important for the social rebuild. Firstly, there’s continuity – we existed before the quakes, right through the earthquakes and onwards. There’s reliability – it happens four times a year, and the format is the same: 20 seconds for 20 slides. So you know what you’re getting. It’s eclectic, the speakers are always different, they provide surprises and new information, the venues and themes are always different. We mix people, we had people from Earthquake Recovery talking what they are doing, ordinary residents of Christchurch talking about a small idea they had, artists announcing big projects … It’s a great mix, everyone is on the same stage at the same level, what they have to share is just as important whether it is coming from the government, established creative institutions or just residents of Christchurch who have an idea or a story. It’s a mix of introducing new projects, providing information, telling a fictional story, performances …

So it’s got quite an egalitarian nature.

I hope so. I know PKN as a global institution gets compared to TEDx, I think one of the big points of difference is that PKN is more from the bottom up. As organizers, we have some curation, but very limited. It’s about people approaching us to perform. No matter who you are, you are given the exact same time on stage, exact same introduction, and exact same treatment. I think it is quite egalitarian in that sense.

The audience of the last PKN in Christchurch, held at Christchurch Art Gallery. Image supplied.

So everyone gets the same format, but this format seems very hard. It sounds very simple: 20 seconds for each of the 20 images, but that demands almost special skills. Do you have any tips on how to perform as best as possible? Continue reading

Petina Gappah on the elusive nature of writers’ satisfaction – at Auckland Writers Festival

“Thank you for coming today, when you should all be in church. You will all go to hell.”

This is how Petina Gappah charms the audience at Auckland Writers Festival right at the start of her Sunday session. And than she just keeps the jokes coming.

This Zimbabwean born author has, until recently, had an impressive career in international law in Geneva, while being an award winning writer and a single mother at the same time. She says she hasn’t slept since she had her son, which was 12 years ago. “But I am not as efficient as Margaret Thatcher,” she adds.

Petina Gappah
Petina Gappah – writer, translator, single mother and lawyer. (Image supplied)

Looking at her work, that’s hard to believe. Her first published book, An Elegy for Easterly, is a collection of short stories and has won, among other awards, the Guardian First Book award in 2009. Even though it was labelled by her publisher as “the voice of Zimbabwe”, Petina does not feel comfortable talking on behalf of a whole Zimbabwe, never mind the whole of Africa. She feels that labelling writers as “coloured” comes with expectations of what they should write about.

And what does Petina write about? Corruption, hypocrisy, abuse of power, exploitation, memory, love, loss and – superstition. While her collections of short stories bring a multitude of voices of modern Zimbabwe, the story in her first novel, The Book of Memory, is a monologue narrated by an albino woman, who was sold off as a child by her parents and ended up in a maximum security prison in Harare for murdering her adoptive father. She is prompted by her lawyer to write down her memories, her story as she remembers  it – so Memory finds herself writing for her life – both literally and metaphorically.

Cover of An elegy for easterly
The winner of Guardian First Book award in 2009.

Even though Petina has been writing since she was 11, it took her 6 years to finish the story of Memory. As it was her second published work, it put her under a lot of pressure. As usual expectations were huge. When asked about how she overcame this “second novelitis” crisis (term coined by Bianca Zander), Petina laughs: “Who says I  got over it?” But she manages to see the crisis of confidence in a more complex way: “The beauty of being a writer is the elusive nature of satisfaction. I always want to develop as a writer, to always be in  battle with myself.”

After the great success of The Book of Memory and after her son “took himself to boarding school” she decided to hand in her  notice at work so she could dedicate more time to writing and exploring. “I want to take a gap year. That thing kids do before the university.”

Cover of The book of memory

I am with you, Petina! Let that gap year roll into another and another and another …

Find out more

Liz Pichon: “Drawing, writing, painting – I have the best job in the world!”

If you are travelling down the northern motorway into Christchurch in the mornings and spot a person in the car parallel to yours chuckling uncontrollably, you might be looking at a librarian who is listening to an audiobook. Similar unexpected outbursts of laughter can happen at some other times, during lunch breaks in the staff dining room or while strolling along one of the streets in the CBD in bare daylight to name just a few.

