The nation’s smallest and most idiosyncratic literary festival is alive and well in Titirangi.
The nation’s smallest — and most idiosyncratic — literary festival is alive and well and returning this year to its Titirangi War Memorial Hall home.
The Going West Writers Festival lives right on the edge but somehow it never falls off. If I had a dollar for every time someone credible has told me the festival was about to die, I would have... well, I would have three whole dollars, in fact, but that’s three brushes with death in the past 10 years.
“We were questioning whether we should continue,” says programme director Nicola Strawbridge, speaking about the most recent, at the 20th Going West festival, three years ago. “Twenty years is a lovely round number, and that was the year our founding programmer retired, and it was hard to imagine the festival without him, at first. But our audience said no, look, you’ve got to keep going, and our writers told us the same, and so we did. It was a major outpouring of love; we were quite swept away by it, actually. We’ve been very lucky in the support we’ve received.”
Going West is the smallest and most idiosyncratic of the established literary festivals in any of the major cities. Its centrepiece event, the annual literary weekend in Titirangi, takes place in a single modestly sized venue, the Titirangi War Memorial Hall. Writers generally sit with the audience before and after their sessions, which run continually, in a carefully curated performance-art flow with only occasional breaks for food and drink; during those breaks, if you’re brave enough, you can go and talk to Bill Manhire or Fiona Farrell or Witi Ihimaera or whoever the year’s biggest star is. This year, the lineup features Paula Morris, Fiona Kidman, C.K. Stead, Charlotte Grimshaw and Peter Wells, among many others.
You’ll notice that these are all Aotearoa New Zealand writers. When Titirangi bookseller Murray Gray and Waitākere City Council arts manager Naomi McCleary first launched Going West in 1996, their focus was even more sharply honed: a celebration of the literary heritage of West Auckland, home at various times to writers such as Maurice Gee, Maurice Shadbolt and Allen Curnow. (The festival takes its name from Gee’s 1992 novel). At the time, there was only one other literary festival in the country, and that was in Wellington, so it would be misleading to describe this local focus as a point of difference; for Auckland audiences in the 90s there wasn’t much to be different from. Today, with festivals popping up like mushrooms all over the landscape and the Auckland Writers Festival’s three-ring international superstar circus dominating the events calendar, Going West is the artisanal locavore alternative.
“You want to celebrate the big-name books,” says Strawbridge, who took over programming duties from Murray Gray when he retired in 2015. “And actually, you need to celebrate them, because we have to be visible to sell tickets, and it’s not necessarily easy to get our media to take notice of writers who aren’t famous yet. But it’s those little unexpected books that might not have had their time in the sun that can really inspire you or take you somewhere new. So putting the programme together is a bit of a balancing act. What I learned from Murray was to value being a little bit idiosyncratic, a bit eclectic. His programming was so particular. People loved it and responded to it. His advice to me was, ‘Programme what you love. In a way it’s got to be about you.’”
So this year, as well as the openingnight keynote speech from Paula Morris and the big-draw session where literary wildman Steve Braunias interviews father/daughter pair Stead and Grimshaw, there’s a session devoted to Dominic Hoey, Michael Steven and Annaleese Jochems, who have all recently made their publishing debuts. Kate Duignan, who broke a 17-year publishing silence this year with her warmly received second novel, The New Ships, will share the stage with Rajorshi Chakraborti, a well-established Indian writer now living in Wellington. And the question of exactly what living in Wellington does or doesn’t do to your writing will be discussed by three poets, Helen Heath, Chris Tse and
“Poetry’s tricky to programme,” says Strawbridge. “There aren’t too many really high-profile poets like Hera Lindsay Bird, or well-established ones like Bill Manhire. I wanted to get all three of these poets here this year. They’re all fantastic, and I’d just been reading Redmer Yska’s book A Strange Beautiful Excitement, where he looks at Katherine Mansfield’s relationship with Wellington, and I suddenly thought, you know what, we could bring them together with that theme of the city sitting in behind them. Auckland and Wellington, we’re two very different cities and two very different literary scenes. Wellington’s got this density and intensity with its small geography, and then at its heart you’ve got the university and the Bill Manhire writing school. Whereas we’re so much more spread out in Auckland. I’m interested to hear if that difference informs their work.”
The importance of location for literary culture was highlighted in a different way last year, when the festival’s home of 21 years, the Titirangi War Memorial Hall, caught fire a month out from the literary weekend. The building was saved, but the damage was extensive enough that the event had to relocate at the last minute to the former Waitākere City Council chambers in Henderson. The move was enough of a success that
Braunias titled his festival coverage piece in the Spinoff “To hell with Titirangi”.
