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Renee Liang: Auckland Writers Festival highlights

The Auckland Writers Festival this year celebrates its 18th year. Renee Liang gives us her highlights.


I’ve had a lot to do with the festival over the years; from my days as a creative writing student when I volunteered as an usher and got a quiet thrill from standing next to writers I admired; to (much later) spots as a featured local writer. It’s always exciting to arrive amid the crowds (and yes, this festival is always packed) and feel the literary buzz alongside like-minded people.

In Legacies of Loss Wellingtonian Jan Pryor and Australian novelist Jesse Blackadder had an intimate conversation about loss in the lush surrounds of the Pacific Spiegeltent aka the Heartland Festival Room.  Pryor, who has a stellar career as a researcher in family psychology, turned the lens on herself in her first memoir, After Alexander, about the 1981 death of her son from what was then called cot death. She spoke movingly of how her experience led her to reject the accepted science around loss, such as Kubler-Ross’s well known ‘stages of grief’ and how just human connection – such as offering a hug – is better than the glib words often offered. 

It’s only now, as a much more experienced writer, that she has felt ready to return – this time using fiction to truly distance herself from the personal details.

Blackadder spoke of how she used her experience as a novelist to finally revisit the death of her younger sister Lucy, who drowned in a backyard swimming pool when Blackadder was 12. “It marked the end of my childhood,” she said, talking about the lifelong loss of trust and safety that may have influenced her own decision not to have children. And yet “it made me the person I am. And I wouldn’t change that experience now.”

Both authors spoke of the decades it took for them to be ready to write about this pivotal moment in their lives. “It took time for me to mature enough to write it,” Pryor said, “for the perspective to arrive.” They spoke of the delicacy required when navigating these personal histories for public consumption, especially when it came to the reactions of other family members.  Blackadder spoke of an earlier novel which she withdrew before publication when she realised how much it would hurt her family.  It’s only now, as a much more experienced writer, that she has felt ready to return – this time using fiction to truly distance herself from the personal details.

The session Can We Be Frank featured three writers of Young Adult fiction, Alex Wheatle who writes about working-class immigrant life in the UK, and local writers Eileen Merriman and Erin Donahue.  Although the questions from interviewer Owen Scott were rather staid (including a long and irrelevant segue into whether the authors took medication), this session was rich in insights and didn’t shy from controversial topics.

Wheatle, a former youth worker, reminded us of the complexity of youth characters and the richness of their lives, saying, “as adults we forget the agonies of being young.” Merriman, having shared a challenging extract of her work about a young woman self-cutting, spoke about the taboos around youth mental health and behaviours including suicide. She said it’s better to talk about it and that shows such as 13 Reasons Why have opened up conversations between young people and their families. 

There followed a fun, if slightly cringeworthy exchange about the pitfalls of adults trying to write in a hip young voice. Wheatle described visiting a school in Brixton to read his work, confident he had the right grip on the language, and the incredulous response by a teenage girl, “but we don’t talk like that any more.”  Approaches to finding the right voice were discussed – “I’ve heard of a writer who used to hide in bushes to write down what kids were saying.” A strategy which could well be misinterpreted.

Approaches to finding the right voice were discussed – “I’ve heard of a writer who used to hide in bushes to write down what kids were saying.” A strategy which could well be misinterpreted.

Donahue cautioned against a standard novelistic approach. “These are difficult topics which could be triggering,” she said, “in YA fiction the writer can’t just go for the great emotional ending. They have to be aware of the journey they are taking the reader on, and look after them.”  She also talked about the freedoms that being a YA writer brings. “It’s a free and open genre – adolescents are after the big stories and huge changes, so there’s a lot you can do that you can’t do as a standard novelist.”  Wheatle took a different tack, saying of YA writing: “Every story has value. Everybody should have a place in fiction.”

In Sour Heart, US poet and writer Jenny Zhang had a funny and frank conversation with local arts writer Rosabel Tan about writing from her perspective as a Chinese American immigrant.  Of the young protagonists in her short story collection, she said, “they’re on the cusp of adolescence… that brief moment in their lives when they don’t really understand what it is to be Asian, to have breasts or not have breasts, to be a certain body shape.” 

She also returned again and again to the topic of being treated as a cultural specimen or representative of ‘Asian Americanness’ and of the pressure (often self-inflicted) that being a published minority writer brings: “It’s like a table I’m allowed to sit at, which is so small that no one else can sit. And I don’t want to do a bad job so that no one will ever give other Asian American writers a chance.”

She admitted to having to ‘translate’ aspects of cultural knowledge in her works for a wider audience, and how being held up as a ‘breakout’ or ‘vital’ voice – a representative for what is in reality a very diverse group – is no compliment at all.   “There seems to be a white fetish for the pain of immigrants,” she observed. “A fetish for (work describing) second generation migrants blaming their first generation parents. Whereas the reality is that I have felt less let down by my family than the myth of the American dream.” She added that she hates her work being treated like some anthropological textbook by readers and critics, “because it isn’t a weapon, and it isn’t meant to be political.” Mixed in with this sentiment seemed to be a certain weariness, however, that this treatment was inevitable for minority writers.

Tan observed that many writers of colour steer clear of cultural modifiers when defining themselves – “you don’t describe yourself as Asian in your bio.”  This was the prompt for Zhang to discuss how young writers with ethnic difference often avoid writing on ‘cultural’ topics – despite pressure from publishers and readers to do so. “I write about Chinese American girls because why shouldn’t I? They deserve to be treated as universal characters, just like any other grouping.”

Zhang now teaches creative writing at universities, and observed that social media – and its instant judgement of lines of published text – has led to fear among young writers. “There’s so much fear of writing something politically incorrect,” she said. “This fear that, ‘will I be criticised for writing this? Will I get another chance? I’m grateful that I did get another chance.”  When asked for her advice to aspiring writers, she urged, “just try it. Not all writing needs to be public right away, it can be secret, you’re allowed to make mistakes.”

In Best Best Showcase, Te Karere Scarborough curated a diverse group of wordsmiths from the spoken word community. I’m a member of this community and it was wonderful to kick back to the words of familiar heroes such as Daren Kamali and John Carr taking the stage alongside current stars of the scene such as Jessie Fenton and Vanessa Crofskey. They were joined by international guests Alex Wheatle and Sonja Renee Taylor. These performances gave us a taste of how wide the spoken word genre is. It also confirmed that poetry in Aotearoa is alive and kick-ass and more than measures up in terms of talent.

The stars of the night were also the newest entrants to the spoken word scene. Dilworth Slam team, consisting of Jayden Osbourne, Nathan Su’a, Phillip Toriente, and Jai Selkirk, were so inspired by the poetry showcase at last year’s Festival that they started writing and ended up winning Word, the inter high schools poetry slam competition, at the end of 2017.

Selkirk performed his poem True Story, which has had over 1.5 million views on YouTube. But the best poem of the night was the group poem performed with precise timing and choreography by all four poets, who theatrically revealed their pink shirts supporting anti-bullying before launching into their award-winning poem celebrating nerd culture.  In a world where boys are expected to toughen up, conform and not reveal their true selves, these young men – and their teachers in the audience supporting them – were a breath of hope.

And that's a wrap for Friday 18 May. Watch this space and follow us on Twitter or Facebook for highlights from the next two days.

Written by

Renee Liang

18 May 2018

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.