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2015 FESTIVAL IN REVIEW

By John Lang

From her perch on a chair almost the size of the King’s College Council Room itself, Rosie Fenton, the chair of this intimate discussion, asked writer Tony Birch how best to effectively communicate the enormous problem that is climate change. Especially, she stressed, in light of the powerlessness most people felt about it. Birch had a simple but thoughtful response:

“I would approach it how I approach it with the kids I talk to, that is, by first asking them about the places that they love, whatever guise that may come in.

“Kids love to tell you about the places they love.

“After I get them passionately pondering their places, I go on and ask them how they’d feel if that place changed.”

Most of us can be considered kids when it comes to climate change. Tirelessly complex at every vantage point, from its science to its interpretation to its communication, the difficulties of understanding climate change can make us all feel rather adolescent.

Fenton pressed on. “We’ve got the scientist, the journalist but what about the writer?”

“Sometimes issues have to be communicated in a non-empirical way,” offered Birch.

“To capture people’s attention. That’s where writers come in.

“The scientist has his or her role, the journalist theirs [and] the writer has their own role.”

The power of narrative has always had this wonderful emotional hook. But for issues as “unchanging from day-to-day” as climate change, compared with its more ‘newsworthy’ cousins, this hook’s necessity is elevated.

“The problem with this story is that it’s just so bloody big.”

Like the clichéd but highly relevant metaphor of ‘the boiled frog’ that special guest Wheeler identifies, we are in desperate need of things that wake us up; that spring us out of the lukewarm water before it gets any hotter.

Not only do Wheeler and Birch reassure us that writing can wake us up, they insist on the importance of communicating personal experience, especially when considering such a global and disparate issue. Wheeler (admittedly better known the co-founder of Lonely Planet with his wife Maureen) has got more than a couple of personal travel experiences to his name. A couple will do here: Whether its visiting Bangladesh and witnessing “a country of 150 million a mere metre or two away from being a modern day Waterworld,” or walking from Nepal to China and noticing “the atmosphere change consistency due to pollution,” he has seen it for himself.

Birch went on to entrench Wheeler’s ideas with his reciting of a piece he recently wrote for the Weather Stations project – five writers’ writing collaboration dedicated to climate change. It was about walking down the Yarra River, in Melbourne, with his 16 year-old daughter.

“We need to be provincial. It’s naive to think we can come up with this global narrative around climate change… as I once did.”

By writing something local, as writers, both Birch and Wheeler “have faith that others can take their stories on by themselves in their own locality.”

At about the midway point of the discussion, Birch offered honestly, that as writers, “We all sometimes ask ourselves, does writing really matter?”

Birch unwittingly answered his own rhetorical question 20 minutes later:

“I admit, I’m in a position of privilege. I’m a writer and I have a responsibility to provide hope. We [writers] all do things on our own but it’s a collective action.

“It’s like the pathway alongside the Yarra – you haven’t seen all the other walkers or runners as you’ve gone by, but you know they’ve been there.”

All, it seems, to urgently help the kids overcome the “cognitive dissonance between what we know and what we know we must do.”

John Lang is an Otago law and history graduate. He is the cofounder of Swigit, a soon-to-be released multimedia Wikipedia for helping people understand ‘big’ issues. Visit www.swig.it or email john@swig.it.

At one point the session’s chair, Paul Gravett, turned gravely to the audience, a look of warning in his eyes, ‘We’re a bunch of geeks up here on stage’. Did he think we hadn’t noticed? After all, we had come to a literary festival discussion about graphic novels featuring Kiwi cartoonists Dylan Horrocks and Roger Langridge. Comic book geeks was what we had come to see, and, blistering barnacles! (as they say in Tintin) we got what we wanted.

These geeks certainly know what they are talking about. Horrocks and Langridge are indisputably the best-known cartoonists out of New Zealand and between them and Paul Gravett, they know the history too. The audience was treated to an hour and more of yarns about New Zealand comics past and present and it was a sparking discussion.

In the beginning there was Eric Resetar. He was an Auckland schoolboy cartoonist in World War II, and, with Victoria Park humming with Captain-America deprived US GIs, he started a business complete with a New Zealand government paper ration and was the ‘ancestor of the small press’ in NZ comic publishing. With titles like An All Black on Mars, it’s no wonder that he did well.

Small presses and underground publishing are the story of comics in New Zealand and if you forge ahead to the 1980s, well, then there was the photocopier. Don’t laugh if you’re under 30 – this was revolutionary.

Having the means to make cheap paper copies allowed nascent cartoonists like Horrocks and Langridge to start guerrilla publishing. It was the beginning of the mini comic and the birth of Pickle by Horrocks and Art d’Ecco by Langridge. Both were published in Auckland University’s student magazine, Craccum, and self-photocopied editions, but of course these talented young kiwis wanted more and there were no opportunities for comic careers at home and, like so many like them, then and now, they left.

Horrocks spent his OE drawing Pickle and photocopying it in the London Waterstones where he worked and it was eventually picked up by a Canadian publisher. Langridge came to London with a stash of Art d’Ecco minis to show to publishers and Fantagraphics took them on in 1989.

It was from the mini comics that Horrocks’ first graphic novel evolved. Horrocks describes Pickle as being gradually taken over by Hicksville, and this graphic novel would secure Horrocks’ international reputation and push him into mainstream work – initially Batgirl for DC – but his time following the tired superhero mores of Batgirl was not a happy experience. ‘It was almost like I lost my faith in storytelling and art’.

For Langridge, an individual style of storytelling has led to hitting the comic big time. In 1999 he found that work had dried up, and so Fred the Clown was born. ‘Every good thing that had happened to me happened because of Fred the Clown’ and he describes the series as the work he goes back to ‘when I have lost my way’. Wry language, dark humour, slightly disquieting characterisation – it’s rich stuff. If what Langridge says about Fred is true, then that clown has a lot to answer for – a quick peek at the cartoonist’s résumé would even impress people who are not buffs.

Whether working for the mainstream or not, both cartoonists have individual voices and styles emerge in whatever they do, as the quick-fire career highlights slideshow narrated by Gravette revealed. Horrocks draws with elegant, cool lines which sometimes make his work elegiac (look at the series Atlas) while Langridge seems to gravitate towards a subversive vaudeville grotesque, which characterised Fred and which has made him the perfect artist for things like Popeye, Doctor Who, The Muppets and now Snarked, a comic for children based on characters in Alice through the Looking Glass. Langridge comments that his interaction with the mainstream ‘has always been fringe because my style isn’t mainstream’.

We were reminded in this session that it’s not just action heroes in this genre – it’s a narrative art form that individual style and approach define and redefine, and Horrocks and Langridge have barrels of originality between them.

Of course Horrocks’ graphic novels examine the genre more eloquently than anything. For a wry take on the formulaic nature of superhero comics look at ‘Chapter Two: Lady Night’ of his new graphic novel, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen (Knockabout £14.99). It’s a satirical examination of fantasy and fulfilment in art and perhaps it best sums up the hour and a half (should have been an hour, but Cartoonist God Kings (read Sam Zabel for reference) do not follow schedules – but if they tell good stories, we don’t care) we spent with Horrocks and Langridge. It even has a chapter inspired by Resetar.

Sam Zabel is full of zeal and love … and cynicism of comics as a genre – and Horrocks and Langridge displayed plenty of all three at the event – but optimism too. And back in New Zealand, maybe three cartoonists earn a living from their work. It’s not many, but it’s a step up from none in the 1980s, and there is even an indie comic press, Pikitea.

So take us to the last page of Sam Zabel and what do we have? A hand, a pen, a blank page. Endless possibility.

 

For more information go to:

http://www.paulgravett.com/

http://hotelfred.blogspot.co.uk/

http://hicksvillecomics.com/

 

Katie Haworth is a New Zealand-born editor and writer who lives in London

 

 

 

By Patsy Trench

When asked what it was like in the current climate to be an indigenous voice, writer Tony Birch replied: ‘Being an Aboriginal in society is like being a fireman in the bush, rushing from one to the other desperately trying to put out all the fires.’

Birch is also a historian and a teacher, and as a writer with Aboriginal heritage he has at times been expected to represent the entire Aboriginal community. He has even been accused of ‘not being Aboriginal enough’. In his case all he aims to do is represent his community.

