Brave worlds: WORD Christchurch

The WORD gala is always a stand out event for me and this year's was no exception. Describing the event in terms of what happens doesn't truly get across what it's like - a selection of writers speak on some topic related to the theme of the evening, with introductions and salutations provided by the generous and effusive John Campbell. It sounds rather bland. It's anything but. It's revelatory and heartbreaking and occasionally raucous. I have been to several of these events and I have never regretted it.

WORD Gala: Brave Worlds
Witi Ihimaera, Laura Jean McKay, Behrouz Boochani, Becky Manawatu, Mohamed Hassan, Elizabeth Knox, Rachael King and John Campbell on stage at the WORD Gala.

Last night the theme of the evening was courage and bravery, and the writers on stage each had explored a different aspect of this human terrain. The landscape of courage was torn through. If you weren't profoundly moved by it at least once, I honestly don't know what kind of human-shaped stuff you're made of - playdoh, sacks filled with sand perhaps?

I can't, in all honesty, do justice to it here. I do know that is was being recorded by Radio New Zealand because at one point Campbell swore and said "I just put that **** in there because RNZ are recording it" (what mischief), so I encourage you to seek out that recording at some stage and listen to it. It was truly an extraordinary event.

Elizabeth Knox - WORD Gala: Brave Worlds
Elizabeth Knox at the podium.

Elizabeth Knox, New Zealand author of The Absolute Book, Wake, and The Vintner's Luck among others was the first to the podium. She spoke about loss and the very precise and painful regret of feeling that you haven't been as courageous as you could have been with loved ones who are leaving you.

Nevermind confidence - it comes and it goes. You need courage just to live.

Her voice just at the very end started to break a little and I certainly felt that I'd been offered something rare and real and powerful.

Next to speak was Mohamed Hassan, a journalist and poet whose book of poetry, National anthem, was launched just the day before. Hassan spoke of how his father came to New Zealand as an immigrant and found a new family and community here. He spoke of how the loss of a beloved aunty, part of that community his father found and fostered, and the grief and loss suffered as a result of the terror attacks of 15 March had become woven together in his mind.

In times of distress patterns seem to collapse on one another.

There were audible sounds of shock in the auditorium as he stated that Islamophobic abuse since 15 March 2019 has increased 1300%. And if the notion of that doesn't make you feel like weeping I don't think we can be friends. Certainly I was crying by the end of his piece and I could tell from the sounds of the crowd around me that I wasn't the only one.

Becky Manawatu - WORD Gala: Brave Worlds
Auē author, Becky Manawatu.

It was, to be sure, a hard act to follow and Becky Manawatu (author of Acorn fiction prizewinner, Auē) acknowledged as much when she said "It feels like the bravest and most humbling thing I've done is to be up here". Manawatu spoke a lot about mana. The mana that children have by right. The mana that is fostered in them by whānau.

My sisters spoonfed me mana from birth.

But also the way that that mana can be trampled by institutions. In her case, high school, specifically the streaming test that she didn't ace,  which therefore labelled her "average", causing her to live down to those expectations. But there was a bright spark. The head boy writing in her year book that he'd buy her novel one day. She hoped that he had in fact bought it. (John Campbell said afterwards what we were all thinking we he declared "we need to track that guy down!")

Behrouz Boochani - WORD Gala: Brave Worlds
Former Manus Island detainee, Behrouz Boochani

Behrouz Boochani was next to the podium and admitted to being lazy and that he hadn't written anything "sorry, Rachael! (King, WORD Christchurch director)". And yet putting words on paper is only the last part of writing and he'd clearly had been doing the main part, the part that happens in your head because he did have several things to say on the theme of courage. He seemed uncomfortable with the notion that people think he is a brave person, "it is my understanding that courage is really related to hopelessness". That you can do desperate things when it seems you have no other options.

The bravest people, to me, are the people who stand up for humanity.

He also spoke of the concern he has that he'll be made, by the media, into some sort of poster boy for refugees, as the story is much bigger than just him. He seemed uncomfortable with this - that it rubbed wrongly against his strong need for keeping his integrity. "This story has different layers," he said, and ain't that the truth.

Laura Jean McKay - WORD Gala: Brave Worlds
Author Laura Jean McKay.

Laura Jean McKay, author of novel The animals in that country, wove together the pain of losing her grandmother with the terrifying reality that we are bearing witness to a mass extinction, losing species after species on our (humanity's) watch. And if it sounds not that cheerful, it wasn't. But it was profound and moving and the whole of her speech is available at The Spinoff, so I encourage you to read it there.

Witi Ihimaera - WORD Gala: Brave Worlds
New Zealand author, Witi Ihimaera.

Witi Ihimaera, now a New Zealand literary legend, took to the podium with not a speech but a performance. Every part of it a wero, a challenge to us to fulfill. A call from the future, one that is quickly disappearing. His speech is punctuated by bird cries (that reminded me of his novel, Sky dancer, which features many ca-cawing, crying manu), or the "chuppa-chuppa-chop" of baby sea turtles propelling themselves across the sand. He somehow managed to weave all the angst and worry and terrifying knowledge that we have of the world as it is now together and shove it in our faces and ask what we are going to do about it - "we have to get into legacy formation", he says and immediately I'm imagining him in Beyonce's Formation squad. What a formidable team that would be. 

Māuiui te whenua

Māuiui te moana

Māuiui te tangata

After that Ihimaera ended on a song, Po kare kare ana. And everyone in the audience got up and sang it because when Matua Ihimaera issues you a challenge you had better fulfill it. And we better had.

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