Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: Sandi Toksvig's evening

"I find life funny."

"Life is funny."

"Funny things happen."

-- Sandi Toksvig

Once again, the Writers Festival teaches me not to judge people by their book covers. Or maybe even by their books! How many times, as we descended the stairs, the ASB Theatre being packed to the brim for this event (and the brim of the brim being where the lanyard holders like me sit), and through to the end of the Festival, did I hear people saying that they had not read Sandi Toksvig's books and had not even now added them to their must-reads lists, while at the same time expressing one or another variation on what Sean Plunket, chair for the session, quoted Festival Director Anne O'Brien as having said about Sandi Toksvig after having heard her at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, "She should rule the world!"

Sandi Toksvig? Who is Sandi Toksvig? Am I the only person who didn't know? Her name is Danish but she's the host of  The News Quiz on BBC, her books have chick lit-ish covers and as with chick lit there are many, many of them, yet one of her latest is about the Boer War, hardly a chick lit preferred setting or era... gleaned from the library shelves and the Writers Festival programme, that's about all I knew about Sandi Toksvig, when she bounced out on stage.

Well! There was a lot more. She grew up in New York where her dad was The Foreign Correspondent for Danish TV - not having the budget to plant correspondents around the world, the intelligent Danes decided to plant just one, at the United Nations. During the course of this growing up, she got thrown out of three schools and "I was bored". But then, sent to boarding school in England, isolated by her differences, she found a bookstore and began reading. Hardy, Dickens, Austen.

And writing? "I'd always scribbled. My whole family writes. I just went into the family business. If my dad had been a butcher, I'd be selling you chops."

When she started her new show on BBC TV, the next day the comment from the organisers was "Good news. No complaints". She points out, "A 56-year-old man -- no one would have had any problems. A 56-year-old woman, they can't believe I'm still breathing".

Which brought her to one of my favourite lines of the evening, probably because I am a woman of a certain age myself. "What I like about women of a certain age is that they can't be bothered to dress things up anymore".

Why the Boer War as a setting for her novel Valentine Grey?

"The Boer war was interesting because 1) it was the first war Britain fought where the average soldier was literate, and 2) it was the end of the British Empire -- people asking why their boys were dying, for what?"

Also, a lot was happening in terms of women's liberation at the time of the Boer War. Bicycles, for one thing. Women were working, as telephone operators, as typists. They needed to ride bicycles to work, and "you couldn't wear corsets and flounces on bicycles". The protagonist of Valentine Grey is an adventurous woman who changes places with a gay soldier and goes to fight in the war in a bicycling regiment.

Toksvig came out as a lesbian in 1984, the first lesbian in public life to come out, she says. She got death threats, and she and her then-partner having three children, had to get protection, go into hiding.  I choked up when she described her public event wedding (actually a renewal of civil partnership vows, for bureaucratic reasons), on the day same-sex marriage became England and Wales. "I wanted it to be free, not by invitation. Two thousand people came, and when I came in on my daughter's arm they all stood up and cheered."

"What makes you outraged?" Sean Plunket asked.

"Girls in Nigeria. Casual racism. Casual homophobia. Fundamentalism, because it doesn't allow for the diversity of human thought."

"What does the future hold?" (slight editing by me who just doesn't like the term 'bucket list')

"Lose two more stone. Travel more. There's always things I'd like to learn. The most exciting is the thing you didn't expect."

The most exciting event I went to at the Auckland Writers Festival was "An evening with Sandi Toksvig".

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: Alice Walker

Guest post by Ella, Readers Services, Central City Library.

The great author and activist Alice Walker came out on stage to a standing ovation which she received graciously. Alice Walker is clearly used to provoking a strong reaction. She was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, but in her words “not the first to deserve it”. She is a polarising figure, considered by most to be a national treasure, but one whose radical politics and individual worldview challenge the norms of conventional society.

Alice Walker’s most famous novel The Color Purple was much acclaimed, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award in 1983, but has always been controversial and was censored throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. These days the book is a modern classic, but to Walker’s bemusement it is still banned in North Carolina. She suggests she may go down there herself and ask them why. She seems to be joking but she’s a person so strong in her convictions that I wouldn’t be surprised if she really did.