The current government is doing terrible things to the Aboriginal people in closing down communities in West Australia, as an example. It is necessary to raise the consciousness of young Aboriginal people, but he has what he terms an ‘open-hand’ policy: ‘If we’re going to have change we have to form alliances. We must go beyond the culture of victimhood and invite people to listen to our stories. Accept good will. Don’t fight negativity.’

Kate Grenville had misgivings, as a non-indigenous writer, about appearing on this panel. She was brought up on an ‘airbrushed’ version of Australian history – there was no mention of guns or massacres. When she came to write The Secret River she needed to know what it would have been like for her convict ancestor ‘taking up land’, but she did not feel she could write with a true indigenous voice. ‘Our lot had taken everything from the Aboriginal people’, she said. ‘So to try to tell the story from their point of view would be the last insult.’

So she left what she termed an ‘indigenous-shaped gap’ in the book; a gap that, in answer to a question from Michael Walling, was wonderfully filled in the stage adaptation at the Sydney Theatre Company by its adaptors, in particular the Aboriginal director/ choreographer Stephen Page.Walling mentioned a sculpture outside Brisbane courthouse called ‘Witnessing the Silence’, which lists all the massacres experienced by the Aboriginal people. When it was vandalised – as all memorials to the Aboriginal people are, apparently – the press took no interest.

This silence is dangerous, said Tony Birch. When he told his students about the atrocities committed against Aboriginal people in the past they were so ashamed they wanted to ’disown their history’. But concealing the past is not the answer, he said. ‘We owe them the dignity to tell their story.’

Grenville’s books were excellent teaching tools, he said. His own daughters had studied them at school. They helped his students open up, they found them ‘confronting but not threatening’.

‘It is the public secret we all know’ but don’t talk about, he said. The suppression of these stories – of any story other than the ‘official’ one – is a sign of an insecure country.

Tony Walling is the director of the forthcoming ‘Origins Festival of First Nations’. www.originsfestival.com

Patsy Trench is a London-based Anglo-Australian writer and teacher of theatre. www.patsytrench.com

By Yasmin Hales

As emphasized by the Chair Tim Radford, the seminal question “Who Owns Culture?” is a highly complex and loaded inquiry and was unpacked with critical scrutiny from three different perspectives: Gaye Sculthorpe, curator of the current exhibition “Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation exhibition at the British Museum”, the Aboriginal writer Melissa Lukashenko and an anthropological perspective from Haidy Geismar at University College London.

Referring to the Indigenous Australian exhibition, Melissa claimed Aboriginal communities that created the cultural artefacts have undisputable ownership. The artefacts should be rightfully returned. “So much has been taken from Aboriginal people… that where there is any doubt about provenance… because of the colonial relationships that have existed and still exist in some ways in Australia today, it’s important to err on the side of Aboriginal ownership.”

Speaking as an Aboriginal writer from an outsiders, non-curatorial perspective, Melissa feels the British Museum is incredibly backward, arguably in contrast to smaller Australian museums which have a stronger policy of repatriation. The British Museums’ attitude is “we’ve got this stuff, we like this stuff and we’ll keep it until we are forced to do something else”

From a curatorial perspective, however, Gaye stressed how the British Museum now has legal ownership of these indigenous objects which are highly protected. “What the British Museum is doing is more than just an exhibition…It has bought attention to the issues of Aboriginal and Torres Straight islanders.”

Previously the museum was burdened by an image from the past but now she argued a dialogue has begun in partnership with the Australian National University and National Museum University of Australia. Consequently, the objects on display contribute towards that shared heritage where the material artefacts can answer back.

Referring to the exhibition Shield from Captain Cook, Melissa argued “why is this treasure of Australian history, not only Aboriginal history…why is it on the other side of the world? To me it’s ridiculous. That’s like the crown jewels being in Bangladesh or the Magna Carta being lodged in Siberia”

As an anthropologist, whose very definition of the discipline is based on the cross cultural study of human behavior, Haidy Geismar argued how the definition of “Who Owns Culture?” is highly polemic question and various from place to place. There is no mutual position, as she argued “the debate quickly moves away from artefacts and more towards conflicting politics, colonial histories and issues of sovereignty which still remain unsolved”.  

The audience further learnt how the British Museum act of repatriation is guided under current UK legislation which dictates how, when and in which way objects can be returned, but regrettably provides limited opportunities to do so. Gail raised an example of the lengthy procedure in a special case of British Museum repatriation of human remains, requested by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre government in 1985/6, but under our current legislation the British Museum couldn’t return them. Finally after conversations at British and Australian government level during the 1980’s and 1990’s, and under the Human Tissue Act 2004, in 2006, 20 years after the initial request the museum repatriated the goods.

In defiant response understandably Melissa reiterated her argument “The thing that concerns me is an attitude that says that the world has a right to Aboriginal objects or in the past Aboriginal human remains, that exceeds the right of Aboriginal people to own their own artefacts, our own languages, our own law stories and essentially the right to represent ourselves”

In an opposing view, the Chair, maybe playing devil’s advocate argued that these material objects now belong to the culture that absorbed them. “The British Museum exists because we went round the world collecting, and in some cases we are all extraordinarily grateful…as the value to the world has been considerable…it’s very different when you get two artefacts that speak to an identity”

Melissa’s shared a further interesting discussion point experienced during her current UK visit to the Pitt Rivers ethnographic museum in Oxford. Having arrived with trepidation she was unaware of how much stolen Aboriginal material was collected, as pre 1900 people were still being shot in the head due to white peoples demand for land and water. So the idea of a free and fair trade between whites and Aboriginals was ludicrous.

“I don’t whether I am going to come across my great-grandmother in one of these cases… I don’t know what I am going to see when I go to a museum…Often the provenance is not clear. How did that shield get there and was it taken from one of my ancestors in a colonial situation?…So it is not a simple thing to walk into a museum”

Haidy and Gail both raised an important point in relation to guardianship and ownership of material culture and the way museums need to be responsible for the histories of colonialism. Today they agreed UK museum attitudes are changing such as the Cambridge museum that clearly worked in partnership, collaboration and respect for local Pacific communities.

Thus, in relation to the question “Who benefits?” Melissa noted during her observation of British museum audiences visiting the Aboriginal exhibition, is it worth a 6 second baffled observation of our art when people don’t understand it? However, in absence of these objects amongst Aboriginal communities, Haidy argued how the debate was equally about the importance of intangible cultural heritage, intergenerational knowledge and the transmission of tradition from one Aboriginal generation to the next amongst today’s communities.

In addition to complex discussions around Native Land rights, overall this enriching talk provided new insights into the debate of “Who Owns Culture?” that will alter the way indigenous artefacts are perceived and experienced in all ethnographic museum displays globally.

I know I will never view Australian aboriginal culture in the same way again.

Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation is on at the British Museum until August 2015.

Yasmin Hales is an independent lecturer and researcher in Social Anthropology and Indian tribal art and architecture. Visit her blog at www.cultureinmind.com.

By Ivor Wells

ANZAC Day. Some thoughts on good old ANZAC Day.

Well, throughout this year’s festival I’ve hardly thought about ANZAC Day to be honest. Odd, given the profile of its centenary this year. But it hardly came up until ‘The One Day of the Year’, a discussion on Alan Seymour’s seminal 1958 play about how ANZAC Day is celebrated in Australia.

It’s currently being performed in London at the Finborough Theatre; a fantastic, intimate production, true to the text’s naturalism but with some great expressionistic qualities too. And the acting is brilliant. Fiona Press in particular, whose portrayal of ‘the refereeing woman’ in an intergenerational father-son conflict gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on the London stage.

The director and some of the cast joined a panel on the last day of the festival to discuss the play, the wider ANZAC myth and what it means today. After all the other discussions I’d attended it was kind of strange talking about ANZAC.

Maybe it was the sessions I had chosen to go to. Or maybe I wasn’t listening hard enough in them.

Or maybe it was simply the diversity of voices at the festival and all the other stories that speak to the creation of modern Australia and New Zealand.

Because if I’m honest, after three days of talks, debates and performances I went into this session feeling a little flat, like I was shoehorning myself back into the One National Creation Story, the One Coming of Age Story, the One To Rule Us All And In The Darkness Bind Us Story.

It’s how the popular interpretation of the ANZAC story feels to many people these days, whether they feel they can say so or not.

