May 24, 2016

Carmen Aguirre at AWF 2016: "Mexican Hooker #1"

Amber from Parnell Library tells us about discovering Carmen Aguirre and why she thinks you should too:

Are you put off by the title Mexican Hooker #1? If you are, you shouldn’t feel alone – it was a feeling I came across in more than one person whilst mutually flicking through the Auckland Writers Festival programme. While you shouldn’t feel alone, you should probably feel regretful, though, because this stiffness likely kept you from encountering the almost disconcertingly interesting Ms. Carmen Aguirre.

Often the first thing you will learn about Carmen Aguirre is that at a young age she was raped – it is unpleasant, it is painful to read about, painful to think about. It seemed confusing to people I encountered -- to give a book concerning your most abject memories a name so blunt, so tongue in cheek, so tacky, even. What is she thinking, a rape victim, referring to the sex industry in such a cavalier manner?? Perhaps those people are uncomfortable confronting their own misgivings about the differences between rape and sex. Fair enough.

However, you needn’t be uncomfortable, because Carmen definitely isn’t. She is incredibly matter of fact, pastoral even, as she relates to you her experiences with a diverse range of violence. In an hour with Carmen Aguirre, a person previously unfamiliar with her work (ie, me) will learn that she is a woman who has lived a life unimaginable to some (ie, most New Zealanders). A political refugee under Pinochet’s regime from the age of six (her family relocated to Canada) and a member of the Chilean resistance from 18, Aguirre’s life was always going to feature danger, trauma and the processes of “healing” – whatever that might be and however it would come about.

For Aguirre, theatrical training precipitated this healing process, and Mexican Hooker #1 is an account of the dual experiences of becoming an actor (a very early calling) and being propelled into the therapeutic work of reconfronting and reappraising her rape. Aguirre travels to meet her rapist, the infamous John Horace Oughton, a kind of ‘bogeyman’ figure in the Canadian cultural landscape known as the ‘Paper Bag Rapist’, and for many this begs some questions, mainly, "Why?" If you’ve read any recent coverage of Aguirre’s book, you will likely know her answer – “Because I’d like to meet the man I’ve been in a relationship with for my entire life.”

Her answer encapsulates what is so fascinating about her life, her holistic and realistic attitude towards her experiences, and what is so brilliant about her title. Mexican Hooker #1 is a title that Aguirre says she had to fight her editors for, and I was happy to hear that because I love it. Aguirre sums it up with candor: the title is what it is because she literally played a character named “Mexican Hooker #1”, because she found herself completely and utterly typecast with no roles for women of colour on stage or television other than those very similar to ‘Mexican Hooker #1’, and lastly, heartbreakingly, because when she was raped at 13, her rapist called her ‘hooker’ repeatedly.

If you think it all sounds a bit heavy, and are expecting an incredibly morose autobiographical depiction of a tarnished life, absolutely don’t. As well as being matter of fact, Carmen Aguirre is hilarious, and my favourite moment was her quip about those who write for catharsis, “If you are writing for catharsis, you are not writing – you are masturbating”. Her language was rather more colourful, but you get the idea. I happen to completely agree, and at that moment I fell in love with her.

So yes, it is ‘heavy’ but don’t worry -- she is not writing for catharsis, she is not gunning to make you cry. Aguirre’s story is also impressive, entertaining, and very true. Aguirre referred to herself as ‘a person who writes plays for brown people’ and recognition of the purposeful, material value of her work is important. She says (I’m probably misquoting, but never mind) that her parents always told her that if you are not working for your community, then you are not working in the right way. But while her story, and her writing, is important for victims of sexual assault, for women of colour, for actresses, for refugees, it is valuable to anyone. And if you're not intrigued by a woman who was part of a revolutionary movement and who can make you cackle within the context of confronting the issue of rape, then I wouldn't know what to offer you.

You can, and really should, read Mexican Hooker #1 and Aguirre's first book, Something Fierce.


May 23, 2016

Patrick Evans at AWF 2016: "The literary club"

Maria Mitenkova from the Readers Services team at Central Library reads and studies New Zealand literature, and this wonderful session chaired by Kate De Goldi was her first -- and singularly wise -- choice from the Festival line-up. Here's her report:

Prior to this session, I only knew Patrick Evans for his scholarly work. I might have read a couple of his articles on Janet Frame, and I liked his The Long Forgetting: Post-colonial literary culture in New Zealand, a must-read for the paper on New Zealand Literature I took last semester at Auckland University.

