Auckland Writers Festival announces 2021 lineup with local authors the focus

A Nobel Prize laureate, a Booker Prize winner and one of the world’s most celebrated fantasy authors will share the spotlight with dozens of Kiwi authors at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival.

After being forced to cancel the 2020 festival due to lockdown, the country’s largest literary festival is staging a massive comeback, with around 170 events planned across six days in May.

Marquee events include Nobel Prize for Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguro and activist Ai Weiwei beaming into the Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre in one of the many ways the festival has been forced to adapt in the pandemic era.

Festival director Anne O’Brien said that normally they would have around 40 international guests as part of the line-up but the closed borders means that is simply impossible.

Instead, New Zealand authors are set to dominate the festivities, which will take the festival back to its core kaupapa.

“The festival was founded by New Zealand writers, and its core mission is to bring more audience to New Zealand writers’ work and to support them in their writing careers,” O’Brien said.

“Our kaupapa is as strong as it ever was, and this is a wonderful opportunity to bring that to the forefront.”

The number of events planned is down from the 2019 festival due to the financial constraints, but O’Brein said the goal is to create a celebratory feeling inspite of that.

The lineup this year includes The Girl in the Mirror author Rose Carlyle, crime writer Ben Sanders, former refugee Behrouz Boochani and local writing legends Fiona Kidman, Patricia Grace, CK Stead and Witi Ihimaera.

And while the borders are closed, in typical Covid-19 fashion, a number of international guests will take part via video, including last year’s Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart.

The festival still wanted to feature some international flavour in person. O’Brien said that when it was clear the borders wouldn’t be open in time, they embarked on a “treasure hunt” to see which international writers were in New Zealand.

They uncovered about 20 guests who are set to take part in the festival, including popular fantasy author Neil Gaiman and his partner, singer Amanda Palmer. The two ended up locked down in New Zealand after Palmer’s tour last March coincided with the borders closing.

“I’ve been trying to get Neil to the Auckland Writers Festival stage for 10 years, have not been successful, so to have him here and this opportunity is just really exciting,” O’Brien said. “He is a master of story and a great celebrator of story and books and libraries and writing.”

She said that it has been a real blessing in the middle of the challenges of the past year to discover how much talent has been quietly working away in New Zealand during the pandemic.

The festival will also host the New Zealand premiere of Blindness, a new immersive audio-theatre production adapted from José Saramago’s novel. The production, voiced by Juliet Stevenson, premiered in London’s Donmar Warehouse last year.

O’Brien said they selected the piece as it requires no international talent or crew to enter the country.

“I was excited to bring a theatre piece of this standing from London into New Zealand. I see this as a gift to Auckland and to the country to present a work of this status.”

The play can be staged during level 2 – one of the ways the festival is preparing for any further complications from Covid-19.

A number of Auckland festivals this year – including Fringe Festival, Arts Festival and Lantern Festival – have already been affected by the two lockdowns, and it is a situation organisers here are hoping to avoid.

While there are digital elements to the festival, O’Brien said that a level 1 situation is necessary for them to be able to deliver the full festival experience – with a move to level 3 unfeasible.

Their goal, she said, is for a live, in-person festival that allows them to celebrate New Zealand’s literary success.

“We really wanted to create the same vibrant feel that we do in any year, and we’ve pretty much nailed that.”

The Auckland Writers Festival runs May 11-16. Tickets go on sale March 12.

• Canvas will feature an interview with Juliet Stevenson this weekend

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