The panel seemed to agree that Seymour’s play – based on a conflict between a proud ANZAC veteran, Alf and his student son, Hughie who has rejected the ANZAC myth – had come full circle. A teenager in 2015, it was suggested, could well play the part of the father Alf – proud, nationalistic, chest-thumping – and an older actor the sceptical student with more questions than clichés.

It was a good point and it got me thinking.

Compared to the late 50’s when the play was written and first performed, the ANZAC legend is back in vogue. Dawn services swell in numbers year on year across Australia. Gallipoli seems inextricably linked to Australian nationalism and it’s a very similar story in New Zealand too.

So why did I feel so, I don’t know, claustrophobic?

Well, it’s complicated I guess.

I’m the grandson of an ANZAC for a start. Auckland Regiment. New Zealand 2nd Expeditionary Force. Bullet to the thigh and a facial injury on the last day of the battle of Messines, 14 June 1917. Bloody lucky to have survived, my granddad.

I’ve visited Messines, just outside of Ypres in Belgium, now twinned with Featherstone in New Zealand where he lied about his age when he enlisted in 1916. Although my granddad was still farming when the Gallipoli landings took place the year before, I’ve walked with other antipodean backpackers on Chunuk Bair and Lone Pine Cemetery in Turkey. I’ve sifted through the pebbles on ANZAC cove.

I was even in Westminster Abbey with the Queen last month to commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli landings.

So the ANZAC story is one I respect.

But I observe its commemoration with a very wary eye these days. In so many vacuous ways it’s become The One National Story for both countries and a quasi-religious circus of chest-thumping nationalism which many people feel uneasy about.

Is it the same in New Zealand, someone on the panel asked, are there any Kiwis in the audience?

Which is another curious aspect to ANZAC; having lived in both countries I’ve always found it interesting how, by and large, the Aussies overlook the ‘NZ’ in ANZAC and the Kiwis the first ‘A’. Yet both countries guard the legend as jealously and exclusively as they can get away with.

It’s as if, with its now-mythical status, we each have an insurance policy against being forgotten in the sweeping amphitheatre of world history, the great epic poem of war and Empire we once contributed a verse to.

I mean, where we come from – the utter most ends of the earth – who wants to be forgotten?

Ironically, it’s not the remembering, or even the solemn commemorating that makes me wince. It’s all the forgetting that comes with it.

Without ANZAC as our One Creation Story would we not have to come home to the other stories, or the stories of others to be more precise? You know the others I mean, especially if you’re Australian. Or perhaps you don’t.

If the Australia & New Zealand Literature and Arts Festival has left me with anything the last two years, it’s a renewed fascination for those longer, more complicated and, at times, uncomfortable stories from the formation of Australia and New Zealand.

I’m talking about the stories that aren’t 100 years old last month but 175, or 227, or dare I say it upwards of 40,000.

Curious is it not, that on The One Day Of the Year a booming number of young Aussies and Kiwis, draped in flags on beaches far from home, shoehorn their imaginations into that One Story of Nation grown from the soil of a bloody and futile contribution to the eternal story of war.

As their numbers continue to swell you could be forgiven for scratching your head at how the story of Alf and Hughie really did come full circle. As if, like the aging Ulysses back home on quiet old Ithaca, ‘to rest unburnished, not to shine in use’ is unimaginable in a world of war.

Or perhaps it’s not such a curious thing at all.

Ivor Wells is a London-based Kiwi/Brit hybrid who grew up in NZ, Australia, USA and Germany. He writes a blog called ‘Pacific Londoner’ about his travels, reading and musings.

Humans have been writing about war for a long time.

Ever since we’ve been writing, actually. Homer was the author of some of the most vivid scenes of battle ever penned, and since Homer was writing from an oral tradition, it’s safe to assume that tales of war have been around since humans started telling stories (or fighting wars – it would be pleasant to think the stories came first).

The tradition continues to this day, and those who heard Ruth Padel and New Zealand’s Poet Laureate, Vincent O’Sullivan, in the Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts event, War in Writing, will know that it is a subject that has never lost its power to confront. As the event’s chair, Peter Rose – editor of the Australian Book Review said, war has an ‘irresistible draw’ for writers.

Padel and O’Sullivan both read poetry and Padel an extract from her novel, set in World War II Crete, amidst a rolling discussion on war as a subject. The first poem Padel shared, ‘Peter the Funny One’, was particularly apt for the session, since its subject was an artist’s response to war. A playful take on idealism versus truth, it followed Peter Breughel’s works from peasant frivolity to the art he made after living through the Thirty Years War. Throughout the poem a voice begs Breughel show, ‘the world we live in’, a request that is only satisfied with ‘The Triumph of Death’, a 1560s religious painting that presents an almost documentary scene of carnage.

Padel’s second poem, ‘Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth’ was shortlisted for the 2014 T S Eliot Prize and it rolls together the Judean creation story, modern Israel, the gentle hands of a carpenter carving an Oud and the bloody end of this labour when ‘the soldiers came for his genetic code’. It shows creativity as a healing force amidst carnage:

I took a class in carpentry and put away the bridal rug.

We started over

with a child’s oud bought on eBay.

Vincent O’Sullivan has recently been working on the lyrics for works by the New Zealand composer Ross Harris. He explained that war is not the subject matter that naturally draws him, and that he is ambivalent about the ‘dress up factor’ of war commemorations (‘don’t put yourself to so much trouble’ reads a line of one of his poems) and the myths that surround them. Were our nations really forged in the crucible of Gallipoli? Maybe not when New Zealanders in the 1970s still referred to Britain as ‘home’. Nonetheless he accepted the commission to write a poem for New Zealand’s unknown soldier, as well as writing the libretto for Harris’s opera, Brass Poppies, a Requiem for the Fallen and Notes from the Front, a song cycle based on the famous mathematician Aitken and the violin he smuggled from front line to front line.

There are, explained O’Sullivan, constraints of writing for music (for instance a slippery sentence of s’s, is very hard on a singer) and, above all, lyrics must reinforce a score not ‘peel away from it’. The Agnus Dei from the requiem, for example, takes simple phrases describing soldiers’ experiences and structures them as a chant with the traditional agnus dei (lamb of god – don’t forget that sacrifice is a strong motif here) refrain.

The simplicity of O’Sullivan’s war writing is its most forceful quality. Picture this: A soldier sees a hare moving through no man’s land. All around is death and the animal moves through a ‘corpse infested’ ditch’. It is an anecdote that becomes the heart of the war experience: it conveys a yearning for home; a yearning for the past; and all around is death, so this visitor from nature is the real invader. And if nature has become the alien, then doesn’t that just illustrate the malevolence of the human-made battle landscape?

One particularly interesting audience question was why Second World War poets were not as famous as those from the First. It wasn’t, explained O’Sullivan, that they didn’t exist. But the First World War poets were writing the most direct confronting poetry since Homer, so they have became famous. The Second World War also did not have the same ‘face-to-face brutality’ of the first.

An hour of deep, reflective poetry, prose and discussion from two much respected writers whose work and observations on writing war were sensitive and, like the Oud in Padel’s poem, lovingly crafted.

Ruth Padel’s latest collection of poetry, Learning to make an Oud in Nazareth was released in 2014. The Opera, Brass Poppies, of which O’Sullivan is the Librettist will be performed at the next New Zealand Arts Festival.

 

 

Katie Haworth is a New Zealand-born editor and writer who lives in London

 

By Emma Sartori

The notion of home is both complex and simple for some. It crosses literal and figurative ideas and draws in many other factors including migration and travel. It was this theme that formed the basis for The Mara Crossing: On Journeys Across the Globe session.

A largely expat/migrant audience joined host and Australian expat Jane Cornwell, poet Ruth Padel and authors Evelyn Conlon and Tara June Winch for a discussion that meandered along at its own pace, never seeking to give a definitive answer, instead offering members the choice for individual definition as ideas posed applied to them.

Is home a physical place? Is it made up of things, of people, of emotions? How do you know when you’re home? What happens to a home when you leave, whether by choice or not? What happens when you return to that home? What are people seeking when they leave a home? Anything? Or are they simply seduced by the unknown?

Maybe “home is travel, the journey,” Padel posed.

Perhaps it is, but throw in factors such as choice and the push/pull factor and the topic is turned on its head. Choice and a sense of home seemingly go hand in hand, but sometimes there is no freedom to make a choice; hands are forced, no matter how subtly, by others around them.

