Worlds of Words: WORD Christchurch Festival 2021

Renata Hopkins reflects on WORD Christchurch 2021

Numerous four-letter words were, no doubt, on high rotate in the lead-up to this year’s WORD Christchurch Festival launch — and only one of them would have been ‘word’. But despite the Covid odds the festival team once again delivered an ambitious and innovative programme that ranged from politics to poetry and often delivered both at once, writes Renata Hopkins.

This year’s festival also reflected a greater engagement with te Ao Māori, with a particular focus on the stories and storytellers of Ngāi Tahu, the iwi of new programme co-director, Nic Low.

During the five days, key words and themes recurred — land, loss, language, hope and home amongst them. In the opening event Tautitotito Whenua: Reciprocal Songs of the Land, Ngāi Tahu writers/composers Hana O’Regan and Charisma Rangipunga performed a mōteatea, a sung lament that spoke to the damage climate change is inflicting on the land. Joining them via video link were Micheál Ó Conghaile and Máire Uí Dhufaigh, Irish writers who shared works in their native Gaeilge. All four spoke of the sorrow that accompanies language loss but also of their hopes for language and cultural revitalization.

In Being Pākehā, academic Alison Jones discussed her recent book, This pākehā life: an unsettled memoir. Jones encouraged the audience to see the discomfort many experience when the centrality of a pākehā perspective is challenged as a positive — and essential — element of change. Until pākehā commit to educate themselves about the history and stories of Aotearoa, Jones said, “we float above the ground . . . not really of this place.”

Abbas Nazari speaks at WORD Christchurch.

In the event After the Tampa, Fulbright scholar Abbas Nazari spoke with former Prime Minister Helen Clark about her government’s decision to resettle refugees — including Nazari’s family — caught up in the Tampa Affair, a discussion given added urgency by the horror of history repeating in Nazari’s homeland, Afghanistan. Both Nazari and Clark emphasised the dual powers words have to deepen empathy or to dehumanise. They called on the audience to maintain pressure on our government, especially as this crisis disappears from a news cycle with attention deficit.

E Wen Wong, Nod Ghosh, Russell Boey, Melanie Kwang and host, Neema Singh represented the 75 writers featured in A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand. Together, they gave a taste of the feast on offer in the first-ever anthology of Asian New Zealand creative writing. Their vibrant readings — interspersed with virtuosic music by Jeffrey Zhao on the erhu — captured the power and singularity of voices that can speak from multiple worlds.

The Faraway Near brought with it a surprising intimacy.

Given our collective Zoom-fatigue, there was a surprising intimacy to The Faraway Near, the digital venue that live streamed international writers. Chirps of wonder broke out in the audience when the pet parrot of English nature writer Helen MacDonald flew in to perch on her shoulder. In the session with Native American author Tommy Orange, there was again audible recognition as he spoke of “wielding English like a weapon” to tell indigenous stories. When asked what advice he’d give aspiring writers, Orange said, “specificity is the key to universality.” His words underpin the value of festivals like WORD, which provide opportunities for unique voices to be read and heard more widely.

Another four-letter word to close: love. Programme co-director Rachael King departs WORD this year to focus on her own writing. For nearly a decade her formidable creative energies have gone into making WORD the boundary-defying festival it’s become. From the readers and writers of Ōtautahi, huge thanks to Rachael for this incredible labour of love.

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