It’s Tom Gates books that make me unashamedly snort with laughter in front of people. Sometimes I wish someone would ask me what I am laughing at, just to give me an excuse to share with them the delightfully witty escapades of Tom Gates. Tom is a cheerful, excited, good-hearted boy, who loves doodling, eating caramel wafers and pulling pranks on his sister Delia. Most of the days he is late for school, daydreams through school classes and has his very own band called Dogzombies (because he likes dogs and zombies). There is so much in Tom’s everyday life that I can relate to.

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Tom Gates author, Liz Pichon. (Image supplied)

But no one can tell a story better than its author, which in this case is Liz Pichon. Liz is equally artful with words as she is with pencils. She illustrates and writes every single page of Tom Gates books by hand! Her doodles are thoughtfully interwoven with texts and create a joyful reading experience. Last week she published Super good skills (almost), the 10th in a series of books about Tom Gates. Many of them are prizewinners and have been translated into 36 different languages.

Liz is coming to Auckland Writers festival this week. Even though she is very busy, she took some time to answer a few questions exclusively for her fans in Christchurch:

I asked Liz how her working day looks like and if she has a special space where she works. What is it like?

When I am writing at home, if the weather’s NOT too grim, I’ll go to the seafront with my husband, have a run (if I am honest it’s more of a PLOD) followed by a coffee. Which I am sure isn’t part of any fitness manual – but it sort of works for me. Once I’m at my desk I often work quite late, so it’s nice getting out in the morning.
I have a shed in the garden, which is on its last legs now. It used to be my husbands recording studio so it’s nice and warm but I’ve run out of storage space and I’m starting to feel like a hoarder who’s surrounded by all her STUFF. When I start a new book I have lots of notes for ideas that I look back on. Then I draw a kind of story map – like an illustrated flow chart. I put down lots of random ideas, then weave them into some kind of order and that’s what I show my editor. I don’t always stick to it exactly but it’s good to have something to refer to. I draw and write at the same time – then transfer the text to a word document. If I do too much writing on the computer I have to edit like crazy when it comes to drawing the pages up later.

Cover of Tom Gates Is Absolutely Fantastic (at Some Things)     Cover of The Brilliant World of Tom Gates     Cover of Yes! No. (Maybe)

So your books are entirely made by you – you do triple the work: illustrations, text and overall design?

I LOVE being able to draw and design all the pages, it’s all part of telling the story. Once I have written the story, I draw every page by hand and scan them into the computer where I work on them a bit more. Then I send the pages to the designer who puts in the text and uses my roughs to add the drawings. Making these books is a team effort, there are so many little details that need checking and you only get to see the flow of the story when all the pages are laid out. Scholastic (publisher) have been fantastic to work with. I go into their office to work on the final bits and pieces before it goes to print, which is like having a real job.

What would Delia’s doodles look like?

Delia likes to PAINT. So I would imagine her doodles would look like a Jackson Pollock picture.

Tom’s daily battle is how to fit as much doodling as possible into every class at school. What is your advice to children, who are struggling to juggle between school obligations and passions or hobbies which they love and are good at? Do you have any advice for their parents and teachers?

When I was at school I always got the feeling that drawing and art was never as important as ‘real’ work. It was a ‘fluffy’ subject and not something to be taken that seriously. I loved writing stories as well, but being dyslexic my spelling was shocking (and maths too) so it never crossed my mind that it was something I might be able to do for a living. Caitlin Moran (who’s a writer and journalist in the UK) said you should try and work out what you LOVE doing, then find a way to make a living from it. It took me a while, but that’s what I am doing now. Drawing, writing, painting, meeting kids, doing the events. I have the best job in the WORLD and although I work harder now than I have ever done, I enjoy every moment. I know how lucky I am.

It drives me crazy that creative subjects are being shoved to the sidelines. I heard a talk by Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants) last year and he had a rotten time in school being told all his comic drawings were a waste of time and he’d never amount to much. Well – seventy million book sales world wide later – I think he’s doing okay!

