Last month, I was lucky enough to join a group of students and teachers from my school for the schools programme of the 2016 Auckland Writers Festival, at the Aotea Centre in central Auckland. It’s always entertaining to spend a day out of class with a bunch of high-schoolers. There were thirty or so on this expedition, a mix of ages and personalities, all ostensibly interested in writing—though I suspect a number of them just wanted a day off school, and who could blame ’em. It’s a three hour bus ride, more or less, from our school, in the rural backwaters of Northland, to the big smoke. Three hours of singing, dancing and gossiping.
We arrived at the Aotea Centre in good time, having taken the Northern Busway into the city, which allowed us to avoid much of the citybound traffic. We were booked for four sessions at the festival, firstly with Kate de Goldi, then Jane Higgins, Omar Musa and Tami Nielson.
Kate de Goldi’s session was, unfortunately, boring. I’ve read The 10pm Question and I think it’s a great book—smart, funny, and touching. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it was more than what I got. She read excerpts from her latest novel, From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle, which is set in Christchurch, and talked about how the earthquakes in Christchurch had influenced her writing of it. Nothing she read, nor anything she said, made me want to go out and buy a copy. I’m not saying it sounds like a bad book (she’s an accomplished writer, and it’s probably a pretty good book), but her delivery—a little dry, a little stiff—made it difficult to get enthusiastic about anything she was saying. Maybe she’s a better writer than public speaker, and there’s nothing wrong with that—public speaking is daunting—but it felt like a missed opportunity, both for de Goldi, and her audience.
Our next session was with Jane Higgins. She was talking about hope in young adult fiction. She discussed how a lot of the fiction written for young adult audiences is bleak. But there’s hope too—and the sense of hope is essential to the success of the stories told. She said that young adult fiction may be bleak, but that is only a reflection of real life, where young men and woman live in a world that is often bleak, and have to face difficult challenges and make difficult decisions. She said that hope is also necessary, and that a story without hope would struggle to sustain an audience.
I have to agree with her there. Last year, I read Song of Stone by Iain Banks. It is almost unrelentingly bleak. Sure, it’s an interesting idea, well written, with prose that is often beautiful, in a cold, hard way, but once finished, I had no desire to read anything similar, and haven’t again since. This is hardly a recipe for building a sustainable audience.
Higgins said that there are five ways in which the characters in young adult fiction experience hope:
- Discovering the people that are supporting them;
- Discovering their gifts;
- Being recognised for who they are;
- Seeing clearly at last;
- Happy endings (sometimes).
She said that young people are often asked what they are going to do. This is true—it’s a question I often hear myself asking of students at school, usually the ones where it is difficult to imagine anyone ever making the decision to employ them. According to Higgins, two better questions to ask, and two better question for young men and women to ask of themselves, are:
- Who are you going to be?
- How are you going to live your life?
I guess the caveat attached to these questions is that if hope is not part of the answer to them, then something needs to change.
After breaking for lunch, we returned to the ASB Theatre for our third session, with Omar Musa. Musa is a Malaysian-Australian poet/rapper/writer. He spoke about his life and his work, and punctuated these with spoken word performances of some of his poems. This is perhaps not so different from what de Goldi did, but the crucial difference here is in the word performance. De Goldi spoke to the audience; Musa performed for the audience. He was charismatic, funny, and entertaining. His performance covered a range of topics, including the difficulties of growing up poor, angry, and Muslim in small-town Australia. The poem that sticks most in my mind was an ode to the spicy Malaysian noodle soup, laksa. Here, Musa called on the audience to participate, joining in with a shouted “Wooh!” on the poem’s introductory refrain of “Wooh! This shit is hot.”
Musa’s overall message was that storytelling is important, and that no matter where you come from—your stories are worth telling. He spoke of the importance of storytelling in Malay culture, where the word for storyteller, penglipur lara, translates as a “reliever of sorrows” or “dispeller of worries”. He sees poetry as a way of “giving a voice to the voiceless” and as being “a safe place to tell dangerous stories.”
For me, he was the standout presenter of the day, and most of the students I spoke to felt the same way. I think this is because of the entertainment value his presentation provided. When you’ve traveled three hours on a bus to see someone, and you’ve got a three hour return journey after you’ve seen them, it’s really not enough just to be talked at; it’s important to be entertained as well.
The last session of the day was with Tami Nielson. Nielson is a country/blues singer/songwriter. She was born in Canada to a musical family, and moved to New Zealand in 2007. She talked about her songwriting process, focusing on the evolution of her song Walk (Back to Your Arms), which won her the APRA silver scroll in 2014, and how it developed from a simple, almost wordless tune that popped into her head while driving one day, through to a fully-fledged, award winning song, with an accompanying music video.
Nielson was warm, funny and engaging. She talked about her life back in Canada, where her road to musical success was established as a child. She talked about her move to New Zealand, and the frightening prospect of having to start her career over again, in a new country, where no-one knew who she was or what she had done in the past. She told jokes and stories, sung songs, and played the guitar. She even showed some mean skills on the harmonica.
Like Musa, she didn’t just present to her audience, she performed for them as well. This is unsurprising—both artists are musicians as well as storytellers, after all. It’s perhaps unfair to compare their presentations with those of de Goldi and Higgins, but they made all the difference in terms of my enjoyment of the day. I think most of our students felt the same way. It’s always good to spend time with students outside the normal, everyday bounds of the classroom. You get to see a side of them that you don’t normally get to see, and visa versa. But it’s a long trip to Auckland and back, and I’d like to thank Omar Musa and Tami Nielson for making that trip especially enjoyable.