I didn't know a lot about the Rainbow Warrior story, so I enjoyed seeing history being brought to life in touching and funny ways at Bronwyn Elsmore's new play Fallout. At a time when we're facing social problems that seem out of individual control it was heartening to be reminded that New Zealanders can make a difference when we work together on the issues that matter.
Read the full review on the Theatreview website.
Regardless of who you voted for, you’re likely to be worried about child poverty in New Zealand.
The centrepiece of today’s budget was the Child Hardship Package – a package that appears to give to low-income families with one hand, while taking with the other.
110,000 families will receive benefit increases of up to $25 a week. Additionally, childcare subsidies for eligible families will rise from $4 to $5 an hour for up to 50 hours a week.
But sole parents who are currently expected to return to work when their youngest child turns five will now have to find work when their youngest child turns three – and they will have to work 20 rather than the current 15 hours a week.
At last weekend’s Auckland Writers Festival event Shameful Poverty, Child Poverty in New Zealand co-author Jonathan Boston addressed a full house. He opened with the Nelson Mandela quote, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Jonathan said that twenty four per cent of New Zealand children lived in poverty last year – a quarter of our kiwi kids. Six times as many of our children live in poverty than our elderly (those aged 65 and over), and Jonathan argued that this is not accidental – it reflects the policy choices we’ve made as a society.
The state pension is fully indexed to the median wage but social assistance is not, so low income families have become poor relative to average living standards. Unemployment, sole parenthood and housing costs have risen as benefits have shrunk in real terms since the 1990s. Given the social problems that come with poverty, “the net outcome of benefit cuts is likely to be in the negative – but no one has done that detailed analysis,” Jonathan said.
Poverty in New Zealand is about lacking the goods and services that most people regard as essential – shoes, a winter jacket, a bed of your own or a daily school lunch.
Poverty matters because it costs us in so many ways. It leads to lower educational achievement, ill health and shorter life-spans. It causes stress and anxiety in parents, which in turn contributes to increased rates of mental illness and separation. All of this creates costly ripple effects through society.
Jonathan argued that we need a different mind-set, philosophy and moral vision. He would like us to commit to having child poverty rates comparable to those for elderly by 2025. He would like us to increase the stock of social housing, improve the quality of rental housing and have benefits indexed to wages.
“Reducing poverty is a sound social investment. It will lead to a fairer, more cohesive society and a stronger economy with long-term fiscal returns,” he said. “We need to look at this through an investment lens. Poverty lowers everyone’s quality of life. We need to build human capital so that society as a whole is better off. We need a bold vision and an evidence-based policy package – our long-term future depends on it.”
Today’s budget may be a soothing balm to our collective guilty conscience, but it seems far from a bold vision. An additional $25 per family per week is unlikely to be the sustainable, cost-saving transformation we need to drastically improve living standards for our most vulnerable citizens. It doesn’t reflect our egalitarian history, and it doesn’t bode well for our future.
If you don’t believe the budget has gone far enough to support kiwi kids in poverty, there are practical steps you can take. Find out how you can get involved by checking out the Child Poverty Action Group or KidsCan.
If you have other ideas for ways in which people can help kids in poverty, please share them in the comments.
I contributed a guest blog post to Graham Reid's music, travel and arts website Elsewhere today. Graham wanted me to talk about the highs and lows of taking a creative writing course - but to be honest, there was only one real downer about taking the Thirty Week Fiction Writing Course at Auckland's Creative Hub. Find out what it was here.
So you want to be an arts reviewer? Peter Holland and Wystan Curnow share their insights into the role of the arts critic. Auckland Writers Festival 2015, 15 May, Lower NZI Room.
As a sometime music and theatre reviewer I signed myself up for Auckland Writers Festival session The Role of the Critic, hoping to learn some practical reviewing techniques. Although I felt more as though I was eavesdropping on a conversation between Shakespeare critic Peter Holland and local art critic Wystan Curnow than gaining hard-hitting insights, I did pick up five useful tips. You can find the tips, and my notes from the session, below.