There are plenty of videos on the web with Liz Pichon explaining how to draw.

Is there an author or illustrator that might have been influential (either in your youth or later on) for you? If you could invite her/him to the concert, which concert would you take them to?

Quentin Blake gave a talk at my art college, he was so funny and his drawings are consistently brilliant. He’s quiet elderly now so nothing too LOUD, besides I’d want to be able to chat to him. So maybe one of those concerts where you bring your own picnic. I used to live near Hampstead Heath and there’s a place called Kenwood House that has lots of summer concerts. I think he might enjoy that.

Libraries unfortunately don’t sell caramel wafers, but we do offer books to read for free. Do you have your favourite library?

The original building is closed now, but Willesden Library in North London was a LIFESAVER when my son Zak was little. It was really close by and I used to take Zak there all the time. People forget how important libraries are for meeting other kids and parents and having somewhere to go that’s free too.

If you could choose one talent you would want to be born with (besides the ones you already have) which one would it be?

I’d love to be able to SING really well. I’d be able to sing all the time and drive my family even MORE crazy than I do now.

Is there a skill you always wanted to gain, but never had a chance yet?

I had a go at throwing a POT last year and it was a lot harder than it looks! I’d love to make a few more and learn to use the wheel properly.

If you could travel back in time, which era of the history would you go to and why?

Just occasionally I look at pictures of my kids when they were little and think it would be nice to go back in time and cuddle them at that age again. They’re 25, 21 and 17 now. But other than that I prefer to look forwards not backwards.

Book vs. eBook?

Book – but you can have both.

Cats vs. Dogs?

Cats for independence. Dogs for fun. (I don’t have either!)

Coffee vs. Tea?


I can’t wait to see Liz live – maybe she will share a few more tips on how to live of what you love doing. Or more importantly, how to annoy older siblings, draw funny doodles and incorporate coffee and wafers into your fitness regime.

Anna Smaill – from a writing musician to a musical writer

Meeting Anna Smaill is almost like a scene from a modern James Bond movie. Hurrying up the stairs of Aotea Centre, she is not aware that I am following right behind her. Once inside the lobby, she reaches for her phone. Before I can say hello, the phone in my pocket starts to ring. Anna slowly turns around, puzzled, still holding her phone close to her ear. We find ourselves in an awkward moment. We don’t know what to do with our hands – greet each other or turn off the phones. Looking at each other, we burst out laughing, leaving the phones to echo around the lobby.

Cover of The Violinist in SpringEven though Anna published her debut novel The Chimes at the beginning of this year, she is definitely not a new name in New Zealand literary landscape. Her poetry featured in Best New Zealand Poems in 2002 and 2005, as well as numerous journals and magazines, before it found a permanent home in her first collection of poetry Violinist in spring (2006). Despite her dedicated academic pursuits – Masters in English Literature (Auckland University), Masters in Creative Writing (IIML, Victoria University of Wellington) and a PhD (University College London) – she never felt entirely suited for academic world. Most of all, she enjoys writing fiction. “It’s because it draws on all parts of me and it’s fun.” She quickly adds how “really really hard” it sometimes is.

The ChimesHer musical background has evidently marked not only her poetry but also her prose. Themes and style of The Chimes, dystopian novel set in alternative England, stem from the idea of music as an overpowering and navigating force of reality. An immense musical instrument, the Carillon, controls lives of remaining population. Brainwashing happens regularly with Matins, which tells “Onestory” – the only acceptable truth about the “Allbreaking”, the fatal discord, that broke with the past (now refered to as a “blasphony”) and established the present order. This is followed by violent erasing of – not only personal but collective memory as well – at Vespers with the Chimes. Among “memoryloss”, people who have suffered incurable damage, and “prentisses”, workforce which helps maintain the functioning of this complex musical tyranny, run by the Order, are outcasts. They forge for the “Lady”, a metal substance out of which the Carillon is made, and hold on to their “objectmemories”, the only remnants of their previous lives and selves. These enable them to trigger and nurture their personal memories.