For migrants, “Home and migration are two sides of the same coin because everybody is leaving home but going to try to create a new home.

“There is a push-pull factor. The pull factor is the hope for a better life … but of course there’s a push factor too and it’s execution, famine, economic degradation,” Padel mused.

While an astute audience member later remarked: “With choice, in a greater sense, you can always defer to some kind of structure of decision-making that seems larger than any individual.”

For expats, the longer we’re away from home the more blurred the lines become, for when we physically wander from home, so too does our mind.

“It [home] does become romanticised, blurry, magical, a dreamland,” said Tara June Winch, an Australian now living in France.

We sentimentalise things; life, people and moments, so much so that returning home becomes a struggle because the home as you knew it evolved, quite possibly unintentionally casting you out.

When we return we are strangers essentially, Evelyn Conlon said. “It’s like when somebody dies … once the person is dead then the rest of the community leaves, turns their back and fills in the space in which that person was. So in a way, when a person emigrates and leaves that space is filled in. When they come back in, how do you recreate that space?”

Can we even recreate that space, especially if contact with home while away was minimal or non-existent?

It doesn’t matter, Conlon pointed out, because in this day and age nobody can ever be truly gone from somewhere. And she’s right, technology has made sure of that, social media has made sure of that and the way most of us have allowed all of that into our lives has made sure of that.

So, why do we leave? Why the search for home? Why do we one day feel home is not where we were once taught it was?

Padel sums it up beautifully in the final poem of The Mara Crossing, Time to Fly: “Because you need a place to shed your skin in safety. You go with a thousand questions but you are growing up, growing old, moving on. Say goodbye to the might-have-beens you can’t step into the same river twice.

“You go because hope, need and escape are names for the same god. You go because life is sweet, life is cheap, life is flux and you can’t take it with you. You go because you’re alive, because you’re dying, maybe dead already. You go because you must.”

Emma Sartori is an Australian writer continually beating away inner demons with a pen. Follow her on twitter on @EmzSartori.

By Emma Sartori

As the book publishing industry has evolved with the modern world, so too has the necessary relationships within it.

Relationships like the one between an author and publisher; an author and his character; a reader and an author; and between an author and himself. Begging the question, what does it take to be an author in the 21st century?

New Zealand author Paul Ewen took that concept and ran with it in his first novel, How to be a Public Author? Protagonist Francis Plug was seven years in the making, brought to life by Ewen who would take his alter ego along to literary events.

It’s book festivals and the role they play that become a central discussion point for Ewen, publisher and host Eloise Miller and journalist Alex Carr in The Writer and His Alter Ego session.

Promoting a book these days is almost an elaborate game of Chinese whispers. While traditional media still plays a huge part in developing readership, publishers, Miller admits, have realised the power word of mouth can have. The reach can be far but it may not necessarily be wide enough, forcing authors to step out from behind their characters and words to give their book that extra push.

“The expectation of what you do as an author has changed,” Miller said. “You don’t just write a book and wait at home while the reviews come in. You get into this kind of stream and river of interviews and events and readings and you’re really expected to put yourself out there.”

At war with that, though, is the enduring notion that authors are reclusive beings. And while Ewen doesn’t fit that bill at all, he does have an endearing awkwardness evened out by a sharp sense of humour the audience is given flashes of throughout the session.

“The night of the Booker Prize shortlist last year, Francis Plug went along and he tried to get into the backstage because he thought he should be on the shortlist. But they wouldn’t let him in, so he took a photo, which got circulated afterward, of his book at Foyles, they have a Booker shortlist shelf, so he took a photo of his book there and he went back and said, ‘Look here it is!’ But they still wouldn’t let him in,” he said with a wry smile.

“He is eccentric,” Miller said. “Francis Plug is the ultimate outsider.”

Ewen agreed: “He’s said he wants to be this author but he can see what’s coming and that’s the whole point of writing this book for himself, he’s learning tips and going around to all these Booker prize winners because they’re at the coalface of public author-ness and he’s trying to work out if he can do it himself.”

The demand for author visibility has increased along with the proliferation of literary festivals, which in turn offer the chance to read a writer up close. Despite the performance aspect of the job not being his cup of tea, author events do have their place, Ewen believes.

“For my case, I’m obviously keen to do it because I’ve got the backing of a small publisher who doesn’t have the big marketing budgets that the big publishers have got, so I also want to help do my bit. I’m not on social media either; I’m not a fan of that, so I feel like I’ve got to do my part to push the book.”

“[Big festivals] present you with the opportunity to get close up to writers and I suppose that’s why they’ve been so successful,” Carr agreed.

Publicity isn’t the only thing Ewen is getting out of the events though (he’s been to five in two weeks); he’s gathering material for his follow-up book. So have we caught the eye of Francis Plug?

“These events are what go in my book, funnily enough. This is all good material for me,” Ewen said.

“I can’t escape this character … You’re always looking for his take.”

Emma Sartori is an Australian writer continually beating away inner demons with a pen. Follow her on twitter on @EmzSartori.

Former foreign editor Peter Walker and foreign correspondent Christina Lamb joined journalist Brian Walker for a wide-ranging discussion on politics, war and love in Some Here Among Us.

Walker is here to discuss his novel, Some Here Among Us – a cross-generational meditation on youth and promise and loss in the face of two of the most controversial wars in modern history. In fact, he jokes, if Tolstoy hadn’t got there first, he might have called his book ‘War and Love’.

“Love is at the foreground, but war is always in the background,” says Walker. The story follows a group of friends over 40 years as they flee New Zealand to Washington, before returning again via various war zones and shifting politics.

With a long history of reporting from conflict areas, Walker has the gravitas and knowledge to bring this background layer to life. When asked how autobiographical his novel is, Walker says “memory is used in fiction just as it autobiography”. However, he notes that whilst autobiographical memory must be tied to the facts, otherwise it’s a lie, “fictional memory must be liberated from the facts, otherwise it’s not fiction”.

For Walker, the reverberations of war are always around us – like a woman beating a dusty carpet with a broom, its effects will ricochet and bounce towards us no matter where we live.

And from fiction to fact – Christina Lamb, with over 20 years of reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan under her belt, is a walking tome of facts, figures and insights into a politically charged and highly complex environment.

Lamb says her most recent book, Farewell Kabul, is about “how we don’t seem to be able to end wars anymore”. Having first reported from Afghanistan in 1989 Lamb has seen the shifting vagaries of global politics played out in this embattled country in all its forms. From the USSR invasion, to the rise of the Mujahedeen to the US hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Lamb incisively asks the most important question – has it all been worth it?

She tells the story of the NATO headquarters in Kabul, where a tradition has developed of each Commander planting a new tree at the end of his tenure.

“There are 17 trees”, she says. Too many, she thinks, for the relatively short period of NATO involvement, revealing a lack of continuity in leadership that would have been crucial to establishing stability.

It is a somber discussion ultimately, on the futility of conflict and the tendency of Western governments to throw money at a problem and hope it goes away with little thought of the longer term consequences for those bearing out the realities of their decisions.

Maybe after all, fact and fiction are in this instance the same thing – as Lamb notes in the end what she mainly covered was the ordinary stories of Afghans living their lives amongst the fighting and rubble.

The foreground of love, against the backdrop of war.

Alex Ivett is a full-time lawyer and part-time writer who sometimes wishes those two could switch. Check out her work at alexivett.com or follow her on twitter @ozlondonlife.

By Anna Bowden

Introduced as writers of ‘love and land’, New Zealand writer Alan Duff and Australian writer Melissa Lucashenko’s discussion around breaking the cycle developed to cover major themes of violence, masculinity, community and connecting people through books.

Duff, author of the rage-ridden Once Were Warriors, speaks about the profound effects of being loveless and how they are shown through his character, Jake: “My work is about the state of lovelessness and the mayhem that comes out of that.”

He speaks about the film adaptation of his first novel like it was far more recent than 25 years ago, recalling the reaction to its hard-hitting themes of domestic violence.  “I remember the people saying ‘so what’s all the fuss about Alan Duff’, I went from zero to hero overnight. They said ‘this is how too many of us live”.

“I never wanted to point the finger at Jake, I wanted to hold a mirror up. The Jakes of this world are full of self-loathing.”

Lucashenko and Duff share their experience of prisons – Duff on the wrong side of the bars – and agree that most people in prisons have been abused in their lives, and for men masculinity remains an issue.

