Spreading the word

By Stephen Jewell

Halfway through a sedate panel on New Zealand literature, something remarkable happens that makes me think I'm on the streets of South Auckland - not in a lecture theatre at a Parisian university.

Two of the panellists - Owen Marshall and Sia Figiel - begin reciting the Samoan's poem To a Young Artist in Contemplation, but this is no ordinary reading. Instead, it is what Figiel dubs "poly-fusion", a mesmerising melding of rap and spoken word performance. "I think it's wonderful that Owen and I are performing this because it represents the bridging of the two cultures [Polynesian and Pakeha] through hip-hop," Figiel tells the small but spellbound audience.

As Marshall reads, Figiel almost descends into a trance as she closes her eyes and shakes her head back and forth, creating a beguiling echo effect as she lags slightly behind Marshall before bursting into song.

"Your anguish of the flame. Only the night understands," she intones. "A journey with no beginning, no middle, no end."

What an extraordinary journey we have been on. Marshall and Figiel are in Paris as part of Les Belles Etrangeres (which translates loosely as "the beautiful foreign ones"), an ambitious annual literary festival organised by the Centre du National Livre - France's version of the New Zealand Book Council - on behalf of the French Ministry of Culture and Communications that each year aims to introduce the French people to the writing of other nations.

For two weeks, Marshall, Figiel, Geoff Cush, Alan Duff, James George, Dylan Horrocks, Fiona Kidman (this year's Katherine Mansfield laureate), Elizabeth Knox, Vincent O'Sullivan, Chad Taylor and Albert Wendt - poet Jenny Bornholdt cancelled at the last minute due to illness - travelled the length and breadth of France, bringing a little bit of Aotearoa and indeed Polynesia to Paris and other cities and towns such as Bordeaux, Marseille, Dunkirk and Le Havre.

After highlighting Russia in 2004 and Romania last year, the decision to spread the festival's wings about as far as they can go by selecting New Zealand as the 2006 guest country can mostly be attributed to Pierre Furlan, a French author and translator, who translated Elizabeth Knox's The Vintner's Luck into French.

At Knox's behest, Furlan was appointed the 2004/2005 Randall Cottage resident writer in Wellington. Just as every year a New Zealand writer spends six months living in Katherine Mansfield's former apartment in Menton in the south of France, a French author will spend a similar amount of time based in Wellington.

"It happened because I got Pierre to Wellington," says Knox when I meet her, Cush and Taylor at the official festival hotel, the grandly named La Villa des Artistes (the Hotel of the Artists). "I am sure we are all here because of Pierre."

Cush adds, "When Pierre turned up in Wellington, under the terms that he came, he had to come as a creative writer of his own stuff. But when everybody found out he was one of France's top translators, there was a kind of feeding frenzy around him. He became interested in New Zealand writing and he said that when he got back to France he would say that the next Belles Etrangeres should be New Zealand."

The night before meeting the three writers, I watched the trio read and speak about their work with Furlan at the offices of the Centre du National Livre.

Having based his 2002 novel Son of France in an alternate New Zealand colonised by the French, not the British, Cush made an instant connection with the audience.

Knox - who set both of her best-known works, 1998's The Vintner's Luck and her 2003 vampire novel Daylight in France - also made the most of her common ground, while Taylor's nocturnal noir novels Shirker, Electric and Departure Lounge offered a fascinating glimpse of a murkier side of Auckland.

As with all the other panels, Furlan's questions had to be translated into English for the authors, whose answers were then converted into French for the audience. Consequently, it proved to be a slightly protracted process; the session eventually concluded nearly two and a half hours later when we moved into an adjoining room to drink red wine and snack on intricately constructed pastries.

"It's very difficult because of the translators," admits Knox. "It's quite hard work but it's really interesting. We're mixing it up [with different groups of authors] as well, so we get to see everybody's performances."

When I speak to them later that day, Harlequin Rex author Owen Marshall and Figiel, whose novels include The Girl in the Moon Circle and They Who Do Not Grieve, are also impressed with the interest shown in their work, even if the size of the crowds - particularly in Paris - has been disappointing.

"Sia and I have just been to Bordeaux, which was pretty much the same as Paris," says Marshall. "The attendances weren't huge but they were friendly people."

But if, as Marshall notes, attendances in Paris were limited "because of all the other exciting things happening in a big city", the reception the authors received in some of France's smaller, more provincial places was a stark contrast as I discovered when I travelled north with Figiel and comic artist Dylan Horrocks (Hicksville, Atlas) to Dunkirk the next day.