The main character of the story, Simon, is a young orphan, who joins the pact of outcasts and soon realizes he possesses a special talent, that might change everything. With its unique style, which draws from the music, myriads of themes, relevant to a present day, and a clever narrative this work holds a reader in a grasp of perplexity and amazement until the very end.

I met up with Anna at Auckland Writers Festival to talk about her work, her life and The Chimes – of course.

Lives of people in The Chimes basically depend on their memories. What are your first memories of books, reading or libraries?

We used to go religiously to the library on Friday nights with my family. But I used to go to the library every day on my own after school as well, so it was almost like a second home for me. On Friday night we actually got the books out and we had a big red sack that we filled with books. I remember coming home and feeling reassured and excited. It was a bit like coming home from a supermarket after you just bought enough food for the week – only that I had enough reading material for a week. I was a total bookworm. Also, my family didn’t have a television.

Cover of TintinWe, children, were really lucky as our parents read to us a lot. I do remember the frustration before learning to read. I was trying to get my sister to read out Tintin comics for me. I also remember wishing to escape to my room to be able to read in peace during children’s parties. I found reading much more exciting.

Libraries are – just like museums and galleries – treasurers of collective memory. What is your opinion on cutting down library fundings, which is becoming a real fashion all around the world?

It’s a worrying development. People have a right to access literature. I do see it as a worrying sign. Although here in New Zealand libraries are so much part of the community, they are used by a broad section of the community and they feel very vital. In the UK, it didn’t feel like they were being that well used. There is more time to go to the library, here in New Zealand. In UK people are time-poor.

What has brought you to writing? Where does the need to write stem from? Is it just the fear of letting memories slip away, as you mentioned in a post on your web page, or are there any other inner motives and impulses?

The first impulse is the sense of time going past. It’s almost having the experience of pathos in the moment, having feeling of something happening that is already gone. I’ve always had very acutely this feeling of things being transient and ephemeral and I wanted to capture them.

Continue reading

Kids’ writing heroes at the Auckland Writers Festival

Did you ever wish to meet your favourite author when you were little? Did you get a chance? What did you say or ask? When I was a keen young reader, all my favourite authors were already dead. Except one.

I was lucky enough to meet her once. She was talking to the teachers in the foyer after the school visit, drinking coffee and smoking her cigarette. I was hiding behind the corner, gathering my courage and waiting for the best moment to come. All I could find at that moment was a small piece of paper. I decided it will do. Finally, I approached the table and asked her for an autograph. Her cold eyes pierced through the smoke between us and straight through me. A torrent of telling-off followed from her mouth. It must have been wrong question or wrong timing. According to her, it was the size of the paper. Only later on I learned she was writing children’s books but did not like children. It took me ten years to re-establish this fractured reader-writer relationship.

I am pretty sure none of the young visitors to Auckland Writers Festival had an experience like that! Children and their parents had a chance to listen and see some of the best authors in the world. Besides some big-name-sessions on Saturday and a family-focused day on Sunday, the school programme featured some great names during the week, including great American YA author Laurie Halse Anderson, a former comedian Natalie Haynes, performing poet Grace Taylor, New Zealand YA author Bernard Beckett, sci-fi YA debut writer Rachael Craw, singer and songwriter Hollie Fullbrook and cartoonist and creator of graphic novels, Ant Sang.

DSC_0073I could not believe my eyes when I stepped into the ASB Theatre on Saturday morning, before the David Walliams session. The place was like an anthill – little excited readers wriggling everywhere! When it was time for questions, their hands shut up in the air and I was afraid a couple of them might jump off the balcony, on which we were seated. After the show the excitement followed in the queue. I have never ever seen so many patient children in my life – some of them were queuing for more than two hours to get their books signed by David. No arguments, no rows, just very excited faces.

