‘You’re never alone if you read’

The 2019 Auckland Writers Festival has ended and like a Day/Night Barbie (the best Barbie), I have shed my board member and festival devotee attire and put on my writing pants and dog-chewed slippers to bring you a wrap up of my experience of this year’s festival. 

Like many festival attendees, I am exhausted but replete after a full week of events. Our house is a shambles and we’re having a pie for dinner. No accompanying vegetables, just a pie. 

Our dog has also gone slightly insane after being starved of attention for a week, but he now owns a copy of Jill Abramson’s slightly lesser known book, The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout. Discovering that the formidable former executive editor of the New York Times and author of Merchants of Truth, had written a book about puppies was one of the truly delightful moments of the festival for me. 

It was one of many. I may be nutritionally deprived; my voice raspy after spending the last few days in constant and invigorating conversation, but my heart and head are full. 

When we last met dear readers, I was fizzing with excitement having been to Kate Raworth’s session on Monday night. In my column last Tuesday, I lovingly recalled some of the writers I’d seen at festivals gone by that have left me changed forever. This year I am happy to say I have added to that crop. 

I am even happier to report the festival smashed its previous attendance records, with more than 82,000 seats filled over seven days. In case your heart isn’t full enough after the festival, it’s worth noting that some of that number is made up of 7,500 students and teachers, from all over the North Island, who attend the schools programme.

As a board member and patron of the festival, I am hugely fortunate to be able to attend a range of events leading up to the three days of back-to-back sessions. 

The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards were on Tuesday night and it was an honour to be in the room for a particularly bittersweet moment when Te Mūrau o te Tuhi (a discretionary Māori Language Award) was awarded to pioneering language and tikanga academics Sir Tīmoti Kāretu and the late Dr Wharehuia Milroy for He Kupu Tuku Iho: Ko te Reo Māori te Tatau ki te Ao. Kāretu went on to do the Festival’s first session in full Te Reo Māori on Saturday afternoon with Scottie Morrison and it was a triumph. 

I went to the Everyday Acts of Racism forum on Wednesday night, a session the whole country should have been at. Leonie Hayden, editor of The Spinoff’s Ātea section, stole the show after Nida Fiazi, poet and writing studies student,  talked about how she could be described as white-passing without her hijab and of being very aware of that privilege.  

‘If this woman (referring to Nida) can check her white privilege then we all can’ said Hayden to applause. 

Aside from Hayden’s mic drop moment, the line that stuck with me the most from that night was from Canadian writer David Chariandy. 

‘I’m a polite person. I wonder if that’s how I’ve survived’. 

Chariandy identifies as black and in a session with Michelle Langstone on Sunday, he talked more about how he wasn’t particularly proud of his past propensity to be polite, stay quiet and not speak up. His latest book, I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You is a letter to his 13 year old daughter. It is a deep and intimate rumination on the politics of race. He is one of the most measured, thoughtful and gracious writers I’ve seen in action – thanking both Langstone and the audience for their smart questions and giving generously of himself to reveal that in some ways, the book was also a letter to his younger self.

Race was also a subject at the Gala night. The Gala uses a ‘true stories told live’ format. Eight writers are given a theme to talk about for seven minutes. This year it was ‘Crossroads’ and South African writer Sisonke Msimang delivered a powerful and funny story about her father insisting that a classroom of children apologise to her for using a racial slur. Since then, she said, she has stood firm in the belief that racism is not her shame to own. 

The gala also revealed Chessie Henry, winner of the best first work of general non-fiction prize at the Ockhams, as a comedic powerhouse with a hell of a heart; her story of a trip to the Shortland Street set with her brother, and Shortie super fan, Rufus, was a true delight.

Heart was also on display at the Andrew Sean Greer session. Greer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2018 for Less. He was in conversation with Noelle McCarthy and the session was pure joy. Greer talked a lot about the blessings of the Pulitzer win. When mentioning he no longer needed to do so many writer’s networking events, a look passed over his face that was like that of child who’d just discovered they can spend their pocket money on ice cream. The charm, the wit and laughs were wonderful, but he also offered incredible insight into how he writes his characters.

John Boyne offered similarly generous thoughts on the process of writing. As someone who has only recently arrived at writing in public, I don’t always identify as a writer, but I have increasingly come to enjoy the more technical discussions about writing at the festival. Boyne’s discussion of the structure of A Ladder to the Sky, tied my brain in knots in a productive way that will need some further unpacking after I’ve read the book.

I can’t possibly write about all the sessions I attended nor can one person get to the 230 events. I also saw Jill Abramson and Jacinda Ardern, in conversation with Toby Manhire. Both sessions were great but it was interesting to note some marked differences between the women around their discussions of sexism. I also attended a session on sport, had lunch with Tony Tan and missed a few I wanted to get to because I was chatting with writers, friends, patrons and fellow attendees. But that is still an enormous part of why I love the festival. The camaraderie, the wildly enthusiastic waving of hands and the sense that we, the lovers of writing and reading, are getting our day out.  My deepest regret is not getting to Mary Norris’ Comma Clinic. This may become a regret you all share with me.

Finally, if the movement of attendees through the Aotea Centre during the festival is a hustle and a bustle, the movement of festival staff is, in the words of David Chariandy when describing his daughter, a blur of motion. Please allow me the indulgence of chucking on my board member attire for just a minute to say thank you to festival director, Anne O’Brien, the festival team, my fellow board members, the writers, session chairs and the many volunteers, booksellers and staff who pull together an enormous event. The festival is recognised as one of the best of its kind and is a feat of hard work, persistence, guts, rigour and love. 

As I left the festival clutching my brown bag full of books, I realised I was alone for the first time in days. Our day out was over for the year. But, as someone once said, you’re never really alone if you read. Once I have eaten my pie dinner and put this article to bed, I will climb into an actual bed with Maurice Swift, Edith, Gore Vidal and Erich, all characters in John Boyne’s ‘A Ladder to the Sky’, and see whether their company will help ease the inevitable post-festival blues.  

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