I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe

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Well, that’s it for the current stint in Australia. We’ve achieved so much at the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) and University of Southern Queensland (USQ) since I came over for the initial 12-month residency in January 2016.

I’ve a few more gigs in London before Christmas, and then some exciting announcements to make going into 2018. Watch this space.

Hard to pick out highlights from the past two years, but among them I’d say:

But really there’s been too much to mention. (Like the roadtrip. The roadtrip!).

You can see some highlights here:

Thanks to everyone who made these projects possible and worked hard to let our teams explore all things wondrous and strange.

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A brief round-up on All Hallows’ Eve

I’m just back from Manila after flitting around Australia and the Philippines for a couple of weeks, running various events for libraries and art galleries. 7 flights in 8 days…that’s more than enough!

Zombies are people too - a survivor tries to escape the zombie hordes in Tullamore with a disguise
Zombies are people too – a survivor tries to escape the zombie hordes in Tullamore with a disguise and some pro-zombie sentiments

On the 10th and 11th of October, Parkes Shire Library ran our biggest and best zombie roleplay event to date, working in collaboration with three local schools, police, firefighters, and student volunteers from Charles Sturt University. We had two days of around 70 people taking part in a 4 1/2 hour unbroken zombie-fighting roleplay with real emergency services. You can see video from the news coverage at the ABC website. 

That event was the culmination of about a month’s work creating immersive theatre and learning activities in country libraries; you can find out more under the Finding Library Futures tag at this site. As the zombie dust settled, I spent a week training librarians around the region before flying to Sydney during the bushfires, which give the city a rather unnervingly apocalyptic skyline:

Sydney skyline - image via @peteresho's Twitter account
Sydney skyline – image via @peteresho’s Twitter account

The next day, I was off to Manila’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Design to give a talk and run another day of events. This included activities like making storytelling dice with comic-book panels on each face:

Teens make comic book storytelling dice at Manila's MCAD art museum
Teens make comic book storytelling dice at Manila’s MCAD art museum

The kids were very cool but it was pretty intense work – in fact, just walking down the street was pretty intense! Tho’ I’ve been to bustling cities in Peru and Indonesia, this was another level of wild traffic, wealth disparity, and sheer volume of humanity. Five minute taxi rides generated impressions that will take a long time to process. I felt privileged to be invited to work with the talented staff at MCAD and the youth museum Museo Pambata.

On my last night in the city, I went to a gallery launch but ended up sneaking off with another artist, Leeroy New (designer of a Lady Gaga dress, not the infamous meat one), to see his exhibition Gates of Hell, which I found utterly wonderful:

Leeroy New as Buddha encased in expanding foam
Leeroy New as Buddha encased in expanding foam

Leeroy’s transgressive, playful, pop-cultural take on the sacred had an impact as soon as you entered the room, yet when you ventured beneath the carapace of oozy foam which encased many of his holy subjects, there was a serious engagement with the numinous and transcendent. Gates of Hell reminded me of one of my favourite novels, Toby Litt’s troubling, surrealist fairytale-for-adults Hospital. With its psychopomps and defiantly rebellious bodies, its unyielding but indefinable laws of magic, It’s one of those flawed yet lingering novels – see this Telegraph review for a decent skewering of the flaws – which, despite it all, I can’t recommend enough.

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I loved Leeroy’s work for recalling the grotesquerie of Bosch as much as the claymation splurge of the British 1980s cartoon Trap Door. Gates of Hell marked a perfect balance between pop culture and traditional spirituality, those two rival paths towards a world beyond the everyday. No wonder Lady Gaga had Leeroy make wearable art for her.

After escaping the Gates of Hell, I chaired an evening panel on monsters in children’s literature for the New South Wales Writers’ Centre (you can see a great write-up here from panellist Nyssa Harkness) before finally flying home (my 7th flight in 8 days)…

To recover from all that adventure, I spent a long weekend in a darkened room with too many comics and now I’m back in the game. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s big interview/discussion piece on e-books, publishing, and the future of libraries…

Update: just to round off the festivities on this ghoulish night, you can find a six-minute recording of my piece There’s No Terror In The Carelessness of Flesh online at Soundcloud. Strictly NSFW – an adult exploration of blood, bodies, desire, and dismay. Happy Hallowe’en!

