ALEXANDER BISLEY looks back on the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival in May.

I WAS inspired by the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival; and not just by the courage, wit and grace of blind Canadian poet-memoirist Ryan Knighton (Cockeyed). He made my nebuliser-suckling hospitalisation, which messed with my Festival and my journalistic duty (after getting me a yellow card from splendifirous Japan a couple of days early), seem trivial.

Witi Ihimaera was in charismatic form. Funny and insightful as he reminisced about how whanau, particularly his nonagenarian father, influences his work like The Rope of Man. Witi’s dad, who still sleeps in the same bed as his mother, was born in 1915. His name means “Tzar of all the Russias.” His habit of ringing Witi up in the middle of the night for lengthy korero, as he believes death can’t come during daylight, led Witi’s mum to “suspect he was having an affair”.

Ihimaera expressed similar sentiments to the below words from his 2005 Fulbright Lecture. “Po! Po! E tangi ana tama ki te kai mana, waiho me tiki ake ki te Pou, a hou kai hei a mai te pakake ki uta ra, hei waiho mo tama kia homai e to tipuna e Eunuku ko te kumara, ko Parinui te ra e!” Which translates as: “What are our dreams? What are our destinies? What of ourselves can we weave into the Rope? Can we do this?” The answer: “Of course we can. After all, we are New Zealanders and we can do anything. We ride whales, climb mountains, stomp on the Australians at sport.”

Ihimaera had funny reminisces of his time developing scripts in Amsterdam. “Six months and it was better than bad.” His moving address reached its zenith with a beautiful waiata.

Steve Braunias was a hoot. He neatly sideswiped “That confederacy of idiots known as the blogosphere”. Controversial Mr B said the many litigious objectors to his work “have never won a case”. His colourful tales included sub Mungo Jones, a feud with chair Linda Burgess and John Key, a columnist’s dream. “John Key doesn’t really exist, so you can make him up.”

Burgess ably chaired this columnist panel, which included intelligent Herald columnist Tapu Misa (who represents a Polynesian perspective sorely missing from much of our media) and James Griffin. “They called sub for a reason,” Griffin called the people who process columnists’ copy.

Tom Fitzsimons has put Juno Diaz much better than I can. I did enjoy Diaz’s spiky, complicated, liminal, salacious style. My favourite Diaz thought: how becoming a good writer requires us to become better, more humane people. His funniest line, edging out that one on Oprah and anal: “I don’t fuck with Mel Gibson. You guys are bananas.”

Unsurprisingly, it was also pleasing to see and hear God, aka Disgrace’s JM Coetzee, in a rare, in-person appearance. Dressed in black, with a shock of white hair, Coetzee read most elegantly. His Diary of a Bad Year reading contained very sensuous description of temptations of the flesh and sparkling humour.

Anti-puritan Anne Enright, self-dubbed “the anti Rose of Tralee”, was caustically witty and pungent. “They can’t be accused of anything,” she flayed chick-lit writers.

John Gray also showed some class. “The only place the Washington Consensus has never been implemented is Washington,” the Oxbridge Don said with feeling, approving that Barack Obama has shattered this bogus elite’s too often harmful hegemony. Gray, a reformed Thatcherite, was particularly commanding recounting his visit to meltdown-gripped Argentina.

Biographers Hermione Lee and Simon Sebag Montefiore came across superbly. Montefiore’s uncommonly vivid descriptions of Stalin’s stunning, scarcely believable rise to power in Young Stalin are must-read. Montefiore research is as exceptional as his writing, and a refreshing contrast to self-indulgent, unreadable academia.

See also:
» The Elusive Junot Díaz
» Five questions for Thomas Kohnstamm
» An Interview with Heather O'Neill
» A Hot Pink Interview
» An Interview with Maxine Alterio