This One’s For Christchurch

ARTS, Books

Canterbury writers share their memories and express their hopes for Christchurch at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival.

“Thank you for being here and for being good friends,” said novelist and poet Fiona Farrell as she took the podium, and more than ever those words came from the heart.

It was a victory and a relief just to be gathered together in a lower-level room at Auckland’s Aotea Centre. Two literary events for Canterbury had already been cancelled—first The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival by the September 2010 earthquake, and then a planned replacement festival by the devastating quake of February 22, 2011.

But with the support of the literary community across New Zealand, a special session was added to the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival for six Canterbury writers—Fiona, Tusiata Avia, Charlotte Randall, Carl Nixon, Joanna Preston and Sarah Quigley. Chaired by Programme Directors Ruth Todd and Morrin Rout, the session gave the writers and the audience a chance to share their experiences and express their hopes for Christchurch.

For some, writing provided a way to put the strangeness and fear of the earthquakes into understandable terms. Fiona’s poem “The Horse” compared the feeling of aftershocks to a child sprawled on the bare back of a horse whose skin quivers under a cloud of flies, and “The Tarp” captured the vulnerability of living under a broken roof (“We will lie in our white bed and read above our heads the end of things”) until it was mended with a plastic tarp by a boy named Hayden. Even the cold term “liquefaction” was softened by the memory a Robert Herrick poem she learned in school, and the odd sight of geysers of liquefied silt glittering in the beam of a torch shone through a window.

Tusiata Avia, a performance poet and children’s writer of Samoan-Palagi heritage, wove images from dreams and mythology over the scenes of the disaster. “I am driving through the river that is my road to find my daughter,” her first poem began; “There are black sea creatures eating white hippos big as cars. I drive on the footpath.” Other selections mourned collapsed buildings as lost landmarks and icons of community, like the church where she grew up: “We all fade into the archaeology of an ancient and invisible people—the Samoans, Cook Islanders, Niueans, Tokelauans, and Tongans of the corner of Cashel Street and Madras.”

Rather than share an excerpt, novelist Charlotte Randall chose to talk about how the quakes have affected her work and her everyday life. Her need to write about her experience has inspired a new novel, still in the early stages, in which her character Halfie from Hokitika Town moves to San Francisco as an adult and lives through the 1905 earthquake. Working on the book is helping her focus on how people in her neighbourhood are supporting each other in simple ways—eating and drinking together, sitting in each others’ gardens and just being there to talk and listen.

“When people say to me, ‘Why don’t you just leave? How can you stand it? How can you stand being woken up all the time and your house is falling down on you and the road’s falling into the river?’, the truth of the matter is I can stand it because of the social cocooning that’s going on where I live, and how everyone in the street is kind of wrapping around each other,” Charlotte said.

Still, coming to terms with the damage has not been easy. For novelist Carl Nixon, the greatest challenge is getting his head around how the city has changed. “There was the Christchurch before February 22nd and there’s the Christchurch after, and all my fiction was set in the before.” Reading a short excerpt from his story “The Last Good Day of Autumn” in which a young man pushes his uncle’s wheelchair along the banks of the Avon River, he pointed out that those familiar settings will never be the same again. “For me that’s Christchurch, and now it’s gone.”

Poet Joanna Preston talked about how the earthquakes have altered reality and meaning for Canterburians, blurring the lines between what is public and what is private, what feels safe and what doesn’t. After the second quake, she said, “there was this real sense of ‘We’ve had our earthquake! No, this is a mistake. Who can I complain to?’” Even language is being questioned as terms like down-to-earth and grounded no longer have the sense of solidity they once did.  Joanna explored this concept with “Fault”, a haunting poem that toys with definitions of the word while counting down the moments to the February quake. “A mistake. An error of judgment. A penalty wrought against a quiet city. Stroll through the park, lunchtime almost over….”

For novelist Sarah Quigley, the disaster struck in the early hours of a winter morning in Berlin. She shared the column that she wrote for The Press describing that sleepless night, watching the news online and trying to get in contact with her family and friends in Christchurch. As daylight broke over a city that still bore the scars of World War II, she wrote, “How flimsy our human existence seemed.”

The atmosphere in the room was open and warm as the writers spoke, and during the Q&A session members of the audience shared their own observations and expressed their thanks. Ruth got a big laugh and a round of applause when someone praised her for sitting patiently on the stage under a large potted plant that kept getting in her face. “I am very impatient by nature,” she replied. “I have lost my house and I have got to learn patience, and as I’m getting older it’s going to be a real test for me. So thank you for that, it must be improving!”

From there the conversation turned to the ongoing debate over how Christchurch should be rebuilt. “It’s a huge question, but it’s also potentially the most amazing thing that could happen,” Fiona pointed out. “We do have the chance to make something really beautiful.” She feels that the main thing is to create a city that will attract people: “It is a place designed for children, for families. That is my hope.”

Sarah agreed. “Berlin was rubble in ’45, ’46,” she said. “To see what Berlin has become now, it’s extremely diverse. I find that quite a positive thing in a way, that we can look to cities that have been destroyed by war and possibly draw on them for inspiration or even for hope.”

Morrin closed the session by promising more literary events for Christchurch in the future. “We hope that you will come down,” she urged. “I think that’s the message from Canterburians. Please come down to visit us.” She couldn’t guarantee that there would be no aftershocks during the visit; but on the other hand, she joked, “I thought this could be a good opportunity to market ourselves as a ‘World Cup Free’ place.”