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Auckland Writers Festival 2021

Kevin Rabalais
Yes the editor of T3L did spend hours lining up for the Neil Gaiman book-signing

In which Sonya Wilson chairs two sessions and attends 18 others at the Auckland Writers Festival



A young boy in a pukeko-coloured uniform, too short to reach the microphone, cranes his neck to ask American YA author Angie Thomas a question.

‘I found my mum crying at night …’ he begins, and that muffled fwump is the sound of my heart hitting the Turkish rug on the stage of the Kiri Te Kanawa theatre.

‘… when she was writing her thesis,’ he continues. 

 Phew.

‘And so my question is: is writing books really worth it?’ 

I want to hug him, both this boy and his mum, because I’ve written a book — am writing a book — and it is hard, and it takes forever, and my own manuscript is also stained with tears. (Blood and sweat and too many adverbs, too.) It’s true my wee man, you do wonder if it’s worth it. 

Angie Thomas responds: ‘your passion is not always easy.’

There are more tears later that night, at the True Stories Told Live Gala event, when Aigagalefili Fepulea’i Tapua’i speaks, and laughs when Tom Sainsbury runs through his series of unfortunate events. 

It is Thursday, so out in the foyer, the queue for the Neil Gaiman book signing on Sunday begins to form. 

‘So flash,’ Moana Maniopoto says of her mob of musical guests for the Celebration of Song event. They are flash, Reb Fountain, Tom Scott, and Marlon Williams. Reb with her alt-country mane of hair, Tom in his rust-brown tracksuit and loafers, Marlon with his body that — as a journalist friend once wrote — was built to lean on cars. They speak about their songwriting and sing and rap about the ‘human condition,’ in a space called the Heartland room.

‘What is the song you wish you had written?’ Moana asks Reb, and I think that if I could write a song like her, or pen a paragraph close to the verse Tom Scott spits out, everything would be alright, and then Moana has us all on our feet, singing along to Max Merrit’s Slipping Away and everything is alright anyway.

***

The next morning, Friday, John Campbell is on the main stage with the festival’s honoured writer Brian Turner, angling in towards his guest with that look of incredulity he has when he interviews someone he admires. ‘Turns,’ he keeps calling him, because we are to know that Brian Turner is his friend. ‘Turns, about this poem …’

Once 

upon a time 

the earth 

was happy enough without us

‘Increasingly over the years I see myself as a southern New Zealander,’ Turns says, and coming from the south myself, and still having an itch for the poetry of that land even after living more than two decades away from it, I think I see myself that way, too.

In the foyer the line for Neil Gaiman grows longer, while the audience crowds in and out of the theatre like a mob of cream-coloured South Island sheep.

‘We are all of us absurdities,' Turns says.

Deals are being done in the patrons lounge. At one table: an author, agent and screenwriter sit together and I imagine the forthcoming press release; at another table a knot of poets plot line breaks and iambic anarchy. They serve cheese scones in here with an excellent cheese-to-flour ratio, and, perhaps for Brian Turner’s benefit, they are also serving cheese rolls, a delicacy we called Southland sushi, once upon a time.

Brian Turner spoke of the savagery of hindsight, and John said, ‘God I love that phrase.’

God I love this festival. 

***

Friday afternoon and Behrouz Boochani also speaks of poetry. Kurdish, Farsi, Arabic, they are poetic languages, he says. Poetry. ‘Pow-e-trry.’ The way he pronounces the word, how he trills the r’s - he makes poetry sound like power. 

‘They called us criminals, rapists, murderers, thieves, and we pushed back, we challenged them through art and literature.’ 

And I’m not at all noticing how handsome he is because I’m listening to the words he speaks about subjects that are the cruel opposite of handsome-ness.

‘No one should be silent in front of this injustice.’ He speaks of his fellow asylum seekers’ colours fading when they are locked away.

Patrica Grace is handsome too, both on the cover of her new memoir, and on stage. Her mustard yellow top matches the sponsorship banners that frame her. Her interviewer, Nic Low, leans forward in admiration, too. We all love Patricia. We want her for our nana, our auntie, our well-read friend. 

She tells us she could read before she started school, that there was a lot of racism towards her and her family. ‘Kick their shins,’ her mother once told her. 

***

Back in the Heartland room reporter and Gangland author Jared Savage explains how one might ingest meth. I accuse the grey-haired audience members of taking notes and thankfully, they laugh, and then when someone asks about the death penalty for drug trafficking, thankfully they don’t. 

The next day, Saturday, Simon Wilson asks journalist and The Great Successor Kim Jong Un author Anna Fifield, ‘Is everyone on meth?’ 

The answer is no, but a lot of North Koreans are because there is no medicine and no fun and this is how they cope. 

‘Why haven’t you found Novichok in your undies?’ someone from the audience asks her.

***

Peta Carey takes us on a vocal and visual journey to Tamatea Dusky Sound and in a session called Intriguing Ideas Catherine Chidgey reads from her Ockham-shortlisted book Remote Sympathy and Carrie Tiffany shows us her mechanical knowledge and the Holden Torana manual she nicked from her stepfather in the 1970’s. She speaks about how people think that the Australian outback is empty, a place where nothing is. But it is where everything is, she says. 

***

There is a part of Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro that wants to believe that each of us is unique. He says: ‘We get better and better instruments for looking inside ourselves and still, we cannot see a soul.’ His interviewer, Michelle Langstone, is utterly charmed, and so am I. 

Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer take to the stage not long after with their mate Lucy Lawless, and it is Amanda who claims the centre. ‘We need stories to remember who we are,’ she says. 

That queue of people outside know who they are. They’re clutching Neil’s books to their chests, waiting for him to make his mark.

***

In the Waitakere room on Sunday morning, Alice Te Punga Somerville delivers the Michael King lecture and asks what it is we are talking about, when we talk about Cook. 

She says ‘Speaking of structural racism, I work at the University of Waikato,’ and then she makes a face that resembles that clenched teeth emoji, and we, in the audience, laugh too. ‘We can’t change history, Somerville says, ‘but we can be deliberate about the stories we do tell.’ 

***

Back in the theatre, Kyle Mewburn tells us she doesn’t feel like a butterfly, she feels like a turtle and Charlotte Grimshaw, that ‘ungrateful wretch,’ explains how when she went back to try and inspect her memories, she ran into a wall of fiction. She ran into her family, too.

Kim Knight says the word ‘delicious’ like a food writer in love, her sibilance hissing from her microphone and sliding across the stage. Her guest, Monique Fiso, says in her book, Hiakai: ‘Eating is affirmation of our relationship with the land and with our ancestors,’ and there is more to come: Dickinson, Matamua, Ihimaera, Kidman, Stead and Wendt, but I have ingested so many words and so many thoughts, that I am absolutely full up. I have barely seen my kids for three days and I have to leave because I am done, done like a Hiakai short rib, done like the Portuguese bird chirping through Ai Weiwei’s appearance, done like the kid clutching his copy of Coraline at the end of the Neil Gaiman book-signing queue that still, three hours after he spoke, snakes through the foyer, following me through the Aotea Centre and out into the late afternoon.