An afternoon session with Morris Gleitzman, Australia’s most celebrated writer for children and young adults, followed. On Sunday, after Captain Underpants/Dav Pilkey revealed a few of his drawing tricks, I walked into the foyer of Herald Theatre, where the family Sunday sessions were taking place, and caught an illustrator Raymond McGrath surrounded by a group of children. They were deeply focused on their work, illustrating and drawing monsters. Donovan Bixley, an illustrator and graphic novels author, was signing his books on the other side of the room. I mingled in the crowd to find a few keen young readers, who shared their impressions of the festival and their ideas about books.

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Donovan Bixley, top, and Raymond McGrath, bottom, working their magic with the little ones at Auckland Writers Festival.

First, I talked to a very young lady, Ava, who at the age of six already knows a true value of poetry as she came to listen to Jenny Palmer present her A Little ABC book. Jenny’s session was not the only one Ava attended. Donovan Bixley was pretty entertaining, talking about Young Jimmy, the hero of his comic hit Monkey Boy, and Zak Waipara presented his work on Maori myths. Ava was not shy about sharing what she is reading to her mummy at the moment: The brave kitten (Holly Webb) and How to train your dragon (Cressida Cowell). She usually gets books from her favourite Waiheke Library, which I visited next day and decided with no doubt it’s my favourite as well.

Sitting in the corner and reading a graphic novel was Kea. He is a quiet one, but there is something smart about his face. He tells me his favourite books are – I should have guessed – graphic novels, because “they’re cool” – I should have guessed that as well! He has seen quite a few authors during the festival, but his favourite is – you have probably guessed – Donovan Bixley. I wonder what he would be writing about, if he would be a famous author. With no hesitation, he answers: “Action stories, with lots of heroes!”

I catch Cooper and Ruby just before they whiz back in the theatre to see Trish Gribben and Judy Millar present their pop-up book Swell. After seeing David Walliams, Dav Pilkey, Morris Gleitzman, Jenny Palmer, Zak Waipara and Donovan Bixley, they both agree that David Walliams was the funniest and Dav Pilkey was exciting because he draw pictures and talked about his early childhood. Cooper found Zak’s session very interesting because it was all about Māori myths. If he was a famous author, Cooper’s stories would be full of action, ghosts and pirates. Ruby would write funny stories, like Roald Dahl or David Walliams.

Our time is up and I let children return to the next session. While I’m leaving the foyer, I ponder who of them would be my favourite writer. I decide it would probably be Ruby. And I am absolutely sure, she would not tell me off, if I asked her for an autograph.

The Quotable Auckland Writers Festival

Here are some of favourite quotes which I managed to write down during the Auckland Writers Festival. I was struggling to rank them in a list from best to awesome, but you can judge them according to your own taste and preference.

“Reality is a bit more than we think it is.” Ben Okri

“The only limit with your story is imagination.” David Walliams

“If people read their authors, it’s their richness.” Ben Okri

“My stories are always unpredictable to myself” Haruki Murakami

“You feel like a magician when you write.” David Walliams

“I’m writing books for my people, not for my country.” Haruki Murakami

“Good thing is that people are writing books about what we’re doing wrong.” Charlotte Grimshaw

“I like the audience to have their view of the songs.” Hollie Fullbrook

“It is important to try and inspire those ones who don’t read, to read.” David Walliams

“Truth can hurt, but not knowing can hurt more.” Alan Cumming

“Curiosity is willingness to step in somebody else’s shoes.” Atul Gawande

“We don’t love our past enough to bring it into our present.” Aroha Harris

“History is one of the most powerful colonizing tools available. Especially if you are writing it from your point of view as a hero.” Aroha Harris

“More knowledge from parents to children.” Xinran

“We are in an age, when a move from home is a mythic experience.” Anna Smaill

“Everyone has an amazing story to tell.” David Walliams

“Remain yourself. Your experience is the most interesting. Be what you are.” Alan Cumming

“Hearts get broken over the breakfast table.” Anton Chekhov (only present in spirit and quoted by Hollie Fullbrook).

“You should always have a picture of a 100% boy, even when you have 78% husband.” Haruki Murakami

What I realized transcribing these quotes is that some of them are deeply embedded in the context of writer’s work or their life experience. But what makes them so beautiful is their universality. Everyone can interpret them in their own way.