Walker’s powerful stage presence was striking and had me fascinated from the moment the interview began. Selina Tusitala Marsh was a wonderful interviewer and really got a lot out of the author. You could tell that there was a lot of mutual respect between the two women. Their discussion covered a wide range of topics from the writing process and personal growth, to global issues such as the environment and world politics. Feminism, particularly the role of indigenous women, was a key part of the conversation.

Walker is a self-described “democratic womanist” which means that she’s dedicated to making changes for women through government, and by helping people of colour and the poor. Walker thinks that the only way to do this is through the creation of a radically different political system and the inclusion of women in politics. For Walker it is a type of “feminine wisdom” that the world needs to tune in to in order to live on this planet without destroying it. She talked about women’s circles as a mode of engaging with other women and the community to make positive change happen. “Womanism” is Walker’s term for a specifically African-American brand of feminism. The term is related to the word “womanish” that she describes as denoting a kind of “sauciness or bodaciousness”. “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” she says.

Alice Walker has a holistic view of the planet, and Buddhism is very influential on her philosophy. Gardening, walking, silence and contemplation are all important parts of her life and her creative practice. Meditation has become an important part of her writing process, which she recommends to everyone. Walker turned to transcendental meditation after a divorce which she described as a time of “intense suffering” and meditation was something that helped her to “connect with something real”, and gain consciousness, as well as find out what really matters in life. Walker has always had a love of story and believes in the magic of writing and its power. It is through her writing that Walker is able to share this “consciousness”.

Alice Walker is a rebel and Selina Marsh asked her where she got this willingness not to conform. Walker responded that she has always felt that she had a right to be herself. She compares herself to a mango tree. A mango tree cannot bear any other fruit, but why would you want it to? A mango tree can never be anything but a mango tree, why ask it to be anything else? It is this attitude that makes Alice Walker such an inspiring individual. She rounded off the hour by giving the audience some sage advice. “Hard times require furious dancing!”. It was a privilege to hear her speak at the Writer’s Festival!

Further thoughts on "Dear Leader" at Auckland Writers Festival 2014

Honour Zhu emigrated to New Zealand from China, and now works at Northcote Community Library. In this guest post she tells about her reactions to the "Dear Leader" session at Auckland Writers Festival 2014.

The author of the book Dear Leader, Jang Jin-sung, used to be a propagandist for North Korea, but now lives freely in South Korea.From the compulsory three-year mourning period after the death of general Kim Jong-il, to the minister who was executed by a flame thrower during a cabinet meeting, North Korea has always seemed mysterious to others in the world.

Having grown up in mainland China, I had some special reactions to North Korea compared to the rest of the public listening to Jang Jin-sung. Until I was ten, the majority of the films I watched were from North Korea. The films always reflected how miserable the lives of South Koreans were, and advertised the greatness of Kim ll-sung. What was most interesting to me when watching these films was that when people mentioned their great leader, tears would flow from their eyes. As a child, I could not understand why, but accepted it as a fact. 

Interviewing Jang Jin-sung, John Sinclair read the poem “The most delicious food in the world” which he included in his book. It was a beautiful poem which expressed how delicate and helpless the children were when they faced the 1990 famine of North Korea. 

The poem made me think of the book Tombstone which is about a similar disaster which happened around 1960 in mainland China, where the book is still banned today.

Stepping out of the Aotea Centre and enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, I felt a new awareness of the privilege I have as an information worker in New Zealand, able to assist people in expressing, disseminating and finding the information they want without any political or religious restraints.

I requested the book Dear Leader and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

My Sunday at the Writers Festival: female voices

Guest post by Ella, Readers Services, Central City Library

My morning began with a thought-provoking hour listening to a discussion between passionate, “radical womanists” Alice Walker and Selina Tusitala Marsh, followed by a talk by the brilliant New Zealand neuropsychologist Jenni Ogden. Already blown away by the strong female presence at this year’s Writers Festival I headed along to “Gender Divides”, a lively discussion of contemporary feminist and gender issues by a panel of fascinating women, led by the multitalented compare Judy McGregor.

Eleanor Catton
Celebrated New Zealand writers Eleanor Catton and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku gave a local and Māori perspective on gender issues, while American entrepreneur Jessica Jackley took things more global, discussing her work with small business owners (primarily women) in the poorer parts of the world. English broadcaster Sandi Toksvig rounded out the group and was a highlight of the event. As a comedian and regular panellist on BBC quiz shows such as QI and The News Quiz Show, Sandi seemed the most at home in the panel style format of the talk. