If you want to feel joyful, even smug, about living in Aotearoa, sit shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers at an event. Revel in the magic of crowds, something lost to most of the world at this time.
Earlier this month, I joined around 60,000 other word-loving Kiwis at the Auckland Writers Festival. Each session I attended at the Aotea Centre was packed. We made do with video links when the writer (such as famed author Isabel Allende) was unable to attend, but mostly, we saw, heard and asked questions of Kiwi writers such as Danyl McLaughlan, Linda Collins and Tauranga's own Jared Savage, an NZME investigative reporter whose book, Gangland, is a disturbing look inside the world of New Zealand's underworld of organised crime and deadly gangs.
During my brief stint at the festival, I saw a brilliant live storytelling event featuring authors including Witi Ihimaera, Kate Camp and Tom Sainsbury; and heard from former political prisoner Behrouz Boochani and feminist writers Sue Kedgley and Ngahuia te Awekotuku.
Droves of us swarmed like bees around stacks of books for sale, binging on bittersweet narrative nectar: comedy, tragedy, poetry, love and loss.
We're told the paper book is making a resurgence - NZME earlier this month reported on Xanadu Book Exchange in Pāpāmoa, which may be the largest secondhand bookseller in the Southern Hemisphere. The store gets at least 150 customers per week and has 15 million titles, according to owner Briar Simons.
News reports said the pandemic caused new book sales to crash last year in Aotearoa during lockdown. This was followed by increased sales as readers stocked up on novels and non-fiction by Kiwi authors.
It may sound self-serving, but I appreciate what local writers bring to their communities and to the world. I scribble in the literary margins while award-winning authors churn out book after book. Still, we can all learn from the habits of accomplished writers; we can fall in love with a turn of phrase, a character, snippet of dialogue or a description that evokes emotion.
So it's disturbing when talented local scribes can't earn a living from their craft. My friend, horror and sci-fi writer Lee Murray, just won the equivalent of the Man Booker Prize or the Oscars: two Bram Stoker Awards for Grotesque: Monster Stories and Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, an anthology of Southeast Asian horror tales co-edited with author Geneve Flynn. Previous winners of the Bram Stoker Awards include Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Joyce Carol Oates and Neil Gaiman.
Lee was moved to tears by her win. When we spoke earlier this week, she said she had scarcely slept in days, buzzing from adrenaline, buoyed by congratulatory messages pouring in from around the globe.
Yet when I asked if she planned to hold a book signing to celebrate her achievements, Lee said not a single retailer in New Zealand stocked her books. Only a few libraries have any of her 10 novels or her short story collection. Libraries, she says, are constrained by budgets but can order books if people ask for them. Booksellers rely on distribution systems which favour big publishers that can print in bulk.
The fact Lee has won not only two Bram Stoker Awards but also the country's biggest award for science fiction writing (the Sir Julius Vogel) nearly every year since 2012 does not factor into the equation. When you write sci fi and horror and your overseas publisher is small, books cost so much that even festival organisers have told Lee they couldn't make a profit on her books. She says most of her market is abroad, "not because New Zealanders don't want dark fiction - look what they're consuming on Netflix. It's because small presses don't have the marketing budget".
A 2019 survey by Creative New Zealand found the average annual income of freelance creative artists was just $15,000. Yet the performing arts alone contributed $2.3 billion to the economy in 2018, according to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. This matched or outpaced other sectors in terms of income, employment and value added, said a recent article in The Conversation.
Lee says even with all her accolades, she doesn't yet make minimum wage.
"I think it's sad that people's attitudes are you're not of any value except in crisis. What do we turn to then? The arts. Especially with dark fiction, we want to deal with the things that scare us, to work out how to cope or just escape. If we had all read zombie fiction, we would've known how to deal with the pandemic."
Sometimes it's easy to ignore who's in front of us. Kiwi artists have a long tradition of making a name overseas before returning to acclaim or indifference in their home country.
Lee says the key to changing culture is growing a new cohort of readers. She has helped to do that the past decade, co-founding a programme called Young New Zealand Writers.
More artists than usual are living among us - not only writers but singers, actors, dancers, jewellers, painters. The pandemic has brought them back to Godzone. We have a tremendous opportunity to support their work. Buy the extra book. Get the concert ticket. Choose the restaurant with live music. Buy local art. Just as we're opening our wallets to spend more money on home renovations, think about supporting the renaissance that is Aotearoa 2021.