Duff describes his own battles with masculinity, even amid writing Once Were Warriors, of hiding his typewriter and shutting down music when ‘the boys’ came by for rugby: “I wasn’t prepared to come out of the closet with my love of classical music.”

However, the writers’ views differ on redemption and the place of cultural tradition in steering young men, in particular, on the right path. While Lucashenko speaks boldly of the importance of the egalitarian constructs of Aboriginal culture and keeping traditions alive, Duff holds a staunch view that “we forget” the parts of our culture we don’t want to return to and we must look to the future.

Duff began a literacy programme more than 20 years ago which gives books to disadvantaged kids. Since then, 13 million books have been given away, and there are currently 100,000 children on the programme.

Anna Bowden is a New Zealander living in London. Follow Anna on Twitter and Instagram@annabowden.

By Ivor Wells

‘Australia and New Zealand to square off in death match!’

What comes to mind?

I’d tend to go with 90,000 people singing their hearts out to Jimmy Barnes at the MCG, or a sinking yacht, or underarm bowling, or tears of relief at Eden Park. I might think of the Bledisloe Cup with its distinctly Kiwi accent these days, or the Cricket World Cup grinning back at it from across the pond.

I’d tend not to think of answering questions about Nabakov and his butterflies, Mansfield’s cheeky tipples, Carey’s two-time Booker win or Joanna Lumley’s opinion of The Bone People.

But that’s how it rolls if the Oz-NZ showdown is a Literary Death Match: the wicket a microphone, the goal posts a 7-8 minute time slot, the muddy ball either slam poetry or polished prose.

Forget sucking on an orange peel at half time, mate. Tuck into a madeleine Prousty!

And so it came to pass that four writers from both sides of the Tasman did square off in the atmospheric chapel at King’s College:

Never before, and probably never again, will I laugh so hard at a literary character – Paul Ewan’s half-pissed alter-ego – making light chit chat with Margaret Atwood from inside a cage.

In a brilliant series of poems Selina Tusitala Marsh single handedly subverted the white colonial male gaze of Gaugin with such magnetic panache I eventually had to avert my own.

Duncan Sarkies’ short story about an attempted escape from an old person’s home during a performance of Annie was as surreal and unnerving as it was deeply moving.

And with eloquence and clarity, rapper and slam poet Omar Musa did to the cult of ANZAC Day what Public Enemy did to 911.

They were all presided over by MC and Literary Death Match founder, Adrian Todd Zuniga, an American dressed in a three piece suit that was so tweed T.S. Eliot would have been like, ‘Dude.’

Let’s not forget the judges too:

Novelist and theatremaker, Stella Duffy’s south London/south Waikato credentials were perfectly suited to defending both the fiction of Janet Frame and Brixton’s chicken shops.

Aussie comedian Sarah Kendall’s limitless knowledge of film allowed her to compare every performance to well-known Australian actors. In particular, her comments on Al Pacino in the Godfather I really should have written down.

And Tim Fitzhigham is just plain mad. This is a bloke who rowed a paper boat down the Thames, a bathtub across the English Channel and broke the world record for the longest washing line. Come to think of it, I couldn’t think of anyone more suited to the occasion. He performed admirably, even if he was speaking Klingon half the time.

I have no idea what happened next.

Something about judges conferring, people leaving the stage and volunteers being called up to form words using large cards with letters on them.

It was a game of several halves. We laughed. We had a good old laugh, we really did.

But basically Selina won and everyone was happy because everyone’s a winner, right?

No high tackles. No sin bins. Nice one, Down Under.

Yet the cherry was really placed atop the pavlova just after we’d all stopped clapping, when the house lights went up and the DJ put some music on. It was a tune I hadn’t heard in years, but it was so familiar we all seemed to do a double take.

I felt a nostalgic lump rising in my throat.

Oh look, this is awkward.

It’s not as if I like the song. I just, you know, wasn’t expecting to hear it.

And the death match was finally over, and we were all mates again, and it was kind of lovely.

Do I really have to name the song?

Look, let’s just say that wherever we are in the world, everyone needs good Neighbours.

Happy?

Ivor Wells is a London-based Kiwi/Brit hybrid who grew up in NZ, Australia, USA and Germany. He writes a blog called ‘Pacific Londoner’ about his travels, reading and musings.

By Emma Sartori

If there’s one thing that became abundantly clear throughout the Kate Grenville In Conversation session, it’s that she comes from a line of remarkable women.

Her grandmother’s life in the harsh, late 1800s is the stuff stories spring from, while her mother, Nance, survived a time of tumultuous change in the 20th century and passed those stories down to her children.

In a departure from her usual fiction, Grenville delved further into the stories her mother told her and the end result is the memoir, One Life: My Mother’s Story.

Nance was, by all accounts, a woman marked by rejection and desolation who bore a striking resilience and determination to break the common thread of unhappiness weaving its way through her family, all amid a change in the fabric of society as women of her generation were offered more freedom and opportunities than ever before.

“My mother was born in 1912 and lived for 90 years, so what she saw over the course of the 20th century was wave after wave of incredible change, particularly for women, which opened up opportunities all of which she grabbed with both hands,” Grenville told the audience.

“All my life she’d been telling me stories about our ancestors, including our convict ancestor on who The Secret River was based, but also about her own young life and all that involved.

“The reason why she kept telling us those stories, I think, was that she knew that she was representative of a generation of women for who life was different than it had been from every other generation of women on the planet.”

There is nothing quite like a mother’s love and the impact of Grenville’s mother, and to an extent her grandmother, on her is obvious. She speaks very matter-of-factly about the shortcomings of the adult figures in her life, of her grandmother’s frustrations at being blocked at every turn, of the loveless childhood experienced by her mother, of affairs, conspiracies and secrets uncovered.

She holds no illusions about the line of women she comes from and chooses to accept their imperfections, to understand the hardships experienced instead of judging. In that way, Grenville turns the tables on her mother, proving a child’s love can be just as unconditional.

“Mum never had any secrets … I think she made sure that there were no skeletons for me to be shocked by after she died, or if there were she’s hidden them so effectively that I haven’t been able to find them,” Grenville said with a smile.

The tables continued to turn on the Grenville women as the award-winning author revealed that she and her brothers were the catalyst for change for Nance.

“She said to me, ‘I come from a long line of unhappy parents producing unhappy and unsettled children,’ and she would say, ‘I am determined to break that cycle. I’m going to be the generation where, OK, I might not be happy but I’m not going to pass that unhappiness on to you children’,” Grenville said.

“She was an incredibly loving mother and she somehow managed to absorb into herself like a sponge all the unhappiness of the marriage so that it didn’t infect me and my brothers.”

In all of her fiction there is something of Nance, Grenville admits. The root of Grenville’s love for reading and writing is most certainly traced back to Nance, who was saved from a particularly dark period in her life by the words of poet John Keats.

“I grew up almost slightly embarrassed by the intensity of my mother’s love of literature, but it certainly rubbed off on me,” Grenville said. “When I became a writer I think mum was as surprised as I was.

“I certainly think I owe her my love of writing.”

Grenville, who exudes the warmth, inner strength and intelligence she describes her mother as having, brings everything full circle by immortalising Nance’s history in One Life: My Mother’s Story and discussing it with obvious pride and love. The memoir is a sort of proof that the cycle of unhappiness has indeed been broken and the stories shared highlight just how fortunate women in the 21st century are.

“I wanted to tell my mother’s story as she would clearly want it to be told,” Grenville said.

“She was remarkable.”

Emma Sartori is an Australian writer continually beating away inner demons with a pen. Follow her on twitter on @EmzSartori.

By Anna Bowden

In his TV series Brilliant Creatures  Howard Jacobson links four “exiled” Australians who arrived in the UK in the 60s: writer Clive James, feminist Germaine Greer; performer Barry Humphries; and art critic Robert Hughes. And, he says, without them England wouldn’t have been the same.

Jacobson shares an interesting relationship with them; during this time he traded places, travelling to Australia – from their sleepy backwater to his brave new world. “They all justified leaving home by attacking Australia, but it was not the cultural desert they described.” His views of Australia are not resolute, as with any ex-pat on new shores. But his observations and links from the famous four, shape a complex picture of what it is to leave home, and more so, what it is to choose to stay in faraway lands: “The other side of the exhilaration of leaving home is the longing you have to go back there.”