Tips for good arts criticism
Pantograph Punch editor Rosabel Tan hosted the session and posed a series of questions to the critics. I have rather bluntly paraphrased their answers below - they are to be read as notes rather than as direct quotes.
What should good criticism achieve?
Wystan: The critic is a mediator between the artist and the audience. The critic should see themselves as an exemplary viewer. The function of the critic is to postpone value judgment, because the value judgment closes the discussion. I seek to write about what I admire the most. Moving from something seen and experienced to something written is a particular kind of translation.
Peter: Good criticism seeks to understand the object before making a value judgment. Being open to the artwork is sometimes the toughest part of the assignment.
Who is criticism for?
Wystan: For the critic, the audience, and for history.
Peter: There is a duty to record for history, and to conjure up what’s worth remembering about an ephemeral art form. A review or piece of criticism can capture some of the ‘liveness’ and atmosphere of a production in a way that a recording cannot.
Is there a distinction between reviews and criticism?
Wystan: Critics have more scope. When I started out my aim was to get away from reviews whenever I had the opportunity. When I published an essay on art that was 5000 words long it was a real achievement - no one else in New Zealand had done anything like it. Having said that, I admire the talent of writing well to deadline. The other difference is that a critic is already familiar with the artist or the work.
Peter: A reviewer may have to go straight from the theatre and into the radio station or to the computer. They are controlled by urgency. A critic is not at the opening night, writing about it for the next morning. A critic is able to situate the artwork within a wider context.
Is criticism in decline?
Wystan: The situation is rather impoverished, but it won’t necessarily stay that way. I want criticism to be mysterious, thrilling, shocking, surprising, thought-provoking - to add value and make a difference.
Peter: There’s been a curious change. Previously the model was to filter (via a publisher) and then publish. Now the model is to publish and then filter. We all have to do our own filtering to find what’s worth reading. Other than the odd angry note from someone, there hasn’t been a lot of feedback for reviewers until now. Now you have comments threads to read - it holds you to account. Audience members are sharing their own intelligent reading of events.
How do you avoid compromising yourself as a reviewer?
Peter: Your integrity can be skewered when you keep things hidden. For example, Wystan is almost part of Billy Apple’s work, but he has never hidden that. So his integrity is intact. You can also compromise yourself by being out of sympathy with a work. Sometimes it’s not the work’s fault, it’s your fault. There are also moments when you know you got it wrong. With very many great artworks it takes time to appreciate them. I watched Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books three times before I understood how brilliant it was.
What if the work has no redeeming features?
Wystan: I only write specifically and at length about art that I like and that I think matters. I have actually been criticised for not writing about certain artists.
Peter: It’s so easy to be rude. It really doesn’t reflect well on your intelligence - it’s the reviewer showing off, rather than engaging with the work. Instead of being rude, discuss why the artistic decisions haven’t worked.
Everyone has the absolute right to offend: University of Auckland Debate with Ken Auletta, Natalie Haynes, Jaspreet Singh and Nick Davies. Auckland Writers Festival, 13 May, Aotea Centre.
Does everyone have the absolute right to offend? This was the motion under the microscope at the University of Auckland Debate featuring international writers Ken Auletta, Natalie Haynes, Jaspreet Singh and Nick Davies, along with University of Auckland debaters Paul Smith and Jessica Storey.
As we walked into the venue we were asked whether or not we agreed with the motion. I queried the Auckland Writers Festival volunteer on the definition of offense - immediately putting me in the category of ‘yes, but’. Yes - but not if you’re going out of your way to hurt someone. Yes - but not if you’re inciting hatred.
I expected the debate to focus on the line between opinion and abuse that’s so frequently blurred in our social media age. But the evening delved into the far deeper (and sometimes murkier) waters of human rights, free speech, religion and the relationship between words and world peace. I have jotted down some of my notes below. I hope they’re an accurate reflection of what was said (and if they’re not, I didn’t set out to cause offense).
