Flying Fetu: A writers festival for our people of Te-Moananui-a-Kiwa
N'Khaya Paulson Moore (Ngāti Maru ki Hauraki, Ngāruahine, Ngāti Pūeknga) reflects on a week deep in the Moana as she shares what it was like being apart of the Flying Fetu Writers Festival; A literary festival unlike any other before.
Ki roto, ki waho.
I sit with my hands fanned in
my ghost-bone fingers
stretching into the vā,
the neverending space
spread between each finger.
Writing is an awkwardly intimate experience for me. My speciality is in personal essays—so I write about the experiences I’ve had in different countries, with different friends, whānau, and anyone else in between. The first complete manuscript I’ve ever drafted only came to fruition at the end of last year, and it was full of painful, personal stories about my upbringing. I cried my way through writing those fourteen essays, and I haven’t looked at them critically since I handed them in and got them back.
I wrote one more personal essay this year about abortion. After that, I felt depleted, honestly wondering why I was using pain to bring stories to life. There was a natural end to my obsession with getting my personal stories onto the page, and I lost my direction.
And so became the theme of my life in general, actually. I got lost. I stopped asking for guidance from my tūpuna. I stopped checking in with myself spiritually. I fell straight into te kore, unsure what else of significance I had to say. There was no more joy in crafting the near-perfect essay. I’m immensely proud of the work I’ve created, but shit, dude, there’s only so much a nearly-26-year-old can realistically write about.
Most people would call this writer’s block. When I try to describe how story ideas come to me it’s an intuitive process. A sentence will distract me from work meetings and I’ll scramble to jot it down in my Notes app. Sometimes a character stands out in my imagination and tells me who she is, what she likes, and how she behaves. Sometimes, an opportunity pops up on my social media feeds, and I’ll give it a quick glance. Then I’ll give it another look. Next thing you know I find myself googling it because I’ve lost the page link and it’s been on my mind for the past three weeks.
The last time that happened to me—entertaining the possibility of an opportunity—was when I applied to do my MA in Creative Writing. It gave me my book of essays.
So when I re-checked the application deadline for Flying Fetu and realised it was the exact day I chose to revisit the page, I knew I had to submit something, anything, to try and get into their writer’s labs.
Ki roto, ki waho.
the eyes of ghosts
rest upon my face,
upon the faces of those
with blood that sings
louder than mine
watching the faces of those
who sing back to my blood.
The Flying Fetu Writer’s Festival is the brainchild of Grace Iwashita-Taylor and Lana Lopesi. Tired of attending writer’s festivals where kaituhi Moana-nui-a-Kiwa were limited or boxed into their own corner, the duo decided to put together a festival where Moana writers were the centrepiece of the entire experience. The art of telling stories has been central to our Pacific cultures for centuries—so why do we find them in such small spaces? The answers to that question are too long to put into this essay (and the people reading this will know those answers off by heart anyway), so I’ll instead come back to Grace and Lana’s story.
Grace is a well-known figure in the Pacific arts community. She wrote Afakasi Speaks and Full Broken Bloom. She’s also a theatre giant, but if you ask her to be on the stage again she will tell you a variant of “absolutely not”, as I discovered over the four days we spent with her. Lana is of a similar stature, now lecturing at the University of Oregon. Her collection Bloody Woman has re-shaped the way I look at essays now.
At the festival, Grace said a friend of hers told her to redirect her fire to make something for the writers who whakapapa back to Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, in one way or another. This festival was her and Lana’s answer to that question I raised earlier. And that’s how ten of us blossoming writers found ourselves at the Basement Theatre on a cloudless Wednesday morning, waiting outside on the stairs and benches while Grace profusely apologised for being late (she wasn’t). Not even an hour later, we were in an intensive writing workshop with Victor Rodger.
We spent the next three days in writing workshops with Victor, Crystal Vaega, and Ruby Porter. Two hours each with established artists who each had something of significance to share with us. With Victor, it was about creating the characters of our worlds to the point where they became their own people; with Crystal, it was about getting the story on the page and just fuck it, put it all on there; and with Ruby, it was about slimming down our stories to their best parts.
