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LOCAL FOCUS – Out in Booktown

Known for attracting readers from near and far, this year Featherston Booktown’s annual programme embraced diversity in all its forms, including featuring its first pop-up art and book installation.

The vision of artist and poet [and former Featherston resident] Sam Duckor-Jones, the back of the town’s Anzac Hall was bedazzled with a pink and queer theme, and renamed “Gloria”.

Sam Duckor-Jones with his papier mâché creations at the pop-up Gloria installation.

“For me, queer art is playful and silly and camp. It still has artistic power and merit, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously,” Duckor-Jones said.

“Much of my life I’d been known as quite a serious person but that’s just because of shame, and I really had so much silly silliness and camp bursting to get out.”

The Gloria pop-up is a temporary taste of its permanent doppelganger in Greymouth, where Duckor-Jones moved in 2021 after buying a building there – the cheapest he could find in the country – which he named “Gloria”.

He quickly set to work painting the old church bright pink, something that wasn’t to everyone’s taste.

The revamped pink Gloria church in Greymouth.

“There were definitely a few raised eyebrows about the colours I’d chosen,” he said.

“I still think of it as a sort of a holy space, specifically for queer people, and queer artists, and young people to just feel good about themselves and just feel seen and celebrated.”

Duckor-Jones wanted Booktown attendees to fully immerse themselves in the experience of the pop-up Gloria, rather than being just passive viewers.

“Straight people are totally welcome to come and enjoy queer art. It’s like it forces you, the audience, the viewer, the participant, to also just relax into your own silliness.”

Featherston Booktown chair Peter Biggs was keen to bring a greater range of viewpoints to the annual literary gathering.

“People like Sam make our lives richer, we’re very conscious that a more diverse community is a better community, and that a welcoming community and a tolerant community is good for everyone,” he said.

Duckor-Jones’ installation was just one of more than 52 events at this year’s Booktown, which was held mid-May and included readings, opportunities to meet authors and booksellers, and – for the first time – activist discussions.

Activist panel featuring Black Power member and social justice advocate, Dennis O’Reilly, sex worker champion Dame Catherine Healy, Māori leader Liz Mellish and Young New Zealander Personality of the Year Shaneel Lal.

“We thought, ‘How do we start to push the envelope further?’ It is the activists who push and shape a better world. They are restless people, they are challenging people,” Biggs said.

One such panel featured Shaneel Lal, this year’s Young New Zealander of the Year.

“It was a space that allowed everyone to share their views, irrespective of what those views were, and be challenged in a manner that was constructive rather than aggressive,” Lal said.

Shaneel Lal

And while there was plenty of healthy debate, Lal admitted to being surprised at how the open-minded Booktown spirit had permeated the rest of Featherston.

“I must say that my ignorance has really been challenged,” Lal said.

“I was of this mindset that coming to a small town would mean that people would be more conservative. However, I found that people here are quite open-minded and really receptive to new ideas.

Sam Duckor-Jones with his dog Tammy and Shaneel Lal.

“When you bring people who are queer, people who are young people who are not white, people who are progressive and challenge the status quo, that makes people uncomfortable,” Lal said.

“However, people who are able to sit with their discomfort and reflect on why they feel uncomfortable are going to be people who are able to keep up with the change that’s happening in our country.”


Phil Stebbing
Phil Stebbing
Phil Stebbing is Wairarapa’s Local Focus video journalist. He regularly covers in-depth stories on arts, culture, people, health, and the occasional cat.

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