New tumblr at matthewfinch.tumblr.com

Click to see my Tumblr site
Matt at Coney Island Subway, March 2011

At the prompting of various friends and colleagues, I’ve launched a tumblr at matthewfinch.tumblr.com, where you can see photos and other media from recent adventures on the road in literacy, outreach and community education.

After this: more on my Antipodean experiences, Hong Kong visit and the long-awaited Scandinavian project. Stay tuned…

>Latest from Ayacucho, Peru: Pascuatoro and the running of the bulls

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Where do we draw the line between animal rights and respect for tradition?

In the Peruvian city of Ayacucho, bull running is a recent addition to an Easter celebration that goes back centuries.

You can find my latest piece, on the revival of the traditional pascuatoro, at http://www.livinginperu.com/features-2126-art-culture-lifestyle-running-bulls-ayacucho-peru


Telling Stories From Cultures Not Our Own

This week’s guest post comes from Eric Maddern, writer, teacher, singer, storyteller and mastermind behind the Welsh retreat centre Cae Mabon.

Eric – an experienced traveller and storyteller – kindly agreed to share his thoughts on ‘Telling Stories from Cultures Not Our Own’.

By what right do storytellers tell stories from Africa, Native America, Aboriginal Australia and other similar cultures? Isn’t appropriating and telling these peoples’ stories an extension of colonialism? We stole their lands and livelihoods; we decimated their cultures; we virtually drove them to extinction. Now we want to tell their stories. Isn’t this just the latest stage of colonial theft? It’s not surprising that some survivors from such cultures think so.

Storytellers who want to tell stories from other cultures need to be sensitive to this issue, in terms of both choice of story and where and when the story is told. It seems any story in print is fair game and therefore tellable. But first you have to find a story you like.

A storyteller may read dozens of stories before finding one he or she wants to tell. And then it’s not just a matter of liking it. You’ve got to develop a relationship with it. Learning it for telling requires effort. In time you must grow to love your story. If you don’t it won’t survive in your repertoire.

The more you love and relate to a story the more meaningful it becomes. It helps if you care about its culture of origin. You have to make the story your own, but in the telling you have to show an appreciation of its source. As you get inside the story so, to a degree, do you get inside the culture itself. The story should help you cultivate an empathy for the culture that you will convey in the telling.

It makes sense to look, initially, for stories from cultures you already have some relationship with, whether it be ancestral, geographic or perhaps through travel. Knowing what is your ‘own culture’ is not always easy these days. The mixing of bloodlines, geographic mobility and increasing globalisation mean that roots and influences can be many and varied.

I was born in Australia with Cornish and Scottish ancestry, spent my teenage years in England, travelled for ten years around the world through the Americas, the Pacific and Australasia, and now live in Wales. That’s quite a mix but at least it gives me scope to choose stories from cultures with which I have associations.

One of the biggest influences on me was the work I did in the Aboriginal communities of Central Australia. This led me to feeling great sympathy for the people. Not surprisingly the first story I ever told was an Aboriginal story. I wanted a tale that would convey the power and beauty of the culture. The story I chose came from ‘Australian Dreaming’, a beautiful coffee table book edited by Jennifer Isaacs. It was from the Dalabon people in northern Australia about how the rainbow bird stole fire from the crocodile.

The story was only a paragraph in length so I was soon embellishing it in the telling. I’d throw myself on the ground to become the crocodile, stand on one leg with outstretched arms to be the bird. After telling this story for years, my publisher – I was writing children’s picture books by then – asked for another story and I sent them ‘Rainbow Bird’. An artist was chosen and the book progressed to the point where ‘the galleys’ were done. The text and pictures were ready to be made into the book.

It was at this time that I went to Australia again, my first visit in ten years. Eventually I made my way to Katherine in the Northern Territory to visit a cousin who worked in Aboriginal communities. He took me to Manyallaluk where, it turned out, they knew ‘Rainbow Bird’ story. I had the galleys with me and so showed them to a young man who carefully read the entire text then said: ‘Come to me tomorrow and I’ll tell you the story.’

The next morning he dictated the story and made me write it down. He wanted to be sure I got it right. This meant I could ask questions for clarification. I wanted to know, for example, whether at the beginning the main character was a man or a crocodile. He was a man. The young man and his friend demonstrated the fire making referred to in the story. And I learned about the nits! It was a much fuller and more satisfying version of the story than my original.

