Arts & Culture Review

Literacy Pharmacy: Samesame

Sandi Hall
Written by Sandi Hall

In Nina George’s Little Paris Bookshop, a French bookseller believes “ a book is both medic and medicine at once, diagnosing as well as offering therapy.”  On that metaphor, listening to the 20+ writers featured in the 2017 samesame but different queer writing festival was definitely a diagnosing – and therapeutic—experience. 

In his welcome to this second samesame but different Festival, founder Peter Wells spoke of how we “feel stronger through language which articulates our strengths and fears.”

In the Gala Opening event hosted by bookselling diva Carole Beu, eight of Aotearoa’s leading LGBT+ writers revealed their own family’s examples of British poet Philip Larkin’s well known lines: They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They don’t mean to but they do.

Paula Boock, winner of the 1998 NZ Post Book of the Year, put up a photo of her parents, saying “Don’t they look happy – but who would know?” Her father went to work at 13, then to war, her mother a devout Catholic who thought wearing trousers was immoral. They kept the fact of Paula’s lesbianism a secret. But “they did their best”, said Paula, re-writing Larkin’s lines to say “They dream you up, your mum and dad..”

For Gina Cole, whose acclaimed new book of short stories Black Ice Matter has just been published, the photo of her parents show the family in front of the lighthouse, the family home. But Gina the most influential person was her paternal grandmother.  Gina read an excerpt from her story Octopus, which refers to life at her grandmother’s: “We sit on 1960” and her grandmother’s hatred of the late ex-PM Robert Muldoon; when he appeared on the news, she would leap off the couch, point at him and shout “You –you- you octopus.”

High energy Aussie guest Benjamin Law (samesame’s first in-the- flesh international guest) has made a successful living from his family. He’s written two books, Gaysia, and The Family Law, with a successful television series being made of the latter.  His parents were married in Hong Kong and weeks later, emigrated to Queensland. Ben came out to his very religious mother at 17. His mother said “Gays can’t help it, something went wrong in the womb”, surely one of the most original ways for a mother to take the blame for something she thinks her child has done wrong.

For Samoan writer Courtney Sina Meredith (Girls in Brown Lipstick) acknowledging “the line of women I come from” is key. “I grew up waiting for my dad to be older than me,” she confides, “while all around were dresses soaked in the blood of sacrifice.”   She thought boys were “angular and opinionated”, kissing a girl for the first time when she was eleven. The kiss “filled my body with shooting stars.”

Cartoonist Sam Orchard confesses to being obsessed with the cartoons of US lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel (they drawings show they obsession!). “When I think about my parents, I see two broken people coming together…[but] I had a very good role model in my chocolate-stealing grandmother.”  Sam thinks that having a community is important but that “we live in communities of isolation…[with] hospitals being no way to handle gender fluidity.”

Opening with a goose-pimpling waiata, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku said a “big part of being Mấori/Polynesian is living with a group of people, all of whom parent you.”  Ngahuia expressed reservations about using Philip Larkin, pointing out that other of his poems have lines like ‘too many fucking niggers on the pitch’, therefore “ presenting issues we need to investigate.” She adds “people who are older than us do us damage but also strengthen us for the years to come.”

“It’s interesting to hear people’s intimate stories,” observes Peter Wells, revealing that he was “baffled by the tug of love between my mother {almost incidentally my mother} and his brother Russell. “We’d use action to express what words could/would not say,” says Peter. Later, his mother would tell Peter she loved him and really needed him; “so I guess it’s true they fuck you up but in the end, amongst it all is the awful mess called Love.”

Last speaker of the opening night Gala was playwright Viktor Rodger, who has recently published three of his plays under the title Black Faggot.  “For a time I was told my mother was my sister and my grandparents were my parents.” His father was not present and, “you learn you are not the Son for the Return Home,” Later, learning the truth, “now you have a name for that dark feeling – hate.”  But finally getting to meet his father (as he was dying) the hate dissolved because  “my father was charming, making me laugh.” Now Viktor discovers he has the “same blood-clotting illness as my father and I joke, ‘I can’t say he didn’t give me anything’.”  In the end, we “learn that dealing with something intellectually is another country from dealing with it emotionally,” Viktor concludes.

At nine a.m. the next day, a packed room gathers to see, via Skype, Val McDermid, internationally acclaimed crime novelist of many award-winning books, answer the question “why do lesbians make such good crime writers?”.  In spite of Skype’s annoying jerkiness, Val was a pleasure to watch and listen to. “I have lesbians in every book, to reflect the world,” she says. “I find racism vile, homophobia deeply depressing, so when I create characters with those views, I have to make friends with them in order to create them successfully. I deliberately choose to look at women murdered in misogynist ways, mostly to show that women are not dismissible people.” In answer to the question, Val says: “detectives are outside the mainstream, are the outsiders, as lesbians are, which allows them a slightly dispassionate view. [Lesbians] understand that.”

Sparking on from his Gala appearance, Aussie Benjamin Law talked about how language, and especially the mix of languages his family background provided, made him alert to the meaning of each word. His mother, abandoned by her husband, became dedicated to learning new English words and would press him for meanings. She asked Ben what the word cunt meant;  Ben replied that it meant a woman’s “lady parts.”  Later, he found his mother using it to say things like “her cunt smells like eggplant” and cautioned her against using it in parent/teacher meetings. His book and smash hit comedy tv series The Family Law comes straight from his family, where “it’s tragedy if I cut my finger, comedy when you fall in the sewer and die.”

