Summer 2021




AWF18: A Volunteer's Diary

Kevin Rabalais
A volunteer takes a break

If you volunteer at the Festival and you’re also a student, you’ve made a mistake. You will think: Three shifts. I can do three shifts. After your first shift, you will visit the bookshop. You will spend money you had planned to save on books by people you have heard of (but only just). Then you will look at the programme, for the fifteenth time but properly for the first. You will decide that despite what you thought last month, you actually do have time for the session of author readings. You have time for Chris Riddell’s simultaneous chatting and doodling. You have time for the music critic, the #MeToo debate. On Sunday night you take off your enthusiastic orange volunteer t-shirt, worn three times and not washed, and you sit down and cry. You write your presentation for your Monday 9AM class. You regret sending that email asking for volunteer shifts. You wonder why you were ever so keen.

I recommend it.


On Tuesday morning I eat my breakfast on the bus. Today is the first day of the Festival, which means that the Aotea Centre will open its many, confusing doors to children aged 9-12. It also means that the volunteers’ most important task will be to make sure that these children do not climb all over the Hyundai parked thoughtfully in the foyer and stuffed with books.

The children are great. They are excited, they queue properly, and if they are disappointed they do not stay so for long. I stand behind the information desk from nine in the morning till three in the afternoon, and my biggest challenge is the thirty seconds I spend consoling a child whose sparkly silver phone has gone missing. In the time it takes me to record the details of said sparkly phone, it has been found.

Tuesday is a good day. It is a warm and lovely thing when children realise that their favourite artists and authors live in the same world they live in – that they are allowed to grow up and do the same thing. Even though at least three of the boys in the signing queue nicked books out of that Hyundai.


I don’t have another shift until Friday but this evening I use my volunteer tag to get into the Chris Riddell session for free. He is a good talker. He tells us that he went to school with Fatboy Slim, when Fatboy Slim called himself Quentin. He draws a lion.

Chris Riddell draws a lion


Thursday is one of the days on which I am required to attend class, a rare moment in my sparse postgrad schedule. On Friday, though, I return to the Aotea Centre. Today I am rostered to assist backstage at the Herald Theatre. To get to my post I walk past every dressing room, through three sets of heavy doors, and into a purple-lit apocalypse bunker. It is nice here; there’s a couch. All I really have to do, for my whole shift, is pour water for the performers, smile at them as they wait, and mop the floor of chalk after they have done their thing. After a few hours of such hard work, I climb out of my dark cave and descend the linoleum stairs for a pastry. The green room food is mostly sugar-based and it pleases me.

With an apricot custard something in my fist, I walk through the backstage doors into the foyer, lanyard swinging, as if I am important. This is the only way I can get through the crowd, because I am five feet tall. I am walking quickly because I really, really want a seat at ‘Mining a Life’, a reading session with Karl Ove Knausgaard, Catherine Chidgey, Anna Livesey, and Durga Chew-Bose. I have heard greatnesses about all these writers, and of course they deliver on my expectations. Chidgey is funny; Chew-Bose is gentle, her images clear and strange; Livesey is as brave as any of the best poets, her lines shining; and Knausgaard, though stern, is as perfect as any of his sentences.

I am tired of wearing my volunteer t-shirt and pretending to know the answers to strangers’ questions, but this session fills my writing brain right up to the top. I buy books, I get them signed. I go to Jenny Zhang’s session and do the same – and in her signing queue she talks to us all, individually, for an unreasonable length of time. ‘I love meeting poets’, she says to me, when I have been silly enough to tell her that that is what I call myself. I doubt her. Who really likes a poet? It’s still nice to hear.


From two until seven, I stand outside various doors to the ASB theatre, checking tickets, giving directions, disappointing fussy attendees who refuse to sit in their allocated seats because ‘the stalls are too low to the ground and I don’t like to sit there.’ I smile, far too much. But I suppose it is not the worst job: I get into sessions for free, and I take advantage of this perk to listen to Shashi Tharoor for an hour. I do not know who he is, but I learn, and he is wise and generous and funny. I’ve realised that the best authors make you want to read more, give you more questions. They don’t presume to be the final full-stop in a genre, on an issue, of a historical era.

This has been my final shift, and I am tired. I am tired of books and I don’t want to talk about them anymore. This feeling lasts for half an hour and then it leaves me, replaced by the excitement that comes with newly bought books and newly met authors and the freedom, at last, from having to direct Festival attendees to the Lower NZI Room.

