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.

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Starry, starry night: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

It certainly was a rather star-studded affair on Friday night at the Isaac Theatre Royal for WORD Christchurch’s gala event. Everywhere a person turned there were famous faces about; Helen Clark striding past on the footpath out front, Michele A’Court queuing at the bar in the foyer, Georgina Beyer chatting in the row in front of me metres away from Ted Chiang in one direction and Juno Dawson in another. What fine company to be in of an evening.

Festival director Rachael King opened proceedings with a valiantly lengthy introduction in te reo Māori (with help, it turned out from Ngāi Tahu Māori language advocate and educator Hana O’Regan). She admitted that the programme she and her team and brought together was “unashamedly feminist” and challenging, exhorting the audience to “see one session a day that scares you”*.

From there MC John Campbell took the reins, confessing that he can be a difficult man to pin down, refusing as he does to reply to any kind of communications (phone calls, emails and the like), but that King is “as tenacious and unbowed as the city itself” and hence his appearance at this event.

I don’t know what John Campbell is like as a gift-giver (if his Christmas presents are rushed affairs or precisely wrapped and carefully considered) but his compliments… his compliments are like finely crafted jewels – cut and polished, thoroughly researched, and presented in a bespoke arrangement you’ll never have the like of again. Each writer, in their turn, was the recipient of John Campbell Compliments™ and I can’t imagine I’m the only one who felt jealous.

IMG_0168
John Campbell compliments the heck out of everybody, Starry, starry night. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018.Friday 31 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-31-IMG_0168

The usual pattern for these events is for each of seven writers to take seven minutes to read something or tell a story with the MC making introductions in between. But rather than disturb the flow like a “judderbar” in the evening, Campbell preferred to bring all the writers out in a line-up (like a literary beauty pageant), and introduce (and compliment) them in the beginning, making links and connections between them as he went on.

The overriding them between, he thought, was the shared struggle to be human. What I am and what I am not. The question we all ask.

First up was Ngāi Tahu storyteller Joseph Hullen who reflected on what it had been like growing up in Christchurch, and how his mother’s Ngāi Tahu whakapapa was barely visible in the city, with only a few places like Te Hepara Pai (Church of the Good Shepherd) on Ferry Road or Rehua Marae on Springfield Road that reflected any sense of a Māori presence or identity in the city. But things have changed and his hapu, Ngai Tuahūriri now have Matapopore, a organisation that is adding touches of his people’s identity into the fabric of Christchurch. The name of the new central library, Tūranga being a prime example of this, referencing as it does, the arrival place of Paikea the father of Ngāi Tahu’s eponymous ancestor, Tahu Pōtiki, and the knowledge he brought with him.

Scot, Robin Robertson took the stage next and brought a voice filled with menace and foreboding telling several dark tales in poem form, including one about a cat dying of cancer. His last piece, an invented Scots narrative about selkies, he dedicated to King, the author of Red Rocks, and children’s novel about the self-same mythic seal-creatures.

Robertson was followed by Yaba Badoe reading the opening chapter of her book A jigsaw of fire and stars. In it a baby is set adrift to escape a devastating event, bringing to mind mythic versions of the “floating foundling baby” like that of Moses, Maui, or even Superman.

Hollie McNish read some of her poetry and I found my eyes moistening as she spoke of her daughter in poems like “Wow”. The power of seeing a new, young person figuring out the world and their place in it conjures up powerful emotions for McNish, and secondhand, for me.

Wellingtonian novellist Rajorshi Chakraborti talked about the genesis of his book The man who would not see. It started out as what became “the book that could not be” – a nonfiction tale about the disappearance of his father’s sister. After hours and hours of research that led to a re-connection of estranged segments of his family it became apparent that publishing the book would damage that family connection. in the end, he says “the family member in me trumped the writer”. And so he repurposed and reshaped his research into a novel instead.

Whale-lover Philip Hoare read a couple of extracts from RisingTideFallingStar, stepping out from behind the podium and reading in a most kinetic way, gets his whole body into the reading, acting out certain actions and movements of the protagonist as he went. The language is sensuous and descriptive and you can nearly smell the salt air.

Finally Sonya Renee Taylor explains that there are two kinds of fear, fear of the unknown and fear of the dangerous. We should try not “the fog of the unknown” because there may well be nothing there to harm us. As the free-diver she met in the Bahamas, who dives down into the depths of the unknown, says “every metre is a tiny freedom”. Her poem about her mother’s belly made me cry again, but her “The body is not an apology” ends the night on a triumphant and defiant note.

Starry, starry night - Sonya Renee Taylor
Sonia Renee Taylor, WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Friday 31 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-31-IMG_0164

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*So that’ll be Robin Robertson in most cases. Terrifying.

New Regent Street Pop-up Festival: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

The New Regent Street Pop-up Festival is like the whole of WORD Christchurch distilled into an hour and twenty minutes, and if that sounds intense well, yes, that would be an accurate assessment.

In some ways it’s like trying to pick something off a menu – how do you know what you’ll like the best? What if you choose and don’t enjoy your choice? And just to extend the dining out metaphor, the pop-up festival offers three “sets” of readings in much the same manner as restaurant courses, allowing you to mix and match.