Despite the common stereotype of academics, that they cannot write, there have been enough examples of scholars engaged in writing fiction, and I’m sure a few of them have even done well. For this reason, I was not too surprised to learn that Emeritus Professor Patrick Evans, who taught New Zealand Literature at the University of Canterbury for 46 years, is also an author of novels and plays. It might even be fun and entertaining, I thought, remembering his academic texts as notably accessible and not at all dry or tedious.

It was fun, indeed. The audience could not help but laugh as Patrick Evans read an abstract from his fourth novel The back of his head, a hilarious and troubling satire on literary fame featuring "a white male author behaving badly". Critics have regarded the book as “nasty funny”, the author said modestly but with dignity. As in his fiction, he was smart and funny in his talk, so that the atmosphere of the session quickly livened up.

I really liked his dry intelligent jokes with a blank expressionless face. Especially the ones that I got. As often happens with deadpan humour, at times it is hard to say if the speaker is being serious or not. He is a great storyteller, I thought. His lectures must have been fantastic. Lucky students!

Meanwhile, Patrick Evans seems to be happier outside of academia, enjoying the spare time he can finally devote to his fiction. “An academic career prevents writing”, he smirked in answer to the question on wearing the hats of both a writer and scholar. “University work is stressful, demanding and exhausting, so you cannot really do much.”

When asked to comment on modern New Zealand literature, Patrick Evans said he wished local novels were less middle-class and more based on New Zealand literary tradition. Why should a novel be nice? Why should a character be likeable? Why does one need to get pleasure from reading? What if there is no happy ending?

He encouraged New Zealand authors to be braver in their writing and push the boundaries of what is moral by saying yes to wild, crazy, wonderful stuff. “How do you get people to read such texts?” was a question from the audience. “People’s minds have to be changed”, he replied authoritatively, “their reading habits need to be reassessed.”

Feeling absolutely thrilled after the talk, I immediately bought Patrick Evans's third and possibly most acclaimed novel, The gifted, which, I learned, is loosely based on Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame, two New Zealand classics whose fiction and life stories have both excited me hugely since long ago.

It took me a while to make my way to the author to get the book signed. Not because of a long queue; rather, it was the time Patrick Evans spent talking to each of his readers. I was fully rewarded when he talked to me just as much, quietly responding to my praise of his scholarly work with the same serious face and a wry intelligent smile.

-- Maria

May 20, 2016

Jane Smiley at AWF 2016: "A life's work"

Liz from Regional Collections made a long-time good intention into a reality when she went to hear Jane Smiley, and she was not disappointed. Exactly the opposite! Here she tells us about why:

I first heard Jane Smiley talk on the BBC World Service Book Club discussing her Pulitzer Prize- winning A Thousand Acres, a version of the King Lear story set in Iowa. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since, but as is so often the way, never got around to it. I jumped at the chance to hear her in person at the Writers Festival, and thought I’d better make a start on reading at least one of her works, if there were any available with the Festival fast approaching. Saved by an e-book, by the time her session came round I was well immersed in the life of Iowa farmers in the 1920s, as depicted in Some Luck, the first book in her ongoing "Last One Hundred Years" trilogy.

Jane Smiley is tall – “you should see me in my 2 inch heels” she said, but the thing that caught my eye was the somewhat retro jumper she was wearing. It turned out that she had knitted it herself, using what she said was a typically Iowan product – knitting wool made out of soy husks. Her wide-ranging literary output includes among other things, an essay on knitting, "Why Bother?", in Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting.

Interviewed by Paula Morris, Jane Smiley gave us many fascinating insights both about her personal life and also about reading, writing and the novel. It is tempting to try to list them all, but that would not capture the wry, laconic delivery that made her so entertaining.

Paula Morris’s praise of Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel led to a discussion of the role of the novel. Smiley said one of the things she truly loved about the novel is the sense of freedom it gives -- “The more novels you read, the greater your inner life is…. you are more likely to think for yourself, and less likely to follow others”. She saw Richardson’s Pamela as a breakthrough work because it gave women a voice for the first time.