The mood was sombre as the train passed through the vast, flat fields of the Somme, where so many soldiers, including many New Zealanders, lost their lives during the two World Wars.

In contrast to Paris' ornate, ancient architecture, parts of Dunkirk - famous mostly as the scene of the devastating World War II battle - seemed shabby and rundown as we emerged from the train station. Horrocks' comment - "the guide books say you don't really want to spend time in Dunkirk if you can help it" - was pertinent.

But the greeting we received was warm and friendly. First stop, a secondary school, where Horrocks and Figiel spoke to two separate groups of students, in the equivalent of our seventh-form year. After her bravura performance at the Paris university, I chose to stick with Figiel, who immediately encouraged the students to ask her questions.

They warmed slowly to the task until Figiel hitched up her skirt to display the intricate Polynesian tattoos at the top of her thighs, which, she explained, like the ones on her hands, were not just for decoration but were an important document of her ancestral lineage.

She recruited Remi, the only male member of the 20-strong group, to take Marshall's place as she again performed To a Young Artist in Contemplation. His English was near perfect and she rewarded him with a gift of her Polynesian-patterned headscarf.

"Dunkirk was a city levelled during World War II, then developed into an industrial centre but now the industries are withdrawing," said Horrocks. "It was very interesting. There's very high unemployment. The teacher was telling me that a lot of the kids at the school come from very difficult backgrounds and yet the atmosphere was full of energy."

Later that night we moved on to the town library, which featured an elaborate display of New Zealand books, although Figiel was concerned that most of the representations of Maori in the many antique texts were drawn from the 19th and 18th centuries and that there were few contemporary images.

She was taken aback when three young actresses emerged, wearing temporary Polynesian-style tattoos - including one with a full-face moko - that owed more to the inauthentic facial markings found on the cover illustration of the French edition of Figiel's They Who Do Not Grieve than any real life examples.

However, Figiel later admitted she was torn between tears and laughter by the girls' heartfelt performance, which began with a scene from Horrocks' Hicksville, involving Hone Heke, before ending with an excerpt from one of Figiel's short stories.

"The show they put on and the people who turned up and the enthusiasm and dedication and the time they put into it was quite humbling," said Horrocks. "The library had gone to so much trouble to engage with New Zealand literature and culture. They found every New Zealand book in the library system and had them all on display. It felt like the guide books were really for tourists, directing you towards the lovely architecture, the good food, the scenery and so on but what this trip has allowed us to do is encounter people.

"The people last night put Dunkirk on the map for us, it was pretty impressive."

Indeed, as Figiel headed back to Paris the next morning and Horrocks and I travelled the short distance to our next destination, Lille, it felt like a day in Dunkirk wasn't long enough.

When we met James George in the ornate surroundings of Lille station, the Auckland-based Maori - whose novels Wooden Horses, Hummingbird and Ocean Road are set respectively in both World Wars and the Vietnam War - solemnly noted that many New Zealand troops would have passed through where we were standing during World War I.

As we left the station and passed through the city streets, it was apparent we were in a completely different type of city from Paris. Living in France's most northeastern city, Lille's inhabitants identify as much with their near-neighbours in Belgium than with the rest of France. That was evident in the number of excellent Belgian beers on the menu at lunch.

"There are a lot of social similarities between New Zealanders and the French," said George, tucking into his vegetarian pizza. "Both are big social people. They're big drinkers and big eaters and talkative sort of people, especially from my ilk. I find the Polynesian side of me feels very at home here because we are all quite casual. There is not a lot of social constriction so I feel very much at home in France."

After we finished eating, we walked through the town square, where the big wheel that would form the centrepiece of Lille's famous Christmas market had almost taken shape.

At the bookshop, where the Les Belles Etrangeres event was taking place, George answered a steady stream of questions about how he approached his craft while Horrocks drew a cartoon map of the world on a whiteboard, comparing New Zealand's lowly geographic position to comics' equally maligned status in the English-speaking literary world.

"We get a lot of questions like, 'Don't you feel intellectually isolated living in New Zealand?"' said George. "But the irony is that we are travellers of the word. The word is the great migrating bird. We might be geographically isolated but because the reading of books exists and we are in the middle of that by our very definition [as writers], we are not, in fact, intellectually isolated."

As night fell and I caught the Eurostar back to London, leaving George and Horrocks to return to Paris, I realised that for writers from a faraway land whose national bird was flightless, the power of their words had allowed them to travel a long way indeed.

* Stephen Jewell travelled to France courtesy of the French Embassy in Wellington.

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