Top Ten Moments in Aotearoa Literature 2017

Sarah Jane Barnett counts down the top ten moments in Aotearoa literature in 2017.

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There have been prizes. There have been the lectures and festivals. There has even been pudding. Sarah Jane Barnett counts down the top ten moments in Aotearoa literature 2017.

10. Everyone fell in love with George Saunders

George Saunders, one of America’s foremost contemporary writers, came to the Auckland Writers Festival. People were tweet-begging for tickets to his masterclass. One blogger gushed that Saunder's "charm and insight is something he lives and practices every day." Saunder's festival session chaired by Paula Morris was called a "genuine verbal joy." GS, please come back.

9. Aotearoa at the Edinburgh International Festival

Poet Hera Lindsay Bird, playwright and poet Courtney Sina Meredith, and comic artist and novelist Sarah Laing went to the prestigious Edinburgh International Book Festival in August. They were accompanied by Rachael King, author and programme director of WORD Christchurch, who curated their events. You can read Laing's journal of her time at the festival, 'From the Writer's Yurt.' How brilliant to have these four talented women represent our country!

8. Oscar Upperton read with his dad at Best NZ Poems

In the most heart-warming moment of the year, and top marks for parental brainwashing, Oscar Upperton read alongside his dad Tim Upperton as part of the Best NZ Poems session at the Writers on Monday series in Wellington. That said, Oscar did state in his comment on his own poem: "Don’t read my dad’s poem. It blows."

7. Massey University Press finally got legs

Massey University Press has been the poor cousin in the university press family, but this year it published a whole stack of well-received books. My picks include The Journal of Urgent Writing 2017, The Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017, and Home: New Writing (read an excerpt essay here). Will next year see some novels and a poetry collection or two? Maybe an online journal for student work? I hope so.

6. Andrew Johnston won an Ockham after a f-ing long break

It took Andrew Johnston nine years to write Fits and Starts. The collection centres on the figure of Echo and weaves together fragments of dream, myth, and memory. I have an irrational dislike of mythical references in poetry, and thought I wouldn't enjoy the collection, but Johnston's poems are so finely crafted and melancholy. Seriously, reading these poems is like having a silk scarf stroked across your brain. Pick up a copy.

5. The Sapling

This year saw the launch of The Sapling, a website that celebrates the excellence and diversity of kid’s books in Aotearoa and abroad. It's run by book nerds Sarah Forster and Jane Arthur (who we interviewed when the site launched). They've definitely fulfilled the vision they set for themselves; The Sapling continues to have quality reviews, interviews and features, and this week they even had a piece by "special guest writer...the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern" about what she liked to read as a child. Spoiler: The Babysitters Club like the rest of us.

4. Selina Tusitala Marsh became poet laureate

Associate Professor at the University of Auckland and the first person of Pacific descent to graduate with a PhD in English from the University of Auckland; the 2016 Commonwealth Poet who appeared at Westminster Abbey and read her truth to HRH Queen Elizabeth II; the fast talking PI who won the London Literary Death Match in 2015; the author of three collections of poetry who, when made Poet Laureate, accepted with a poem: Selina Tusitala Marsh. As someone on Twitter said, "Selina Tusitala Marsh is Aotearoa's new poet Laureate. There is some good in the world after all."

3. More talk about racial inequality in Aotearoa lit

This year showed a growing conversation about racial inequality in Aotearoa literature. The Spinoff had pieces such as 'Ways to decolonise your reading' and 'Māori (and Pasifika) writing in 2017' where Thalia Kehoe Rowden recommended picture books that feature Pasifika and Māori children. The Sapling featured 'The Reckoning: What the heck is Maori Literature?', on ANZL 'Why Aren’t You Reading Brown?,' 'Making noise for Māori writers' on NewsRoom, and here at The Pantograph Punch we published, 'Why Can't We All Just Get Along? The Literature Edition.'

While conversation is a start, we agree with Brannavan Gnanalingam's response to these pieces: "I wish there were fewer pieces from POCers about what’s wrong, and more from the gatekeepers about what they’re doing to fix things." So here's a shout out to Fergus Barrowman, Sam Elworthy, Nicola Legat, Catherine Montgomery, Tom Rennie, Murdoch Stephens, Rachael King, Mark Cubey, Anne O’Brien, Steve Braunias, Emma Neale, Harry Ricketts, Catherine Robertson, and all of the people who run our tertiary creative writing courses, edit our journals, publish work and plan festivals (ourselves included) – let's make 2018 the year we talk together about solutions.

2. Tina Makereti’s lecture 'Poutokomanawa – The Heartpost'

The most moving call for change in Aotearoa literature was Tina Makereti's 'University of Auckland Public Lecture: Poutokomanawa – The Heartpost.' In this incredible and inspiring lecture Makereti describes the metaphorial wharenui of Aotearoa literature where all of our literatures are represented. After outlining the complex systemic issues, Makereti challenges us to create a world where we "see Māori literature considered as a distinct field beside New Zealand Pākehā have to get that first relationship right in order that the other cultures have a place to stand too." She also gives a detailed list of "renovations" for our wharenui. I teared up reading this lecture, not only because of Makereti's heart, presence and bravery, but because of what Aotearoa liteature could be. 

You can read an an edited version of Makereti’s lecture on E-Tangata

1. Ashleigh Young won a Windham-Campbell Prize, went to Yale, and got a selfie with Karl Ove Knausgård in the middle of his pudding

Ashleigh Young's US$165,000 Windham-Campbell Prize is easily our number one moment of the year. It recognised Young's incredible talent and also felt a little bit magical. Young said: "This marvelous and truly mind-boggling honour means that suddenly, a dreamlike opportunity has opened up in front of me – to bring writing into the heart of my life, and to have faith that it’s the right thing." We have faith, too.