"One Hundred Years" has a large cast of characters and the story is told from a variety of points of view. In answering the question of how she managed to achieve these many voices, Smiley said she belonged to a large gossipy family, and there was nothing she and her siblings liked better than getting her aunts and uncles to tell stories of their childhood. Each would tell the stories from a different perspective – “No,that’s not how it happened - it really happened this way… ” and would also have their own theories on what made others in the family tick. “Your mother always thinks that….” Smiley saw this environment, where the description of an event changed with the storyteller, as a natural upbringing of a novelist.

While she thought listening was the first step in being a story-teller, she felt the first step in becoming a novelist was reading. However, for her the motivation to write came from her insatiable curiosity to find out why things happened the way they did. Only one of her 60 books was written from her own experience (presumably Moo, the novel set in an American university in the midwest). The rest cover a staggering range of subjects and styles – a novel about medieval Greenland, Horse heaven, set in the world of horse racing, young adult novels and a number of non-fiction works including The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasof.
The extent of her love of “finding out things” is revealed by her praise for a weather site which gives a hundred years of daily weather readings for the Midwest. Just the thing you need if you are writing a year by year account of farming life in Iowa.

Jane finished her session with a reading from Golden Age, letting us hear the voices of the modern day members of that Iowa farming family. It was evident from her reading how much she loved her characters, with all their quirks and flaws.

If, like me, you haven’t quite got round to reading something by Jane Smiley, don’t put it off anymore. You are bound to find something in her prodigious range that you will enjoy. And if you don’t like the way the author thinks, you have the freedom, as Jane advocates, to quietly put the book aside, and leave it.

-- Liz

May 19, 2016

Michael Grant at AWF 2016: Front Lines

Chelsea from Central City Library tells us about getting to hear one of her favourite writers of all time at the Writers Festival, and taking a turn at the mike! 

Whilst I sat waiting for Michael Grant’s session I eavesdropped on two older women sitting next to me. The one closest to me was asking her friend who they were seeing, with the reply being, straight from the festival programme, "Michael Grant who has written over 150 books for children and young adults". Part of me was so pleased that these women were taking a chance on an author they didn’t know but another part of me wanted to sit them down in a corner with Gone for a few hours so they could see what they’d been missing. Grant then came in, a suave man with a cool American accent, who immediately made a joke about his glass of water being vodka. I decided this was going to be a great session. 

After a brief introduction from Jane Higgins, reading reviews of Grant’s books, the emotive book trailer for Front Lines was played. Against a backdrop of images of war a girl’s voice is telling us why women enlisted, that they were not heroes, they were cold and scared and just doing their part. This is the premise of Grant’s latest young adult novel, an alternative history where women are allowed to enlist for World War II.

Higgins asked Grant what drove him to write Front Lines to which Grant answered, rather honestly, that one reason is marketing. There’s a market for strong female characters but he was tired of the dystopia genre so wanted to move beyond that. His second reason is that he cares a lot about history even though he comes ‘from a country indifferent to learning anything from history’. Grant has a healthy cynicism for American politics but it is also clear that he is very knowledgeable. He explains his research process of reading books on WWII, visiting museums, going inside submarines to get a feel for them and even shooting guns in Las Vegas. Grant is funny, with jokes for both the teenagers and adults in the audience. Such as ‘spoiler alert: the Nazis lose’ and joking that America got into WWII late when it was still possible to make money off it.

Despite the violence in Grant’s books he actually doesn’t approve of guns. He told an animated story of how he bought a gun as a young man because he was convinced that a man who had beaten him up was going to kill him. However upon showing the gun to his family he accidently blew a hole in the floor, not realising that the gun was loaded. This shocked Grant, realising that he could have accidently shot a family member, so much that he traded the gun for a camera and never looked back. In his books however Grant doesn’t shy away from real action and violence, starting from 'Animorphs' up till his more recent series. He explains that he’ll write so ‘you hear the bones cracking’ which elicits an audible gasp from the woman next to me. I sincerely hope that she isn’t regretting her decision to see Grant.

