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