One Question Quiz
Scenes from a Featherston books festival
Scenes from a Featherston books festival

BooksMay 18, 2024

The indie books fest bringing big ideas to small town Wairarapa

Scenes from a Featherston books festival
Scenes from a Featherston books festival

Since its founding almost a decade ago, Featherston Booktown has grown into one of the country’s most interesting and idiosyncratic literary events. Erin Banks reports from the audience.

“Come in, have you had lunch? I’m about to make a cheese toastie.” Mary Biggs, operations manager of Featherston Booktown Karukatea Festival, ushered me into her kitchen. The pace in the lead up to the festival is brisk, and she’s spent the last few weeks fighting last-minute fires. “I’m up at 4am most mornings. If Joy Cowley can do it at her age, then so can I.”

Pae Tū Mokai Featherston is a town in Wairarapa, just shy of an hour north of Wellington. A dinky place populated with life-long locals and arty ex-urbanites, it’s is an oddly perfect home for what has evolved into an annual writers festival of national significance. Founded by longtime local bookseller Lincoln Gould and now in its ninth year, the Karukatea Festival bills itself as a celebration of storytelling and ideas, neatly tucked into a weekend of public events and a succinct schools programme.

Punters at the books table (Photo: Lucia Zanmonti)

The 2024 festival (May 10-12) had a new focus on its core audiences, with fewer events all concentrated in and around Featherston’s historic Anzac Hall. Programming was collaborative, rather than imposed by one “tastemaker”.

“We spend a lot of time asking the audience, the team and the volunteers what they want to see in the festival,” Mary told me. This is a festival that has grown from the community around it. Arriving at Booktown feels a lot like being invited into the home of an old friend, and you better believe they are going to feed you.

The Friday opening night supper had the air of a raucous family reunion, with punters passing boxes of fish and chips along long tables. The common catch cry was “Are you a local?” That night, we all felt like we were. There was a moving kapa haka performance from local schools, parents lining the walls and surreptitiously waving at their kids. Featherston Booktown Trust chair Peter Biggs (Biggsy to those that know him) welcomed us, relating a conversation with festival stalwart, author and illustrator Gavin Bishop: “I could be in Italy in May,” Bishop said, “but I’d rather be in Featherston.”

Tame Iti in conversation (Photo: Lucia Zanmonti)

The festival proper kicked off with Dame Susan Devoy in conversation about her eventful life and new memoir. She spoke with warmth and wicked humour about her time as a squash champ and race relations commissioner, and joking with Tāme Iti, who was seated in the front row, about who made it further on Celebrity Treasure Island. Devoy admitted that when she sat down to write her book she wanted to “get even with people”. Take it from me, if you don’t want a load of manure dumped on your front lawn anytime soon, don’t cross Dame Suzy D.

Booktown is an unashamedly political festival, and sessions on this theme were some of the hottest tickets in the programme. “There’s a need to debate and discuss,” Mary said as we waited for our toasties to cool. “Politics is the story of us all.” Karukatea means “the clear and observant eye”, and there were many sessions designed for speakers and audience to collectively look ahead and find a way forward.

Queues to get into Featherston’s Anzac Hall. (Photo: Erin Banks)

The first event to sell out was ‘Te Tiriti O Waitangi: What Tangata Whenua Say’, with an absolutely stacked panel featuring Moana Maniapoto, Paora Ammundsen, Te Maire Tau, Shane Te Pou and Tāme Iti. It was a fierce, hopeful, and galvanising 90 minutes that ended with a rousing group rendition of ‘Ngā Iwi E’, led by Featherston’s own unofficial prince, Warren Maxwell. Maniapoto joked that David Seymour is doing a great job of mobilising Māori and Tangata Tiriti, adding that looking out at an audience who believed Te Tiriti can be an enabler rather than a handbrake gave her hope for the future.

Carmel Sepuloni was among the audience for ‘Where’s Left? – A panel on the future of the Labour Party’, perhaps looking for inspiration. On stage was former Green MP Sue Bradford, so radically hardcore she can’t remember how many times she’s been arrested. “Politics isn’t just something that happens in parliament,” Bradford said. “It’s all around us, in our communities, in our workplaces and in our streets.” Chair John Campbell (something of a local boy) played to the crowd, dropping F-bombs and speaking to the sense of possibility and audacity of the festival. “In years to come you will say: ‘Fuck, I was there, in Featherston, at the rebirth of the left’.”