Grant also touches on his 'Gone' series, explaining in a nutshell that it’s about a small town that one day has a dome appear over it and all those over 15 years old have disappeared. You can imagine the chaos that ensues. It is not that unlike ‘Under the Dome’ except that Grant wrote ‘Gone’ first. Grant says he’s been criticised for having such young characters do awful things but he says it’s because ‘an 11 year old with a gun and vodka is scary. If they were 18 it’d just be another night in LA’. When asked why he kills off characters he explains that his characters are his employees and sometimes they’re just not performing. He also says that he needs to be realistic, that you can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg. I really appreciate his honesty here and his fantastic metaphors. Super fans will be pleased to hear that Grant is working on a new book set in the ‘Gone’ universe and that there will be some characters who cross over into this new book.

Finally comes question time and I make my way over to the microphone, even though I am sweating buckets. I thank him for writing books that I can recommend to teenagers, and especially boys, in the library. I then ask him what young adult books he would recommend. Grant replies that he actually steers away from young adult books as he doesn’t want them to affect his writing but he does recommend the author Andrew Smith. He then gives some lovely praise to his wife Katherine Applegate, whom he challenged to win the Newberry Medal. She did with her 2012 book The One and Only Ivan. As I sit back down the woman next to me tells me ‘Great question, well done’ and I decide that I quite like her. The session wraps up and upon leaving I see Grant signing books and chatting to teens and I think what a cool and intelligent role model he must be for them.

-- Chelsea

Janna Levin at AWF 2016: Gravitational Sensations

Looks like Gareth from Digital Services did well in his choice of AWF session -- and also in writing it up for us! Here's his definitely not-boring post:

Janna Levin's talk was a nice break from the usual panel discussions and one-on-one interviews that customarily fill up the schedule of a book festival. Instead she presented an audience-friendly lecture on modern physics - in particular the recent breakthrough recording of gravitational waves washing over the planet earth from the collision of two black holes in a distant galaxy.

Sound boring? Fortunately it wasn't, since Levin chose her metaphors wisely and had plenty of video clips to bring her monologue to life. Though you might have to excuse my ignorance as I breeze over the highlights of her talk (without much knowledge of physics to back me up!).

Levin spent the first half of the lecture just trying to open up the audience's mind to what gravity actually involves. Rather than being an all-powerful force that holds us to the ground, she asked us to imagine first that our natural state was weightlessness - it was actually the objects in our way (the ground beneath our feet) which stopped us drifting in one direction or another. To illustrate this point, she played a segment of an OK Go music video, which was filmed on an airplane in free-fall, allowing the band to move about in weightless suspension:

It was nice to have moments of levity like this, though her point was more subtle - she was gradually building a picture in our minds of Einstein's view of physics, which portrays gravity as curves in space-time that gradually pull on our otherwise weightless position. Hence, if you are in an airplane traveling at the same speed as this pull, you achieve the zero gravity as in the video above.

All this was a nice prelude to the actual subject of her talk - the scientific attempt to record the gravitational waves that hold us down - a subject covered in more detail in her book, Black Hole Blues and other Songs From Outer Space. It follows the path from Einstein's first theory of gravity through to the creation of one of the world's most sensitive scientific measurement instruments, which was created specifically to test one of the predictions of the theory. In particular, Einstein's theory suggested that a large enough cataclysm in the universe might cause a ripple big enough to "pluck" the gravitational curves that cross over our own planet.

In order to record such an event, scientists created LIGO - a four-kilometre long section of concrete pipe, with lasers running between tiny mirrors at each end, which would then be able to track a movement in the earth's gravitational field. In fact, there were two sister sites - each on opposite coasts of the US, so any instantaneous changes could be detected. The price tag? A cool US$620 million!

Fortunately they actually achieved their goal late last year and announced their finding in February of this year! You can hear their result in the following little clip - a fairly unassuming little sound for all the build up Levin had given it!

What is possibly more interesting to the lay reader is the personal stories of the scientists who made this discovery possible. The first idea for this experiment came in the fifties and it has taken decades of argument to convince the wider scientific field that such an experiment was useful or even likely.
Levin has the skill to interweave the science and the story of the scientists together in a way that is very approachable to a general audience and hence her talk made me very keen to check out one of her many books.

It was great to see that she also had quite some skills at handling left-field questions from the audience. In the midst of a run of serious questioners, one chap stood up and asked how it was that a beautiful woman such as herself decided to get into the unusual career of astrophysicist.

