Seven (Very Short Days) in New Zealand

Most people, visiting New Zealand, spend a little longer than seven days. (It does take the better part of 36 hours’ flying to get there, after all). Most people are sensible. They don’t sign up for literary festivals on three different corners of the planet on three consecutive weeks. Not me. I am the queen of packing far too much in, (literally, metaphorically, in this case, geographically), and, when offered a trip to LitCrawl Wellington, sandwiched somewhat inconveniently between a Literary Festival in Norway and East Belfast’s own CS Lewis Festival, which I’m curating this year, I just didn’t have the necessary good sense to say no. I am now wandering round Belfast in a semi-dazed state. I have swollen ankles and a perpetual twitch in my right eye but I regret nothing. I’d jump a plane straight back to Wellington tomorrow if I had the chance.

The last week was an absolute dream. I met the most amazing people. I discovered a wonderful new city and was temporarily immersed in its incredible arts community. I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone in terms of my writing and artistic practice and learned an awful lot about how to present my work in a variety of different arenas. I drunk some truly exceptional beer. I am now utterly exhausted but also buzzing with ideas and writing projects I can’t wait to get stuck into. I am trying to curtail my enthusiasm for fear of sickening everyone who comes into contact with me.

Sometimes people wonder why the Arts Council and other funding bodies subsidise artists to travel to other places. I understand their skepticism. From the outside it can look like we’re being paid to take long extended holidays, in lovely places. I was fortunate enough to receive support from both the Arts Council NI and the British Council for this trip and I can honestly say their financial support has allowed me to enjoy an experience I’d never have been able to resource myself. I can also say, with absolute conviction, that this wasn’t a holiday. Yes, it was enjoyable, but I worked my ass off in New Zealand. I taught five school workshops, gave two readings and a radio interview and hosted a masterclass, all in the space of five days. It was pretty tiring at times and the thought of a mid-afternoon nap was never far from the front of my mind, but I wouldn’t have traded my experience for anything less intense. I’m kind of done with being a tourist when I travel now. Visiting a new place where you become utterly emerged in the culture and community really quickly is the only way to get under the skin of a city. I’m so very grateful to have been given this opportunity.

In the last seven days I have made contacts with organisations and festivals who will hopefully offer me future opportunities to travel and share my work abroad. I met other artists whom I hope to host in Northern Ireland and collaborate with on future projects. I got to share my work with an audience I’d never otherwise have reached and host workshops encouraging a bunch of young, and very enthusiastic, writers in schools throughout the city. Most importantly, the experience has really boosted my confidence in regards to my ability to present my work and adapt to the unfamiliar. Every time I get a chance like this I feel a little more like I am a legitimate Writer. I should, by this stage be secure in this role, but everyone wobbles sometimes and it is wonderful to be given a chance to see yourself through strangers’ eyes as a writer first and foremost, but also as representative of the place and culture you come from.

While, a little bit of me hopes that the fact I only stayed a week and consequently never managed to get over my outgoing jet lag, might mean the homecoming jet lag never quite catches up with me, I am so sad that I didn’t get to spend longer in New Zealand. I could easily have spent another few days/weeks/months in Wellington. This was definitely one of my all time best adventures ever, even if it was incredibly condensed. What a tremendously full week. Here are my highlights. (Apologies for the fact it’s a list. Lists come easier when your head feels like it’s not screwed on right and you can only see properly out of one eye).

  1. Schools: I had the most amazing time visiting four different Wellington schools. I wrote magic realist Postcard Stories with a bunch of 11-13 year olds and was absolutely bowled over by both their imagination and self-confidence. Clearly the teachers in New Zealand are on to something because their kids had no problem at all making up stories about talking dogfish, children trapped inside Chinese lanterns and haunted textbooks. Working with these young people was an absolute tonic. I was particularly impressed by the 11 year old who tracked me down after the workshop to ask for my agent’s number so he could get his novel published and the 9 year old girl who is so set on being a writer she was allowed to sit in on the big kids’ workshop, wrote the best story in the class and read it with incredible confidence in front of 30 much older students. I am kind of jealous of her.
  2. Schools 2: I was using the story of Finn McCool to share a little bit of Ireland’s mythology with the students. On several occasions I was treated to really beautiful retellings of Maori legends where all the kids chipped in to tell the full story of how their landscape was formed. I’m not the sort of person who gets particularly gushy over folklore and mythology but the swapping of these, oftentimes, very similar stories from two very different cultures was one of my favourite New Zealand moments.
  3. LitCrawl: LitCrawl happens in lots of different cities around the world. In Wellington it looked like 26 short literary happenings taking place in around 12 different venues across the city over a period of about 3 hours. Hectic. Somewhat overwhelming and absolutely wonderful. I got to read and talk at a Bob Dylan themed event and then spent the rest of the evening ducking in and out of bookstores, record shops and bars, listening to all sorts of wit and wisdom. I think we really need a LitCrawl in Belfast. I feel a project coming on.
  4. Earthquakes: I experienced my first tiny earthquake on Sunday evening just before I left Wellington. It was only a 4.2. All it did was make the water bottle judder off my bedside table, but as I was right in the middle of watching the final episode of Stranger Things it felt pretty weird and creepy. I’m quite happy if this remains my one and only experience of earthquakes.
  5. Bookstores: There are about a million bookstores in Wellington. They are all fantastic. Particularly the ones which are enormous and only stock second hand books. Consequently I spent a fortune and nearly broke my back hauling all my purchases home.
  6. Like minds: New Zealand writers are brilliant. They are very much similar to Irish writers, (ie. self-deprecating, talkative, fond of beer and black humour, much more talented than they let on). They are also incredibly friendly and it only took me about 5 minutes to make a bunch of new pals and to track down the two, (wonderful), women who write about Dementia. I see collaborations in our future, and hopefully some hosting opportunities here in Belfast.
  7. Radio: I was able to do two radio interviews in New Zealand. Both were almost half an hour long and it was pretty clear the hosts had done an awful lot of research as the questions they asked were exactly the kind of questions I always hope people will ask in interviews. I was also surprised by how many people came to my events just because they’d heard these radio interviews. A country where people still listen to the radio is, in my opinion, a very progressive country.
  8. Katherine Mansfield: My lovely host Claire, very graciously took me to Katherine Mansfield’s house and it was wonderful. I now have a much clearer idea of the places she wrote about in her stories. I am, if anything, a bigger Katherine Mansfield fan than I was before and will be hoking out her collected for a re-read asap.
  9. Lovely audiences: I got to read my own work in front of around 100 people on Saturday afternoon. I only knew two people in New Zealand when I arrived and one of these two was Lyndsey who was visiting from Cheltenham. I was pretty much astounded that anyone turned up to hear me and the warmth of the audience both during and after the reading was really humbling. It’s always a massive encouragement to get positivity back from an audience, but to have such a lovely experience with a bunch of strangers was just incredible.
  10. Women: Hats off to Claire Mabey, she’s a great programmer. She put together a wonderful series of reading showcasing the best of New Zealand writing, with a great range of diverse voices, but the thing which really struck me about LitCrawl and the wider New Zealand literary scene, (and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this, coming as I do from an incredible community of strong, female voices), was just how many incredible women are involved in literature in New Zealand. I met poets, prose writers, publishers, programmers and a bunch of women who didn’t fit neatly into any particular box and were just getting on with being incredibly inspiring in their own way. I’m a much better person for all the conversations and wine I shared with these women in the last week. We have a lot more in common than I might have assumed. I’m hoping to continue some of these conversations really soon.



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