The ‘Where’s Left’ session (Photo: Erin Banks)

Between bites of the greatest cheese toastie of my life, Mary told me that the festival is consciously opening the door to audiences who aren’t always well served by writers festivals, particularly rural men. The programme tries to always include sessions on both military history (which has a special relevance to Featherston, once the site of a WWII military training and POW camp) and sports writing. A featured speaker this year was former All Black Carl Hayman, who co-wrote his memoir Head On after discovering his rugby injuries had led to early-onset dementia. It was a heartbreaking hour during which I mostly felt the urge to give Hayman a hug as he shared the immense pressure he felt to keep playing, even as he started to feel the symptoms of his brain injury – including sudden tears or anger. “It’s good to cry, but not about line outs. Unless you’re a lock.”

A huge amount of thought has clearly gone into serving young readers, too, both in the school’s programme in the week before the festival and in the public events. One of the most powerful sessions I attended was young Pasifika students from Mākoura College performing with members of the South Auckland Poets Collective (SAPC). They presented a collection of original poetry, movement, and song they had devised together in the three days leading up to the festival. SAPC poet Ramon Narayan’s words to the group were something I’ll remember for a long time: “You are built with purpose and perfection. You are never alone; your ancestors are always with you. Use the courage you found to get up here all through your life.”

Pasifika students from Mākoura College performing with members of the South Auckland Poets Collective (Photo: Lucia Zanmonti)

Outside of the festival sessions, the streets were filled with buskers and performers, and the mini train loaded with kids chuffed around the village green. Community members baked hundreds of cakes to serve along with cups of tea in the Anzac Hall supper room. I ran into seasoned festival director Philip Tremewan, bouncing on his heels in the sunshine, and asked him what he thought so far. “I think it’s going the way all festivals should go – it’s all about the ideas.” Later, that well-known fan of provincial tearooms, Steve Braunias, said he was giving Featherston Booktown a 10 out of 10 – “because of the supper room”.

Rounding out the festival was Mrs Blackwell’s Mother’s Day Afternoon Tea, a flagship panel discussion and high tea that’s always a sell-out. This year the focus was on innovative agriculture, and the event was more about spilling the tea than drinking it. Among the panel members was Justine Ross, who bought the expansive Lake Hawea Station seven years ago with her husband Geoff. The couple have been sharing their regenerative agriculture journey, most famously in a viral episode of Country Calendar.

Ross was frank about the tough years since taking over the farm and the frosty reception they had from the local community. I was interested that the public backlash over some of their more “disruptive” ideas became such a focus of the discussion, rather than the feeling of standing in a field teeming with life, seeing the biodiversity rebuilding around her – a moving moment she also spoke about. There were clear rumblings through the crowd at some points, and applause and murmured support during others. While I empathised with many of Ross’s struggles, I did find myself thinking how the stories we choose to tell ultimately shape who we are, and the power these stories have to bring people with us, or to alienate them.

John Campbell and Moana Maniapoto (Photo: Melissa Stockley)

As is often the case, it was the quieter moments and little gems along the way that illuminated the most. Listening to Keri Hulme sing one of her “wine songs” in a recently discovered recording from 1985. ‘The Magic of Mushrooms’, a discussion with Liv Sisson and Zach Cotogni that took several psychedelic turns. An excerpt from the new audio book of Aūe by Becky Manawatu that sent shivers down my spine. Moana Maniapoto and Linda Clark swapping Winston Peters war stories. Māori academic Joanna Kidman in conversation about the New Zealand Wars, asking “How do we tell the stories of ourselves when there are still so many fractures and broken pieces?” The Crewe Murders co-author Kirsty Johnston rocking her own baby on stage as she answered questions about the Crewes’ baby daughter, left alone in a house for three days after her parents were murdered. Barry Saunders and Delaney Davidson recalling the genesis of their musical partnership in a Lyttelton café in the midst of the Christchurch earthquake, “the bricks like wobbly teeth” and “the road unfurling like a ribbon”.

Mana whenua kaumātua Paora Amundsen spoke of a Booktown being “a collection of people who are passionate about thoughts and ideas through the powerful medium of words”. Throughout the festival what felt present was the overwhelming urge to come together and share stories, to find a way forward in the wild, woolly, and politically charged times we find ourselves in. Forager and author Helen Lehndorf, who chaired several sessions, laid down the wero: “Storytelling is a vehicle for activism and change – it helps us to get somewhere faster.”

Engaging like this takes collective effort, especially when we have so much information at our fingertips without even getting up from the couch. But it’s the communal (and community) experience of the Featherston Booktown Karukatea Festival that needs to be celebrated. It invites you in, saying, here, sit down, let’s share some kai and kōrero, and let’s figure it out together.

Keep going!