15 Minutes With: Peter Wells

His book Journey to a Hanging has just been longlisted for the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

LGBTQI Writers’ Festival founder Peter Wells.
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LGBTQI Writers’ Festival founder Peter Wells.

Novelist, playwright and filmmaker Peter Wells wrote New Zealand's first gay-themed work published under the author's real name with 1991's award-winning Dangerous Desires and his Journey to a Hanging has just been longlisted for the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He's launched the country's inaugural LGBTIQ Writers Festival –  samesame but different. Interview by Mike Alexander.

LGBTIQ is a bit of an alphabet soup.  Do you think it accurately represents gender variants in 2015?

It's trying to be inclusive - often for people who feel left out of the equation. ('Lesbian gay bisexual transgender intersex queer" for those people scratching their heads …) And it goes from totally secure, highly-motivated successful people to refusniks who only exist online. I am as amazed at human variation as I am at the things we have in common. But what does a married man who is bisexual having sex on the downlow have in common with an out dyke who is head of a corporation? I sometimes wonder. 

Where do you honestly think New Zealand is at in terms of accepting such a diversity of sexual orientations?

I think it varies highly according to geography. I live in both Napier and Auckland. Napier is where MP Geoff Braybrooke felt so secure of expressing local sentiment he took an aggressive line against homosexual law reform. The prejudice still lingers down there.  New Zealanders like to think of themselves as cool and progressive and I think this generally helps. But you only have to glance at LGBTIQ youth suicide statistics to know there is a huge distance to travel.

When your short story collection Dangerous Desires was published in 1991 and you put your name to it, it was a pivotal moment for the gay rights movement in New Zealand.  What's your perspective?

I was always influenced by something American author Edmund White said. You dream up a free social space, talk about it, invest in it and you help create it. A book like Dangerous Desires, with an author using his own name, was long overdue. 

You had directed the incredibly moving and ground-breaking A Death In The Family, based on the story of a friend of yours who died of Aids, five years before.   Were the arts a way of helping you define and accept your own gender identity? 

Yes, art generally is a great way to comprehend and illuminate a dilemma. This is what pisses me off with John Key paying only the slightest lip service to the arts while creaming himself about the All Blacks. Art is thought condensed into an act. We desperately need thinkers in Aotearoa New Zealand. We need to think our way out of a whole lot of dead-ends that are the product of a creaking, breaking down industrial system that we inherited from the 19th century, along with a divisive colonisation. But I never really think of my gender identity, to be honest. It's just who I am - faults, virtues, the whole human mess. 

Why 'samesame but different' as a catchphrase for the inaugural LGBTIQ Literary Festival? It's almost like asking, "is this a real Rolex" and getting the answer "yes, sir, same same but different".

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Well we now live in a blended world, in what has been called 'the gentrification of being gay'. There are all those same sex weddings which function as both tribal acknowledgment of an indelible bond but it's also buying into a consumerist heterosexual nightmare. So increasingly we are 'same same' as everyone else - we all have families, many LGBTIQ people have children these days, we are consumers - but there is always a difference. Most of us had heterosexual parents. Rejection was part of the way we saw the world. We had to grow strong or wither inside. The difference is really a valuable perspective as you are constantly seeing how people operate, attempt to marginalise or, to be positive, as in my appearing here in this column, to accept.

What was the personal motivation behind putting together LGBTIQ Literary Festival and what do you hope it achieves?

A little like the Auckland Writers Festival which I helped co-found, I want 'samesame but different' to be an exciting event that makes people think about sexuality, difference and community, stretches their understanding, gives them a few laughs and creates a slightly magic space for three days in February.

Is it true that for someone who has such an eloquent and powerful writing voice that public speaking has "hidden terrors" for you? 

Yes. As a school boy at Mt Albert Grammar I was relentlessly bullied for my voice. It inhibited me from speaking up. I was forced inwards. But the upside is that's how I became a film maker, a writer. Even now when I face a room I hear a distant echo of the jeers and sneers from what is really half a life time ago. But then I do my breathing exercises to calm myself down, open my mouth and do what I am trained to do as an out gay man - speak.

 - Sunday Star Times

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