MC Linda Clark introduced the evening with a delightfully offensive speech about ponytails before putting the motion in context by pointing out that ‘these days, when someone gets offended, other people can end up dead.’ Linda was referring in particular to the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the recent Texas shootings at an anti-Islam exhibition - events that were referenced several times during the session.
Paul Smith, President of the University of Auckland Debating Society, opened by pointing out that free speech is the cornerstone of personal freedom and democracy. He said that offense is subjective and that people have the option of not engaging with what offends them. Referencing marriage and gender equality, he said that offense can be a catalyst for change and that the veneer of protection against offense is often used as an excuse to shut down ideas.
Jessica Storey, Education Vice President of the University of Auckland Students Association, replied by saying that language shapes the way we see the world. Misuse of offense can exclude communities and individuals, and therefore gratuitous offense is unacceptable. She pointed out that you can undermine your own arguments by being offensive - because offended, defensive people are unlikely to engage constructively with you. She closed by saying, ‘when you put a ‘but’ on the end of the motion, you acknowledge that there is no absolute right to offend.'
Next we heard from each of the panelists. Ken Auletta, New Yorker contributor, agreed that people are hurt by language, and that you have to be sensitive to that. There are trade-offs in real life - that’s why we have libel and copyright laws. He also said that who you offend matters: ‘we should be kicking up rather than kicking down.’
English comedian and classicist Natalie Haynes said ‘people’s lives can be disrupted by anything. I’m affronted by perfume, but I’m not trying to ban perfume.’ She went on to post the counter-question - ‘do people have an absolute right not to be offended?’ - before pointing out that you can’t always anticipate what people will be offended by. She told us an anecdote about writing for a television show, where she was challenged over her use of the words ‘commit suicide’. In the end they left the words in - and the one thing someone did complain about was the term ‘fancy sourdough bread’.
Indian/Canadian novelist and scientist Jaspreet Singh said that one of the most offensive events in his life was when his mother, who was translating his stories, changed one of them because it offended her. Free speech is part of our collective human heritage, and the right to offend is almost the heart of that - but all narratives need to be questioned. Hate speech has a silencing effect on marginalised people - but who is going to decide what is hate? Historically it’s the state itself that uses hate laws against the minorities it’s supposed to protect. Jaspreet said we need more speech, and better education. Human rights, when used selectively, may lead to genocidal consensus in society. If human rights are used consistently they can promote world peace.
Finally Nick Davies, UK investigative journalist, said that we live in a time when ‘there’s an industry of manufactured offense and it’s particularly vigorous on Twitter.’ He went on to say that ‘there’s a huge area of provocative, daft, offensive behaviour which we should tolerate. But I think there’s a tiny area which we should cordon off.’ Nick came up with three criteria for intolerable offensiveness:
In summing up, Jessica conceded that it’s difficult to impose limitations around free speech. Are legal limitations the answer, and if so, who do laws protect? Public outrage allows the people who speak the loudest to decide what offense is (remember mannequin-gate?), but not everyone has the same access to free speech.
Paul finished by pointing out that we’d heard the easy answer - ‘yes, but’. He argued that gratuitous offensiveness is the cost of free speech - in other words, that Paul Henry is the price we pay for Eleanor Catton.
After the debate votes were collected from the audience to see if we’d changed our minds about the motion. While the votes were counted the guest writers took comments from the floor. Some people’s voices shook with anger as they released their questions into the darkness. Why are people of my ethnicity persecuted? Why is my religion made fun of? Why am I discriminated against? The tone of the event changed sharply, from a highly intellectual discussion to a heartfelt plea for understanding. And it became clear that Paul’s earlier point - that the offended need not engage with what offends them - doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
At last the results were announced. As it turned out, when we entered the auditorium we were split fifty / fifty on the motion- and we left in much the same way. You see, none of us were given the option of ‘yes, but’.
My second zine, a collection of short flash fiction stories called Over The Edge, has been covered by the New Zealand Zine Review! You can check out the review here. If you're interested you can read the zine at Auckland and Wellington libraries - or contact me for your own copy ($10 plus postage).
