Who knew that three days of essentially going to listen to people talk about books and writing and poetry could be so much fun? I did!
I can’t say that many of my friends and family quite understood my motivations though. “You’re going to do what for your birthday?”
In actual fact, the festival was about so much more than just being talked at. I got to enjoy theatre, music, poetry, and a not-too-expensive (for Auckland) wine bar as well as listening to exceptional authors talking about, not just their work, but also how they feel about life, politics and writing in general. The atmosphere was amazing too. Everyone there was well-read and intelligent. I would have liked to have seen more Maori and Pasifika, and more young people there. Even in a tightly packed crowd I was able to spot an old work colleague from across the room because the fact we were both Maori meant we stuck out a bit.
From Friday to Sunday my days were packed. Leading up to the event I had been painstakingly combing through the programme trying to figure out how I was going to be able to fit everything in!
The scheduling is pretty tight. The festival includes a number of free events, and they’re actually really good! Amie Kaufman, readings by authors like George Saunders, poetry readings by internationally acclaimed poets like Rupi Kaur and Ivan Coyote. It would have been entirely feasible to have a completely packed weekend attending only free events!
Whatever your image of what a real author is like, I suggest you get rid of it. There was so much diversity amongst the authors that appeared – from gender to personality to writing habits. From Amie Kaufman and George Saunders who both had great big out there voices and personalities; to Paul Beatty who spent a lot of his time hunched over and very humble; to Viola Di Grado who spent the entire time looking directly at the ceiling and trying to disappear into her chair.
I can’t do justice to everything I attended, so here are a couple of lowlights and highlights:
Favourite Author discussion
This is going to be contentious, because Roxane Gay, Paul Beatty, George Saunders, Chris Kraus, Amie Kaufman, Jennifer Niven and Rupi Kaur are all in the mix here. Nevertheless, the author I enjoyed listening to the most was, hands down, Apirana Taylor.
Internationally acclaimed authors always get the biggest billing and the largest crowds. But I really like NZ authors. They have a different kind of energy and flow to international authors.
Apirana Taylor has one of the most beautiful reading voices I came across that weekend. He has a rich timbre to his voice and he conveys the emotion of the scene he was reading so well that the images of the scene play out in your head. An audience member suggested he record an audiobook and I whole-heartedly agree. Apirana is better know for his poetry and short stories but he was reading from his recent novel Five Strings. From the chapter he read, it sounded like the scene could have been a short story all on its own.
As much as I enjoyed his reading, I also enjoyed hearing about his life as the ratbag in a group of prestigious NZ Maori authors like Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace. Published Maori authors are rare birds in the literary world so it’s no surprise that they all seem to know each other. Publishers and literary agents seem to think that if a Maori author isn’t Witi Ihimaera then they don’t exist.
Apirana’s discussion on how his book developed and the wrestling match between himself and his characters was fascinating. I especially liked listening to Apirana talk about how poverty and its effects are not disgusting, they’re sad. “I never condemned my characters. I just let them tell their stories.”
Some of the International authors seemed tired and maybe a bit jaded with the festival circuit. Apirana’s energy, in contrast, crackled through the room. The moment the discussion ended, I hurried to buy Five Strings and line up at the signing table. I haven’t started reading it yet but I’m looking forward to it.
Favourite non-Author event
Gawd, this is actually a hugely difficult question. These events were my favourites and I really hope next year’s festival expands these sorts of offerings because they were absolutely wonderful.
The three that stood out for me: Jane Eyre, The song of the book, and the Spoken word Showcase. Each of these events were absolutely fantastic. No questions asked, they will be top of my list next year if they return.
Jane Eyre: an autobiography is a one-woman, continuous scene show by Dyad Productions starring Rebecca Vaughn. Rebecca plays all the characters , identifying each one through a change of tone and posture. My first thought at the end of the performance (after Wow! That was fantastic! Thank god I came to this!) was just how exhausting that performance must have been. Absolutely brilliant. I don’t even like the book. I might need to rethink that.
Song of the Book took four NZ singer/songwriters (Steve Abel, Anna Coddington, Reb Fountain and Francis Kora), assigned each of them a book, and asked each to write a song based on the books they were given. Auckland Writer’s Festival committee, if you’re listening, this is how you get young people, and Maori and Pasifika people interested in taking part in the festival. Make this bigger, and longer. It was soulful, emotional, inspiring, haunting and worth every penny. Every song brought tears to my eyes. I am not a crier, so that’s a hard thing to do. And I still can’t get the line “History is a cold word for Holocaust” out of my head
I fucking loved every minute of this. And the choice of MC was spot on. I have no idea who Alex Behan is, his radio station is not in my orbit. But I immediately got that he was a music lover from a world where good beats and soulful lyrics still mean something. Plus he was cute. He’s probably about 15 years younger than me but still…
The Best of the Best: Spoken Word Showcase.
So this didn’t start out that great. Paul Beatty and Rupi Kaur both called in sick and they were half the reason I bought a ticket. Turns out, it didn’t matter. The poets that were there made up for the absence of the other two, no problem whatsoever. It was funny and moving, heart-breaking at times, and thought-provoking. I had never attended a poetry reading before this weekend and written poetry usually left me a bit confused. I think I get it now that poetry is best when read aloud and shared. The power on that stage just blew me away. I never expected to have such a good time. Now that I’m home, I think I’ll be looking into some of the spoken word poetry nights they have at the Butter Factory in Whangarei.
Favourite new find (for me)
Frances Hardinge, because she was funny and quirky and completely different from the other authors on the stage at the time.
How Many Books Did I buy?
I’m too scared to count them. I’m going to do a haul post shortly so I’ll have to face up to it soon. Let’s just say, I bought enough to fill two Unity loyalty cards.
Event I wasn’t sure of
Must Not Reads: It’s a hard thing to criticise a book while at a literary festival. You can almost guarantee someone in the audience is going to disagree with your picks. The books that were brought out were either obscure, or wildly popular while at the same time roundly criticised (i.e 50 Shades of Grey and Lena Dunham’s memoir). The panel were all incredibly diverse in their reading tastes, which made the whole thing a bit disjointed. Then again, this was the last session I attended for the weekend and it finished at 5.30pm on Sunday. I was exhausted and probably not in the greatest state of mind.
Biggest Peeve from the Festival
People that ask multiple questions during a Q & A session even though there is clearly a line of people that want to ask a question and there’s only a couple of minutes available. Especially those people that ask three two-part questions that start with “As a writer myself…” blah blah blah, not-a-question. ARGH!!
I had a wonderful time. I am now a lot poorer in wallet and richer in spirit. I can’t wait for next year!