Friday, August 31, 2018

WORD 2018 Part 1: cultural mapping

My first day at the Christchurch WORD Festival this year has been about pathways and dirt tracks and maps. It began when Sacha McMeeking, at an event on the 125 years of women’s suffrage in Aotearoa, suggested the need to carve new paths as a metaphor for the creation of new social habits (which is also a metaphor). Human rights, she claimed, don’t change the world: they can help you formulate an ethical demand but are not enough to achieve economic justice or maintain social change. The image of the path carved into the dirt by the repeated passage of people reminded me of the wonderful metaphor employed by Walter Ong when he described oral literacy as producing ‘mnemonically tooled grooves’ for the transmission of knowledge. I think this is the kind of habit-forming collective work that McMeeking was advocating for.

I don’t know if it’s the setting that creates a theme or simply highlights its salience but obviously you cannot help thinking of the ground when you’re in Christchurch. It’s like a background imagery one takes into every session and maybe that’s why all of the ones I have attended so far seemed to be about whenua, about groundedness. Did I hear Selina Tusitala Marsh describe the rubber foot of her poet laureate’s tokotoko as helping her to remain ‘heeled in’? I’ll have to verify that detail. In fact I wish I could sit here in my hotel room and replay her entire session with Tusiata Avia, which was commendably free to the public and probably the best I’ve seen at any festival. Gem Wilder has written an almost-live review of it on the booksellers’ website but there’s so much more all of us who were there could say. I’ll just note that there is a very particular kind of generosity that the best of our writers can display towards one another – it, too, is culturally inflected, mnemonically tooled – and that it was a joy to be in the presence of such an abundance of it.

Photo by Kirsten McDougall

Looking at the world differently means looking at a different world. This is my loose interpretation of something Dame Anne Salmond said in response to a question at the end of her session. If that is true, when we map a territory not just the tools we choose but also the names we use effectively describe not the same place differently but a different place altogether.

At another of today’s events that were free to the public, Takerei Norton, Helen Brown and David Higgins introduced the extraordinary Kā Huru Manu, a world-leading cultural mapping project aimed at producing an atlas of the place names, Māori reserves and travel routes of Ngāi Tahu.

Anyone who had the opportunity to hear Ta Tipene O’Regan talk about geography and storytelling at previous editions of the festival will immediately understand what this project is about and why it matters. The largest portion of their presentation focused on the names, which didn’t have to be merely recorded but often painstakingly uncovered or recovered, so quickly did the process of colonisation and the redrawing of maps conceal them or alter them.

The atlas went live earlier this year with over 1,000 place names out of the 6,000 in total that it comprises. As Brown and Norton explained, the balance will be added only after their local people have had the opportunity to spend enough time with them. It is a matter of being reacquainted, in the knowledge – again – that name mean things and that socially inhabited places can’t exist without them. As the title of the session read: names are the treasured cloak which adorns the land.

A mural outside the main festival venue

1 comment:

Thomas Brockett said...

I find following your intellectual appreciation of Word difficult. I have followed your blog for some time since you are one of the few socialists that has a clear understanding of the human condition. However, if you have things to say about helping us understand the cultural - as well as the political - impacts of colonisation, socialisation and the digital arena, you need to be clearly intelligible.