Auckland Writers’ Festival 17

I wrestled my way out of the car in the too narrow parking slots, cursing the greed of the city council. I would probably need a can opener to get back into my car at the end of the day. Underground carparks always have the same smell – sort of diesel and concrete. And the provide a sheltered playground for the arctic eddies that were cavorting around my ankles.

To my delight, I found that the exit closest to my car led straight into the lower foyer of the Aotea Centre, so I wouldn’t have to risk an imminent downpour pooling at the bottom of the treacherous concrete steps that always carry the stench of homeless men’s nightly activity.

Bundled in my K-Mart jacket, I sort of walked, sort of ran to the automatic doors. I waited for my presence to trigger their movement. Nothing happened. Feeling unimportant I slunk to the manual door and pushed it open. Maybe it was the jacket.

Once inside, I stopped breathing. A hallowed atmosphere pervaded the building. I almost unstrapped my shoes in reverence. The foyer, although cavernous, was wonderfully warm. Arty black leather couches graced the space – beautiful to look at but unfortunate in their design. A few gold-encrusted older ladies, not in K-Mart jackets, were trying to repose on them. In essence, they were simply attempting not to slide off, their pained faces making a pretence of pondering the programme.20170521_092340

Walking upstairs to the main foyer was like entering an alternate reality. A hundred and seventeen Harry Potters confronted me – some queuing for autographs, others chasing each other. It was hard to tell which was the real one. Obviously it was not the one running into the wall hoping it would swallow him.

The energy in the place was palpable, the excitement infectious. People of all ages planning and sharing the experiences of the day. I just stood still for a moment and allowed it to envelop me. Then I took a deep breath, joined a queue and began my day of listening, laughing and being inspired. I chatted to friends, strangers, anyone who looked at me.

By the end of the day I was exhausted, but exhilarated. With my book signed by Dame Fiona Kidman, I headed out into the carpark. This time the automatic doors opened for me. I had become one of the literary elite.

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Be somebody’s something good

Something else happened this morning. I missed the train. I was on the platform, about to scan my card, when the train pulled away. There was somebody else who missed the same train and whose life pulled up alongside mine for a brief time.

I offered her a ride into the city to catch a bus to Whangarei. I didn’t ask her name, nor she mine, and neither offered one. Turns out her dad died this week and she was trying to get up north for the tangi. She is just 17. I bought her breakfast and we sat on a street bench in Auckland city surrounded by the early morning chill and the vagrants. We spoke about our lives and their possibilities. And when I had to go, she thanked me for helping her to forget her troubles for a while. She showed me the greenstone taonga around her neck and said that whenever things were not going well, she held onto it and something good happened.

I was her something good today.

Be Somebody’s Something Good
You’re dragging your life around,
hauling it across shingle and punishing it over rocky ground.
You think you’ve had a raw deal,
that you have every right to feel
as if a disappointed whimper is an acceptable sound.

The earth in which your miserable feet hide
is not quicksand, it’s beach sand washed by the tide.
The person beside you could be blind to the dawn;
for heaven’s sake, appreciate how the sun rose this morning,
and how it breathes life into parts of you that you thought had died.

If you stop staring long enough into the abyss
of your selfish misery, you’ll notice this –
there are others who have it worse,
who have more valid reason to curse
their life than you do, so listen:

people often just need to be understood
in a world of haters who want to tell everyone what they should
do. Random acts of kindness do more
than you know. So before
you retreat into your shell of imagined discomfort, be somebody’s something good.


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Would you like sugar?

It’s really interesting watching others learn how to do things. Specifically, how to make coffee. I am pretty anal about following instructions. I always use a recipe when baking, even if it’s something I have made a dozen times before. And I can’t sew without a pattern.

At this morning’s barista course, we were told to wipe the steam wand after you’ve heated the milk. I started twitching when others weren’t doing this and the milk was starting to burn on the wand. I became Mum – grabbing a cloth and wiping with loud sighs. You know, there’s a reason why things need to be done a certain way. Flush the machine or the coffee will taste burnt. Clean the wand or the milk will taste burnt. IS IT SO HARD?

Of course the coffee I made was perfect. It didn’t taste that great, but it looked impressive! I did manage a half-decent mocha.

Someone told me that when you do a barista course, you use dishwashing liquid in the jug to practise frothing. That is incorrect, young man. We used real milk, and real coffee. It broke my heart pouring so much milk down the drain, especially with Queen Street’s homeless only one street away.
– Milk in jug.
– Froth milk.
– Pour milk down drain (or pour milk in coffee then pour coffee down drain.)