Volunteering is exhausting, but I’ll do it again. I’ll keep the t-shirt. Nothing much compares to running into Karl Ove Knausgaard backstage and realising, truly, how short you are when you stand next to him.

Butterflies and Bananas

Kevin Rabalais

It was the toughest crowd I’d seen yet at the Auckland Writers Festival. The Secret World of Butterflies audience shouted and jeered, several rolled around on the floor, one started crying. But author Courtney Sina Meredith and illustrator Giselle Clarkson handled it like the seasoned pros they are, used to a pub crowd at a poetry night. They barely broke a sweat in front of fifty under-fives and their frazzled parents.

Amongst the noise, my three-year-old, Eleanor, seemed reticent. But a focussed group of listeners at the front of the room were having an uproarious time miming the actions of butterflies. They flapped around the room, did dark-red poops, and sucked up banana nectar. ‘I hate bananas,’ declared one child. Giselle drew a butterfly on a large sheet of paper for the children to colour in. ‘Those aren’t butterfly legs,’ shouted an indignant four-year-old. ‘That’s a prey mantis!’ The unruly mob descended on the drawing, felt-tips in hand. A small tussle ensued. There was a battle over a purple pen and more tears.

After making it to the easel and adding her own touches to the freshly drawn butterfly, Eleanor swooped up a copy of the book from the bookshop and presented it to Courtney and Giselle to sign. Continuing in the spirit of the morning, she then refused to speak to Giselle and rebuffed Courtney’s high-five attempt. At home, however, the book went straight to her Dad for a second reading and it was the first thing to be pulled out this morning at five AM. The Secret World of Butterflies is a stunning book, interweaving unusual facts about butterflies with gorgeous illustrations. Who knew that butterflies drunk the tears of crocodiles and tasted with their feet? Pure magic.

The Secret World of Butterflies was created in collaboration with Auckland Museum for their forthcoming family exhibition Secret World of Butterflies, opening 9 June 2018

Fiona Farrell: Fiction and Factions

Kevin Rabalais
Photo: Matt Bialostocki

This year’s University of Auckland Lecture at the Auckland Writers Festival took place in the tent – a packed Heartland Festival Room – on Thursday May 17th. Fiona Farrell spoke for forty spellbinding minutes on how fiction and politics intersect in New Zealand writing. Fiction, she argued, often best puts its finger on the essence of political comment. Novelists, have a crazy freedom, the force of the external narrative supported by the private narrative driving the story, allowing political views to be artfully expressed under cover. ‘Is every one of our imaginings political?’ she asked, and compared politics in novels to the way pieces of hokey pokey are embedded in ice cream.

Fiona started with ‘tosh’ – specifically 1889, and the political messages embedded in PM Sir Julius Vogel’s futuristic novel, Anno Domini 2000 or, Woman’s Destiny. The tosh is in the plot: evil Australian Sir Reginald Paramatta conspires to abduct brainy Hilda Fitzherbert and lure her away from political office and imperial romance. But, writing four years before women got the vote in New Zealand, Vogel predicted that by the end of the millennium, women would hold the highest posts in government and authority.

In an age where opinion is often delivered in snatches, or via the bombardments of social media, Farrell delighted in the outlasting power of the novel in its many forms. She discussed international examples – Orwell, Atwood, Anais Nin, and Jane Austen – before moving onto our own, including Mansfield, Shadbolt, Knox, Gee, Morris, Grace, Lloyd Jones, and Grimshaw, describing the role they have played in negotiating the ‘fractious fault lines’ —gender, race or class — that run the length of a country. Farrell noted how it’s possible to choose to see or ignore the politics embedded in novels, and that novels often outlast politics. Just like Hilda Fitzherbert, Vogel’s heroine, Farrell told the crowd, novelists can continue bobbing along on their lightweight air machines, powered by quickly revolving fans, with the power to look down and imagine.

A Night at the Ockhams

Kevin Rabalais
Pip Adam receives her prize from the Acorn Foundation's Nicky Wilkins

The bingbong of the bells had begun. Like Cinderella but without the ball dress, I descended the stairs inside the Aotea Centre as rapidly as safety would allow, and claimed my ticket just as the appropriately glittering crowd (gold-clad in celebration of the Book Awards’ fiftieth anniversary) began to enter the auditorium. My pink gold earrings, hastily attached at the last traffic lights, were my only concession to the suggested dress code, but my work garb drew no stares in this very diverse crowd: smart suits rubbed shoulders with faded denim jackets, full-length gowns brushed the stairs beside baggy linen pants. Writers, readers, judges, publishers, sponsors and even a chubby baby made their way in a good-natured glowing mass to their seats, accompanied by the rhythm of percussionists on stage.