“Steve does like to take a position, doesn’t he?” says Strawbridge. “He loved the new venue and was very vocal about wanting us to stay there. And I could see his point of view. The council chambers are purpose-built, the acoustics are amazing, you’ve got beautiful carvings from the local iwi, custom-made carpets, comfortable chairs — everything you could ask for. We had a serious debate about going back there again this year, but Titirangi is our home. We get a lot of audience walk-ups — you know, people who’ve come in to the village for a coffee and then just wandered down to the hall to see what’s on. And our funding comes from Waitākere, and the Henderson venue is not in that local board area. So that’s pretty significant. You can’t do it without the money.”
Anna Jackson, one of Strawbridge’s three Wellington poets, grew up in Titirangi. “We’d go outside and just go plunging down into the bush,” she says. “The trees loom very large in my childhood memories. I live very differently in Wellington. The city’s still so small. People still go to the same places as each other and you can walk anywhere. The whole city feels the way it used to feel being a student in Ponsonby or Grey Lynn. I do think that local feel is part of the reason poetry is so strong in Wellington at the moment, and so many young poets are involved. When we have poetry readings at LitCrawl, you have not just venues packed but queues going out into the street with people trying to hear from the footpath. It’s really exciting.”
As well as participating in the Wellington session, Helen Heath — whose latest collection, Are Friends Electric?, features a sequence of poems in which a woman uploads her dead lover to the cloud — will be appearing in a session called “Wrestling with the Robots”, on new technologies, especially automation, artificial intelligence and robotics.
“This collection is the creative component of my PhD thesis,” she says, “and while I was working on that, I spent quite a lot of time thinking about the impact technology is going to have on us. There’s so many changes happening so quickly that I think we really need to be having a public dialogue around it. Truck drivers are going to be out of work as a result of self-driving trucks, for instance; I’m not convinced it’s going to be hugely soon, but it’s absolutely coming. Lawyers and accountants are going to find algorithms taking a lot of their work. We’re not quite there yet so it’s hard to imagine, but that’s why writing creatively about it is really important. Until we can imagine it we can’t think our way through the possibilities.”
Part of the Going West concept is that all these sessions — the non-fiction, the fiction, the poetry — mesh together seamlessly, with shorter events following longer ones, lighter ones providing a break from heavier ones, something for everyone and never too much of anything. One tool Strawbridge uses to help structure it all is the annual theme, which this year is “Spread the word”.
“A lot of festivals use themes, and how you approach this changes from programmer to programmer,” she says. “When you look internationally, a lot of festivals set their theme and then go look for the books or the writers that fit best. For New Zealand that’s harder. For a small nation we do a huge amount of publishing, but still it’s a relatively small pool. So all through the year I’m looking at what’s being published, thinking about what’s in the media and where the national conversation is, and the theme basically emerges from that. Last year in July, the Book Council released their big research project on who’s reading in New Zealand, and what reading is and why we need to promote it, and through that I started looking at the statistics around empathy and reading.
“Children who read and are exposed to a wide range of ideas and stories are more empathetic, and we’ve known this for a long time, but there’s now research supporting that. And through that I ended up looking at loneliness and connection, and how we form communities, and how movements grow out of the sharing of ideas. We’ve seen a lot of that over the last year — the #MeToo movement is an obvious one. And out of that I got ‘Spread the word’ — how storytelling and books and writing can create a movement and create change.”
The most obvious points in the programme where this idea is visible are the non-fiction sessions, especially the one on Niki Harré’s book The Infinite Game. Harré — whose sister Laila Harré will be interviewing her on stage — has just completed a major project on the psychology of sustainability, in the broadest sense of the word. “She plays this game with her students,” says Strawbridge, “where she gets them to think about the difference between a finite game with winners and losers and a game that never ends, where we all have to keep on living with the consequences of our choices. There are so many areas in New Zealand where this matters — access to houses and our high incarceration rates, moving towards an economy where everybody’s included. I’ve seen her in action and she explores all these ideas in a really playful and interactive way... she’s going to get the audience up out of their seats and moving around.”
The festival also includes an art show at Te Uru gallery in Titirangi, performances and readings of new plays at Te Pou theatre, a poetry slam, and a range of other events. Tickets for the literary weekend are available on a per-session basis, or you can buy fullday passes. “I think probably our core audience, the ones who really make it possible in terms of ticket sales, trust us enough to take a chance by buying a ticket for a whole day or the weekend. I met a couple last year at our theatre season at Te Pou who came up and introduced themselves, and they’d been every single year for 22 years. They said we don’t worry any more about who’s appearing. We just know that it’s going to be an amazing weekend. That was really encouraging.”
It’s those little unexpected books that might not have had their time in the sun that can really inspire you or take you somewhere new.
Going West programme director Nicola Strawbridge in the Titirangi War Memorial Hall, once again the venue for the literary weekend after repairs following a fire.