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

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

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

It’s not an easy thing to report on a poetry reading. You listen with different ears to poetry than you would to a speaker.

Being tagged with the epithet “poetry stars”, might bring with it an unfair burden of expectation and if Hera Lindsay Bird, who was first up, felt that she didn’t show it as she appeared quite at ease on the stage. The poems she read were generally dealing with love and sex, but often in a tangential and quirky way. She read the poems: Jealousy, Love is like laying down in a major intersection, Monica (about the character, Monica Geller, from the sitcom, Friends), Da Vinci Code, Six Seasons of the Nanny  and Pyramid Scheme.

Now, I confess, I’m a sucker for humour in poetry because poetry can often take itself very seriously. There was a strong vein of humour running through all the poems that Bird read and the audience chuckled a lot during her reading.

I’ve read that the poet, Lord Byron, was treated like a rock star in his day with people, mainly women, queueing for hours outside booksellers when Byron released a new book of poetry. He died a rock star’s kind of death too, dying at Missolonghi, aged 36,  while helping the Greeks battle the Turks for their independence.

Perhaps Hera Lindsay Bird will revive the “poet as rock star” phenomenon if the reception of her eponymous debut is anything to go by.

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Hollie McNish came to poetry fame via that most 21st century medium, YouTube. A little older and a little more experienced than her reading companion, McNish read poems that traversed her life from childhood to pregnancy in her thirties. She read the poems: Yanking (a variation on what she claimed was a Kiwi-ism “giving a wristy”), Call On Me (about the nature of friendships changing as we get older), Hiccups (for her daughter), A Dead Pig I Mean (about a bizarre ritual David Cameron indulged in at private school), Wow (about her one-year old daughter admiring her naked body in a mirror), Sex (about not wanting sex for six-and-a-half months after her daughter was born, Bricks (talking with her 92-year-old grandmother about what turned Hollie on) and McNish ended with a poignant poem dedicated to her Grandad called Cherry Pie with its echoes of post-war trauma.

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I’ll be first to put my hand up and say that I am all for the popularising of poetry (being a poet myself and wanting to get my books out there in the hands of poetry readers), but there are still ivory tower elements fiercely guarding poetry for the elitist few as evidenced by the poet, Rebecca Watts, refusing to review Plum, McNish’s latest poetry collection, for P. N. Review. Watts instead wrote a polemical article titled Cult of the Noble Amateur in which she wrote: “Plum is the product not of a poet but of a personality. I was supposed to be reviewing it, but to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry. Besides, I was too distracted by the pathological attitude of its faux-naïve author, and too offended by its editor’s exemplary bad faith, to ignore the broader questions it provokes.” Watts’ article subsequently received broad coverage in several English news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J. Finn – WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading!

Nanogirl: Cooking with Science! – WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Dr Michelle Dickinson wants everyone, everywhere to enjoy a meaningful relationship with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics).

She introduced her book and her mission to a sold-out crowd of kids and whānau. If you missed her on Sunday, get ready for Nanogirl Live! “Out of this World!” – a Live Science Spectacular on at the Isaac Theatre Royal on Saturday 17 November 2018. Her bus is Paul McCartney’s old tour bus rigged out in a science-focused fashion, and it will be coming to Christchurch in a Hercules plane. There’s also a TV show Nanogirl and the Imaginauts coming soon to the TVNZ app HeiHei.

Michelle explained her mission  – “teaching kids to have fun experiences with different technology”. Her nanotechnology career has involved cool jobs such as designing concept cars that will tap you on the shoulder if there is a cyclist behind you, and know if you are feeling a bit bleak and make your commute home go past the beach. She also helped devise a 6 nanometre wide coating for iPhones to protect the screen.

Then she talked about her new book The Kitchen Science Cookbook. It came from the idea that you can sneak science into a recipe book:

Home is where the learning is probably more powerful.

The book took three years of experimenting, and a determination that the recipes be achievable for all families, using what is in the kitchen.  After shopping it to publishers who wanted to skimp on production values (she wanted the ribbon/bookmark in her book), she made the decision to self publish. Michelle used Facebook to solicit recipe testers. People were keen as.  A Kickstarter campaign raised the necessary money ($85,462). Her father in law took the photos.

10,000 books have been sold already, and for each one sold, one goes to a needy family or school and there is a connection to organisations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and Pillars (for families with parents in prison).

