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March 17, 2014 | by  | in Arts Books |
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NZ Writers Week Review: Writers Under the Stars

I’ve circled almost every event in my Writers Week festival booklet, but my course-related costs only stretch to a few worthy sessions. Writers Under the Stars was one I couldn’t miss. Featuring poet Robert Sullivan (ENGL201, anyone?), Eleanor Catton and science writer Marcus Chown, it promised exciting things: literary conversation about stars, space and the universe, coupled with poetry and hardcore science.

I arrived at the Carter Observatory absurdly early with my notebook in hand. It’s an odd place for a literary event. I think they self-combusted slightly as 60 pushy old people (and me) converged on their reception, but I forgive them. Seated in the small planetarium on seats that tilt back beneath a domed screen, Eleanor Catton enters the room to hushed titters of excitement (the other writers enter too, but just then, no one really looks at them). She’s wearing really great pants.

The room empties itself of light and stars pepper the screen above. Robert Sullivan, one of New Zealand’s most important and influential Māori poets, reads poems relating to the sky and its celestial bodies. He devotes the most time to his best-known collection Star Waka. His poetry really does suit being read aloud under the (fake) night sky. “Your Venus is a pinprick in the sky / who doesn’t understand the science of your sighs,” he reads, and the stars brighten as the line ends, pulsing and glowing behind planets. With the writers seated behind us at the edge of the room, their disembodied voices floating up in the dark are weirdly comforting.

Next, Eleanor Catton gives an incredible talk on the intricate patterns of the zodiac, its mathematical and musical structure, and the attributes of each sign. “Their meaning is always relational,” she says. Even though the system is endlessly complicated, she has the ability (duh) to communicate most complex ideas with beautiful, measured clarity. Traced outlines of the constellations waft across the screen as she asks philosophical questions that, as she demonstrates, the patterns of the zodiac boil down to: “What is the universe? Did we play a role in its making?” A weighty silence follows – we’re starting to feel really small, looking up at the blue clouds of the Milky Way – then a round of fervent applause. My mum, who’s been asleep since Robert Sullivan, starts waking up. (I made her come with me.)

Marcus Chown is the writer I’m most curious about. He writes for kids and adults about the universe and solar system, he’s done stand-up comedy, and his goal is to be able to explain enormous scientific concepts to anyone waiting at the bus stop. He talks us through 14 of his favourite images of the universe. “I was going to do ten, but I got very enthusiastic about it,” he laughs. Audience members who found themselves rather sleepy (my mum) suddenly perk up as his first image materialises. It shows a streaked bright blue surface. Chown plays a guessing game with the audience: “Is it lunar craters?” croaks someone down the front. “It’s Europa, the ice moon,” he reveals. He colourfully describes its core encased in thick cracked ice as the moon gets pulled and squeezed by Jupiter’s gravity. Beneath all that ice, there’s probably a 1000 km–deep ocean with tube worms the size of your arm wriggling along the ocean floor. These kinds of freaky, unforgettable details are what draw people into even the densest science – Chown knows it, and explains it all with flair. His last image ties the evening together neatly: a photograph of the view looking back towards Earth from deep interstellar space, the farthest-away view of our planet we’ve seen. “We now know there are actually more planets than stars, and yet, we only know of one that holds life – that little dot right there. And it’s wonderful.”

I doubt there are other literary festival events like this one. It was ambitious, but it worked. The three writers’ talks could have been helped along by a convener to prompt discussion, making for more of a cohesive experience. But I leave feeling contemplative and meditative, eager to appreciate science and literature as two parts of a whole, not as two separate things. I’m so keen to go look at the night sky, to try and recreate that overawed feeling, that I forget to get my books signed.

 ——

BOOKS WE THINK EVERYONE SHOULD READ, #1

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 The Great Gatsby has been called a bunch of things: the Great American Novel, Leo’s Best Shot at an Oscar, etc. In the glittering excess of the 1920s, people party all night, crash fancy cars, and drink to stay drunk. The decade of indulgence is on the brink of self-destruction and Nick Carraway, the narrator,​ sways between enchantment and despair: “For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened—then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.” In just 120 pages, Fitzgerald’s writing will compel you forward breathlessly, headlong into the fading glow of the Jazz Age where mo’ money definitely​ means mo’ problems.

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