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Samesame but different: NZ writing for Ak Pride

Posted in: Books
By Peter Wells - 25th November 2015

I was asked last summer, in anticipation of what was at that stage going to be the Asia Pacific Out Games, if I could come up with 'something cultural'. “People in Wellington did it so well down there, we've got to have something up here in Auckland,” they said.

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I thought about it and came up with two ideas. One was that Aotearoa New Zealand has a tremendous history of LGBTQI writing. The other was that LGBTQI film making here was equally strong. I pretty soon realised I could only work on one area, and chose writing. I decided to create a platform for the writers of Aotearoa New Zealand to speak out.

The idea was that visitors from the Asia Pacific would see what we were like. Our stories would tell our story. Well, as we know, the Asia Pacific Outgames didn't come off quite in the way envisaged (although there will now be a replacement Proud to Play sports festival instead.) But by that time I was already very busy, and enthused, with the idea of putting together a celebration of LGBQI identity as seen by our writers. I decided to call the Festival 'samesame but different'.

I was helped by an early enthusiastic endorsement from Witi Ihimaera, but other writers soon came on board such as Joanne Drayton (who wrote the New York Times best-selling biography of crime writer Anne Perry - who has local fame as one of 'the brick in the stocking' teenagers who killed one of their mothers in 1950s Christchurch - the basis of 'Heavenly Creatures'.) Our stories are our own and stretch from the hyper-talented Samoan-New Zealand playwright Victor Rodger whose Black Faggot title says a lot to Stevan Eldred-Grigg whose Oracle & Miracles is a modern day classic. Soon enough I had a very good 'stable' of writers who were keen to take part in this celebration. This includes authors from Dunedin and Wellington.

But I wanted to extend the platform by seeing who was around among newer voices. There was a sense back in the 2000s that gay and lesbian fiction and nonfiction had plateaued and the audience was diminishing. So it was with a real sense of excitement that I found talented LGBTQI writers were emerging in the various writing schools attached to AUT, MIT and Auckland University. (I had to look local as this is where I am based.)

I looked at an on-line forum called 'Breaking Boundaries' which was queer friendly and we decided to hold an audition of newer voices. From this we got some great talent, going from two schoolgirls at Glenfield College who do a passionate give-and-take poetic dialogue about a straight boy refusing to accept lesbian identity, to Nick J. Jones who just won the Dean's Prize at AUT for Creative Writing through to Whaitiri Mikaere who is a prize-winning slam poet known as Diesel Dyke Poet. This infuses the Festival with a different kind of energy and helps with talking across the generations.

But I also wanted to draw on the wider strengths of word power in our community. After all, how we define ourselves is incredibly important - words have always been important to queers - it is a word which in the end defines us. I decided to mix in community notables. Obvious ones are influential editors of magazines. Susannah Walker the new editor of Metro magazine came on board as did Jeremy Hansen who edits the modernist style bible, Home.

But I also wanted to include articulate people like Michael Stevens who advocates for Rainbow Tick and Grant Robertson, the openly gay Labour politician who made a run at being the Labour Leader. Broadcaster and radio host Alison Mau talks of co-writing her first book (on NZ’s pioneer transgender woman, Christchurch-based Liz Roberts.)

My hope is that samesame but different develops into an ideas-based festival where we can discuss what's important to us - but also look back at our past and how we articulate our identity. Having said this, I want people to accept this is a beginning - it can't be all things to all people from the word go. I would also like it to be seen as a national festival to which people can come from all parts of New Zealand.

In my dreams I'd like in future to get overseas LGBTIQ writers to travel to Auckland for Pride and go on to Mardi Gras in Sydney as part of a circuit. But we'll have to see if there is community support for this year’s Festival. Financially the sessions are all ticketed through i-ticket and we need to sell tickets for the Festival to exist. (I should add samesame but different is proud to now be under the Auckland Pride umbrella.)

We do have things to discuss - ideas and problems and situations which aren't necessarily book-based or literary. For example the prevalence of crack and p as in PNP in gay men's sex lives (or men who have sex with men) is one such issue. I'm not sure 'samesame but different' is ready yet to take on such meaty issues. But it does point to the fact we don't really have a forum in which to publicly address important issues in our lives. My hope however is that samesame but different will provide a thought-provoking and entertaining look at who we have been and also provide a few glimpses of where we might be going. Although the Festival takes place in Auckland during Pride, it should be seen as a celebration of writing from around New Zealand, wherever it occurs.

I have to add I have been very pleased with the wider community support we've had for the LGBTQI writers festival. AUT which is very queer-friendly came on board early and is providing a space for us as well as support for out of town writers and other benefits. Other supporters include GABA and the Wallace Foundation, as well as CNZ.

At one point I felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of effort involved in putting this thing together but then along came a small committee who have been incredibly helpful in making this festival happen (Julie Watson, Brendaniel Ware and Ian Watt.) Now, as we near the Pride Festival in February all that it requires is an uptake from people – they can be LGBTQI or friends and family and fans - interested in being part of a key new event.

Ticket sales start on December 3rd through iticket and we have a site which has the entire programme on it, participants and events. I'm hoping the Festival is an enduring part of our scene and if I survive this one I look forward to helping usher in an even better ideas festival next year….

- Peter Wells

Peter Wells - 25th November 2015

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