Short Story Conference

By Tony Eyre | Posted: Thursday October 5, 2017

The New Zealand Short Story had its very own conference in Invercargill in early September and Athenaeum committee member Philippa Duffy and myself trekked to the deep south for a literary feast of a weekend.

The conference was the brainchild of former Poet Laureate Vincent O’Sullivan who encouraged the Dan Davin Literary Foundation to host this first conference for many years devoted solely to the NZ short story. In fact, quite possibly the last occasion when this was the focus was in 1978 in Wellington when ironically Dan Davin was visiting New Zealand and took part in a seminar on “The New Zealand Short Story.”

Southland born Dan Davin was a distinguished short-story writer, novelist, war historian, critic and publisher at Oxford University Press for over 30 years. His legacy is kept alive in Invercargill by the Dan Davin Literary Foundation who so capably hosted the Short Story Conference.

Dunedin also lays claim to Dan Davin who gained his degree at the University of Otago in the 1930s and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship which he took up at Balliol College in Oxford. Dunedin is featured in some of his fictional writing. Just a few metres from the Athenaeum Library you can find Davin’s plaque in the Octagon’s Dunedin Writers’ Walk.

The three-day event kicked off on the Friday night with the Dan Davin Awards Ceremony for the winners of the annual short story writing competition. Their stories were published in the following day’s Southland Times. Keynote speaker was Professor Janet Wilson from Oxford who has been a major influence in the study of Davin’s work.

Other keynote speakers over the weekend were distinguished writer Dame Fiona Kidman who spoke on the importance of NZ short story anthologies and Tracey Slaughter, an award winning short-story writer and teacher of creative writing at Waikato University.

Twelve papers, both academic and personal, were presented over the weekend. Dunedin contributors were the current Robert Burns Fellow, Craig Cliff and poet and PhD candidate Majella Cullinane who is working on her own collection of short stories.

Other literary notables present at the conference included novelist and short-story writer Owen Marshall who took part in a panel discussion chaired by Auckland University creative writing lecturer Paula Morris. Doyen poet Kevin Ireland of Auckland delighted his audience on the art of updating the glossary of The Salamander and the Fire – Davin’s collected war stories which are to be republished.

Invercargill’s grand Civic Theatre was the venue for the first two days and there were plenty of opportunities to buy books authored by many of the conference speakers, thanks to Philippa Duffy and Dunedin’s University Book Shop.

The final day of the conference was held at the Te Rau Aroha Marae in Bluff with its stunningly rich designs and carvings by artist Cliff Whiting. The marae sessions were appropriately brought to a close by Cilla McQueen’s reading of Dan Davin’s short story Bluff Retrospect.

The short story, with its traditions and departures, holds a special place in New Zealand literature and I think that this conference has made a significant contemporary contribution to the study of the genre.

A question to ponder from the conference – as readers, are we neglecting the NZ Short Story? As noted by Fiona Kidman and Paula Morris, book sales of our own story collection collections and anthologies are at an all-time low. Morris posed the question, “Are we a nation of writers rather than readers, no longer prepared to undertake an apprenticeship in reading – or support the form we claim for our own?”

The next time you pop into the Athenaeum Library you might like renew your interest in short story collections or anthologies of our New Zealand writers. See what librarians Christine and Jackie can dig out for you – perhaps a Fiona Kidman or Owen Marshall to whet your appetite.

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