8 reasons to visit Writers Festivals

It is hard to believe that my three days of booky awesomeness are over. Being part of the library team visiting Auckland Writers Festival, it felt like living in a bubble of joy and excitement for a few days. When I felt it couldn’t get better, it did!

Here is a list of reasons why you – I believe you must be a passionate reader, if you have come across this blog – should not miss out on the next booky event:  AWF

  1. An inspiring amount of people come to the same place to listen and talk about books, reading and writing. It is amazing to be part of such passionate and versatile crowd that vibrates in chords of harmony.
  2. A day at the festival exists of librarian’s favourite things: listening to authors, reading, writing, sleeping and eating. OK, I admit – buying books as well.
  3. Patient queues. Never in my life have I experienced such patient and polite queue-ers! Queues start to form 45 minutes before the event. It is great to see people connecting and conversing about books and sessions they’ve seen. Queuing is a great way to catch up with the content of sessions you were not able to attend or just to meet lovely people (It is also a perfect time to tweet or post on Facebook as audience is not allowed to use the devices during some of the sessions).
  4. Kids. Excited kids. Kids excited about books. Tons of them! As a librarian I started to feel hopeful about this planet’s future when I saw hundreds and hundreds of kids and their parents pouring into the festival venue to listen to their favourite authors and patiently queueing for more than 2 hours (!) to get their books signed. Never mind parents spending their wages to buy their little ones more books! Certainly a memory to hold on to, it will come handy next time I have my dark day.
  5. Extremely patient and helpful staff. Working in public service myself, I deeply admire these people’s patience and friendliness. I imagine there were moments, when – if being one of them – I would have happily hid in the toilets and pretended I’m not there.
  6. Paper bags! Paper bags at the book sellers. My level of serotonin increased by double, when I realized those paper bags people are carrying around contain newly bought books. That’s the way to go, people!
  7. Law of attraction. Being in the same place as so many other people you admire and are there to listen too, seems to attract some sort of good energy. One moment, they are on the stage, next moment, they are in the crowd and you can be sitting right next to them. Law of attraction surely does the magic during the festival. I must have been destined to meet Xinran. First, I was sitting next to her on the plane to Auckland and also bumped into her after the festival in the restaurant. She left me speechless – her genuineness and humbleness are admirable. She hugged me before saying goodbye. It felt so natural.
  8. Last but most obvious reason – authors. Amazing humble giants! You don’t have to read all of their books to see how amazing they are. You can just listen and let yourself be charmed. Again. And again. And again …

Ben Okri: “Reality is a bit more than what we think it is.”

“4am is a good sport.” says Ben Okri apropos Murakami’s no alarm clock early risings. “I have my best dreams at 4am,” he adds.

Time stretches and brims over the edges of yet another unforgettable afternoon at Auckland Writers Festival. This time the magician is Ben Okri, author of eight novels as well as collections of poetry, short stories and essays. He has won many international prizes, including the Man Booker Prize for The Famished Road in 1991. His work has been translated into over 20 languages. Okri is often described as one of Africa’s leading writers. He was born in Nigeria but lives in London. And if you are still wondering – he gets up between 7 and 8.

Cover of The Famished Road      Cover of Starbook     In Arcadia     Infinite Riches

He is in New Zealand to talk about his work and latest book The Age of Magic. Each book explores a particular universe, he believes, and his last one talks about evil and fame, but also – like most of his books – the reality, which resonates magic in its deeper tissue.

The latest book nests many silences, pauses, gaps, spaces. The book as a page-turning machine is not Ben’s notion. Books are about the mood, the internal journey:

“Reading is not about the book, it is about reader’s mind, mood, heart, history.”

Ben talks about the leitmotiv of his work – comprehension of reality and relativity of what we perceive as real. Unexplainable coincidences, perceptions of each other, time as emotional construct, evanescence of dreams, (in)capability of our senses, configuration of reality through our consciousness – what intrigues him in life, finds a form and a voice in his work.