You know, when I left South Africa, if you ordered coffee you got it poured from a pot sitting on a hot plate. The choice you had was, do you want the milk heated? We thought we were very fancy if we asked for cream on top. We called this a cappuccino. So mistaken.

Today I learned that there are four types of black coffee, apart from all the varieties with milk. And apart from all the different types of milk. A basic espresso is a short black. Then there is a long black, ristretto and americano. And would you like a small jug of hot water on the side? If you want slightly fancier black coffee you can have macchiato (topped with froth) or vienna (topped with cream). It would be so much easier if black coffee was just coffee without milk.

If I somehow remember how much water, how much froth, what type of cup, when to pour slowly and when to speed up, I might be able to work as a barista one day. It had just better not be in a busy cafe!

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Learn to love to learn

You all know by now that I am completing a Master of Creative Writing this year. I don’t think there’s a soul alive who doesn’t know! Apart from wanting to write my novel, I have this unshakable belief that the one with the most letters behind their name at the end, is the winner. This makes me a lifelong learner. Enough about me though. Let’s talk about me.

The concept of a ‘lifelong learner’ has been bandied about in education circles as something we as teachers should strive to foster in our students. Well, I happen to think that, when it comes to teenagers, this is somewhat of a misnomer. The term ‘learner’ implies some cognitive application. Most students could be termed, at best, ‘lifelong students’ in that they are presented with opportunities to learn, but they rarely learn anything.

For high school students, when  a learning moment arises, the first thing they want to know is, ‘Is it worth credits?’ or ‘Will this help me pass my exams?’ They see no value in learning for the sake of it. Trying to inculcate in them a love of learning is met with raised eyebrows and curled lips.

I think I’m part of a dying breed – a generation who marveled at creation and reveled in the addition of anything to our knowledge base. I remember taking apart a clock radio (among other things) when I was quite young to see the workings. What did I learn? That you can’t recoil a spring. I didn’t do these things with the intention of becoming an electrician or an engineer. I simply had a thirst for knowledge, and I still do.

As part of the research for my novel, I am undertaking various courses, like making sushi and completing a barista course. If I was doing these purely so I could write about them authentically, they would seem a chore, an obligation. But because I actively enjoy acquiring new skills, they invigorate me. And besides, if I don’t achieve immediate success as an author, I can always get a job in a cafe.

Does this mean I am good at these things? Of course not. Does that matter? I don’t think so. Apart from one degree, two diplomas and three certificates in a variety of things, over the years as an adult I have undertaken courses in pottery, piano, art, candlewicking, writing, badminton, difficult conversations, ballet, salmon fritters and wine tasting, to name a few.20170502_173142

Pottery was unsuccessful; I surprised myself with my sketching; badminton had me more at the physio than on the court; and I still don’t like wine. This does not mean I’m going to give up. The most challenging was learning how to have difficult conversations with colleagues. I’m not very good at the whole diplomacy thing. I’m not scared to tell people when they’ve missed the mark; I just tend to do it with a mallet, rather than a piano tuner.

I’m going to be a lifelong learner. No learning is ever wasted, even if we don’t do anything with it at the time. Maybe when I’m 80, I’ll go back to belly dancing, or try something new… like skydiving. Who knows, right?

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I am the creator

I am almost halfway through writing my novel and I am loving writing it. The thing I love the most is being God. I can create the world as I want it to be20170422_181831.jpg

If I want a world turned upside down where one man comes in and saves the day, I can create that. If I want a world that is perfect, one in which cancer or heartache do not exist, I can create it.

If I want to make a magical world in which children simply have to wish upon a star to make marshmallows grow on trees, or utter magic words to make a kitten talk, or fly on a suitcase and sit on a cloud, I have the power to do it.

If I want to create a superpower country where a megalomaniac with business acumen, bad hair and bugger all knowledge of politics is the president, I can do that. Although I would not write something that far-fetched.

If I would like there to be a cafe with a pianist in the corner and a display of fudges and specialty iced cupcakes, with comfortable chairs and broderie anglaise tablecloths, with well-spoken waiters who make you feel they came to work just for you, with a ‘no children allowed’ policy so as not to disturb the serenity, and without a hefty price tag, with a stroke of the pen it is done.