Next up, it was kitchen science ahoy – and kids got to head up on stage to be part of the experiments. Can crushers, unicorn noodles, edible earthworms, chicken in a cup, centrifugal force – it was brilliant to watch, and kids had their hands in the air, desperate to get up on stage and do some kitchen science.

Photos from Nanogirl! Cooking with science

Nanogirl: Cooking with Science
Nanogirl: Cooking with Science<

The question from the audience were the tops:

How long have you been a scientist?
I have been a scientist since I was 8.

What is your absolute fave experiment?
Ones where I blow things up, like the 66 gallon drum crush.

And my personal fave:

Can you please come to my birthday?

Yup, Nanogirl is a rock star.

Postscript:
My scientist made marbled milk this afternoon.
Marbled milk experiment from The Kitchen Science Cookbook

The Kitchen Science Cookbook

Motherhood – Emily Writes & Hollie McNish: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

There was a welcome number of baby bumps and wee ones in the audience for the WORD Christchurch session on Motherhood with Kiwi blogger and The Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes – who has recently launched her second book on parenting – Is It Bedtime Yet?  – and British superstar poet Hollie McNish, known for her poetry and writings on the lesser talked about aspects of pregnancy, birth and parenting, collated in Nobody Told Me.

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Emily Writes and Hollie McNish, at WORD Christchurch, September 2018

When Emily wasn’t sure whether to sit or stand to start off the session with a reading from her book, moderator Catherine Robertson jokingly suggested she just pretend that the audience are all in bed and that Emily is reading to us at our bedside. By the size of the sold-out audience, it’s evident even adults love being read to.

CoverIn the anthology Is It Bedtime Yet? Emily has edited together different perspectives of parenthood, be they single parenting, parenting from a Māori perspective, parenting a child with a disability or learning needs, older mothers, queer parents conceiving, stay-at-home dads and more. The variety of experiences shows that there are so many versions of normal parenting. Emily has said there is a danger in a single story or narrative of parenting so by sharing multiple variations of parenting it fosters empathy and the reassurance that actually, we’re doing it okay. Here, mothers are both equally ordinary and extraordinary.

This is most certainly not an advice book – just personal situations, reflections or a snippet in time on a parenting continuum. You can dip into the book anywhere – there are 50 short vignettes with half of them written by Emily herself and interspersed throughout the book. The stories range from poignant to the comedic. In interviews for this book, Emily has said: “We are all so different in the way we parent but that can be a thing that unites us.” She hopes these stories “make us change just a little bit in our day-to-day interaction with each other as parents – or to parents.”

The personal stories shared in Is It Bedtime Yet? are from both never before published writers as well as established authors, some of whom also regularly write for the The Spinoff Parents website. Humorous highlights from the book include musings on “competi-parents” – even those unwittingly being competitive without meaning to; the myth of the magical creature known as ‘the relaxed mother’; the anti-glitter brigade and the realisation that we’re not just mothers, we’re sudden experts in palaeontology to our dinosaur mad kids. The confessions chapter was especially funny! And after reading one dad’s vasectomy story, I will never see The Wiggles the same again!

CoverThere are plenty of WTF? moments in parenting shared in the book. And there’s no holding back on the use of the F word but unfortunately for the parents contributing, there’s not a lot of the Zzzzz word (which may have something to do with the former?) Ironically it was Emily’s lack of sleep after having babies that meant she had plenty of time (albiet in the wee hours) to write and we are benefiting from that with her books like Rants in the Dark: From one tired mama to another. “I’ve always been someone who writes to work out my feelings.” She hopes her books are like “a friend in the dark” as they offer realistic views of parenting versus idealistic notions. Judging by the 15,000+ emails she says she got right after her initial sleep-deprived parenting post (“I am grateful, now f*** off!”) went viral in 2015, there’s a few friends out there in the dark indeed. One mother in the audience said perhaps if she had been given books like Emily’s when she had her babies – instead of just Gina Ford parenting books – then she might have been a lot better off.

There’s one chapter which is just a literal recording of what Emily says to her wee son one day, starting from 5:00am. We don’t get to hear the child’s replies but the one-sided conversation of “put your shoes on” is oh so familiar. I read this transcription to my young son and he thought it was hilarious and spot-on, just change a few words and it could be any parent repetitively saying the same basic instructions to their kid and then amplifying their pleas with hollow threats.

