The Freedom Papers: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Four people seated in leather chairs on the stage. From left to right, Lloyd Jones, Yaba Badoe, Juno Dawson, and Nick Barley.

Nick Barley – Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival – introduces the topic by sharing a story of how he came to commission authors to write essays on what freedom means to them. The essence of this captured in his state that the purpose of this is “to think about not only a word, freedom… and why literary conversations matter”. From here, the three authors on stage with Barley speak in turn about what freedom means to them.

Yaba Badoe, Lloyd Jones, and Juno Dawson. Image supplied.

Yaba Badoe spoke first. She spoke about a kind of national freedom drawing on the independence of Ghana as her example. But within this, she discussed the challenges that such national freedom brings. She spoke about how there were all these grand ideas as to what a new Ghana was going to look like and how independence in Ghana would lead to the creation of a “heaven on Earth” free from British colonial rule. However, in this instance, reality did no meet the expectations and she warned about the challenges associated with dreams of freedom and the reality of these desires.

Juno Dawson spoke next. Dawson spoke about freedom of speech. However, she was more interested in the consequences that can result from freedom of speech. Simply put by herself:

“Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.”

To her, freedom of speech does not protect people from the fallout or consequences of the “stupid things” that they say, and that people have a right to react. She drew on her own personal experience with transphobic remarks in regards to her transitioning in the public eye. The issue here was with the way people expressed surprise or derision in the way she did not accept such abuse but instead chose to protect herself through various means leading to some people claiming that she, herself, was against free speech. This is of course not the case, simply that people need to be aware that people should expect consequences for the things that they say.

Dawson also talked about how freedoms that have already been acquired should not be taken for granted: 

“Freedoms can be rolled back… often hard won, and can be taken away”. 

Most notably, the ongoing issues with reproductive rights in the United States is an issue where this can be seen.

Last to speak was New Zealand’s own Lloyd Jones. Jones took a much more skeptical approach to freedom. He talked about how it has become a politically loaded term, often used to justify certain actions that would appear to be in contradiction with freedom as a concept – he spoke here of how ‘freedom’ is used within the context of American politics, most notably American foreign policy – and how the “word has been debased” due to this. He painted a rather graphic image of what he thinks when he hears the word freedom:

When you say freedom, I just see a pile of bodies with an American flag waving on top”.

Jones used this to launch into a conversation about “the freedom to do the wrong thing” and how we see this freedom practices all to often. An example he used in the New Zealand context is the continued pollution of the waterways that occurs due the ever expanding industrial agriculture we have in New Zealand. He summed up his ideas through this statement:

The freedom to do the wrong thing is not a freedom worth having”.

Jones provided a timely and skeptical engagement with a concept so often taken for granted as being unequivocally positive.

Following this, there was a brief conversation discussing the way that freedom as a concept is present within the authors’ works.

Barley, Badoe, Dawson, and Jones all had dynamic personalities that bounced off each other in an entertaining manner. Often humorously as the four speakers engaged in conversation with each other. It was an entertaining and informative event with three different and, at times, contradictory ideas pertaining to freedom discussed. All the while, the conversation was very well facilitated by the eloquent Nick Barley.

A pleasure of an event that provided much to think about within literature and more.

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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.

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.

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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.

Witches of Gambaga – A Film By Yaba Badoe: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Gambaga is a town in northern Ghana, formerly capital of the Northern Region of Ghana. It also serves as a sanctuary for women accused of witchcraft in greater Ghana. Witches of Gambaga is a documentary film, directed by Yaba Badoe, that tells the story of the women who have been condemned to live their lives in the poverty of the witches’ camp in Gambaga. The film follows these women and explores how their lives have been destroyed by accusations of witchcraft.

Yaba Badoe. Image supplied.
Yaba Badoe. Image supplied.

Badoe, in her running commentary throughout the film, does mention that superstitions have a role in the accusations of, and continued belief in, witchcraft. However, she examines the prevalence of witchcraft in Ghana through a gendered lens that attempts to explain why it is exclusively women who end up living in the witches’ camp in Gambaga. One of the particularly interesting ways she does this is exploring the relationship that the Chief of Gambaga – the Gambaran – has with the woman accused of witchcraft. Here, the women have to pay the Gambaran for sanctuary, work for him on his property, and when they have proven that are no longer a ‘witch’ they have pay him to return home. In this instance, there is an obvious benefit for him to perpetuate the belief in witchcraft within the superstitious communities. Furthermore, Badoe also explores how all women in the witches’ camp are either elderly or middle aged – with the youngest women in the camp being in her early 30s – reinforcing certain ideas pertaining to women’s value and youthfulness. Through the way that Badoe engaged with the issue of witchcraft in Ghana, it is easy to see how the tradition is maintained through patriarchal beliefs and systems.

The film is striking in its simplicity, letting the situations and stories of the women who the film follows speak for themselves with Badoe offering further explanation when required. This allows the film to overcome the technical limitations of its creation and lead to a fantastically woven narrative explaining the plight of the women concerned.

The film was a surprisingly emotional affair as it humanises the suffering caused by patriarchal superstitions. Over 3,000 citizens have had their lives ruined and families stripped away from them on the basis of how a chicken dies; the main “trial by ordeal” used to determine the whether or not the accused is a witch. I found myself almost tearing up at certain instances surrounding discussions of the women’s families that they were forced to leave behind.

The film does a great job in highlighting how damaging patriarchal beliefs are, how they still linger in some parts of the world, and how they are causing extreme harm to the communities involved. For this alone, Yaba Badoe’s film is to be commended for engaging with this subject and telling the stories of these women.

Yaba Badoe at WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

The Witches of Gambaga Friday 31 August 2.30pm

Starry, starry night Friday 31 August 8pm to 9.15pm

Yaba Badoe: Fire, stars and witches Saturday 1 September 2.30pm to 3.30pm

The Freedom Papers Sunday 2 September 1pm
Edinburgh Festival director Nick Barley speaks to three of the international writers from The Freedom Papers collection – Yaba BadoeLloyd Jones and Juno Dawson – about what freedom means to them.