Any initial feelings of relief that I wasn't taking time out of a very busy week to travel to Palmerston North for the Museums Aotearoa Conference were quickly squashed as the tweets started rolling in. Suddenly, there was no more #noregrets but instead @manymanyregrets. The presentations sounded interesting, confronting and necessary. It didn't sound like a 'we did this and then we did this' kind of conference but more like a 'why AREN'T we doing this? what are we here for? Who are we here for?' Basically it looked awesome and my fomo is out of control. But instead of focusing on that, I shall cast my mind all the way back to last weekend to something I DID make it to - the Auckland Writers Fest....
1. Paul Beatty
I haven't actually read any of Paul's work but I know about The Sellout (I've had a bad run of not liking Man Booker Prize winners to be honest, but after hearing him talk, I'll give it a whirl) and I wanted to hear him. What an interesting guy. The first thing you notice is his body language. He did not want to be there. He spent a lot of the session shrunk back into the corner of his chair, his right arm brought across his chest, rubbing his left shoulder, creating a sort of protective safe space, as far away from the chair, Paula Morris, as possible. Like one reviewer whose name escapes me said, "I liked him very much." He seemed atypical - not just in his demeanor but in his upbringing (he said his mother raised him and his sister to be Japanese for a time and tied also their hands behind their backs so they learned to be left-handed), his literary influences (he talked about resisting the influence of Maya Angelou and the literary box one gets put in as a black writer) and narrative choices (an audience member asked him if he thought his writing was absurd - he said he couldn't answer because his absurd was probably definitely different to the questioners absurd).
He talked about being at college when the seed that would grow into The Sellout was planted. He was in an undergrad class (let's say philosophy) when a fellow (let's assume douchey, know-it-all) undergrad said, "you know, the truest sign of REAL freedom would be if you choose to be a slave." I mean....what.
One of the awesome pleasures in my job recently has been to help 5 writers access and research AM's Documentary Heritage collections. Their Writers Fest mission - to find inspiration in our collection, produce a piece of writing and perform it at the festival. I worked with some of them a lot and some just a bit but getting to see their creative processes, the different stories and objects that sparked their imaginations was such a privilege. It was also an incredibly valuable exercise to get an insight into the many different ways our collections are used, interpreted and understood by our public.
I was really, really looking forward to this one - Roxane Gay, Mpho Tutu, and Michelle A'Court in a conversation with Susie Ferguson about, well, women and power. I'm not really sure what I expected but I guess I was expecting it would pack a punch of some kind. And it just didn't. The whole thing left me unsatisfied, like when you watch a movie and desperately will the main characters to bone and they just bloody don't. I had Writers Fest blue balls, if you will. Susie Ferguson is an RNZ treasure but as the chair of a panel...not so much. Endless boring questions about Trump. Someone on Twitter noted that they had spent 40 minutes talking about him; "where's the women and power" they asked? Absolutely no focus on Aotearoa. There were two international panelists to be fair, but a good chair knows how to bring the home turf, the immediate context, into the conversation. They needed to talk about how class, race, ethnicity, indigeneity, sexuality and gender intersect with feminism. With two women on colour on stage there was a wonderful opportunity to talk about intersectionality in feminism and its application in New Zealand. To talk about mana wahine. To talk about Moana Pacific women and feminism. A gaping hole on the stage - there were no Maori or Pasifika wahine up there. I could go through our twitter feed and there'd be dozens of people who could have sat on that stage.
And now to the choice of NZ panelist. I don't know a hell of a lot about A'Court but after this session I couldn't help but wonder why she keeps getting picked to sit on panels discussing feminism. I'm sure she's wonderful but she was so underwhelming in this context. Again it might have been the dud questions (sorry Susie!). There wasn't enough natural flow but more an adherence to strict question order. The somewhat disappointing tone of the night was summed up in one of the aforementioned lame questions when from the floor, a young woman asked what to make of Ivanka Trump. A'Court lamented that she wished the conversation didn't always have to come back to tearing women down. I mean, what the eff. Argh, I hate that rationale. SHE DOES NOT NEED PROTECTING. Roxane Gay responded appropriately, "well, feminism is all about equality and I hate them both equally." Preach.
4. Moving on to better, nay, incredibly, wonderfully, amazingly better, things - Roxane Gay in conversation with Charlotte Graham. Before I move on to Roxane, I need to say - Charlotte was an incredible chair. Equal parts knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Roxane's texts, she knew them inside out and came ready to get into it. She's clearly a fangirl and a damn smart one. She was able to riff of the conversation with ease whilst, letting it flow and meander and go where it needed to, while keeping the momentum forward moving in the right direction. The two had chemistry and it worked. Plus Charlotte had great hair which was appreciated by many.
Now to Roxane...
Roxane is a woman. She is many things. She loves Channing Tatum and Vanderpump Rules (me too Roxane, me too). She also loves Zadie Smith, is a professor and a literary critic. I think she's read every book in existence and also watched every television show, including the bad ones. In her session I wanted to ask her if she ever slept. Sometimes I think not sleeping is a prerequisite of greatness. She is a writer - of articles, books, fiction, non-fiction, and now a screenplay. Roxane is a woman and many things. She writes about the carelessness of language around sexual violence. She also writes about the strange world of underground scrabble and reality TV. Her writing is always undercut with her own experience of moving through the world in her body, with all that entails. She is hilarious and scorching and fierce. She loves hip hop. She hates misogyny. She is unashamedly complicated, often contradictory. She is a woman and like all women she is many other things. Accordingly she refuses to be put in boxes and rejects essentialist ideas of womanhood and feminism. She rejects rigidity. Feminism changes, evolves. Like everything, it must to survive. Roxane Gay is a woman and women like her cannot be contained.
Rounding off the week with this anthem because sometimes you just need the Spice Girls....