Steve Braunias witnesses some of the next superstars of New Zealand literature, possibly
Wellington’s IIML creative writing class of 2020 were put before public inspection last week when Vic Books hosted two nights of readings from 28 MA students. I went along on Thursday to catch a glimpse of the future of New Zealand writing.
It was surprisingly windy in Wellington. It blew in over 100 guests to the IIML reading at Vic Books at the Victoria University campus. I really like it there. If the best venue in Auckland for a literary shindig is Time Out in Mt Eden, with its cute upstairs attic and its one or two couches, then Wellington’s best venue is Vic Books – it’s got lots of space, a clear view of the speakers, plenty of chairs, and it just feels nice.
IIML major-domo Damien Wilkins was there. So were IIML lesser-domos Emily Perkins, Tina Makereti, and Anahera Gildea, VUP publisher Fergus Barrowman, author Tayi Tibble, editors Jordan Hamel and Sinead Overbye, IIML writer in residence Catherine Robertson, and, according to rumour, Ashleigh Young.
There was not much wine and no one ate the sundried tomatoes or olives. Two women wore headscarves. I overheard talk about the election campaign, bookstores, Covid, the full moon, and the Jasmin restaurant on Lambton Quay. There was also quite a bit of excited chat about the previous night’s event at Vic Books, when readers included Barbara Sumner (author of Tree of Strangers, “a beautifully presented memoir”, as Linda Burgess wrote in her review at the Academy of New Zealand Literature), poet Joanna Cho (“The 2018 census showed that 15.1% of our population are Asian, but that’s not mirrored in the publishing industry”, she recently said in an interview with an online journal of Asia-New Zealand art and culture, Hainamana), and Areez Katki (a Mombai-born artist and writer who has exhibitions of his strange, beautiful embroidery).There was also Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall and I gather from the excited chat that she’s one of the stars of the class of 2020. Her short story Mākutu in the most recent issue of online journal Starling is one of the best pieces of fiction published in New Zealand in 2020. It opens: “I killed a dog once. He belonged to the flatmate of a girl I was in love with, Marama. We spent the later part of an evening, drunk on red wine, talking on her bed and waiting for her boyfriend to show up…”
Thursday’s readers lined up at the front of the room. Four of them were the male of the species. Four men in a creative writing class! It must be some sort of record. There were writers of colour, people of mature years, and two Americans. And throughout the next hour there were clear and present signs of brilliance, of wit, of really good writing. There wasn’t a dud among them. Everyone had something interesting to say and interesting ways to say.
Isabelle McNeur read from her YA novel in progress; I heard her read from another YA novel in progress about two years ago at LitCrawl, and once again she showed her mastery of the form. Margot McLean read from the excellent first chapter of her crime novel set in a rest home. Fergus Porteous read from a very funny memoir, and told about his father’s oblong head. I thought the most inventive writer was Olly Clifton, who read from a novel set on the windfarms at Makara; he had a character up high on a wind turbine, looking out at an island with its own weather. I thought the most compelling writer was Joy Holley, who read from a short story about women sucking on shellfish (another of her stories, Rico, was published at the online journal Stasis and is among the best works of fiction published in New Zealand in 2020). I thought the writer with the best line I heard all night was Ethan Donnell. It was from a portrait of a deranged guy off his meds: “He was snorkelling in the poisoned stream of his own mess.” His whole reading was brilliant.
Good event. A lot of good writing. The future of New Zealand, or a small piece of it, is looking bright.