There were jeers from the audience, but Levin simply smiled and said that it was better that such ideas were brought out into the open, given that some members of our society do believe that a women's main goal is to be beautiful. In contrast, she said her parents were feminists and that she therefore didn't believe in such a goal from the outset. Her response was a final display of her sharp intelligence, which is able to cut through to the truth of the matter no matter how complicated or how banal!

-- Gareth

May 18, 2016

Fiona Farrell, Brian Turner and Joe Bennett in "Another country?" at AWF 2016

Is the South Island "another country"? Carolyn from Regional Collections knew there would be no one answer from the panellists at the eponymous AWF session, but also that all the answers would be interesting. She tells us about them here:

Brian Turner (photo: Declan Wong)
I joined the long queue of people waiting to hear Fiona Farrell, Brian Turner and Joe Bennett talk about what it is like being a South Islander in a country where they are a minority (only 23% of the population) with some trepidation - I was born and bred in Auckland, but know from living in Hamilton for 12 years that Aucklanders are often the butt of cruel jokes from those living south of the Bombay Hills, let alone the Mainland. However, I was eager to attend, largely due to a long-standing respect and love for the artistry and intelligence of Southern wordsmiths and artists. Moreover, as a teenager I found refuge, enlightenment and entertainment in the works of many Te Wai Pounamu writers including Ruth Dallas, Keri Hulme, Owen Marshall and Janet Frame.

The session commenced with a brief introduction by the chair, Jesse Mulligan (a Hamiltonian), followed by readings.

The first reader was Fiona Farrell, born in Oamaru but now predominantly living in Christchurch. She read an excerpt from her latest book, The Village at the Edge of the Empire (2015), which was shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. This factual work, the first of a planned two volumes of which the second will be fictional, looks at the rebuilding of a city (in this case Christchurch) and explores the themes of nostalgia and lost landscapes. She encouraged the audience to bask in the familiarity of local places like their corner dairy. She knows from bitter experience that you never know when they might be gone.

Brian Turner (born in Dunedin), poet, author, environmentalist and an expert in many fields including rabbiting, cycling, playing hockey (he played hockey for New Zealand in the 1960’s) and mountaineering – took the floor next. He is also by his own admission a political being and is not shy about chastising the North for its culpability in the ‘despoliation’ of the South in the name of progress (the proposal for increased daily helicopter landings on Mt. Tutoko Glacier and the trend towards lifestyle blocks were among those cited). He read an extract from his book: Boundaries: people and places of Central Otago and then quoted environmentalist Paul Kingsworth in The Guardian online (17 August 2009):

“Yet very few of us are prepared to look honestly at the message this reality is screaming at us: that the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it. Instead, most of us – and I include in this generalisation much of the mainstream environmental movement – are still wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present….”

Turner also referenced A short history of progress by Ronald Wright from The Massey Lectures (2004) in which the author discusses the impact of technology, population and consumerism on nature. In closing, Turner quoted from Margaret Atwood’s Payback: “Nature is calling in her debt, and nature calls last.”

The final reader was Joe Bennett, born in England, but who has lived in New Zealand since 1987 and who now resides, with his dog, in Lyttelton. He continued Turner's theme, asking the audience to indicate if they believed that the human species would be around in a million years. No one raised their hand.

Bennett believes that the South is not visceral to home, but that through reading and literature we know we are not alone. He read from the short story ‘Cabernet Sauvignon with my brother’ by Owen Marshall.

After the readings, throughout the session, Jesse Mulligan acted as Devil’s advocate, asking the panel a series of provocative questions, including:

"Why don’t you move to Auckland?"

Turner replied that he panicked too easily to live in Auckland, and that although he enjoyed walking around cities he needed to hear the silence and sounds of the open country and breathe in proper air. For him two of the most affecting words in the English language are love and home, and home is where the heart is. Fiona Farrell commented that she loved the diversity of New Zealand and that she split her time between Christchurch and a beach in the Banks Peninsula. She also mentioned her strong bond with Oamaru and in particular the limestone cliffs, which had deep historical significance and gave her a sense of belonging. Lastly Joe Bennett noted that it had never crossed his mind to move to Auckland, sharing an entertaining story of how he came to live and work as a teacher in the South Island.

