Confession #1: I don’t know what the Frankfurt Book Fair was like. People keep asking and I keep muttering inadequate semi-descriptions and feeling like I’m letting the side down. It’s only fair, since I had the opportunity to go, that I pass on some kind of insider’s perspective. All I have is an insider’s lack of perspective.
#2: That’s why I’m writing this blog – to share and make sense of the experience. Except when people ask what it was like I often can’t bring myself to tell them about this blog. It’s a self-defeating cycle. Luckily other people have produced interesting accounts of the NZ Pavilion and the NZ stand and other aspects of the book fair here and here and here and here. I was focused on a number of talks in that last week, so perhaps I can write about those, though it really only grazes the edges of the whole NZ Guest of Honour experience. Here it is then, my humble contribution:
Rosie Goldsmith, Anna Jackson, me, and C.K.Stead Image: Lisa Gardiner
How You Know You’re in Some Other Country: My first panel is with Bill Manhire and Eleanor Catton. There is something slightly odd, right from the beginning. Our moderator has interesting questions about the short story collection Ein anderes Land that we’re meant to discuss, but seems only to be aware of my book and no one else’s other work. I’m not sure that my impression is correct because there also seems to be a language problem (surprisingly rare occurrence throughout the trip and the fair itself). But then on stage he says to Bill, who is there as editor of the collection, ‘so you are a writer as well?’ Bill says yes, but he tends to write poetry . . . Still, it's a really good discussion - it's always so invigorating to have these talks with other writers, even though it takes place on a stage.
Weltkulturen One: Eva Raabe (Custodian of Oceania collection), Hamish Clayton and me. A very quick rehearsal of the longer talk we’ll do on Saturday at the museum itself. We talk about expectations and outcomes from the residency (see Parts One & Two), but each read something pre-residency. Somehow Eva isolates moments from Wulf and Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa that link to our interest in, and time at, the museum.
Weird Combinations That Work and Preconceptions That Don’t: Rosie Goldsmith gets the interesting task of connecting the work of C.K. Stead, Anna Jackson, and myself. Anna and I are slightly puzzled about how this will work (thematically the link isn’t obvious, and Anna is primarily a poet in a session about short stories). Earlier in the week I witness Rosie pull off another weird combination that includes Nalini Singh, Elizabeth Knox and Lawrence Patchett. It actually works very well, with a continuum of perspectives and styles that delve into the fantastic. There is a lot of blood spilt during the readings in that session (characters’, not writers’!) I feel we’re in good hands. Knowing more about C.K. Stead’s criticism than his creative work, I have the perhaps erroneous impression that he might not like the more fantastic/mythical elements of my own work. I decide to go with this idea rather than against it, and choose to read one of my more gritty realist stories. It’s a story I’m really fond of, and have never read publicly. All good. We touch on mythic Māori stories and the work of Katherine Mansfield. Mr Stead* then reads a fantastic (in both senses of the word) story about a man who figures out the principles of human flight. Later, Anna manages to traverse the territory between fiction and poetry by reading a poem based on a long short story she wrote. It's very moving. I am reminded that preconceptions are rarely useful, although it's fun watching them being broken down.
Huia Publishers at the New Zealand Stand, Frankfurt Book Fair
Keeping It Real: Unfortunately Patricia Grace is unable to attend FBF and I have been asked to step in to one of her sessions at the Pavilion. I have the privilege of both reading some of her work and discussing the very important kaupapa of Māori Realities with Robyn Bargh of Huia Publishers. We discuss Māori fiction, publishing and diversity with the moderator, Rowan Payton. So far moderators fall into three categories according to how much pre-show communication is received from them. This ranges from none, to a little, to a great deal. Rowan has put in a lot of time and has met with me and Robyn to go over the session in detail. Māori Realities is a big and complicated topic, and we decide to isolate the issues we can reasonably cover in half an hour. So perhaps it’s a little alarming for Rowan that I can’t contain a sudden uncontrollable urge to cry when he throws me an unanticipated and quite ordinary question. It is Friday, and I am due to fly out the next day. ‘How has your time at the Weltkulturen been?’ he asks. I say something about the amazing hospitality and how special Frankfurt is. I try to stop the tears from building to full force but by then I am utterly choked up. Some ladies in the front start to applaud and others join in. It feels nice in a way – a real sense of connection to the place and people (in a marae setting the same sentiment might be expressed by someone calling out ‘kia kaha’ or ‘tautoko’). I guess I really do end up bringing a bit of Māori reality to the session (I’m sure my propensity to cry in public comes from that side).
Image: Lisa Gardiner
Weltkulturen Two: To be honest, I have been thinking about crying all week. Or specifically, how to avoid it. Except I'd anticipated it would happen at the Weltkulturen Text and Culture Marathon the next day. I’d written a piece that focused on a tauihu (canoe prow) in the Face to Face exhibit, and while proofreading, it hit a couple of emotional nerves. I had also suggested that I read the piece as an address to the tauihu, so that the audience could see the taonga I was writing about and we could embody the Face to Face theme of the exhibition. Together with my tendency to tangi in front of a crowd and the fact that I am due to leave only hours after the session, I am sure to tear up. It’s all very well to have these ideas, but the piece is new, unread by anyone else and possibly a bit sentimental. I have no idea whether the whole thing will work and I’ve volunteered to test it in a very public way.
On the day I throw myself into the talk as I do in these situations – you do your best you know? A short account of the session can be found here. I am so intent on performing the piece without tripping over nerves or emotions that I make it all the way through to the end. As I finish I look up and make eye contact with one of the kiwi crew who has tears in her eyes. I am suddenly aware that my own intensity of feeling around the story I have told has transmitted to others in the room. It is only then that I tear up, though when the feeling is shared, it is not such a big deal after all.
This final day at the Weltkulturen is great - full of interesting conversations by and with other writers and Frankfurter audiences. This blog post doesn’t really begin to cover it. And then I am in a taxi just as I had been on my first night in Frankfurt, watching the river and the lights of the city go past, thinking this is it now, and feeling okay about it. The driver checks off the names of other people he needs to pick up over the next few days, all the Kiwi writers leaving town. I think next time someone asks me what it was like I’ll just say it was magic. It really was.
With many thanks to the Frankfurt Museum der Weltkulturen as well as the NZ@Frankfurt team, PANZ, CNZ, and MCH.
*I don’t feel like I can call him Karl – he turned eighty while we were there and I barely met him, and is C.K. the proper way to address him?
Kōrerorero - Conversations
From time to time I'll post things here that haven't found a home anywhere else, or have been used in other formats. Occasionally I might even blog...