The power of many stories
Fresh back from her travels, Renee Liang marvels at the record attendances for the recent Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, and discusses the likely benefits of the new NZ Society of Authors Asian Short Story Competition.
I’ve been frolicking in foreign lands, but made sure I returned in time to catch the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. As always, between sessions the foyer was packed (I later found out that attendance was up 21 percent from last year) and there were queues in front of the bookstore, the signing table and the coffee karts. Everywhere people were talking excitedly about what they’d just seen, or were about to see.
In an age where (some would believe) the more pyrotechnic the show the better, what makes people pay money to sit in a dark room and watch talking heads? I’m amazed by this every year. Audiences at literary festivals give off a curious energy, an involvement, in what is happening on stage. Nicola Legat, Publishing Director at Random House NZ, wrote recently that the draw to writers’ festivals in NZ is because “people are hungry for mind food, and books are the source.” Yes! (although she has an understandable bias towards the written word.) But even more than that, I feel that engagement is what people come for – they want to feel invested in the discussion, in the stories being told, in the authors themselves. There’s many other things too – the intellectual stimulation Legat mentions, the feeling of discovery, meeting like-minded people, the small candid ‘reveals’ by an author – but at the base of it is engagement with the stories. (That’s my bias, anyway.)
A few days later, I was browsing YouTube, one of my favourite procrastination activities, and found this. What writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says is that hearing multiple stories are essential to a balanced view of any situation. (Something our sometimes-too-parochial local media could remember from time to time.) Certainly the range on offer at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival in this and previous years points to this – there are novels written from the point of view of murderers, exposes of environmental underhandedness, biographies of chefs, swindlers and politicians – it’s like a giant swimming pool of stories to go splashing in.
Of course, we’re exposed to many stories every day outside of the literary sphere. What these acknowledged ‘good’ writers do that sets them apart is they acknowledge, sometimes subtly, that there can be alternate stories about an event, idea or person. As Chimamanda suggests, there is no one way of writing an ‘African story’. Or for that matter, a ‘New Zealand story’ or a ‘Chinese story’.
I’ve been thinking hard about this since I heard about the inaugural NZ Society of Authors (NZSA) Asian Short Story Competition. I was on holiday when the email came through asking me to be one of the judges, and in one of those deliriously free states of mind brought about by lugging around a backpack, I said yes. Since then, I’ve been wondering what exactly an ‘Asian short story’ is, and how to tell when I find a good one.
I’m a little divided about writing competitions. I’ve only won two among the many I’ve entered, and the feeling of envy – or uncharitable jealousy, truth be told – towards the lucky winner, is far more familiar than the rush of joy (followed immediately by insecurity – did they really get it right?) on winning. I know that winning a competition doesn’t in most cases bring fame, fortune or indeed make you more likely to be published. It does, however, bring the notice of your peers for a short time, and I’ll talk about this more later. Perhaps more importantly, competitions seem to bring new writers out of the woodwork. And for the professional procrastinators among us, it offers a juicy carrot of a deadline.
It’s these new writers – and the 'old' writers exploring new stories/getting a kick up the pants to actually write something – which the NZSA wishes to tempt with this new competition. (Similar initiatives are in progress to encourage Maori and Pacific storytellers to step forward). Asian voices in NZ literature aren’t new, but there haven’t been many of them to date. As one of those voices, I know that what I write – despite as much awareness as I can muster, research and consultation – is still biased. In other words, it’s still only one story.
What is it that pulls me towards a piece of writing? For me, it’s all about the heart. If something in the story touches me – if there’s an emotional connection I can’t stop feeling for days afterwards – then I’m hooked. There are many other things which contribute – like revelation, a character who feels real, a sense of intelligence, a surprising point of view, an original plot. And, of course this nebulous thing called ‘craft’ which we all beat ourselves up about but which no one (have you noticed this?) can exactly define. But in the end, for me it’s about how the story makes me feel. How it grabs me. And that’s why stories are so powerful in terms of changing views and opinions. And why having more of them, from different people, is so important.
The NZSA says they “are hoping this (competition) will be the beginning of a conversation between Asian writers and the New Zealand Society of Authors.” This is one thing a competition does do – bring writers to the attention of an audience, who are often other writers, mentors and maybe even publishers. And this is where I should clarify a point I made earlier. Although publishers don’t publish writers just because they won a competition (unless one of the prizes is publication), they are always open to finding new talent, which they then watch. Talent usually needs nurturing, and this is where the writers’ community comes in – both formally (as in the NZSA) and more informally. I find the NZ writing community – be they poets, fiction writers or playwrights – extremely welcoming to new entrants. The road to publication is hard, but guides aren’t hard to find, and they are often generous with their time and encouragement. This lack of competitiveness is one of the lovely things about being a creative in New Zealand, and it’s also (I believe) essential to the strength of our community.
But back to the story. In the end, it’s still the writer who decides how their story will be told. It’s their voice and their world view which comes through the most truthfully in fiction. There isn’t just one Asian short story – there are many. I hope to have my mind stretched, my biases challenged and my view enlarged over the next few months. I can’t wait!