Discussion continued about the unbalanced portrayal of the South Island in the media – that it was often depicted in a patronising manner as a beautiful place, not often visited and that even the word “South” had negative connotations – as it is always referring to down (Down South). One of the panellists mentioned how one of our most widely-read national magazines failed to properly cover the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquake, instead focusing on public health and other miscellaneous issues.

"Is there a South Island personality?"

Brian Turner began by saying yes and referred to the poem ‘Country Pub”. He described Southerners as being more taciturn than their northern counterparts, and more pessimistic, but genuine – they listen with sincerity and are more humble and less expressive (although he did concede that some of these expressions can relate to other people besides those from the South Island).  Later he read out examples from a list given to him by his son which include a few disparaging characteristics his son attributes to Aucklanders, such as that Aucklanders are condescending and disconnected…. Hmm…. 

Fiona Farrell then talked of clichés about the South Island, and gave the example of television advertisements that use the image of the South as a natural paradise to push their products. She mentioned one cheese advert in particular, where the beautiful lake depicted was in reality a toxic wasteland in need of urgent care. She added that there is a myth about the South which is comforting to urbanites, but that we must all fight to keep the clichés a reality.

As always Joe Bennett added a bit of humour and common ground to the discussion. He began his response with a few rhetorical questions. Are South Islanders grumpier than North Islanders? Are the two islands becoming more homogenous? He believes that New Zealand is less dogmatic than some countries about what our distinct characteristics are, and he believes that it is not necessary a bad thing. New Zealand is an immigrant, multicultural country, as evidenced by Auckland City. He said he did not want to make generalisations about the North or South, believing there were no distinctive differences between them.

The discussion moved to Southland art and artists, and exhibitions important to them. Graham Sydney and Tom Fields were mentioned several times, and also the rock drawings on the limestone outcrops in South Canterbury. Jesse Mulligan asked what the South Island offers the artist. Fiona Farrell talked about the positive impact of low rents in Dunedin and the resulting artistic output. Joe Bennett mentioned that he didn’t have a particular artist in mind but mused on the possibility of someone capturing the vista of Burke’s Pass in painting.

The session concluded with questions from the floor and it was here that Brian Turner confided that it was James K. Baxter‘s poetry that inspired him to start writing.

At the end of the session, Jesse Mulligan asked the audience if they thought you could still be a Southerner and live in Auckland. Many raised their hands.

I stepped out into the familiar space that is Aotea Square feeling a little chastened, enlightened, challenged, and irritated. Not bad for a one hour gathering.

-- Carolyn

Jeanette Winterson at AWF 2016: The Gap of Time

Renée from our Sir George Grey Special Collections spent Sunday morning in the company of Jeanette Winterson and... over a thousand fellow Winterson enthusiasts gathered in the ASB Theatre. Here's "The Winterson's Tale" as told by Renée:

Well, Jeanette was amazing.

It was a sunny and fresh Sunday morning and the festival atmosphere was suitably sparkly out on the café terraces, but the crowds were nevertheless eager to get inside to hear Jeanette Winterson talk about her latest book, The Gap of Time. But this was no ordinary talk – and I’ve had this confirmed from Festival goers more experienced than myself – Jeanette’s event was really more of a performance, and a wonderfully engaging and uplifting one too.

She appeared onstage alone, sans interviewer and comfy chairs, to Cyndi Lauper’s "Time after Time". Next came some thundery audio snippets of what must have been Leontes raging in The Winter's Tale – a little hard to follow, to be honest, but I forgave it because I knew her novel is a retelling of the play and we all love Shakespeare in Auckland right now. And then she began to talk about Shakespeare, in a wonderfully anecdotal, digressive, and poetic way, about why The Winter’s Tale was the only possible choice of plays for her to retell in the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Because of her own adoptive history; because it has an abandoned baby “at the shining centre of it”.

So she talked about Shakespeare, and how he also loved to rework and re-tell his stories, and how in The Winter’s Tale he takes the themes of betrayal, revenge and tragedy from Othello and King Lear and instead of devastation and loss, creates an opportunity for the restoration of love through forgiveness.

And then she read from the book, and at first I found it odd, because the Jeanette Winterson I remember loving as a teenager was all poetic and oblique (think The Passion and Sexing the Cherry) but this was an action scene, set in a fictional New Orleans, with tyres squealing and gunshots. And with onstage sound effects! Surprising, but she really did bring it to life.