Shortland Street has been on NZ tv screens for 25 years now and has led the way in making viewers aware of the growing diversity of our modern world, particularly as it relates to sexual identity. Producer Maxine Fleming: “The first gay storylines began in the 1990’s – we’ve maintained that commitment. Our show has real power to reach people who wouldn’t ordinarily see such characters. Some of our characters now are gender-fluid, played by gender-fluid actors.” Trans actor Tash Keddy says “it’s a neat thing to play a transgender and neat thing not being anonymous. I enjoy playing Blue.” Actor/poet/writer Cole Meyers says:”Coming into the S/St world has been amazing, they are so interested in writing and acting about the transgender world. They take real risks to do so, and don’t just focus on genitalia.”

Moko gleaming green under the fluorescent lights, award winning writer, museum curator and manu ngangahu (female warrior) Ngahuia Te Awekotuku puts up her quote from a 1971 Craccum (Ak Uni) magazine: “We are not dangerous or subversive perverts but real thinking individuals. Why should we hide our faces while the public exposes its bigotries? Why should we be invisible?”   Chastised by lecturer Kay Davenport for “encouraging young people to explore unwholesome lifestyles”, Ngahuia became even more determined to make lesbians visible, and more particularly Mấori lesbians “we’ve got stuff to say to the world”. Her Mau Moko: the world of Mấori tattoo has won many awards, including the Kupu Ora Inaugural Mấori Book of the Decade.

Over 120 people came to Talking queer, writing queer, seeing queer, a session chaired by Peter Wells with its first speaker kilt-wearing Douglas Lloyd Jenkins. “I just want to be called a gay writer,” Douglas says, ”but in the gay writing world it’s hard to have a profile because I’m a non-fiction writer.”  His latest book, Beach Life, is “a parade ground of choice for masculinity,” with the lifeguards being “soldiers of the beach,” keeping an eye on “the peacocks of the sand.”   

Next, film-maker and writer David Herkt, regularly published in Landfall, runs his lens over erotic literature for gay men. “ Pomare has interesting things to say about dominance in Māori culture,” observing that gay Māori biker gangs “[in literature are] a tempting local world created for outside eyes.”

Following David is poet Michael Giacon, winner of the prestigious 2016 Kathleen Gratton Prize for his 40 poem sequence Argento in no man land.  Michael explains “Argento has a date with Destiny – the name of a drag queen as well as a church – defining a queer sensibility.”  For Argento, “ a one night stand is months in the making”, worth it because “gay sex is seismic sex.”

Bringing this much-applauded session to a close is the deeply funny TV3 star and writer Urzila Carlson, who “wears scars like a beauty mask” because “we are surrounded by fuckwits. “I don’t know how to be gayer,” says Urzila tartly, “than to be married to a woman, have two kids –and a Labrador.” Her just-published memoir, Rolling with the Punchlines, tells of  personal things like coming out to her mother, who told Urzila of a friend’s son who “told her over the phone he was gay.”  With mum repeatedly talking about this experience, Urzila waited until after the news and then rang her mother who picked up the phone, yelling “I knew it!”

The last session, Spoken Worlds, chaired by the quietly charismatic Cole Meyers, was reserved for under-30’s writers.  Hannah Owen Wright (writer of Two Lovers Sit on a Park Bench, producer of Loud & Queer theatre,) sees many young queers “translucent…[as if] DNA lost a sense of itself in mid-sentence.”  We are always “good enough but never simple enough,” observing that “many women have swallowed so much anger, promising “I will let you cough blood into my cupped palms.”

Nate Rayos and Manu Vaea together form Sass and Sombre. Nate is “a polyworld hero”  whose heart “has a rhythm just for you”, knowing “love is a changing room” where lovers “feel the wonder and thunder of your pulse.”  Manu declares “I am a prophet, [speaking] uncomfortable truth. … My identity is stamped on my skin…we are the walking fruit from that forbidden tree…”

After Nate and Manu, Vanessa Crofskey leaps into performance, crying “unease and what it means to search for home.”   Vanessa rails at questions like “ What are you – as if I have an answer,” declaring “[but] my teeth are never sorry.”

Transwoman Dominique says “In the alluvium of your warm body…[I] dream of wings sprouting from my back …tell me who I’m meant to be…but make me different.  I would see that the oppressors suffer exactly as much as they have oppressed. I will see to it that the crimson flag will fly again.”

A recent graduate of UNITEC’s performing arts programme, Adam Roche has discovered his delight in writing. “If I touch you enough, you might become real,” Adam reads. “When I lost my mind, my mother [asked) what the fuck am I doing to her beautiful perfect little angel? …Hundreds of hands held me… in the belief that I am a conglomerate…”

Then, in a spell-binding moment, Adam and Cole together talked interactively in support of mental health. “I’m so afraid of what it means to be a man,” they reveal, adding “men I’ve just met make room for me in their casual misogyny…not killing myself will be my most revolutionary act. When my voice speaks loud enough to be heard, we’ll make a world we want to live in …”

Kiran Foster, a tiny dynamo of talent is “mixed race intersex migrant who would rather think how similar we are and how everything is possible if we work together.”

The evening ended with a tenderly strong song from Emma, a gender-skeptic queer who sang of “ a light through the dark from a heart that is true [where] real freedom holds a red beacon.”

In the final session of the samesame but different Festival, in which several of the writers already mentioned read from their work, the winner of the 2017 Wallace Arts Foundation ( a major sponsor of the Festival) was announced. There were two prizes, one of $300 for the best story by an under 30’s writer, and $600 for the best overall story.  23 year old Ruby Porter scooped both prizes with her exceptional story, A Word for Blue, which marries a disintegrating relationship to the disintegration of a climate-change world.

All in all, a tremendously inspiring Festival — just what the queer doctor ordered!

                                         

 

 

 

     

GJ Gardner BANNER 1 April 2017

About the author

Sandi Hall

Sandi Hall

Sandi Hall's writing career has spanned twenty-eight years and covered a variety of mediums from novels, to the stage and screen.