My love affair with the Auckland Writers Festival

‘Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.’

Rod Oram used this H.G. Wells quote to open his Auckland Writers Festival session with Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, last night. The first event of the 140 at this year’s festival was effervescent.

Raworth practically bounced across the stage as she explained her beautifully succinct ideas about 21st century economics. She shared the headlines of planetary doom so many of us are sadly familiar with, yet spoke optimistically about humanity not just surviving but thriving. Her hope and energy was a tonic.

If you’ll allow me to completely mangle Wells and mash in a bit of Raworth’s optimism, the Auckland Writers Festival has been my annual retreat from the daily grind for nine years. Seeing adults (and children) at the festival makes me despair less about the future and fills me with hope.

The festival celebrates writing but more than that it celebrates the thoughtful exchange of ideas, the role of the public intellectual in society and the belief that we are enriched through knowledge. The festival boldly raises up intellectualism, rigour and expertise, and honours the possibility that thoughtful, nuanced and inspiring words, have the power to create change.

I started my love affair with the Writers Festival when I signed up to be a volunteer in 2010. This involved shepherding writers from the green room to their event and being too scared or too in awe to really talk to any of them beyond the few necessary instructions I had to give to them. Despite having been on the inside of the festival as a board member for 18 months now, I am still as in awe of the writers as I was nine years ago. That will never leave me. Nor will the sense of wellbeing, soulfulness and community I experience each year at the Aotea Centre milling around amongst my people.

As much as the festival is about the writers, the truly dominant force at the event are the readers. Last year people of all ages, genders and ethnicities filled 74,000 seats. They come from all over, clutching well-thumbed programmes (download the festival app this year people!), some in pearls, some in sneakers. My friends and I once spent an evening during the Festival drinking with a guy who looked rough as guts but was an avowed festival lover. Books and covers eh.

Reading is a fairly solitary practice and yet the festival manages to draw readers out from their comfortable hidey holes and into a communal space to share their love of writing and reading as a community. I used to fly pretty solo at the festival but have developed some incredible friendships over time with people who love it as much as I do. More importantly we’re all very comfortable with each other’s often overwhelming or emotional responses to what we’ve seen and heard.

I have cried more times than I’d like to admit during festival events. John Boyne ended his 2016 festival session by saying ‘'We do best when we love and are loved' and then spoke with an abuse survivor who’d got up the guts to ask him a question in front of a thousand or so people with the most incredible tenderness and care. Floods.

Lloyd Geering’s memorable Michael King Memorial lecture about God (or not God) in 2013 had me, somewhat ironically, enraptured. At aged 95 Geering spoke to us for an hour on a Sunday morning. It was more spiritually enlightening than any church service I’d ever been to. Weeping followed.

The 2017 festival introduced me to Roxane Gay and resuscitated my feminism. I love her writing so much that we included a reading from one of her New York Times columns at our wedding. In 2016, I met my long time literary hero and crush, Jeanette Winterson. I queued to get my books signed and cried after that. Gloria Steinem also made an appearance at that festival. I think by then I was just so overwhelmed, several wines seemed a more appropriate liquid response.

In addition to the writers and the readers who make the festival what it is, we also get to see many of own on stage as facilitators and session chairs. Never am I more grateful for the thinkers we have in this country and hopeful about where we might be heading after seeing the likes of Simon Wilson, Toby Manhire, Paula Morris, Guyon Espiner, Noelle McCarthy, Jeremy Hansen, Chris Wikaira and Fergus Barrowman match the quality of thinking and conversation of the many international and local writers.

The Festival was founded by Peter Wells and Stephanie Johnson 20 years ago. It’s now in the hands of the most capable team who are possibly more awe-inspiring to me than the writers. Peter passed away this year and his life and contribution will be honoured at an event on Wednesday night.

I only met Peter once, at the launch of the Mātātuhi Foundation - a new foundation created by the Writers Festival to support the development of the literary landscape of New Zealand.

‘Hi’ he said ‘And who are you?’

‘I’m Anna, I’m on the board’

‘I’m Peter, I started the Writer’s Festival’.

I wanted to say a thousand things about how much the festival meant to me. How it was hope. How it shored up my faith in people. How it was my adult on a bicycle but instead I just clinked his glass with mine and said ‘Right, well, I owe you a lot then Peter’.

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