His writing is often associated with magical realism, but Okri prefers to avoid this categorisation. “What you find in One Hundred Years of Solitude, you will never find in my novels.” When a possible connection between his works and the world of myth is suggested from a listener in the audience, his reaction is dubious yet indicative: “I love those myths where bird turns into a fish – that’s how I want to write.” But he is more interested in the quiet magic of life itself and he describes his work as “extraordinary things, happening on the page with internal logic.”

First page of The Age of Magic with dedication and signature
First page of Okri’s latest book – with his own dedication and signature!

Ben is convinced that reality is a bit more than we think and while (con)figuring it, we are not employing all the senses we could. Our relationship with reality works like a boomerang effect: what we put out, seems to come back.

Our perception and understanding of reality stems from what we are taught in early years. “We teach our children, what reality is. When you’re young you just see, what you see, you are not told, what reality is.” Ben refers to endless childhood afternoons, when time did not yet exist and reminds us how time slows down, when we are in special emotional states: “Time runs differently if you are on your way to the dentist or if you are about to meet your loved one.” It bends, stretches and expands according to our emotions.

Ben generously stretches the time of his session – he steps to the edge of the stage and amplifies the magic that we have just bathed in – he thanks us. His gratefulness to be in Aotearoa shines from his face:

“New Zealand is myth-infested land. Stories pop up everywhere.”

I could not agree more, Ben!

If you like stretching time by reading long novels, check out Ben’s Man Booker Prize Winner The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches.  If you prefer something shorter, go for Tales of Freedom. And if you are a poetry junkie, make sure to read some of Ben’s poems on his website.

David Walliams for breakfast, Haruki Murakami for dessert. And a lot of delicious munchies in between.

Do you ever find yourself wondering how would your daily menu look like if it would consist of books and authors. Who or what would you have for breakfast? Something light and fresh like contemporary flash fiction? Uplifting and witty like a book for kids? Or bitter-sweet like contemporary Japanese fiction to accompany your coffee?

Awful Auntie The Violinist in Spring Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

If you do have daydreams like that, you are not alone. I have them all the time. They turned into reality yesterday at the Auckland Writers Festival. My menu was packed with delicious, fragrant, crunchy, invigorating goodies, boosting with nutritious antioxidants for mind and soul.

This is how I spoiled myself:

David Walliams successfully fulfilled the inevitable craving for caffeine first thing in the morning. Not only that: his serving of salty English humour satisfied children as well as their parents. He amused the crowd with full-bodied readings from his latest children’s novel Awful Auntie and also Gangsta Granny. For full list of ingredients and nutritional value, read Zac’s blog post.

Child Poverty in New Zealand Tangata Whenua

To balance the amount of adrenaline and sugar in my blood and to extinguish my guilty pleasure feeling, I decided to devote myself to something more weighty (and potentially choke-risky). After quoting Nelson Mandela (“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.“) professor Jonathan Boston, co-author of Child poverty in New Zealand, spooned out worrying and icy-cold facts. In 2014 24% of children in NZ lived in poverty! For more about this shameful, damaging and morally unacceptable E ingredient of modern society, check out Ben’s blog post.

Before I knew it, it was time for lunch: filling and abundant feast of inspirations, catered by Tangata Whenua session. Co-authors of this 543-page Maori history Aroha Harris and Atholl Anderson, took us on a seven-year journey from the day the seed of the book was planted by Judith Binney (who unfortunately passed away before the publication of book) till the harvest was hand-picked, cooked and served. It did not need a karakia as its level of tapu is without a measure.

Encompassing a mix of scientific approaches in the book (which by the way won the 2015 Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize a night before), it was put together to tell a tangata whenua history from origins to today, avoiding the contamination with political aspects and staying faithful to its encyclopedic and social purposes.