And if I want to create a character in her fifties who is looking for meaning in her life, who feels unsure about her future, and who has experienced disappointments. And if I want that character to meet a man who knows exactly when to talk to her, when to touch her and when to leave her alone, and who makes her feel as though she truly matters, then all I have to do is open up my laptop.


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Who gives you the right?

Living in NZ, one becomes aware of the ‘rivalry’ between us and Australia. We are both really good at claiming things for ourselves.
‘Pavlova is ours!’
‘No, we made it first!’
Famous people who were born in NZ and live in Australia, or vice versa, become tug o’ war victims. Except for Russell Crowe. Nobody wants to claim him.

What defines our identity? Because I have been given the right to live in a particular country, do I have the right to claim myself as one of theirs? Or, do I retain the right NOT to identify with the people? Because NZ is such a melting pot of colours and cultures, this is an issue with which we are confronted, particularly in the Chinese community. We have a number of Chinese people who are trying to retain their proud heritage. They get criticised for not wanting to adopt the culture of this country. Then we have other Chinese people, some even born here, who see themselves as Kiwis, but are still seen as outsiders. Surely they should have the right to choose their identity.

That’s how I feel. No, not Chinese! I have been living here for 20 years and will probably be here for the rest of my life. I have citizenship. Nothing can change the fact that I was born in South Africa, even if I start going to the shops barefoot… I still think like a South African. I have had it mentioned to me that I wouldn’t understand certain things that are inherently Kiwi, like ‘hotdogs’ – beef-flavoured sausages on a stick, dipped in batter and deep fried. Ew. But when I am a published writer, will I be regarded as a New Zealand author? Probably.

The reason for these questions is because of what is happening in South Africa at the moment. The people are rising up against a corrupt regime. I feel like I am the little kid in the background of a parade crowd, waving a paper flag which nobody can see. I’m not sure whether I have the right to protest on paper. Or whether I am allowed to change my Facebook picture to show solidarity with my countrymen. An inner critic is scoffing at me and telling me that I have given up the right to be indignant because I left. I didn’t stay and fight the good fight. I’m like the soldier who hides beneath the body of a dead comrade and then scuttles out when the bugle call of victory is sounded.

I feel like I have given up the right to be South African.

SA flag

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No Fun at the Funfair

Life is full of learning curves. We often use the analogy of a roller coaster to explain the way in which we experience highs and lows. Well, I think my life is more like a full-on amusement park. Not quite like Magic Mountain in California with its ridiculously scary rides. Maybe more like Movie World on the Gold Coast – half of the rides are fun, but the rest make me wish I’d never gone on them. This is probably due to my multiple personalities.

I’ve been having a bit of an existential crisis brought about by my Masters course. Having waited my whole life to flex my writing muscles, I started wondering whether the path I have chosen for this year is the right one for me. Some aspects of the course are aspects of writing with which I am very familiar – teaching them every year. So I was considering not paying exorbitant amounts of money for stuff I already know. Then I was concerned about being a failure if I drop out. Then my concern about being a failure grows when I sit and stare at the screen and can’t get any further with my novel. Basically, I’ve been standing in the Hall of Mirrors trying to figure out which reflection is actually the real one. I blame menopause.hall of mirrors

At the course this week I tried explaining to some of the other students how I was feeling. Obviously what I was trying to say got lost in translation. I was told to stop being a whining pain in the ass, that if I had complaints about the course I should take them higher up, and that I was ruining it for the others. Well! But that’s when something interesting happened… Over the next few hours I went through the full gambit of ‘grief’ emotions, which just happens to be what my novel is about.

Denial – That was not what I was saying at all. She must have just misunderstood.
Anger – Stupid cow. How dare she tell me I was whining.
Bargaining – I wonder if everyone thinks I’m a pain. Maybe if I email them all and explain that I was just trying to work through things for myself (albeit vocally) and if I bake something nice for the next session they will understand and welcome me back into the fold.
Depression – I’m such a loser. It’s no wonder everyone hates me. I’ll just stick to myself from now on and not impose myself on others.
Acceptance – You know what, Jennifer, you probably were whining and sounding like a know-it-all. Be grateful for someone’s honesty.

And the great thing is that those feelings are now fresh in my mind and I can connect on a deeper level with my main character. Naturally, I’m carrying on with the course. I will make an effort not to be a pain, but there no guarantees that my yo-yo emotions will not have an impact on others. Once I get on the log flume, everyone around me gets splashed.

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