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Voices of Aotearoa: 25 Years of Going West Oratory

I love walking to the postbox in the morning. I love it more when there is a book in there for me. This one was an absolute treat, right from the moment it was out of the packaging. Just the feel of it is sumptuous. A thick hardback with bright orange wording on the front. Distinctively embossed lettering, a pleasure to hold.

‘Voices of Aotearoa’ is a book of speeches given at Auckland’s Going West Festival by twenty-four of New Zealand’s finest writers. They run from 1996 and 2019. A feast of well-known names, a table laden with wisdom, ideas, oratory and interesting asides.

Some of these authors have already departed, so it is always a pleasure to hear from them once more; Maurice Shadbolt, Michael King, Nigel Cox and Peter Wells, to name a few. In a year when there was no key note address, there was a discussion of the poetry of Alan Curnow. It was last year, when not allowed to hold the festival, that gave rise to this book. It is here to fill the void.

Every one of these orators has something interesting for the reader. It is also hell for the reviewer because the book is so densely packed with interesting snippets and observations. Not only does it make you linger too long, but it sets off new ideas and lines of thought in all directions. These are moments in time which can traverse generations as well as ground themselves in the very topical concerns of the day.

We have learned to live with cancellations and postponements, but go back in time with these writers and you will see other momentous events. It is only a few weeks since we marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, but when Michael King made his speech at Going West in September 2001, it was only a week after the event itself. His planned speech was rendered ‘utterly inappropriate’ (his words) and so instead he gave us what turned out to be a condensed version of the book he would publish the following year ‘At the Edge of Memory’. Three years later, Dame Christie Cole Catley, now another lost voice, would deliver a speech in tribute to Michael himself.

There are so many fascinating talks to be found in one volume, it would be impossible to quote from all of them, and every reader will have their favourites. Allow me to place before you a small smorgasbord:

Ian Wedde talking about Charles Royal’s model for the Treaty of Waitangi in 1998:

“In Chalres’ model there are three houses: the Māori house; the Pākehā house; and the Treaty house. Māori and Pākehā houses are constituted according to culture, not race. For example we would expect Anne Salmond to have a place in the Māori house and we would expect Witi Ihimaera to have a place in the Pākehā house. While the Māori house and the Pākehā house will have different kawa and different protocols, different understandings of common law and the like, they proceed as partners. Where the discussion doesn’t work, resolution is sought in the Treaty house.”

Michael King talking about delving into his own family history:

“It was more than 80 years since my great-uncle had turned up in New Zealand with no evidence of any past. The idea that the family might be able to trace his origins down that corridor of time, without even knowledge of his real name, or the country in which he had been born, had seemed preposterous. A search for the needle in the proverbial haystack. And now, without any warning, an arm had reached out of the haystack and handed me the needle. I had gone in a matter of minutes from knowing nothing about my great-uncle’s family, to having an instant context of considerable breadth, depth and complexity. That revelation was, and is, a great gift and I propose to make use of it the way I suspect any writer would.

In 2005 Nigel Cox was freshly back from five years working in Berlin. He gives an impression of what it is like to come home. He finds that Winston Peters is still at large and thinks “You! Still alive!” What would he have thought in 2017?

Patricia Grace gives us her version of a Māori myth and at the same time makes this wise observation:

The truth about stories is that they can be renewed; they can be edited, expanded, updated, adjusted to suit the time and place of telling. And there will be something new to be found in them every time they are retold, re-read, or heard again. There will be new thoughts and ideas, new messages. And in this way they will continue to be meaningful because we have made them our own.

In 2008 Chris Price talked at length about the arms race between truth and fiction. I had forgotten how long we have been debating the dangers of online mis-information. Long before anyone had seen Trump as president:

Information lives forever on the web whether it’s right or wrong, bad science and statistics, or political half truths and outright fictions can maintain a hold on the public mind long after they have been conclusively disproved.

In 2009 Te Radar wondered where, in a world increasingly full of electronic books, authors are going to sign their books at festivals. The following year Dame Anne Salmond waxed lyrical about her own history, her early study of anthropology and just how much writers need feedback to help their work along.

Peter Wells told a remarkable story of flooding in the Hawke’s Bay in April 1897, when the flood waters covered 100 square miles and fifty-thousand sheep were drowned. Ten men who clambered into rowing boats to mount a rescue were all drowned. Their memorial stands in the main street of Napier, the Clive Flood Memorial, unveiled in 1900. The story is both moving and incredible and reminds us that we often forget moments in our history.

In 2018 Paula Morris spoke at length about ideas, and how dangerous these can be in a creative writing class. People will sit and think about them rather than using their pens. While she believes in “daydreaming and obsessing and mulling over…zoning out, wandering, pilfering, eavesdropping, drifting, spying.’ she is not in favour of waiting for the lightbulb moment. Pen to paper; words are what is required:

When apprentice writers are free from the demand to imagine a place or a time or a person, to spirit something unknown out of the whirling cloud of ideas beyond their reach, they can focus on the first steps they need to take as writers, articulating the world they’ve experienced, without wordiness, without abstraction and cracking the seal on their memories and imaginations.

Paula goes on to talk about some of the projects she has run with schoolchildren and asks us all to engage with our younger ones, make them tell stories and use their imagination.

There are so many more highlights in this book. Go and find a copy and take your time with it, it will reward with many hours of pleasure.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson.

Oratia Books, RRP $49.99


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