Youth Leaders at Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival

UNESCO Youth Leader Charlotte Steel reports back on the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival, which she and Māia Tapsell participated in. The National Commission sponsored a panel discussion called ‘Te Reo Boom’.

Ko taku reo ko taku ohooho, ko taku reo taku mapihi mauria.

My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul.

Charlotte Steel (left) and Māia Tapsell.

From the 8-12 May, Ōtepoti (Dunedin) overflowed with writers and readers of all ages, cultures and backgrounds. Over the course of 36 events at the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival (DWRF), a book-hungry public was entertained and educated by both local and international authors. From a story-time train to an in-depth discussion of fake news, poetry readings to creative writing workshops, discussions with authors of memoirs, novels, historical fiction – this was a celebration of literacy that reached out to all members of society.

Literature has always been close to the heart of the city. Ōtepoti achieved UNESCO City of Literature status in 2014, becoming a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network – the first city in New Zealand to do so. Each UNESCO Creative City falls into one of seven designated themes: folk art, music, gastronomy, media arts, film, design, or literacy. Within each theme, cities endeavour to strengthen international and local links, engage with citizens, and foster interest and excellence in their specialised domain.

It is only natural that Ōtepoti would join its sister city, Edinburgh, in becoming a UNESCO Creative City of Literature. Lording over the Octagon – the very centre of the city – is a statue of Scottish poet Robert Burns, whose name is lent to the annual Robert Burns Fellowship. This gothic city has been home and host to many notable authors, including Janet Frame, Charles Brasch, and Hone Tuwhare; this legacy extends into the present day, with authors like Liam McIlvanney, Emma Neale and David Eggleton calling this place home. The city’s readers and researchers are well-fed by the Dunedin Public Libraries (Ka Kete Wanaka o Ōtepoti), the Hocken Collections (Uare Taoka o Hākena), Otago University Press and the University of Otago’s Centre for the Book.

The DWRF events I attended in the weekend were catalysts – thought-provoking, humorous, and open. Festivals like these are what are needed to sow a love for literature and language in our children, youth, and the wider public. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction – writing is a dynamic, joyful, tragic reflection of human lives in the societies that we create. Of particular note was an event on the final day of the festival called ‘The Te Reo Boom’, a panel discussion funded by the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO. Both Māia and I attended this event to hear kōrero from Scotty and Stacey Morrison, Paulette Tamati-Elliffe, and Komene Cassidy, four key leaders in the reo revitalisation movement taking place across Aotearoa. Guided by Guyon Espiner, the kōrero moved fluidly and stretched to encompass topics such as their personal journeys with the language, the importance of raising our children in the reo, and how te reo can be supported in its revitalisation. It was a dynamic, engaging event and I learnt a lot about te reo and how I can begin my own learning journey.

Following on from these events, on Saturday 18 March Māia and I both attended a youth volunteering day at the Araiteuru Marae organised by The Malcam Charitable Trust as part of Ara Taiohi Youth Week. Although I was raised in Ōtepoti, I had never been to the urban marae before. We were welcomed onto the marae with a pōwhiri and had lunch with about 30-40 other young volunteers. Together, we spent the day weeding, graveling, planting native trees, staining outdoor seats and cleaning. At the end of the day we visited the Shetland St Community Gardens and learnt more about the mahi taking place there. It was a really enjoyable day and a valuable learning experience for me.