Monday, September 3, 2018

WORD 2018 Part 3: Narrative and purpose

I’m due to write a more formal review of the literary content of WORD this month, so these quick notes focus in more scattered fashion on the festival as a cultural event.

I think about 50% of the reason I love WORD so much is that it’s set in Christchurch. I’ve only known the city after the earthquakes, mostly through WORD and being associated with Freerange Press – the first time as unlikely contributor to a wonderful book about the rebuild. From my first visit to the arts festival of 2011 (as opposed to the writers’ event) I’ve listened in on debates on the state of the city and witnessed attempts to grapple with what the editors at Freerange called ‘the transitional city’. It was there that I first learned of CityView AR, an app that enabled users to point the phone at a post-quake scene and see what it looked like before. It was there that I also learned that Google Street View created this effect by accident, causing users to step in and out of time as they walked down virtual roads. One moment you’d be looking at rubble. The next you’d see the reflection of the many-eyed Google van in the windows of a shop that was no longer there.

Nowadays the website of CityView AR laconically informs the user that ‘the app is no longer available’. It’s not for me to say if that is a good thing or not, but over the years I’ve been introduced to far more nuanced, less literal projects: all of them striving, often through art, to make a broader sense of the transition than a mere (and possibly re-traumatising) collection of animated snapshots of what has been lost.

Fresh from a session on Diana Wichtel’s Driving to Treblinka, which grappled not just with trauma but also with the immense and ever-unfolding complications of the past, I caught my last event for this year – a tour of central Ōtautahi Christchurch led by Joseph Hullen (Ngāi Tūāhuriri/Ngāti Hinematua).

Hullen and his fellow members of the Matapopore Trust have been working with CERA and the local council to influence the rebuild and make the urban environment reflect the history of its first inhabitants. This work is manifold, and includes the donation of names with historical and cultural resonance such as the central library’s (Tūranga – a reference to the home of Paikea, the ancestor of Ngāi Tahu), and the commissioning of artworks that speak to the history of the iwi and of its relationship with the Crown (look out for the unveiling of ‘Mana Motuhake’ in Victoria Square).

Just as importantly, the Trust champions environmental standards that have been adopted by Ngāi Tahu on its own properties and include the on-site treatment of storm water, of particular importance due to the hydrogeology of Ōtautahi and for the preservation of its food supply. This integration of narrative and purpose (in Hullen’s words) struck me as the natural extension of the work of Kā Huru Manu, or the Ngāi Tahu Atlas, which I saw presented on day one, and ended my visit to this year’s WORD festival on the theme with which it began. That is to say, perfectly.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

WORD 2018 Part 2: Get John Campbell to introduce every literary gala

Reason: he will spend weeks becoming intimately familiar with the work of the writers and come up with a long-form essay introduction that ties all their works together then bugger off back stage and let them do their thing.

The gala event is a literary festival at its worst and best. At its worst, it strings writers together for no better reason than their commercial appeal, their ability to draw an audience. At its best, it makes their work resonate even if it's not designed to or supposed to. Or maybe the skill of the festival director is to produce such accidental encounters on purpose. Which brings me to my second point.

Get Rachael King to direct every literary festival.

Reason: this year's programme is scintillating. Every session I've been to has grappled with some difficult or urgent topic. Even ones that you shouldn't be able to debate successfully over the course of one hour like, say, the politics of fiction. Some sessions, such as the one on the body – which included eight writers over the course of ninety minutes with four chairs to sit on between them – seemed ludicrously ambitious, almost an attempt of the life of the moderator, but worked as coherently as the much more traditional format of the lecture delivered by Barbara Else. In fact, Else's call for 'better fictions, more enabling fictions, fictions not an expense of others' encapsulates the success of this edition so far. Its theme, it seems to me, is one of solidarity, and every session has demanded of the writers that they work together or they would fall apart.

Some things I learned on my second day at WORD 2018:

Everyone should get to see and hear Sonya Renee Taylor perform 'The Body is Not an Apology' in full voice in a packed theatre at least once in their lifetime.

'The Tweed' by Robin Robertson is an excellent poem about giving a back rub to Hugh MacDiarmid and 'Megatron' by Hollie McNish is an excellent poem about having given birth to a child.

McNish and Emily Writes on Motherood were so funny they made their session chair cry. They performed in front of an audience stacked with babies who were exceptionally well-behaved.

I want to hear a lot more from comedian and poet Ray Shipley, who besides coordinating the Faultline Poetry Collective 'crochets for cash and makes a very good cup of tea'.

Rajorshi Chakraborti read a wonderful passage from his novel The Man Who Would Not See about omniscience being the defining characteristic of the divine. I could get behind the idea of God as witness and record you can turn to not just for comfort but also for corroboration that some things that only you know about really happened.

Finally, at the Art Gallery I was introduced by my friend Lara Strongman to many wonderful works but none more so than the Portrait of a Landgirl by Juliet Peter (1944), which I photographed badly.