“I like the audience to have their view of the song”

Afternoon tea was served by Hollie Fulbrook, singer, songwriter and initiator of the band Tiny Ruins (if you haven’t listen to them yet, you are missing out big time! Their album Brightly Painted One was named Best Alternative Album at the 2014 NZ Music Awards). Hollie took us on her musical sailings: from early beginnings (if you ever wondered, Billy is a love song dedicated to her goldfish), through her travels on the road (spiced up by the influence of Beat poets and Chekhov) – to her student years, when her melancholy sweet voice and stroking words found their form. Her vocal tenderness coupled into harmony with two other scrumptious layers of this irresistible piece of cake: Cass Basil (bass) and Alexander Freer (drums).

August The Chimes

Intellectual evening dinning followed, featuring brilliant word-connoisseur Anna Smaill and metaphysical thriller chef Bernard Beckett. Intriguing, mind provoking ideas about memory, identity, death, apocalypse, language and the trend of an orphaned male hero were addressed. The entrées were served as readings from authors recent YA dystopian novels Chimes and Lullaby.

1Q84 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Kafka on the Shore Norwegian Wood

And finally – my favourite. Green tea in a fragile japanese porcelain. Haruki Murakami: subtle, clear, witty, wise, mysterious. Almost dreamlike. The air among the crowd was charged with deep mindful attentiveness. I had a feeling the whole world would end by a wave of a hand. Life very rarely blesses us with such experiences – thanks to Donna, we have it truthfully captured in her brilliant blog post. Haruki left a big question mark at the bottom of my tea cup. But also an ever-growing warmth of content in my heart.

Alan Cumming: “As an artist, I don’t want to entertain people, I need to provoke.”

Not My Father's SonWith the ease and playfulness of a youth, acclaimed actor of theatre and screen Alan Cumming comes on a stage and positions himself in a chair. He used to be annoyed by the media description of him as elfin, but now he claims himself a “Scottish elf trapped in the middle-aged body”. Evoking the child (and his voice), repressed so early in his childhood, was one of the best things he could do!

“I have a voice because of my work.”

Alan was a guest of the Auckland Writers Festival last night. In front of a huge curious crowd, he talked about the difficult relationship with his father with admirable genuineness. His new book Not my father’s son is his memoir of this traumatic childhood, packed with violence and his own struggles for liberation. (According to Alan, it reads like a thriller).

Zac meets Alan.

“I’m not a cheese. I don’t have a process.”

Alan’s memoir is the second in a line of his writing experiments (the first one, Tommy’s tale, 2002, talks about the inner conflict of a man’s wish to become a father and his overpowering sexual drive).

He became a familiar face through films (Emma, Golden Eye, the Spy Kids trilogy, X2: X/Men United), TV (High life, The Runaway, Who do you think you are?, The Good Wife) and theatre (Hamlet, Cabaret, Bacchae) work. He has won multiple awards (A Tony for his Broadway role as Cabaret‘s Emcee, Emmy and Golden Globe nomination for the role in TV series The Good Wife), played Hamlet in three different productions at various times in his life and been appointed an OCB.

As an artist, his role is not to entertain people, but to provoke (slightly provoking, yet amusing is his line of fragrance body care called Cumming).

When his students in New York asked about the process behind his acting technique, he said:”I’m not a cheese. I don’t have a process.”

“I said no to shame!”

Alan’s confrontation with his father, his grandfather’s mysterious death (the discovery of which was prompted by filming of a British TV series Who do you think you are?) and his own sexuality (Alan is a strong and vocal advocate of LGBT rights) was a long and rather painful process.

“Shame is crippling and I said NO to shame.” Alan says, and then he picks up his book and reads out the most touching and intimate story of how he – as a teenage boy – faced a shame and battled with it. In front of thousand strangers. With such an ease.

“Truth can hurt, but not knowing can hurt more.”

A substantial part of Alan’s confrontation with his family’s truth turned out to be writing. Telling a story was a way of managing it, of beating the denial and evoking the child, whose childhood was taken from him too soon. His advice to writers, artist, actors and every human being? “Remain yourself. Your experience is the most interesting. Be what you are.” And keep that child in you curious and playful!

More from the Alan Cumming event

Auckland Writers Festival coverage