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.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — DAVID LARSEN / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY — REBEKAH ROBIN­SON

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

Anna Jack­son.

“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.

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