But back in Britain my publishers couldn’t change the galleys, as it meant redoing the whole book. So the picture book remained based on the Dalabon version from ‘Australian Dreaming’, not the more nitty gritty, personal version I’d been given at Manyallaluk. Paradoxically, though it is the picture book I’m least satisfied with, it sells more than any other book I’ve done. Perhaps the title ‘Rainbow Bird’ has the appeal. Would it have sold so well if it had nits in it? Who knows? Fortunately I was later able to get the fuller version published in the ‘Young Oxford Book of World Folktales’ edited by Kevin Crossley Holland.

I was lucky to track down my first story to its source and to be given both a fuller version and, it seemed, permission to tell it. Very rarely will storytellers be able to do such a thing. Even though I feel I have permission to tell the story I’m still careful about where I do. I feel OK telling Aboriginal stories in Britain where there are very few Aboriginal people to speak for themselves. But in Australia I’d be more cautious. If I was trying to get white Australians to appreciate Aboriginal culture it might be fine. But if there were Aboriginal people present I probably wouldn’t, or at least I’d ask them if it was OK first.

Paradoxically I now live in Wales and am often called upon to tell traditional Welsh legends and folktales to Welsh kids and sometimes adults. Perhaps here the difference is that very few Welsh adults can tell the traditional tales and they enjoy hearing them told well. Also, the time when those stories were a really live part of the culture is, for most people, long ago, so there’s not so much of an issue about ownership and rights any more.

But in other cultures – the Native American for example – the stories are still very much a live part of their culture. Although plenty of their stories are in print and therefore available for retelling (always bearing in mind the context), if you hear a Native American storyteller tell a story which you’d love to tell, you must ask for permission first. And don’t expect it to be granted. Or if it is it may come with a condition. For example I once asked a Lebanese storyteller if I could tell a story she’d told which had been written by a Palestinian man for his daughter. ‘You can tell it,’ she said, ‘As long as you tell it better than I do!’

So we have to be sensitive in choosing the stories we tell. Those in the public domain are, by and large, available to tell but, as always, need to be appropriate to your audience. Preferably choose stories where you have some personal connection to the culture of origin. Develop a relationship with the story. Get inside the story and let the story get inside you. Be cautious about telling someone else’s story where it’s clear they’ve done a lot of work on it. You must do your own work to make it yours. And where the story is particularly personal – either culturally or autobiographically – leave well alone. There are plenty of stories to choose from. Find ones you love and love them into life.

Find out more about Eric Maddern’s work at www.ericmaddern.co.uk

>Rimaykullayki!

>Rimaykullayki…or, ”hello'” in Quechua!


After my three month project with Behind the Book in New York, I’m now in Ayacucho, Peru, delivering professional development and curriculum advice for staff at San Domingo Savio School.


Books and Adventures will continues to feature its usual mix of articles and interviews, but for the next month or so, you can also find a personal account of my Peruvian experiences at La Vida Idealist.


Stay tuned to Books and Adventures for charter schools, New Zealand Book Month, science teaching in the USA, Super Grannies and the secret of Finland’s education success.


But drop in on La Vida Idealist if you want to know the meaning of this picture…

>Nnedi Okorafor: (Re)Writing Destiny

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Next month’s issue of the New York arts journal Brooklyn Rail features my review of Nnedi Okorafor’s new Young Adult novel, Akata Witch.

