Two Aotearoa writers festivals are expanding the scope of what a writers festival can be – and who they can be for. Shanti Mathias went to both this year.
Even though it’s well into spring, Ōtepoti is cold, streets dark with rain. Inside a cosy room a stone’s throw from the Octagon, parents, kids, teenagers and young adults are lined up on chairs, listening to poets from the Dunedin Young Writers Association. The poets describe what they’re writing about: a moment saying goodbye to a friend, feeling intense and ephemeral feelings about the world while sitting on the lawn outside Dunedin’s iconic First Church. The kind of stuff that lots of teenagers write poems about, but poignant still.
Then there’s a brief description of what a zine is and the group disperses to tables, the poets now talking about their friends as they cut up magazines; a younger kid helps another draw squiggles over some folded pages.
The zine-making workshop was just one in a medley of events presented at this year’s Young Writer’s Festival, the country’s only writing festival specifically aimed at young people. Over a weekend in Dunedin, dozens of events and workshops celebrated everything from posters and plays to the art of comedy improvisation and slam poetry. Produced by the Dunedin Fringe Festival, the event is unusual in that it’s aimed at young people: not just high school students, but university-age young adults too.
“I’m not sure there’s any creativity in North Dunedin,” says Hetal wryly. A uni student, she’s using the opportunity of the festival to create a zine about men in film making.
“It’s nice to get a chance to come into the city for things like this,” agrees her friend Amy, who is gluing photos she’s cut out of an art magazine to her zine. “The uni is making cuts to the arts programmes, and lots of adults view arts as just like, a hobby – I don’t have much time for creative stuff, so I appreciate the Young Writers Fest.”
The Young Writers Festival is part of the changing landscape of books programming in Aotearoa. Nearly two months after attending the YWF in Ōtepoti, I spent a dreamy, hectic weekend at Verb Readers & Writers Festival in Wellington. (Disclosure: Verb was founded by The Spinoff’s books editor Claire Mabey, but I paid for all the events I attended myself.) For the first time, Verb had a Te Tiriti partnership with Te Hā o Ngā Pou Kaituhi Māori, an organisation that helps Māori writers flourish.
Both festivals featured a range of free and cheap events; the YWF was in fact entirely free for people of all ages. “Free events are necessary,” says Jennifer Cheuk, creator of Rat World, an independent arts magazine. Cheuk was the YWF’s guest curator this year, and she remembers the importance of free events to her own formation of a creative practice. “My parents took me to free events, and I was so inspired, so exhilarated – I want other people to feel that excited about creativity.” She appreciates that funding is always a challenge, especially for artists operating independently.
In a similar vein, Verb, which has now been around for a decade, has changed how it presents events to make them more accessible. Its signature event, the LitCrawl extravaganza, which began in 2014, features dozens of simultaneous events across the city, a sort of literary themed choose-your-own-adventure. Entry has always been by donation, and other festival events have been free. But the festival still takes place in central Wellington, which can be hard to get to for many communities. This year, Verb hosted Mō Tātou Te Kaupapa, curated by Te Hā o Ngā Pou Kaituhi Māori as a festival within the festival, a series of free events showcasing indigenous storytelling at Pātaka museum in Porirua.
Making literary events more open to new audiences also means that the people putting together the programme have to look more like those they want to reach. At the YWF events I attended, I spotted Cheuk all over the place, often in a swishy (and very cool) coat. She put together an event of writers talking about reading things above their age level, as well as events about graphic novels and stickering. “I was interested in alternative storytelling – showing people that comics or film scripts or posters are writing, even if I never saw those being represented in literary circles [when I was growing up].”
That the YWF is a rarity among arts events in its youthful focus seems to beg the question: why aren’t there more events like this? That young people have less money for tickets creates a funding constraint, for one. The Auckland Writers and Readers Festival has an extensive schools programme, but most of the events are still for an older audience – as are the vast majority of the artists featured. It’s a tricky line to tread: at the opening for the YWF, a free event open to all, attendees were given a ticket for a free drink at the bar; while non-alcoholic options were available, selling alcohol at an event aimed at young people seems slightly incongruous – even if the vast majority of those present were over 18, and enjoying the cheese platters too.
Verb’s LitCrawl draws a different – at least somewhat less grey-haired – audience than other literary festivals often do. Diverse settings help, with events in bookshops and bike shops and BATS Theatre. I attended Breathing Two Breaths, featuring Māori artists and writers Kahu Kutia and Jessica Hinerangi. Two dozen people were crowded around books about textiles. The low entry fee and setting helped the event seem welcoming but the warmth of the relaxed conversation, with both artists taking turns to ask questions and making jokes about it, lots of use of reo, was what particularly made me feel that writers events didn’t have to be formal and erudite. I know my 18-year-old self, attending literary events for the first time, would have enjoyed it too.
Bram, a year 13 student who is a member of the Dunedin Youth Writers Association says that having young writers events has helped him develop as a poet. “To be a writer in your early teens is entirely different from being a writer beyond high school, because by then you’re arguably a fully formed person… but while we are all figuring things out, finding a group who are in the same boat as you makes you feel understood and at home. There are so many seats at the table!”
For Bram, writing is juggled with school and work and keeping an eye on younger siblings. He describes his reaction to the festival as “hyped”, as we talked in the gallery hosting some of the YWF events. “I’m just so happy to be here.”
By featuring younger writers, as well as being for young people, the YWF could open the door to more diverse representation. “There’s such a need for young writers who are starting off, people who think ‘I’m not sure that I can claim to be a writer’ to find encouragement,” says Cheuk, who thinks that arts events need to be creating for people in every age group, not just middle-aged and older people in urban centres. “The YWF team do outreach at universities and schools, they got the word out in a really grassroots way.”
Cheuk’s hope is for more of these events, to nurture young artists from around the country. Speaking to her a week after the festival ended, she sounds tired but thrilled. “There was so much conversation and connection people didn’t anticipate – it’s so cool to be part of.”