There’s a few piss-takes in the book too and Emily read to the audience her humorous chapter on parenting styles. Move over ‘helicopter parenting’ and make way for the ‘cucumber’ style of parenting which consists of just giving your kid the only food they’ll happily eat. In this case, cucumber! Someone needs to invent a word for laughter crying because there was a lot of it coming from both the audience and guest speakers. In fact, before doing her reading, poet Hollie McNish shared her bemusement at Emily’s cucumber parenting description since she herself has pictures of her own child sharing a pram with a whole cucumber. (My first child too was so obsessed with cucumber to the point that he can be seen wielding one in the birth photos of his sibling). But Emily has ultimately decided on the style of parenting she got from growing up with the Cub Scout motto of ‘We will do our best’ – not ‘do THE best’ she clarifies – just YOUR best! And as Emily inscribed in her book at the author signing afterwards, “Hang in there!” – perhaps that’s a parenting style too?

HOLLIE McNISH

CoverRight on the back of National Poetry Day last week, we were privileged to have British poet Hollie McNish appearing at the festival at several sessions, including this one. Hollie writes of the shared unspoken experiences of pregnancy and motherhood and read a poem from her book on these themes, Nobody Told Me. The poem, Megatron, was inspired by her first post-birth date-night where her then partner took her to see the movie Transformers and after they had argued about who was the best Transformer, she realised she had become the ultimate transformer herself after giving birth – rib cages moving, hips widening, breasts becoming milk machines. Hollie only read one poem in this session and I would have loved to have heard more. Hollie became well-known for her poem about the stigma of breastfeeding in public, entitled Embarrassed, which got quite a reaction when it was published – both positive thanks as well as hate mail. Hollie wondered where this hate came from in the world – literally – so she checked the analytics on her website and saw a lot of abuse came from the United States – especially places like Texas where in fact, she discovered, there is a secret breastfeeding club of mothers too embarrassed to breastfeed in public or face religious vilification.

Watch the well-directed video for Hollie’s poem Embarrassed:

Hollie has noticed, while touring, that it is easier to be a parent in Europe in places like Sweden or France and that a lot of urban design isn’t made with parenting in mind (eg. don’t put sweets at the checkout counter!) Hollie was jealous that in France mothers get a year’s worth of free physiotherapy to help them regain their pelvic floor strength after birth. Hollie joked that she was doing her pelvic Kegel exercises “right now” in her chair on stage. Hollie and Emily are very open about ‘taboo’ subjects and they touched on things we don’t talk enough about like post-birth prolapse, sex after birth or even resorting to using our children’s nappies for ourselves in dire moments. It was perhaps apt that I accidentally pulled out my ticket for the WORD ‘Mortification’ show instead of my ‘Motherhood’ ticket when I went to enter the session. Sometimes society makes us feels as if these two go hand in hand but Hollie’s point is, they absolutely shouldn’t! Hollie wondered if people found pregnant women or breastfeeding confronting, in part, because people – like her grandparents – “could finally see I had sex.” In her grandmother’s day she said women weren’t allowed to talk about their vaginas or bleeding and sometimes didn’t even know where they had given birth from.

Regarding the disdain directed at mothers, likewise, Emily said that after giving birth she suddenly felt unwelcome in places she used to go, like cafes. Emily suggested we need to do away with the ‘half-human’ view of babies – and that we should view children as active members of society instead of waiting until they are fully-formed or until they become “tax-paying units” to consider them of equal worth in society. She also questioned the double-standard that happens when a guy goes out-and-about with a baby and onlookers are full of praise for what a wonderful dad he is whereas a mother with children is looked at in worry for when her kids might be an annoying disturbance. However, Is it Bedtime Yet? honours dads as well with their perspectives and author Brannavan Gnanalingam joined the session to read his chapter about dads not just being seen as ‘the babysitter.’

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Brannavan Gnanalingam, Catherine Robertson, Emily Writes and Hollie McNish having a laugh.

