Our New Zealand cohort has been steadily growing in number, and they’ve been busy! This month, I caught up with three 26ers to hear the latest developments from last year’s Dear 26 project.
For those who remember it, the pleasure of writing a letter (a real one on paper) is surpassed only by the pleasure of receiving one. Once upon a time, it was letters that broke hearts, changed fortunes, gave advice or divulged secrets. In every unassuming envelope was the potential for emotional dynamite. Dear 26 is a tribute to the art of letter-writing, bringing together fictional characters in impossible conversations.
Launched last year, in the midst of lockdown, this is the first 26 project to originate in New Zealand, with 12 of its 26 letter writers in Aotearoa. The remaining 14 posted from imaginary letter boxes in the Czech Republic, India, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Switzerland, the UK and the US.
Each writer was randomly assigned a letter of the alphabet and asked to choose two fictional characters whose first or last names begin with that letter, an alphabetical roulette which, on paper at least, risked favouring some more than others. The constraints, though, worked their magic, producing imaginative exchanges from the unlikely and yet fruitful pairings of the Queen of Hearts and Quasimodo, Philip Pullman’s Xaphania and Marina Warner’s Xanthe, Shakespeare’s Yorick and Capote’s IY Yunioshi, Zaphod Beeblebrox and Zorro.
The final bundle of Dear 26 letters connects classic and contemporary characters, including Eeyore, Micawber and Frankenstein, Owen Meany and Voldemort. It also travels countries and centuries with authors from Murakami to Strout, Sally Rooney to Janet Frame, Conan Doyle to Flaubert. You could be in Jane Austen’s Regency ballroom one minute, Hannibal Lecter’s cell the next.
The letters were launched on social media, Instagram and Twitter, and revealed, advent style, one a day in the lead-up to Christmas. Each post linked to the Dear 26 website where you can now read all the letters and find out exactly who said what to whom. It culminated in an international get-together via Zoom (what else) with the chance to raise a glass or a cup, depending on the timezone.
Since then, 26 NZ has been busy. An early conversation with the trustees of the Whanganui Literary Festival (check it out if you don’t know it, Whanganui’s on the west coast of the North Island, a couple of hours north of Wellington) has become a programme of Dear 26 events as part of its fringe festival during late September and early October this year.
It will open on Wednesday, 29th September, with an audience with Sir Bob Harvey who, given the letter W, wrote from Dr Watson to Whaleman. He’ll be reading from his letters, talking inspiration and taking questions. He may even sign the Dear 26 book which will be on sale afterwards (more of this later). The event will be the gateway to the Dear 26 Exhibition, The Art of the Letter, on display in the city’s Alexander Heritage Library throughout the festival. Later, on Friday, 1st October and on Monday, 4th October, there will be Dear 26 workshops, one for adults and one for children/young adults run by Dear 26ers, using letter-writing for fun, creative language sessions.
When it comes to the Dear 26 book, discussions about stock, cover design and print runs are already underway, with the aim of having it printed, bound and on sale to 26ers as well as Whanganui Lit Festival goers by September. It promises to be a thing of beauty. Just like a book of letters should be. The owner of Unity Auckland, New Zealand’s leading independent and award-winning bookshop, has already put her hand up for a few copies. Next stop Unity Wellington. Whanganui’s libraries will also take copies and Dear 26 events will be promoted in the run-up to the festival which attracts audiences from throughout Aotearoa New Zealand. We’ll be looking at ways to bring a taste of the festival to anyone who can’t be there. So, more news to come.
For now, thanks to everyone who raked through their real and remembered bookshelves to find their characters and the common ground which might unite them. Well done to Auckland writer, Andrea Malcolm, whose witty and beautifully-written letter from Candide’s Dr Pangloss to T.S. Eliot’s J.Alfred Prufrock earned her a place on the shortlist for 26’s Project Writer of the Year Award. And well done to everyone who took part in and supported this ambitious, equator-crossing exercise in community and creativity. Thank you for your willingness to work across timezones, for applying yourselves so enthusiastically and for writing so brilliantly. John, Ed and Richard, thanks for putting in the extra miles to make it happen. Here’s to many more.