Having spent hours interviewing each of the Australian four, Jacobson offers a warm view of the remarkable contribution they made to Britain, paving the way for future generations, and introducing the world to Australian-ness. While not connected to each other personally, the four offer special similarities in their love of literature, and performance that shaped their individual successes. A scale of  cultural nourishment that may never be seen again.

Jacobson was joined by poet and academic Jaya Sivage, and The Australian managing editor Helen Trinca, who together explored the new generation and the opportunities for similar cultural influence. Sivage talked about the fragmentation and clamour of media and the difficulty in cutting through the noise of today. While Australians comedian/composer Tim Minchin and comedian/actress Rebel Wilson were mentioned as having strong voices, we probably won’t identify their impact without the benefit of another 50 years hindsight, and the eloquent Howard Jacobson to wrap it all up in a lovely documentary to present it to us.

Anna Bowden is a New Zealander living in London. Follow Anna on Twitter and Instagram @annabowden.

Sometimes it’s the small stories that matter the most. Like what happens when a child growing up in the north-western Australian desert eats too many of a certain type of insect and her blind mother sits with her all day, comforting her until she feels better. 

Pat Lowe met Walmajarri woman, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, while living in Broom in the Kimberly region of Western Australia. Jukna, shared many of her childhood stories with Pat, and the two of them collaborated on a children’s book, The Girl from the Great Sandy Desert.

The session featured Pat Lowe; the book’s illustrator, Mervyn Street; and Jukna’s son, David Chuguna.

What makes Jukna’s childhood so exceptional is that her family were some of the last Walmajarri hunter-gatherers to grow up pre-contact. Jukna eventually came out of the desert to live on a cattle station because she was unwell with kidney disease.

As with many personal stories, it’s the fabric of everyday living that makes them engrossing. Pat describes Jukna’s anecdotes as tales of ‘daily life’ rather than ‘social organisation’ and it’s a child’s world view of Walmajarri desert life not filtered through anthropologists. Mervyn’s sensitive ink and wash illustrations are an interpretation of this life from an artist that, while not brought up in the Great Sandy Desert – Mervyn is a river man – has family who were.

Before reading, Pat and David delved into some of the aspects of traditional Walmajarri life, the defining one being, of course, the eternal search for water. Pat told a story about artist Jimmy Pike, a childhood friend of Jukuna’s, being taken up into a helicopter. Despite never having seen the desert from the air before, he was able to guide the pilot to exactly where he needed to land. ‘You couldn’t, said Pat, ‘be walking around a desert hoping you find water – you know.’ This knowledge is still held by elder Walmajarri, and David still knows where the jila or waterholes of his parents can be found.

The waterholes also formed the centrepiece of the first story Pat read. Mana’s (the fictionalised name of the child in the book), grandmother told her of seeing non-Aboriginal people, kartiya, at one of their water holes. Mana remembered asking her grandmother what they were like and being told that they were ‘just like us but a different colour’. Afraid to go near it, the family waited until the kartiya had finished drinking and then went down, but the water hole was empty. The kartiya had killed the spirit snake and destroyed the jila.

First contact is, for some Aboriginal people, still a thing of living memory and Mervyn Street explained that he was 15 when he saw his first European. It can he hard to remember that the Girl from the Great Sandy Desert tells stories of recent history which, as Pat pointed out, makes the adaptations the people who moved to stations and cities made, extraordinary.

One of the recurring motifs in Mana’s stories is the closeness and love of the family unit. This was heartbreakingly illustrated in the story of Mana’s father’s second wife – Mana’s ‘blind mother’, who insisted that she was left behind after the death of her fourth child. Mana recalled with terrible detail the harrowing grief of family members who hit themselves with boomerangs until they bled.

Mana’s may have been a cultural experience far removed from the lives of western and even many contemporary Aboriginal readers, but her stories reveal her to be a typical (although extremely observant) little girl, whose story of nurturing an orphan puppy and loving it to distraction is as universal as any Shakespeare play.

Jukuna Mona Chuguna’s people started drifting away from their traditional lives as they went to work on cattle stations in the latter half of the 20th century, but connection with the Walmajarri lands is still strong and David is a ranger in the places his mother grew up. When asked by an audience member if the younger generation were learning the ways of their ancestors, David explained that that was what he did now – taking the next generation into the desert and teaching them the culture and the stories, though some things – like knowing where to find jila – are harder to pass on in a changed world.

This session with Pat, David and Mervyn, demonstrated just how much a culture is defined and shared by narrative. The stories of those who have gone before can serve as an inspiration for a new generation’s desert stories as well as a bridge of understanding to children in the rest of Australia and the world.

 

Katie Haworth is a children’s book editor and writer from New Zealand who now lives in London.

 

 

 

 

 

War Stories: Uncertain Allies with Professor James Belich and Sir Lockwood Smith reflected on the Great War and the alliances that were challenged and strengthened – across the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

It started with a history joke – renowned New Zealand historian Professor James Belich apologizing for his rushed beginning, noting it was perhaps comparable to the Australian and New Zealand contribution to the Battle of Jutland, where the HMS Australia and HMS New Zealand on their way to the action had ‘banged into each other’ and missed the entire encounter.

An opening which set the tone for a surprising hour – challenging the orthodoxy of a commonly held understanding of Australian and New Zealand history, but also the very stereotype of a history lecture itself. Engaging, entertaining and full of detailed facts, Professor Belich was not like any history professor I’d encountered at school, and this was not your average history lesson.

Introduced by the NZ High Commissioner, Sir Lockwood Smith, Professor Belich first acknowledged the significant contribution to World War 1 Australia and New Zealand had made. Particularly as small countries, and new countries at that, the proportion of men heading to war, and then more importantly the proportion not returning, he noted was staggering.

In particular, it was a war with an enemy people at home couldn’t see – a war fought across oceans many thousands of miles away.

“The Great War was a lethal absence in Australian and New Zealand history”, he said.

Here is where the mythology sets in – newly independent countries asserting their sense of national identity on a world stage, an important stepping stone in the development of a post-colonialist and self-assured identity.

Not so, said Professor Belich. In fact during this time, and right up until the 1970s, there was a strong sense in Australia and New Zealand of being British. The large numbers that flocked to Britain’s aid during the war did so precisely as the result of a feeling that they were “fighting for Britain because they were British.”

That is, the idea that the kernel of collective identity was planted in the dirt of Gallipoli and the Somme and has grown into our modern sense of independent patriotism is somewhat overstated. There was a collective feeling borne out of WW1, Professor Belich acknowledged, but was this identity “an independent nationalism or a better Britishism?”

The idea that both countries’ national identity grew steadily in the post-war period is also, Professor Belich argued, a myth. There was instead the feeling that in fact a sense of ‘Britishness’ could be better preserved in the colonies – away from the trappings of English notions like class. Australia and New Zealand did not see themselves as victims or subjects of the British Empire, but as co-owners – “the leading edge of Britishness”.

As a result Australia and New Zealand had a “protracted adolescence” – which carried with it its own disadvantages such as racism, but also it’s advantages – privileged access to London, high standards of living, and a vested sense of self that lay with the British Empire.

“It’s not necessarily a comfortable idea”, acknowledged Professor Belich as he concluded.

“But then again, history is not meant to be comfortable.”

Alex Ivett is a full-time lawyer and part-time writer who sometimes wishes those two could switch. Check out her work at alexivett.com or follow her on twitter @ozlondonlife.

 

On Thursday 28 May, the second Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts leapt off the starting block with a dynamic opening event at Kings College, London.

The writers and performers included Tony White, Jarred Christmas, Steve Toltz, Melissa Lucashenko, DBC Pierre, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Javier Jarquin and Duncan Sarkies with Joe Blossom. It was certainly an evening that provided an extremely diverse cross section of Aussie and Kiwi talent.

In the beginning was Tony White, the only non-Australasian of the event. White is a Jamaican/UK musician, and he filled the auditorium with the grumbling earth vibrations of his didgeridoo. His style is one that he describes as non-traditional and he brings a charismatic jazzy flare and swing to the instrument. After this growling overture, our host for the evening was the ebullient comedian Jarred Christmas, whose relaxed stage presence, quick-fire humour and ability to spin a yarn (and a funny one at that), have made him one of New Zealand’s favourite comedy acts.