Behind the musicians, huge orange banners displayed the names and logos of Auckland Writers Festival sponsors, but every eye was drawn to the massive central screen, on which appeared the faces and covers of winning authors and books from the last half century. Below the screen, a glorious harakeke arrangement held its own in the ocean of orange.

‘Tonight we honour all our winners,’ read the final slide, and that was the pervading sense of the occasion. There’s a dignity attached to fifty, and to a nation whose creative excellence in poetry and prose has been proudly celebrated for the past half century. And bravely published, too: Nicola Legat, Chair of the Book Awards Trust, rightly acknowledged the crucial role of New Zealand publishing houses in the continuing emergence of new and excellent writing.

Larger than life, the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern appeared on screen with a message of goodwill and support for the event, and for New Zealand writing in general. She looked forward, she said, to diving into the shortlisted books for her summer reading, and I, no doubt with every other parent in the auditorium, smiled indulgently. Bless her. The evening’s MC, a bubbling Stacy Morrison, cheerily articulated all our thoughts along those lines. (‘It’s her first child.’) Then on with the show.

The Best First Book winners received their awards from Creative New Zealand’s Stephen Wainwright with an engaging degree of self-depreciation and ingenuousness. In some cases, there was clear reason for this lack of poise. Annaleese Jochems,recipient of The Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction for the novel Baby, has been around for only a quarter century herself. Not so Diana Wichtel, Best First Book Non-Fiction winner for Driving to Treblinka, who displayed her celebrity savvy by stepping up to the mike with a prepared acceptance speech. Its smooth delivery was only ruffled only slightly when, she inadvertently and prematurely expressed her gratitude to the Royal SocietyTe Apārangi, sponsors of the General Nonfiction Award. (Did she know more than she was letting on?)

The Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry went to a rather overcome Hannah Mettner for her collection Fully Clothed and So Forgetful,but the scene was stolen by Marcus Thomas and Neil Silverwood, authors of Caves: Exploring New Zealand's Subterranean Wilderness, who collected The Judith Binney Best First Book Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction wearing caving helmets with lit headlamps.

cavers receiving award 2.jpg

On to the sterner stuff of the evening, and readings from the authors shortlisted for the General Non-Fiction Award. I wanted to give a small, personal award to Michael Belgrave for his beautifully timed and articulated reading, delivered in a faintly rasping voice, of an absorbing extract from his Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country 1864–1885 (AUP). Reading well aloud is a skill and a talent, and not possessed by every eloquent writer. Anne Salmond had us nodding and thinking with her final image of the lengthening, spreading shadow of our own shared history, and Tom Scott had the whole audience laughing at his father’s outrageous version of ‘what he did in the war’. But ultimately it was Diana Wichtel, able to employ the unabridged version of her notes, who won the General Non-Fiction award.

The Poetry Section is always its own reward. Tony Beyer, reading ‘Lunchtime,’ has forever enlivened my visits to the Fish Market (yes, many and frequent, being married to a saltwater Greek) with his image of the ‘trim metallic fuselage of the whole salmon’. Briar Wood’s extract from her collection, Rāwāhi, fell like soft rain on my tired face. Sue Wootten, with ‘Wild’, reminded us clearly and gently that ‘in love we nest, and on earth.’ Elizabeth Smither, the richly deserving winner of the category with Night Horse (AUP), summoned for me my own visits to bedsides and chapels in Cardiac Intensive Care wards with her pulsing, insistent mantra that ‘the heart heals itself between beats’.

Illustrated non-fiction books are the kind I most rarely purchase; they cost the most, and weigh the most, both significant drawbacks in my nomadic and economically challenged life. But the offerings on the shortlist have tempted me, each for their own reasons. First and foremost a student of Art History, I am drawn by the sheer beauty of Gordon Walters: New Vision, and its fresh perspective on this iconic New Zealand artist, exploring, as perhaps all writers should, the ‘infinite potential between restriction and liberation.’ Philip Simpson’s Tōtara, an entire volume dedicated to the mighty tōtara tree, seemed more than justified by the simply stated but astonishing fact, cited in his extract, that at one point in New Zealand’s recent history every single house was roofed in tōtara tiles.

