May 14, 2015

New Zealand Listener Gala Night opens AWF15!


It was a bittersweet welcome to the Festival this year, with Anne O'Brien up at the podium citing Oliver Sacks. As we might know, she said, but I didn't, Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few months ago. Then she read us some heartbreaking excerpts from a piece he wrote for the New York Times after his diagnosis, called "My own life".

I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

The news hit me close to home. Oliver Sacks, I mused as Anne read, had always felt like an old family friend. Like the women of our family, he suffered from migraines, or as he put it, he was a "migraineur", in that exhilirating way he had of not treating anything that happens within our brains as merely negative. Such a liberating concept! Everything that happened was interesting and had something to tell him, which he would then tell us. I caught Anne saying something about the importance of personal encounter, and that was when I had the epiphany.

Why, above all, did Oliver Sacks seem like an old friend? Because he told such good stories! The special intercourse of writers and readers! What does a Writers Festival add to the already heady experience of this special intercourse? I'll tell you. The extra-special intercourse of the stories that didn't make it into the book. Told in person! Seeing the choice of footwear of your favourite authors is cool, but it is just the icing on the cake.

Tonight's preamble to three days and 100 opportunities to hear the stories which didn't make it into the book saw us treated to eight "true stories told live" by eight writers featuring at the Festival. The theme, with a nod to Oliver Sacks, was "plain speaking".

L to R, top: Michele A'Court, Amy Bloom, Alan Cumming, Peter FitzSimons.
L to R, below: Helen Garner, Aroha Harris, Nic Low, Ben Okri

The American writer Amy Bloom told of picking out a plain navy blue enamel urn for her mother's ashes, in deference to her parents' attitude (she had found her grandfather's ashes in the garage in a coffee can), which had seemed peculiar to them, and how that attitude did or did not turn out to have been preserved -- although not on a shelf like the ashes, whose plain urn Bloom's daughter soon decorated with a "Florida Bohemian" style necklace.

Peter FitzSimons, ex-Wallaby, current pirate and author of a book on Gallipoli, had a story about a rugby game and the worst - something - pass ever (sorry, strong Aussie accent) (Did someone say "hospital" pass?) (what?), which included some hard-won words of rugby wisdom which I think could possibly be universalised:  "They will chisel something on your rugby tombstone and that will be the thing you'll be remembered for."

Aroha Harris, co-author of Tangata Whenua: An illustrated history, told about her ta moko experience. The applause was already breaking out before she got to the last word in her last sentence: "I love my ta moko".

The Australian author and journalist Helen Garner had wry stories about getting old, and a wonderful quote: "It's good to live long enough to get over the grievance".

Nic Low, kiwi short story writer, had a story about "fraudulessence"... his own, in allowing himself to be passed off as a celebrated writer when he was not, but consequently realising that it was, in fact, a kind of truth, in the sense of a revelation to himself about what he really wanted.

Alan Cumming, actor and now memoir writer, Scottish and lively in wind-around scarf, bright shirt, grey mocs, told about the long road to an appearance in a Kubrick film, not to mention into the moody Kubrick's heart.

Michele A'Court, comedian, author of Stuff I forgot to tell my daughter and, she revealed to our surprise,  grandmother.  Her story in fact was about the birth of her granddaughter. "I'll tell my granddaughter it's still okay for Nana to say fuck".

Ben Okri, whose new book is The age of magic, glanced back tenderly at his mother, their relationship, and her death. "The substantial things in life are insubstantial during grief." "The worst day of my life was also the most transcendent."

Congratulations to Anne and her team on a great start to this year's Festival. It was wonderful walking over tonight and seeing, already from afar, Aotea Square full of Festival goers kissing cheeks, comparing schedules, wondering where the partner had gotten to, fitting in a wine.
I must come up with a collective noun for Writers Festival attendees -- any suggestions?

In the meantime, keep visiting Books in the City for more AWF15 stories, including guest posts, and more footwear details!

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 23:30


  1. Great to read and relive the Gala Night through this blog summary. I too related strongly to Anne's news of Oliver Sacks and the wonderful quote she shared of his thoughts.


Powered by Blogger.