Kids these days... are pretty talented if the eleven Class Comedians performers are anything to go by. The secondary school students delivered intelligent, funny sets that left me wondering if they'll join fellow alumni Rose Matafeo and Rhys Mathewson by going on to win the coveted Billy T Award yellow towel.
Read the full review on the Theatreview website.
When I was single in my early 20s there were plenty of fish in the sea. When I was single again in my late 20s all the fish had been caught or had migrated to other shores. I began to think pretty seriously about New Zealand’s man drought - what it meant for me, and what it means for our country.
I ended up finding a wonderful guy but that experience of being single stayed with me, and I decided to write an article that explored the more serious side of the man drought - a topic that’s typically been covered in a pretty light-hearted fashion.
As I researched the story it became clear that there’s an intellectual man drought within the physical man drought. Women are flocking to universities in much higher numbers than men, and are finding it hard to find similarly-educated partners.
The rise in education across the board, along with the trend of ‘assortative mating’ (whereby like partners with like) is also contributing to inequality in New Zealand, as people who are well-educated tend to earn higher incomes.
After a couple of false starts and with enormous thanks to co-author Russell Blackstock, who transformed the article and upped its relevancy by tying it into The Bachelor, the article was published in the Herald on Sunday today!
This is the first article I’ve ever had published in a newspaper. Huge thanks to everyone who helped me out by agreeing to be interviewed, providing industry advice or reading my endless drafts.
You can read the full article here: Intellectual man drought foils search for Mr Right.
It Follows movie review
It Follows: written and directed by David Robert Mitchell
I get pretty freaked-out during scary movies, so when my husband said he’d booked evening tickets for indie thriller It Follows I was terrified for the entire day. And as it turns out, I had good reason to be.
The film opens at dusk with a scantily-clad girl running from a house in fear. She jumps into her car and drives to the beach, where she sits at the water’s edge in the dark. When the sun rises the next day the girl’s dead - and it’s clear from the state of her corpse that whoever, or whatever murdered her is no ordinary killer.
Next we meet 19 year old Jay (Maika Monroe), an ethereal blonde from a lower middle-class family whose ambitions centre around finding a boyfriend. She dates Hugh (Jake Weary), but things take a nasty turn after they make out and she finds herself infected with the kind of STD that nightmares are made of. From now on wherever she goes, whatever she does, a shape-shifting entity is going to follow her - and it’s got one thing on it’s mind.
Like the chain letter from hell, the only thing she can do to get rid of the curse is pass it on.
The film riffs on the classic horror themes of teen sex, sin and guilt. But as tension builds it becomes clear that the central idea is the inexorable nature of death. From the moment we’re born it creeps relentlessly towards us - and we don’t know when it will strike. (If you have heart problems, it might strike while you’re watching this film.)
If the story wasn’t creepy enough the film’s set in Detroit, where rows of derelict homes - brick houses with shattered windows lining rubbish-strewn roads - give the film a surreal edge. The set-dressing adds to the dreamlike quality of the movie. The slightly grubby old lamps, TV sets and duvet prints of the interior complement the dour autumnal tones of the exterior, and set the film in an uncertain present. Even the entity moves at a slow, interminable pace as it advances through shots that look as though they could have been crafted by Gregory Crewdson.
And then there’s the score - an 80s-inspired synth freak-out by Rich Vreeland. It’s pure genius - but I, for one, won’t be buying the soundtrack.
I don’t need a CD to remind me of this move - I have the feeling that It Follows is going to be creeping me out for a while.
2023 Burns fellow Kathryn van Beek has an MA from Victoria University Wellington - Te Herenga Waka’s International Institute of Modern Letters. She is a winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize. Her collection of short stories, Pet, is available as a podcast, and her work has also appeared in Overland, takahē, Newsroom, and the Sunday Star-Times. She lives in UNESCO City of Literature Ōtepoti Dunedin with her two rescue cats.