Q & A

In answer to the moderator’s question to the authors: “If you can change one thing … ” Emily joked/not joked: “Smash the patriarchy and destroy capitalism” – there was plenty of applause at this rally cry (although my spellchecker changed ‘applause’ to ‘applesauce,’ appropriate for parents perhaps). Brannavan wished there was more information given to parents from the start and Hollie specified “more government money into care and support for parents.” Lucky for New Zealand, they concurred, that we have a current government sympathetic to parents. (In fact, at the book launch for Is it Bedtime Yet? in Auckland, Emily said it was heartening to see a certain Prime Minister had popped in with her new baby).

A question from the audience followed on from this theme: “How do we get the government to change?” or as rephrased: “How am I going to go back to work to afford avocados?” For some, becoming a mother immediately politicises them and they become an instant activist wanting to fight for change but as their children grow, their priorities for what they want to fight for the most also changes – eg. do you give stretched energies to supporting midwives or supporting teachers? How do we get traction when needs change as our children grow? Emily said that the only way we can make change is to make heaps of noise! “Protest, hikoi, engage in conscious-raising – talk to people around you about what’s important to you” – like publicly praising why teachers need a raise or the importance of midwives (who saved her life) and just generally “combat bullshit.” Emily closed the session impassioned: “We need to be noisy and use our voice!” At this, there was enough applause from the audience to wake a baby!

Special thanks to the the Christchurch Art Gallery for offering free ‘babysitting’ (aka a kid’s art workshop) –  while parents were attending this Motherhood session at WORD. More of this kind of thoughtfulness for parents in society is needed! Check out the art gallery’s monthly Parent & Baby tours (Prams welcome). 


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Diana Wichtel – Driving to Treblinka: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

CoverI must admit I have not yet read Driving to Treblinka, but I am on the long list of library customers who have reserved it to read. I have, however, read all The Listener articles that were the precursors for this book.

The moderator for this session was Philip Matthews, former colleague of Diana Wichtel, but now writing for The Press. He opened the session with some lines from Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan: “It’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded.”

Matthews suggested that Driving to Treblinka was a contribution to world history, but Wichtel demurred. She said that her father’s side of her personal history had remained in silence with a lot unsaid for many years until she reached a certain age. She was spurred by one of her daughters and a niece who said she must find where her father was buried.

When Wichtel was asked to provide a memoir piece and recipe for a book called Mixed Blessings, she was reluctant, but eventually wrote a piece. This was another spur to start researching the life of her father who was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust by jumping from a train bound for the Nazi death camp, Treblinka. He was sheltered by partisans for the rest of the war. He ended up emigrating to Vancouver, Canada, where he met her Kiwi mother who was on her OE and ended up working at her father’s business.

Diana Wichtel. Image supplied.
Diana Wichtel. Image supplied.

When Wichtel was 13, her family migrated to New Zealand. The children believed that their father was to follow them after tying up the loose ends of their lives in Vancouver. He never did and she discovered her parents’ marriage had been disintegrating. As fate would have it, her mother met another man in Auckland who was also from Vancouver. He became Wichtel’s stepfather. When Wichtel was 19, her actual father became ill, but she could not afford to return to Canada to see him.

But once Wichtel’s own children had grown up, she was freed to follow the impetus to research her family’s Jewish heritage with her father as the pivotal identity. Wichtel was approached by Mary Varnham of Awa Press and, over four years, with some welcome assistance from her Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship, she researched and wrote Driving to Treblinka.

Wichtel realised that from the outset the book had to be a personal story. She reasoned that if she was exposing her family, she had to expose herself. She stresses to the audience that it is her story and her version of the family’s history as honestly as she can portray it. She found that when she committed to writing the book, many of her own memories were recalled that she had imagined were lost to her.

When she interviewed Daniel Mendelsohn, author of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, he told her that “you have to open the door to the past, knowing you won’t shut it again.” And while working on the book, she felt that she had entered “the stream of history” which unkindly spat her out once her book was published. Worried about her wider family’s reception of her book, Wichtel had three months of anxiety after publication, but then realised to her delight that the family welcomed the book and were pleased she had written it.

Matthews joked that she had been a pioneer of what is now called “dark tourism” and she recounted some of the uncomfortable feelings she had experienced in Poland and in Israel. On a guided tour of Treblinka, she felt it was wrong that there was a cafe on the site. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, she saw a guide, himself a survivor, posing for pictures with school children. Another guide was adamant this was not allowed, but Wichtel felt that if the man had survived the Holocaust, then he should be the judge of its appropriateness. She encountered contentious displays of pre-war Jewish life in Krakow and she felt that it airbrushed the anti-semitism that had been present in Poland before and during World War Two. She joked that many people referred to this display area as “Jewrassic Park”.

