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Records smashed at Auckland Writers Festival

20 May 2018
It's a wrap! AWF18 has smashed attendance records, with over 74,000 seats filled across six days at 144 events. Renee Liang completes her three-day marathon with final reflections.

Renee Liang has been keeping us up-to-date as she attends sessions throughout the weekend's busy Auckland Writers Festival. See links below for her full review. 

Sunday at the Auckland Writers Festival was family day, with a revamped, fully free event schedule and a change of venue from the Herald Theatre to the Town Hall.  The events were divided into two simultaneously running programmes - under fives and over fives.  This left me in a bit of a bind, as my kids are four and five and experienced in going to kids' theatre (as you might expect when your mum is a playwright). We ended up attending the under-five programme exclusively.

This led to my discovery of the Balcony Bar, on the first floor of the Town Hall.  I’ve been going to events at the Town Hall for decades and, embarrassingly, never realised this place existed. With its light-filled mezzanine, heritage tiles and windows and cozy function room (jazzed up with plenty of beanbags for the occasion), it was a great venue. Miss Five and Mr Four were kept distracted by the colouring-in tables between sessions, and importantly for a toilet training toddler there were even toilets on the same floor.  A bonus was being able to descend to Aotea Square in a glass lift, something most families took full advantage of.

We enjoyed Pat Chapman reading her book The Tallest Truck Gets Stuck and the energetic duo of Kennedy Warne and Heather Hunt reading It’s My Egg and You Can’t Have It, a fable of kiwi conservation filled with scientific detail.  Sessions only lasted 15-20 mins so there was plenty of time to burn off energy in the Square and sample some of the delicious crumpets on offer. The room became markedly less packed as the afternoon wore on and I did wonder whether the long 40-minute gap between sessions meant most families just sampled one or two before heading off on other weekend business. (The over-five programme was slightly longer, featuring screen content and a play, but still had long gaps.)  It was lovely at the end of it all to spend a longer time watching a beautiful collection of short animated films by Euan Frizzell, based on Margaret Mahy’s books.  Well worth trying to find if you can.

With the family programme over and the kids handed over to their dad I was free to enjoy my final session at the Festival, City Streets.  Warmly chaired by Julie Hill, this was an engaging discussion about urban change, social stewardship and the impact of globalisation on local spaces, with local writers Pip Adam (fresh from winning the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize in the Ockham NZ Book Awards), Dominic Hoey, and Canadian Chinese writer Xue Yiwei.  Each has placed their home cities as central characters in their work – in Adam’s and Hoey’s case, Auckland; and in Yiwei’s, the ‘border’ city of Shenzhen, which grew into a manufacturing powerhouse city when China opened its doors.

“Class is a big part of my work,” said Hoey, speaking of his debut novel Iceland (which is actually set largely in Auckland). “Poor people rarely get their stories told with dignity. Things of great beauty are going on, often ignored by society.” Hoey’s long career – as a musician, poet and rapper as well as arts activist - has certainly borne witness to these stories.

Both he and Adam are discomforted by the gentrification of Auckland, seen most prominently in K Rd where the working class, Pacific and artists have been displaced for upmarket offices and businesses.  Adam admits to feeling conflicted: “When I saw the new paint job in (K Rd landmark) St Kevin’s Arcade I hated it. But then I realised that the best vegan place in NZ was there, so now I spend a lot of time in St Kevin’s Arcade. Serves me right.”  She describes Auckland as feeling ‘unfinished’: “While it’s not a bad thing that it’s shifting and changing, the sense of unsettledness can affect mental health.”

Yiwei spoke of globalisation, saying of Chinese: “Internationalism is a big thing. The Chinese see the big picture. They don’t hesitate to go to every corner of the world and invest in it.” This tongue in cheek comment got a big laugh.

Unfortunately, life meant I couldn’t attend any more sessions of the festival – an early dinner for the kids was tended to instead.  But as I write this piece a press release has landed in my inbox – the Festival has yet again smashed its own attendance record, with over 74,000 seats filled across the 6 days. At 144 events with up to 10 events running simultaneously this was also the most ambitious and busy Festival yet. Auckland Writers Festival director Anne O’Brien is quoted as saying this result is testament to people’s hunger for more substantive conversations and a deeper understanding of the world and each other. “We are living in charged times; rising inequality, #metoo, AI with its ethical quandaries and rapidly changing patterns of human behaviour to name a few. We heard these issues reflected across genres, in impassioned speeches and in sublime readings.”

...this result is testament to people’s hunger for more substantive conversations and a deeper understanding of the world and each other. “We are living in charged times; rising inequality, #metoo, AI with its ethical quandaries and rapidly changing patterns of human behaviour to name a few.

I think this is true.  Certainly for me, attending the festival does bolster my belief that people still want to have deep conversations about the big issues- every session I went to was packed, with people happy to pay to watch someone just talk on stage for an hour. The Festival does other things too. There are some colleagues I only see once a year – it’s when we bump into each other here. There are the unexpected new connections too, such as There are the unexpected new connections too, such as when a gentleman leaned across some chairs to introduce himself, “Hi, I’m Frank.” He turned out to be Frank Olssen, the Swedish Consul (and ex husband of Linda). Five minutes later we were enthusiastically dissecting world politics and had swapped email addresses.  Within hours he had emailed with a list of reading suggestions.

It’s also essential that writers keep up with what other writers are thinking. It’s our continuing professional education. This is where access becomes important, and the policy of 30 percent free sessions is immensely valuable to writers, students and many others. It contributes to the diversity of the conversations happening in foyers too.

The real work of a Festival starts when it ends. Planning for 2019 is underway; meanwhile Auckland readers are collectively digesting new ideas and those new words on new pages we all find so satisfying. Miss Five, at dinner, pored through my well-thumbed Festival programme. “Open Book,” she said, triumphantly. “I read it, it says Open Book.” Indeed. If Festivals like this one make us open new books, and for new readers to confidently want to dive in, it will have done its job.