The Auckland Writers Festival is a strange and wonderful thing.

Strange because, ordinarily, how many of us would give up our weekends - and, in some cases, take a three-day weekend - to listen to what essentially amounts to lecture-like conversations? But it's wonderful because so many people do; for six days, the Aotea Centre and the surrounding square heave with people who love writing, books, stories, ideas and conversations.

This year, some 200 local and international novelists, playwrights, song writers, scientists, historians, children's writers, illustrators, journalists and poets spoke and/or performed. With more than 70,000 seats filled across the official six-day festival, it's testament to the power of the transformative ideas that books contain.

I didn't get to see as much as I would have liked but what I did see left me spellbound. Max Harris, the young New Zealander who wants this country to confront some of its monumental issues by changing the way our politicians work, received a much-deserved standing ovation after delivering the Michael King Memorial Lecture.


There were lively conversations, not all in agreement, about his thesis; the following morning, people were exclaiming to friends how inspired they were. One woman obviously thought it was important to hear Harris; she sat at the back of the Aotea Centre's ASB Theatre with a sleeping baby who couldn't have been more than one month old and never once stirred.

Mpho Tutu Van Furth was serene and wise, as she talked about the power of forgiveness and what it means to forgive. Forgiving yourself, she pointed out, is equally as important as forgiving others. I was especially struck by her comments about feeling angry: "It's okay to feel anger, it's not okay to be rude".

I wanted to hug Frances Hardinge, who writes gothic tales for children and, last year, won the Costa Book of the Year Award with one of those stories, The Lie Tree. If I'd had a dollar for every person who told my youngest daughter that it was "a strange thing for a girl to want to be" when she told them she wanted to a palaeontologist, I'd be rich.

Without ever once becoming preachy, Hardinge talked matter-of-factly about why she doesn't feel it's "strange" for both girls and boys to like having adventures, volcanoes, dinosaurs, dabbling with science and digging up the past (figuratively and literally). Obviously easily influenced, I went and bought three of her books.

Similarly, journalist, historian and novelist Caroline Brothers had a rapt audience when she talked about exploring the stories of "the disappeared" in Argentina; some were even moved to tears and it was easy, as she talked with such heartfelt convection, to understand why. Her comment about being told to speak truth to power when in reality, we possibly need to speak truth to one another more often was poignant and provocative.

But perhaps the image that will stick with me most is one shown by British historian Lucinda Hawksley, great-great granddaughter of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. Early on, in a talk about Dickens and his peers, she showed a picture of the modest house he started life in.

"Nobody could belief that a child born in that household would become such a successful writer."

And that's the thing about books: the idea they contain open doors to new worlds and possibilities and, especially in this day and age, we need always to be alert to that and the roles, as individuals, we can - and do - play.


That more than 5700 students, from all around New Zealand, attend the schools' section of the festival is cause for great hope.

Guest Caroline Brothers wrote the novel Hinterland about two young Afghan refugees.
Guest Caroline Brothers wrote the novel Hinterland about two young Afghan refugees.