She read an extract entitled “Snowing in Vancouver” about the last times she had spent with her father in 1964 before migrating to New Zealand at age 13.

Wichtel said the chapter called “Shouting at the Newspaper” was all too relevant with the many falsehoods being spread in the media about Jewish society, Jewish culture and the Holocaust and also the rise of the far-right in Europe and America.

She moved me to free the moths from my wallet. To paraphrase Jane Eyre: “Reader, I bought the book.”

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Horse tales – Soraya Nicholas and Stacy Gregg: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

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 Gregg and Soraya Nicholas. Image supplied.
Stacy Gregg and Soraya Nicholas. Image supplied.

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.

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Gavin Bishop: Aotearoa – WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

I first knew Gavin Bishop not as a children’s author and illustrator, but as one of the art teachers at my high school. Although he’s been writing children’s books for years, it wasn’t until my son was a toddler that I started to take notice of his books. The first one that made me sit up and pay attention was The House that Jack Built which so beautifully blends together that traditional tale with the Kiwi setting. But it wasn’t till I read Diana Noonan’s Quaky Cat, post-earthquake, when Gavin Bishop’s hauntingly beautiful illustrations of my ruined city – of the Cathedral, which had still been standing when the book was written, but now was hardly more than a pile of rubble – brought tears to my eyes, and I added his works to my “favourites” list.

Gavin Bishop Aotearoa. Image supplied.
Gavin Bishop Aotearoa. Image supplied.

So it was very exciting to have the chance to listen to him talking about his latest books, Aotearoa: the Story of New Zealand, Margaret Mahy Book of the Year (and winner of the Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction) and the soon to be released Cook’s Cook: The Cook Who Cooked for Captain Cook.

It was amazing to get a glimpse of the way that Aotearoa was created (the book, that is). He told us how his publisher suggested the idea to him, of a great big picture book about the history of New Zealand, covering 65 million years in 64 pages, and how excited he was to work on it, wishing he’d come up with the idea himself. And then of the 2am moment of panic, when he realised that this book was four times bigger (in size alone, not to mention the scope of it) than a normal picture book, and he had only a year to do it in

I really enjoyed seeing the carefully detailed planning pages, with the art work and text carefully drawn in, and then the finished paintings, so beautiful and oddly empty without their accompanying text. Despite all that care, there were times when he didn’t leave quite enough room for the text, but thanks to the wonders of Photoshop, the designer was able to nudge bits of artwork over to make room. Bishop and the designer had quite the debate over the cover artwork. He created at least eight different versions of the art work, and had wanted to include a rainbow, but the designer didn’t agree.

Bishop spent many hours researching for this book (hardly surprising, 65 million years is a lot to cover!) and out of that research emerged another story, which became Cook’s Cook. We’ve all heard of Captain Cook, of course, but I’d never given any thought to the practicalities of the voyage. Did you know that there were 94 men aboard the Endeavour, a ship built for just 16! And of course all those men had to be fed. It was a one-handed Scottish cook, by the name of John Thompson who cooked and fed them all, on Pease Porridge and all manner of curious meats. I can’t wait for this book to arrive at the library, so I can read it!! It’s in the catalogue already, though, so you can go ahead and place a hold on it (you’ll be right after me in the queue!)

Yaba Badoe – Fire Stars, and Witches: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Yaba Badoe opens the talk with a reading from the first chapter of her book, A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars:

“There’s only one thing makes any sense when I wake from my dream. I’m a stranger and shouldn’t be here. Should my luck run out, a black-booted someone could step on me and crush me, as if I’m worth less than an ant. This i know for a fact. And yet once or twice a week, the dream seizes me and shakes me about.”

This quote highlights the central theme of belonging and the dangers of not belonging that were present in both Badoe’s book, but also the conversation on the day.

Yaba Badoe. Image supplied
Yaba Badoe. Image supplied

Badoe appeared in conversation with the insightful Sionainn Byrnes who is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Canterbury. Byrnes’ expertise in the area of magical realism – the genre of Badoe’s writing – was an amazing addition to the conversation as she facilitated the conversation superbly.