Booker Prize-nominated Australian author, Steve Toltz read from his latest novel, Quicksand, and its description of an incarcerated crook vehemently arguing every opinion under the sun in a doomed attempt to snatch a cop’s weapon was ridiculous, sublime, and plausible enough for pathos. Selena Tusitala Marsh brought the evening back to cultural introspection with her poetic response to a very typical New Zealand debate moot, ‘That Australia is the Lucky Country’. Tusitala Marsh’s delivery is always mesmerising and she took us on a journey from creation, with the legend of Rangi and Papa, to land wars, to politics (‘Muldoon was no Mugabi’), and spoke lovingly of the sorts of images that often adorn the postcards of kiwi kitsch. But unease still nibbled around the edges, for ‘everything we think is free, is hostage to a global economy’.

After Jarred Christmas had cleared up the question about the origin of Pavlova (New Zealand, of course – but I didn’t see any Australians walk out, so diplomatic amity was obviously the order of the night), the audience was treated to something completely different. Javier Jarquin is a Kiwi comedian and entertainer whose shtick is card tricks. No, not the sort where he finds your ace at the bottom of the pack. He throws the things, twists them, turns them, makes them dance as if on strings (they aren’t, as he’s quick to point out), while managing to maintain the repartee of a stand up comedian with a ninja complex. A highlight of the evening was hearing a literary festival audience earnestly chanting ‘ninja’.

The language of the press conference may be some of the most bland and ubiquitous around, but Australian writer, DBC Pierre used the colossal irony at his disposal to turn it into something quite different. A certain Nordic serial offender who forces reindeer to circumnavigate the globe in a single night is on the loose . . . A witty satire of a language that we all know how to read between the lines of.

The most powerful moment of the evening had to be Melissa Lucashenko, an Australian poet of writer of Goorie (Aboriginal) and European heritage, reading two poems ‘Circles and Squares’ and ‘Black Boys’. ‘Circles and Squares’ delves into the cultural conflict of a stolen generation, taken away from the circles of their land and brought up in square houses. Find it, read it – it will take your breath away.

It was only fitting that such an eclectic entertainment ended with something totally off the wall. Kiwi writer Duncan Sarkies and musician Sean O’Brien (aka Joe Blossom) performed an extract of the show based on Sarkies’ book, The Demolition of the Century. A mix of book reading and underground gig, which is the perfect vehicle for Sarkies’ blackly funny piece of kiwi gothic. Oh, and Sarkies can dance

If the variety of the festival’s opening night is anything to go by, then the weekend ahead is going to be something to write (or tweet, facebook, instagram, vlog, pinterest …) home about.

The full festival programme is available online.

 

Katie Haworth is a New Zealand-born editor and writer who lives in London

 

 

 

When five high-profile successful women from a spectrum of industries – business, politics, arts, media and the public sector – are brought together on one panel, you could be forgiven for expecting the result might be a fireworks display of clashing opinions.

Instead, for the audience of Inspiring Women Reflect, what was apparent was the consensus on the challenges women face in the workplace, and ultimately, the need for women to support women if we’re going to make any dent at all in this world of ours –in whatever industry we might be.

As the host, Hon. Ros Kelly AO (former Australian Federal MP), eloquently quoted as a final parting tip to the mostly female crowd:

“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”  (Madeline Albright)

An attendee had picked up on this theme in the earlier Q&A, asking for advice from the esteemed panel on how to handle difficult women colleagues. Diane Lees CBE, current Director-General of Imperial War Museums, had only two words: “Frog-snoggers Guide”, a book she said offered techniques to handle  conversations and interactions with competitive showmen (and women). A later  google search reveals its tag line to be “A guide to getting along with toads”.

This was only one of a number of useful, practical and insightful tips from an illustrious panel. Tips which revealed not just ways of succeeding in a chosen field, but also revealed something about the experiences of these women as they made their way in traditionally male-dominated fields and something more still about the current challenges we, as women, all still face.

Joining Hon. Ros Kelly AO and Diane Lees CBE were renowned journalist Geraldine Doogue AO, singer, writer and artistic director Robyn Archer AO FAHA and ANZ CEO Diana Brightmore-Armour MCT, MCCA. Together they represented a wealth of knowledge and titillating tips, which flew out much faster than the rate of women currently joining FTSE Boards.

1. Maintain your confidence and self-belief.

If a theme emerged, it was that across all represented industries, the panel members had experienced a situation where a talented, qualified woman had doubted herself and questioned her capacity to fulfill a role. It was noted that research indicated often women would wait until they ticked off every criteria of a job description before putting themselves forward, when by comparison men were happy to put their hand up at 30% or 40%.

“Just give it a go” implored Robyn Archer, noting that she “had no formal qualifications for anything I do” but had carved an influential path in the arts world.

Diane Lees agreed, arguing there was still resistance to women getting senior roles. When she was appointed to her position at the Imperial War Museum, she noted the press reaction was universally “Woman gets top museum job”, with her gender being a primary focus.

The panel returned to this idea later when exploring unconscious bias. One way it manifested was in the reaction to a senior woman failing after being appointed to a public role. In a similar situation a man may fail for a number of reasons, and likely be replaced by another man, whereas if a woman failed the discourse always suggested her femaleness was a factor. Being a ‘woman’ was the defining descriptor.

2. When you walk into a high-level meeting, just don’t say anything at all for the first five minutes.

In the first of a number of specific, practical tips, Diane Lees acknowledged the power-play behind much of our workplace interaction, suggesting the best way to be successful in a meeting is to first understand your adversaries. Sit back, watch the body language and assess your opponents before making your move was the subtext.

“The bloke with the papers spread over three seats”, she said. “He’s the easy target.”

Understanding your opponent was important she said. For example, acknowledging and understanding their value base may be different from your own. The most important value Diane Lees says she learnt is “generosity”.

“Allow everyone who sounds like they are a complete jerk at least 15 seconds to find and present their best self.”

3. When someone steals your idea, turn it back on them.

Another practical, and seemingly tried and tested, tip from Diana Brightmore-Armour. She mentioned the man we all know well – the one who, after you’ve put forward a brilliant idea in a meeting, turns around and repeats the exact same thought, and sits back to enjoy the kudos. As Diana informed the audience, play him at his own game – agree with the idea , whilst pointing away from him (at another person, at the slideshow), visually deflecting the attention.

Game, set, match.

4. Practice makes perfect.

Think of the best one-liners you’ve ever heard uttered in a public forum. If you’re Australian you’re probably thinking of Paul Keating – from calling the Leader of the Opposition a “mangy maggot” to comparing his performance to “being flogged with a warm lettuce” – spur-of-the-moment zingers delivered for maximum effect.

Not so easy for most of us to deliver those “zingers”, revealed Ros Kelly. Any important political speech, in fact any presentation, talk, discussion or contribution to a meeting, should be thought through, and practised. The panel agreed. Do your homework, prepare and practise in front of a mirror. Practise 25 times if you have to. Then get out there and make your argument well, but also make it persuasively.

Failing that, said Diana Brightmore-Armour, you’ll always be able to get out of trouble with a quote from Churchill!

5. Pick your partner wisely.

Whether in business or in life, the panel emphasized that the value of a good partner or mentor cannot be understated. What better person to be your sounding person, your constructive critic, or your cheerleader, than someone you trust and whose opinion you respect and value.

6. Don’t take negative feedback too personally.

Take it on board, analyse it objectively to assess its merit, but don’t let it fester, said the panel. In addition, depending on your industry, network and find a sponsor.

It was an illuminating discussion, drawing on a combined wealth of experience from across industries that would be difficult to replicate in any other setting. With handouts and a networking evening to follow, it certainly fulfilled its brief. Inspiring women, reflecting on inspiring careers. The audience could not do too much else, but sit back and soak up the words of wisdom.

Alex Ivett is a full-time lawyer and part-time writer who sometimes wishes those two could switch. Check out her work at alexivett.com or follow her on twitter @ozlondonlife.

For a personal take on the lessons learnt at this session, read Emma Sartori’s insightful piece here.

By Ivor Wells

I got an inkling of where Melissa Lucashenko’s lecture ‘Black, White & Brindle: Aboriginality in an age of unreason’ might be taking us the moment she was introduced by a painfully nervous British Museum staffer who needed her help pronouncing Mullumbimby.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard someone in one of London’s most learned institutions maroon themselves on the first syllable of a foreign word, as if it had suddenly reared up out of the sentence like a barely submerged reef.