And that was just the fish-hook. What she read next (Chapter Two) was a perfect description of love and loss as experienced by the narrator: the life-changing experience of a first baby and the impossible fact of his wife dying. I cried, and if you’ve loved or experienced grief you might have too.

After that it was questions, which Jeanette also somehow managed to make transcend the ordinary. The first one asked about Shakespeare and how difficult was it to turn the high drama of the play into a novel. Jeanette cleverly used this as a jumping-off point for another passionate monologue, about the importance of language in allowing us to express our thoughts and feelings “because when we can’t find the words, that’s when we really struggle”. Woven into this was the importance of education…. and so she brought it back to Shakespeare, whose work gives us the big words and the big stories, so we can give voice to our big thoughts and feelings.

It was clear to me that what I was enjoying was a pretty polished performance - after all I’d heard Jeannette herself deliver some of the same lines in her radio interview with Kim Hill just the week before. But this didn’t diminish the experience at all. She came across as a smart, funny, sincere and feeling person, and she inspired her Sunday morning devotees to a standing ovation.

-- Renée 

May 17, 2016

Michel Faber at AWF 2016: "Strangely Human"

Todd from Central City Library chose Michel Faber's session, 'Strangely human'. Here's his account:


As I watched the irreverent author Paula Morris – here in her role as interviewer – struggle to attach the battery pack of her over-the-ear microphone to her person, I noticed that the two chairs and table that furnished the stage were positioned between two giant potted plants. Faber sat down in his chair and clasped his hands across his lap and waited for Morris who found her seat still clutching the battery pack. When she remarked that the blame for her blunder lay squarely with the one-piece dress she was wearing, I could’ve been forgiven for believing that the ‘Between Two Ferns’ universe I’d just stepped into was quips all the way down.

Yes, the quips did come – mostly from Morris, who, at one point, went to that ANZAC place Kiwis inevitably go when they come face-to-face with an Australian (Netherlands-born Faber did a stint in The Lucky Country before moving to Scotland with his late wife Eva). I don’t recall the specifics of the jibe but something about Australia’s convict past comes to mind.

Faber, good-natured and warm, went along with this, as he did with all of Morris’s questioning. In fact, what became quite clear to me during the hour-long interview was just how good-natured and warm Faber was. Sure, he’d written numerous well-loved books and short story collections (his first novel Under the Skin was published in 1998 and adapted for the screen in 2014) and much had been made of them (Faber’s publisher urged him to apply for British residency to be eligible for the Booker Prize pending the release of his critically-acclaimed tome The Crimson Petal and the White in 2002). But what I got from Michel Faber was much more than just his writer self; more than the author reading (quite entertainingly) from his most recent – and stated, last – novel, The Book of Strange New Things.

We got deep into the world of Faber: his time spent as a nurse; his attitude to religion (he’s non-religious but fascinated by what religion provides for people in times of “un-endable grief and suffering and nightmare”); insight into his marriage to Eva with anecdotes including one about Scotland’s constant cloud cover being the couple’s dream weather scenario; his pastime of composing music, and even the existential wall he hit during the Abbott era in Australia, when he questioned literature’s ability to bring about meaningful change in the world, when no one with any real power seemed to read or value reading.

Fortunately for the book lovers of the world, Michel Faber worked through this crisis of faith. He mentioned that he now believed literature’s value lay in its ability to affect the reader in modest ways like in the quiet of an afternoon. None of this sounded trite or maudlin passing Faber’s lips. Nor was it saccharine when he read three heartrending poems from his forthcoming poetry collection, Undying, about his life with Eva just before she died from cancer in 2014, to an audience of complete strangers. I can say without a doubt that Paula Morris’s tears weren’t the only ones shed in the room. The tenderness of this final five minutes was sanctioned by everyone present – no doubt due, in big part, to the openness and affability of this former recluse named Michel Faber.

As the session concluded, Faber hugged Paula Morris, and I thought about how good he is at the end. About when I read the final sentence of The Book of Strange New Things, exactly the kind of asphyctic line that made the time spent inhabiting the world of the novel worth it – even if it was only in the quiet of an afternoon.


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