One of the first questions asked by Byrnes was about the subject of origins. This is a central theme of the book and one that is highlighted in the opening passages that was read at the beginning of the talk. Badoe discussed the way that Sante’s – the main character in the book – origin is related to her sense of self, her feelings of being a stranger, and that a large part of the narrative of the story pertains to Sante’s quest to understand her origins to understand her reoccurring dreams.

A big part of this narrative theme surrounding origin and belonging is the way in which the book positions the struggles of refugees and migrants as all the main characters fit into one of these categories. Badoe expands from this narrative theme to discuss the issue of migration in the contemporary world. Badoe herself was born in Ghana, educated in Britain, and in her own words, spends a lot of her life “going back and forth between Europe and Ghana”. Here, the connection between her own life and experience as an African migrant is deeply connected to the narrative of her work. She also outlined an interesting position on migration that posited that “the whole world is made of migrants”; and understanding of migration that is particularly pertinent in the midst of the migration crisis in various places around the world. The narrative of her book and this conversation is a very poignant narrative, reminding its readers that migrants are people deserving of respect and integrity.

At the end of the talk there was a brief discussion of Badoe’s film, The Witches of Gambaga, that was screened the day before as part of WORD Christchurch Festival. This short conversation explored the continued belief of witchcraft in regions of Northern Ghana. In this instance, Badoe and Byrnes briefly discusses the challenges of respecting deeply held beliefs and superstitious while challenging the socio-economic systems that underpin them; in the case patriarchal values appear to underpin the continued belief in witchcraft in Ghana.

Sionainn Byrnes was a great facilitator who asked interesting questions that were simultaneously challenging and fair. She did a fantastic job maintaining the conversation. Badoe’s own experience was insightful and beautifully simple at times. This was best summed up by Badoe’s response to Byrnes’ question regarding the categorisation of her book as ‘Magical Realism’:

“I just like to tell stories”

Understated and superb.

A Place to Stand – WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

What distinguishes a great festival session from a good one? I think I can answer that after my session to-day: A Place to Stand.

Karin Altenberg and Amy Head. Image supplied.
Karin Altenberg and Amy Head. Image supplied.

A small, sell-out session with Swedish author Karin Altenberg and New Zealand writer Amy Head, this exploration of the importance of Place punched way above its weight, and reminded me what a great event should be like:

  • First up a great session needs a really good interviewer, and Liz Grant was the best interviewer of this festival for me. With extensive knowledge about the books of both the authors (teetering perilously on very high chairs on either side of her), she was very good. Well done Liz.
  • A great session should engage you, there should be no mind wandering and fidgeting. We were all riveted.
  • You can judge a good session on the quality of the questions it provokes at the end, and this session came up trumps there as well.
  • You are sorry when a great session ends.
  • Hours later you are still thinking about it, wishing there had been more time. Mulling over questions you would have liked to ask.
  • You want to buy both the books!

Both Karin and Amy revealed their Turangawaewae (Place to stand). Karin’s is a small rocky outcrop off the West Coast of Sweden (it’s not even on a map) where her parents own a simple hut. Near there is a footprint shape in the rocks where, when Karin places her foot in it, she feels absolutely connected. Amy’s place is on the West Coast of New Zealand just outside Westport, a place of isolation and risk, it is “not a passive place” according to Amy.

CoverThey both always wanted to be writers but came at it from very different directions – Karin through landscape architecture (because writing wasn’t considered the done thing to do where she grew up). She never did any creative writing courses and tends to start all her writing from the landscape which she then peoples with characters and lets their story unfold. This is how her novel Island of Wings, which is set on St Kilda’s near the Outer Hebrides, unfolded. Karin also did the best reading from a book in the entire festival. A powerful passage beautifully read.

CoverAmy came to writing through her research on addiction, using the resources of the Salvation Army to find out more about the Rotoroa Home for Inebriates. Amy never thought she could be a writer, she had to go through a slow personal transition from reading to writing. She is a thoughtful young woman who considered all her answers very carefully. In the writing of Rotoroa she took the unusual step of combining a real-life person with fictionalised characters, and setting the whole story in the 1950s – a period of time long before she was born.

This was a very meaningful session for me, as I myself have a strong sense of place. I shall be thinking about it for some time to come.

And that is the highest praise I can give any festival event.

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Follow our coverage of WORD Christchurch Festival 2018