My recent journeys of rediscovery within my own country took me last year to the Otago Peninsula, and the charm and confusion the region exerted on me were to a great degree explained by Jonathan West’s perceptive environmental history, The Face of Nature. I’ve also committed myself to the education of my white middle class South Island self in the wider cultural history of Aotearoa, so woefully lacking in my first years of school, and Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds instantly joined the list of Must Haves for my remedial bookshelf. When its authors, Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins, were called up to receive the top award, their victory was celebrated in the stalls with Toro mai, a waiata by another Northlander, Kiingi Ihaka, encouraging us to reach out our hands in friendship. It was a moment in the evening when our progress towards Aotearoa’s literary maturity was most beautifully and simply evident.

Before the Pilsner tucked under my seat was even empty, it was time for the drums to roll out the biggest event of the evening. The Acorn Prize for Fiction, an award gifted in perpetuity by a generous, anonymous person (read: angel of authors), has been thoughtfully and very properly adjusted for inflation, and is now worth $52,000. No small sum for any writer, most of whom, as Elizabeth Smither pointed out, secretly dedicate all their works ‘To M’ – for Money. Two men and two women took their places to read, and a little flicker of anticipation travelled across the gold-speckled crowd. Patrick Evans, nominated for Salt Picnic, his inventive interpretation of Janet Frame’s sojourn on Ibiza in the 1950s, thanked Stacey Morrison for including him in her description of a group of emerging young writers: rather than emerging, he said, he was going back in. Brannavan Gnanalingham, a picture of sartorial elegance, was one of the very few young men to grace the podium all evening. He read a poignant extract touching on family, expectations, racism and cricket from Sodden Downstream.

Annaleese Jochems, still apparently unprepared, read from her audacious debut novel Baby. Then judging panel convenor Jenna Todd (wearing the very ball gown my fairy godmother had failed to deliver me) announced the Big Winner, Pip Adam and The New Animals. A frisson of genuine excitement shimmered across the audience. Perhaps it wasn’t a decision anticipated by all. Clearly it wasn’t anticipated by Pip Adam: her acceptance speech was endearing and hilarious by turns, culminating in the expression of heartfelt thanks, above all, to hairdressing, the trade she’d taken up when she ‘fell out’ of high school. Next time you get a haircut, she exhorted us, please hug your hairdresser.

So, after Ockham Residential announced their commitment to another five years of sponsorship, the night ended with money raining down, two drummers drumming, and lights flashing off spinning disco balls. Stacy Morrison, who’d talked us through the night with such irrepressible warmth and enthusiasm, urged everyone to write on, quoting Hemingway: ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ If there’s truth in that, then I may be forgiven for saying that the fiftieth-anniversary party for our national book awards was a bloody good night.


About Town: AWF preview

Kevin Rabalais
Damon Salesa

University of Auckland historian Jennifer Frost names her top three picks for this week’s Auckland Writers Festival.

BIG HISTORY: DAVID CHRISTIAN is well worth an hour on Saturday morning. So-called Big History is controversial within the historical discipline. Doesn’t starting human history with the big bang mean this approach is really physics? And what is missed about everyday life and ordinary people by focusing at this scale? But Christian is sure to make a passionate and persuasive case for his approach, and I won’t be missing it.

WRITING THE SUFFRAGE PAST on Saturday afternoon will be my next event. In honour of the 125th-anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, Tusiata Avia, Alice Canton, Emma Espiner and Linda Olsson will present work inspired by an item from the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s current exhibition Are We There Yet? Women and Equality in Aotearoa. I’m curious to know what these writers choose—a letter, painting, material artifact?—and what they make of it. And I’m always ready to celebrate this ground-breaking global achievement.

READY OR NOT: DAMON SALESA allows me to hear the latest thinking from one of our own historians at The University of Auckland. On the occasion of his latest book,Island Time: New Zealand’s Pacific Futures, Salesa will offer the Michael King Memorial Lecture and prompt us all to recognise Aotearoa as a Pacific nation and the energy and talents of Pacific peoples. What should be obvious in 2018 but is not yet is how Pasifika, alongside and together with tangata whenua and Pākehā, are key to our collective future.

This event could cap off my Saturday at the Auckland Writers Festival, but it won’t. There will still be more to go to as the evening progresses, and I’ll be back again on Sunday.