I think Nnedi is one of the most important YA authors writing in English at the moment. Her books blend science fiction and fantasy in epic adventures, which draw heavily on African culture and beliefs. Zahrah the Windseeker, Nnedi’s Wole Soyinka Prize-winning debut, is my all-time favourite book for young people. I wrote on it a few months back, here.
Raised in Chicago by Nigerian parents, Nnedi was a teenage tennis star forced into more sedentary pursuits by a bout of scoliosis when she was at college.
When we met on my recent trip to Chicago, she told me: ‘I would not be writing but for the paralysis. I’d never have thought to pick up a pen. I was only nineteen, really athletic, but scoliosis painted my life.
‘It was like destiny making me write. It was terrible, brutal and completely changed my life in a very specific way. Destiny is brutal, it does not care about you.’
Destiny, and the limits of our freedom to question its demands, is a major theme of Akata Witch.
Its hero, 12-year-old Sunny, is an American-born girl who moves to Nigeria with her parents. As an albino and an akata (a derogatory term for black Americans), she is an outcast within her community. Yet when she begins to develop strange powers and joins the secret society of Leopard People, it seems Sunny may have a part to play in saving the world from apocalypse…
Nnedi freely admits she’s a fan of putting teenage protagonists through the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell: ‘I LOVE the hero’s journey. I can’t get enough of it. Coming of age is a magical time, in-between, full of conflict. And writers love conflict!’
What makes Akata Witch stand out from other fantasy quests, is the marginalized quality of the heroic protagonist. Sunny is not ‘the chosen one’ nor even, like Harry Potter, a key player in the battle for the survival of the world.
When Sunny and her friends are sent to frustrate a child-murdering sorcerer’s attempt to summon a monstruous spirit, they are merely one more team in a long line of failed, dispensable young magicians.
Sunny is explicitly told by her elders that she is effectively cannon fodder: ‘The world is bigger than you are, it will go on without you.’
Destiny seems to have brought Sunny from the US to Nigeria to discover her powers, but it doesn’t guarantee her survival, or even victory.
As Nnedi puts it, ‘Destiny has always been something I’ve been fascinated with, but also resisted. Is everything written? And even if it is, can you rewrite it?’
I’ll be featuring more from my interview with Nnedi on Books and Adventures in the month of April, and you can find my review in the forthcoming issue of Brooklyn RailAkata Witch is released in the US by Viking Juvenile on April 14th – find out more at Nnedi’s site.

Coming soon on Books and Adventures: charter schools, interviews with Finnish Education Minister Henna Virkkunen and Super Granny Sally Wendkos Olds, guest writing from Eric Maddern, and reports from Peru as I begin my new project training teachers in Ayacucho.

>I’ve become THAT kind of jet-setter…

>So, I’m in Chicago for 36 hours, mostly to interview the great Nnedi Okorafor, and I’ve finally reached that point where there’s no time for exploring.


Chicago Skyline by J. Stephen Conn. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Nnedi and I met at Yassa, a great Senegalese restaurant on the South Side of Chicago, and the sum total of my Chicago tourism has been the journey out there from O’Hare Airport. 

To be fair, it was a pretty epic journey, involving 2 trains and a bus which wound through a rather desolate low-rise stretch of boarded-up and barred shopfronts. On the bus, a Vietnam veteran began to lecture a group of teenagers who were skinning up right under the driver’s nose.

‘I’m glad to see your education ain’t going to waste,’ he growled sarcastically. But the boys were smooth talkers and somehow the vet’s stern monologue on the importance of getting an education was turned around until he was admitting that he didn’t mind the occasional toke, and it all ended in hugs and handshakes. 

When I stepped off the bus and through the door of Yassa, the world seemed to come alive. The restaurant is bright, welcoming and decorated with displays of African goods, from sculpture to musical instruments and even perfumes! 

The television was tuned to Africa 24, and despite my best attempts to dredge up my schoolboy French, I’m afraid their political pundit’s commentary escaped me.

Between the sorrel drink and maffe (a kind of lamb stew), I was totally sold on Yassa’s menu. Nnedi’s grilled tilapia looked great too, although I figured it’s bad manners to take food from the plate of the person you’re interviewing!

I hadn’t realised that African restaurants also serve as general stores for African clothes, music and African DVD’s, so I was pleased to pick up a Nollywood movie about a crime-fighting female journalist – although they didn’t have Nnedi’s recommendation, Warrior’s Heart.

Despite all this adventure, I’m going to be told off by my friends when I return to New York. 

‘You didn’t do the architectural boat tour?’ 
‘You didn’t go to Hot Doug’s?’ 
‘You didn’t go to Do the Moon Hop at Late Bar?’ 
(My friends all have very different ideas of what constitutes a good time).

But there’s work to be done, so I’m sitting in the Holiday Inn Express, with a terrible coffee and a lot of writing to be done before they kick me out at midday. I’ve finally become that kind of jet-setter. 

It’s probably good that I haven’t activated my Twitter account – I might mutate into one of those terrible corporate travellers who spends all their times tweeting complaints about the Chicago transit system or the quality of hotel breakfasts.

Much better to celebrate yesterday’s fine meal with one of the greatest living writers, and crack on with the day job. 

If I’m lucky, there’s time for a pilgrimmage to the Threadless store. As New York continues to mutate me into a hipster, I feel the need to buy this shirt. Don’t you?

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Next time on Books and Adventures: more news from New Zealand Book Month, reports from a Q&A with charter school pioneer Geoffrey Canada, and, of course…Nnedi Okorafor.