Melissa hadn’t even arrived on stage and there was already a crackle of tension in the air.

This’ll be interesting, I thought.

And indeed it was.

It was a challenging, informative and at times graphic talk, even if the question of its venue – the British Museum in the old imperial metropolis – became the main issue for most of the audience. After all, Empire and the language of Empire featured heavily in what Melissa had to say.

She began with a recent news story.

“What did this Roman ever do for us?” asked indigenous lawyer and land rights activist, Noel Pearson last year in reference to a Monty Python sketch.

He was giving a eulogy at a memorial service for the former Australian Prime Minister, Gogh Whitlam, challenging the ease with which Whitlam’s achievements had been forgotten by some.

They included, during his three short years in office from 1972-1975, the Racial Discrimination Act which finally brought Australia into line with international norms and began the process of Aboriginal land reform.

“The achievements of this old man”, Pearson said, “are present in the institutions we today take for granted.”

Melissa cited the speech not to make her own tribute to Whitlam, but to draw attention to the use of Pearson’s language. “This old man” was how Pearson referred to Whitlam throughout his entire eulogy, never mentioning the former Prime Minister by name.

The speech sparked a debate at the time. Many people took Pearson’s language to be disrespectful. It was anything but. Some indigenous Australians (though not all) practise ‘name avoidance’ when speaking of the dead. It’s one of many cultural practices that are often misunderstood in white Australia.

But Melissa didn’t avoid the dead in her talk. Thousands got a mention; those indigenous people killed in almost two centuries of violence across the length and breadth of her lucky country, a country so passionately defined by its iconic experience of war.

But which wars are we choosing to remember, and which do we choose to forget, asked Melissa.

She quoted extensively from the memoire of the Englishman from Dover, Korah Wills who emigrated to Queensland and became Mayor of both Bowen and Mackay in the 1860s and 70s. In England Wills had been a butcher by trade, a skill which would come in handy when dealing with the ‘savages’ of Australia.

“I took it on my head to get a few specimens of certain Limbs, and head of a Black fellow, which was not a very delicate occupation I can tell you. I shall never forget the time when I first found the subject that I intended to anatomise, when my friends were looking on, and I commenced operations dissecting. I went to work business like to take off the head first and then the arms, and then the legs, and I gathered them together and put them into my pack saddle and one of my friends who I am sure had dispersed more than any other in the colony made the remark that if he was offered a fortune he could not do what I had done.”

‘Anatomisation’, as it was euphemistically referred to, is part of the story of extreme frontier violence that began at the moment of Australia’s colonial conquest and still echoes well into our own time.

How uncomfortable it was then for an audience in the British Museum to be reminded that it was the terrifyingly fascinated gaze of colonisers like Wills who helped stock museums across Australia, America, Britain and Europe with the body parts and belongings of indigenous people.

The British Museum alone still holds 6,000 indigenous Australian artefacts variously acquired since 1770, many of which are still sources of considerable controversy in Australia today.

As an indigenous Australian herself, Melissa admitted to almost pulling out of this talk on several occasions, such were her conflicted feelings about visiting the museum. This, despite the fact that the current ‘Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation’ is curated by Gaye Sculthorpe, an indigenous Tasmanian and leading figure in Australian arts and culture.

Melissa was asked whether people should see the exhibition or boycott it. She threw the question back on the audience citing the importance of personal autonomy.

You decide, she said, before making her own reference – less humorous than Noel Pearson’s – to imperial Rome. “Let the maxim of Cassius apply”, she said, “Cui bono – who benefits?”

Despite my own misgivings I paid £10 to see the exhibition, partly in preparation for my write up of Melissa’s talk, but also because my interest lies in the language of these things, the way the story is being told, which words have been displayed alongside the shields, baskets, boomerangs and paintings.

There were the facts and figures. Passages of historical text. Some quotes from indigenous people themselves. But the most informative words were simply the names of hundreds of languages peppered across a huge map of the Australian continent, or ‘terra nullius’ (nobody’s land) as it was known until quite recently.

But I also found a language so drenched in euphemism it wouldn’t have been out of place in a Monty Python sketch set in a government office. Australia, apparently, is a land of ‘entangled’ and ‘interlinked’ stories, where ‘encounters’ and ‘misunderstandings’ are still ‘subject to debate’.

It was a dead language that kills the imagination and strangles a story. One could be forgiven for thinking that a more subtle form of ‘name avoidance’ was being practised.

Because regardless of whether the artefacts should be exhibited or not I was, on the whole, free to gaze with fascination and tell – using whatever other knowledge I may or may not have – my own story about what I was seeing.

Perhaps it’s why we’re lucky in a rather twisted and macabre way that the bloody butchering of a warm body, the calm removal of flesh from arm and face from skull was once described by the likes of Korah Wills in his own words, not ours.

After all, sometimes it’s not easy to say the words, to mention the thing by name, to tell a bigger story.

Ivor Wells is a London-based Kiwi/Brit hybrid who grew up in NZ, Australia, USA and Germany. He writes a blog called ‘Pacific Londoner’ about his travels, reading and musings.

Melissa Lucashenko is also appearing in the Festival in conversation with Alan Duff in Breaking the Cycle on Saturday May 30. 

What happens when you combine a collaboration of artists with cosmology? The answer is Elemental, a piece of performance art that uses music, poetry, theatre, dizzyingly accomplished animation and the vast theories of the universe, to create an experience that pushes the porous boundaries between science and imagination.

Elemental has been shown at planetariums around the world and it delves into complex scientific territory: The Big Bang, the Theory of Everything, Dark Matter and M Theory. Each of these is explored in visual, poetic, scientific and musical languages that make clever use of the planetarium’s dome-roofed auditorium, and the result is that the audience was treated to an immersive exploration of the universe as we know it, as we calculate it and as we dream of it.

Professor Chris Lintott, presenter of the BBC’s The Sky at Night, set the scene with an introduction that took the familiar, static, view of the night sky (well, a projected version of what we would see if the sun and the lights of London were dimmed) and made it three dimensional and fluid. Galaxies are always moving apart in our 13.8-billion-year-old universe. Cosmologists, he explained, are unique among scientists in that they can look back in time – ‘we do cosmic archaeology’.

What followed was a balletic series of visuals where light and matter clumped and flew apart. Special mention needs to made of the meticulously detailed DNA animation from Emmy Award-winning Drew Berry and the eerie, immersive music which features a specially commissioned piece from experimental musicians Nurse With Wound. The visual and audio aspects of Elemental are breathtaking.

Those without an immediate grasp of Dark Matter need not fear getting bogged down in scientific minutiae. The voice of science writer, John Gribbin, explained each theory with great character and clarity.

What was perhaps unexpected was just how seamless the transition from planets to poetry could be. But, on reflection, why should that be a surprise? As the Elemental website says, ‘For centuries, poets have looked to the skies and attempted to scribble meaning into the galaxies.’ And sometimes the conclusions scientists draw seem just as fanciful as fiction.

One aspect of String Theory explored in Elemental is that there could be multiverses in which time splits and parallel universes are created. So in this universe you could be doing the dishes; in another pedaling in your flying machine. Contrast this to one of the artists’ stories about a man in an Eden-like garden who thinks himself dead because in paradise his thoughts come true – even the bad ones. One is a theory based on physics, the other is a legend-like tale with shades of a biblical creation story that almost certainly has more followers globally than string theory’s parallel universes. If this seems a wandering thought, that’s only because one of the great achievements of Elemental, with its haunting language, its dives into narrative, its ambiguous conclusions,  is creating an experience where audience members can follow their own thoughts, draw their own parallels between theories and art and this is as much part of the performance as the performers.

In one of the final segments of Elemental a narrator imagines meeting famous astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle on the road one night and driving with him into space. ‘Space isn’t distant, it’s an hour’s drive away.’ While they look out at the round Earth and the endless galaxies, Hoyle, who famously negated the Big Bang Theory (while giving it its name) ponders the seeming impossibility of the universe and the world being created in all its detail from a series of random events. Perhaps this story more than anything; an imagined car driven to the edge of space and a famous astronomer marveling at how little we know, sums up Elemental better than anything: It is a cleverly orchestrated response that opens up the questions we have about the vastness of the galaxy and humanity’s many, varied ways of trying to answer them.

Katie Haworth is a New Zealand-born editor and writer who lives in London

 

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