It goes without saying that it was time well-spent. I learnt that my main character’s theme song was, confusingly, I Can Do Both by Todrick Hall (“Ooh, cancelled,” Victor said when I told him my choice). I learnt that sometimes art is hard to make, but never impossible, simply because you don’t have the money (“Maybe you can tell us more about the funding side from your perspective,” Crystal mentioned after I told her where I worked). I also learnt that not every word you write is necessary, or even good, but it’s worth exploring (“I like that you mentioned teeth in your line,” Ruby said of my admittedly painful attempt at trying to write a detailed smile).
Ki roto, ki waho.
Hine-tūrama scatters her children
across the room,
their sunset-stained mouths
reading stories to us that
she has known for centuries
Our writer’s labs culminated in a public reading and the official kickoff to the Flying Fetu Festival. By then, I’d written over 7,000 words of a new fiction project in six hours across three days.
I’m going to say that us ten writers who had been in the labs had become friends by then, and if we weren’t by Friday morning, we certainly were by Friday night when we squeezed ourselves onto two red couches, facing an audience who were ready to hear some of what we’d produced in the labs. Beforehand, I spent two hours pacing skittishly downstairs in front of the bar at the Basement Theatre. I eventually moved my frantic pacing upstairs, shoving my bag onto one of the couches, gnawing a piece of gum so rigorously I could feel my teeth touch every time I chewed down on it. I was fiddling with my fingers, staring at my uneaten lunch, afraid that if I ate it I’d throw up.
Each writer I’d been with over those days gave me words of encouragement, boosting my morale, but it was Zech’s words in particular that struck me and are still with me:
“If you’re nervous about it, it means you really care about your work.”
Nicole’s grounding word of the day—“wine”—also sticks with me, because she was holding a glass of it when she said it, and our nervousness broke apart to make way for relaxed laughter.
And so we read, with warm yellow lights beaming down at us, comforted with the knowledge that the people we shared this experience with were right behind us.
reminding us to
ki roto, ki waho.
I could tell you all so much more about Flying Fetu Festival, but I think I’m running out of space to explain, so I’ll give you some highlights:
Watching Tusiata Avia read new poetry about The Big Fat Brown Bitch.
Hearing Victor Rodger read a short story about a disgruntled writer watching his smarmy writer ex wax lyrically about the vā.
Watching Michel Mulipola demonstrate A WRESTLING MATCH in front of us, telling us why it also counts as a story in its own rights.
Seeing Jahra Wasasala use dance to embody Dra, a being not of this world.
Laughing with Rosanna Raymond, a Pacific Sister, as she told us why being an outlier is certainly not the worst thing you can be in the arts world.
Each and every artist who shared their craft, their stories, their processes with us were all from the Pacific.
As we closed the festival on pō Rāhoroi, I felt the urge to cry, and I had to remind myself to breathe. There have been several moments over the last month where I’ve felt the need to cry, and have indulged in it, but this one emerged from the connectedness I felt with the artists who shared the space at Flying Fetu. For the first time in a long, long time, I felt the full presence of my tūpuna. I saw our tūpuna sitting in the theatre with us.
I just can’t think of any other word to describe my experience except “thankful”. I am so thankful for Grace and Lana for holding space for us, from the baby writers all the way to the legends, and for carving out a place in the Aotearoa literature scene so we could shine. I’m incredibly humbled and awed by the writers I met and worked with at Flying Fetu—their talent and their drive to create cutting edge stories blew me away. Their work will spring to life in the wider world and live long, healthy lives within the Pacific cannon Grace and Lana have created here.
In the future, I encourage all of you to attend the Flying Fetu Festival. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how bright the whetū shine until you take the time to look directly at them. For me, it was a strong reminder that stars shine brightest when they’re together—something I’ll remember the next time I feel myself falling into te kore.
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.