For my pop-up dinner I chose the following:

Entrée: Gory Bits at Crate Escape

Main: Science Fiction Triple Feature at Rollickin’ Gelato

Dessert: FIKA and Friends at Fiksate Gallery

So how did I do choosing a great meal?

Entrée

Robin Robertson reads at Gory Bits
Robin Robertson about to make everyone feel uneasy. Crate Escape. New Regent Street Pop Up Festival. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0109

Meaty, blood-soaked and best served cold, this was a very enjoyable way to start. True, it’s rather a full-bodied choice for an entree, but if you’re going to have tales of death and fear read to you in the confines of a strange, wooden Antarctic hut fashioned from a shipping container you may as well do it early so it’s still daylight when you leave.

WORD Christchurch Festival director, Rachael King read a suitably gothic, Wuthering Heights inspired passage from her book Magpie Hall, and Brindi Joy’s flash fiction story of the dead that don’t necessarily stay buried had a pleasing rhythm and exotic (for Christchurch) US locale.

But certainly the standout of this “course” was Robin Robertson‘s readings of gruesome death and murder, his voice dragging on certain words, and fairly growling others – at one point his hands held out in the pose of a man strangling his beloved and… well, lovely man though I’m sure he is, should I bump into him in a dark alley while he’s here in Christchurch I’ll probably squeal and run the other way, so affecting was his performance. And I fancied as I left, to the screams of children playing at the Margaret Mahy Playground across the road, that they might not all be squeals of delight…

Mains

After that kind of darkness what you need is something different, distracting and refreshing. Science Fiction Triple Feature offered a trio of writers of different flavours reading stories and excerpts.

A. J. Fitzwater, a local writer of Spec-Fic (Speculative Fiction) opened with a really interesting take on post-apocalyptic tales, telling the story of a trans vlogger and traveller making their way across Europe in the wake of some catastrophic outbreak. They are on the hunt for… tampons. Which is an amusing twist on the usual dystopian scavenging one usually expects from tales like this, and one that I have always wondered about myself. Sure, the characters in The Walking Dead always look sufficiently unwashed and grimey… but they still seem to be able to find their colour of hair dye and everyone’s top lip is still getting waxed so how post-apocalyptic is it really? Yes, I do have tampons in my emergency kit, and yes, so should you.

Another local sci-fi/fantasy writer, Karen Healey then took the mic (in a Thor-themed dress that I am most covetous of) and read from her version of Beauty and the Beast in which Beauty’s quest involves dark, spooky creatures who have possessed her beloved father, a malady that only a strapping magical beast might be able to cure. And American author Ted Chiang read a strange and perplexing story of science used to support fiction – a comment on the nature of faith and truth, perhaps.

Ted Chiang - Science Fiction Triple Feature
Ted Chiang with A. J Fitzwater and Karen Healey. New Regent Street Pop-up Festival. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0119

Dessert

A small sorbet of something completely different was on offer at Fiksate Gallery (a place that I would very much like to go back to) in the form of touching, poignant poetry. Personal tales of a loved one’s dementia, or legendary tales of some guy called “Maui”. Short and bittersweet. The perfect ending course to this pop-up adventure.

New Regent Street Pop Up Festival
New Regent Street Pop Up Festival, WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0096

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WORD Christchurch Festival 2018: Joyce’s picks

It has taken me a full seven days to sufficiently cogitate and ponder the wonders of this year’s WORD Christchurch Festival and come up with some definitive highlights. This glacially slow digestion is both testament to the breadth, depth and range of the festival content and the sluggishness of my overwhelmed brain. But isn’t it nice to be spoiled by literary choice? Explore the full programme and spin out!

The overarching awesomeness of this year’s festival is the tartan tint to everything. Programme Director Rachael King is bringing a wee slice of literary Scotland to our far flung shores (gallus move lassie!) with the likes of:

Crime writer extraordinaire Denise Mina

CoverWith several gritty but character-rich mystery series under her belt Denise Mina‘s latest novel draws on a real-life crime from 1950s Glasgow. She is, I have it on good authority, a witty and engaging speaker and will appear at The Great WORD Debate, Whisky Galore! and at her own Masterclass event. She also brings a very impressive hairdo.

Bookseller Shaun Bythell

CoverHis Diary of a Bookseller has been, for me, a slightly surprising hit here at Christchurch City Libraries. Who knew there was so much interest in flogging dusty tomes? I’ve just started reading it and I’m already seeing library parallels, lots of eccentric people buy and borrow books. Hurrah. Shaun is also appearing at Whisky Galore! At a session called For Book Collectors Old and New, and in conversation with Brian Phillips at The Diary of a Bookseller. Shaun is from Wigtown and also has epic hair.

 

Poet Robin Robertson

I don’t normally have much truck with poetry (yes, I am a philistine) but Robin Robertson’s session Mortification sounds like my bag. Here a mixed cast of Kiwi and Scots authors will share their true tales of hideous embarrassment. It promises strong language and requires a stiff drink. He’ll also appear at Starry, Starry Night, Whisky Galore! and The Long Take. His hair game is average but as he just got longlisted for The Man Booker Prize I’m sure he has bigger aspirations and he still has more wig than Irvine Welsh!

Apart from all the Scottish loveliness, I’m also looking forward to:

See you there!