Readers and Writers: Day Two

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21 October, Spiegeltent, HBAF18
By Anna Soutar

So begins the second day of an examination of the written word and its place in a Festival of Arts. This is the day when we identify clearly a range of influences and ask ourselves if this is where we come from what does our writing say about us.

We will be doing this in a three part scrutiny:

One: Does the gender of the author affect the writing?

Two: Is the cultural heritage of the author of significance?

Three: We consider the diverse pressure points in a chosen milieu, say, the district of Hawke’s Bay and reveal the resultant writing.

No big deal then.

Crime writer Tina Clough (The Chinese Proverb) and Catherine Robertson (Gabriel’s  Bay) whose well-read novels escape labelling. They  are not ‘Chick lit’ nor ‘Romance’ nor even ‘Mummy Porn’ talking with local book seller and manager of this session Louise Ward about identifying what it is they write. Even before they construct protagonists and get them weaving their lives under their authors’ gaze they address the nature of their own identity. Some women write under their initials. Some choose complete nom de plumes. Tina publishes her own writing and neatly removes herself from the problem.

Which leads to a discussion of how to get New Zealand books ‘over the line’ into international outlets, and here too authors and their publishers resort to subterfuge, according to Robertson. It might be the cover illustration and here all the women on the stage roll their eyes and admit how much they are in the hands of their publishers. Even the cover colours, Ward moaning that white books are much less attractive in a bookshop than black ones.

Does their own gender affect the writing? No, they both assert, telling us about Clough’s helicopter pilot George, a woman, and Robertson’s male army veteran. The proof of course, is in the reading, and many in the audience take advantage of the signing queues after the session.

So we move to the second puzzle of the day: what happens when someone seeks out an unknown personal heritage, and that person happens to be a writer? They write about the experience, don’t they?  They have, but as Helene Wong and Diana Wichtel tell us, it is far from being a routine piece of everyday reportage. Wong, used to the time and cost-based strictures of film scripting went to China, to the village of her father’s family and found many previously unknown relatives in a bewildering exposure to the size of her hitherto unknown family. She resorted to the discipline of her working patterns to make some sense for her book Being Chinese and she laughed as she told us how Chinese people very quickly resort to shouting when they get together.

Wichtel on the other hand found silence in her father’s heritage. Her destination was the death camp of Treblinka, Poland where the average length of interment was two hours. The names of those who died there are not recorded and Wichtel admits to the weight of responsibility in writing her Driving to Treblinka story of the journey.

Both authors report feeling an existential question in their journey: Wong says it was a ‘quest to find me’. Wichtel wanted to lie down and make bodily contact with the ground of Poland. Both acknowledge dreams of their heritage places.

For us, the jury in this telling of two people’s search for their ethnic back story, the  second hand experience was visceral – we could see and acknowledge a huge generosity in opening up their experience to us.

And so to the here and now. A group of Hawke’s Bay public media professionals met in order to toss around their views on the state of media today, vis à vis the local Hawke’s Bay situation. They comprised BayBuzz glossy bi-monthly magazine owner and editor Tom Belford, editor Craig Cooper of Hawke’s Bay Today, together with Auckland exiles Janet Wilson and Bill Ralston who bring with them a range of diverse media roles.

On the whole, looking practically in a no-nonsense roll-up-your-sleeves sort of way, there was no consensus over anything these people could discuss. The situations are unresolvable. Except who should pilot this ship from the Chairman’s seat and even that got out of control, as panellists talked over each other and Wilson willy nilly.

The Chair asked us did we trust the media we read? Answer: Very few in the audience. Surveys were quoted, but Belford declared “I don’t give a damn about what the surveys say.”  His publication has played a key role in several important local issues and he takes that as evidence of its success.

We were updated on the plans and control over Hawke’s Bay Today under the ownership of wider investment and the model to follow being the Daily Telegraph in UK to focus on Rugby, Royals and Politicians. And the elephant in the room was, as expected, the internet. No one agreed about how that would affect the media in the Bay. Actually, none of the participants knew very much about digital media, so it was all brushed aside very easily.

There was an uneasy agreement that subscription costs for online media would eventuate, but no one liked talking about money, so they changed the subject. To Facebook, but whether that could be seen as entertainment or education met with confused looks, so very little was resolved.

Wilson’s encouragement to repair to the Spiegaltent bar was followed up eagerly by many.

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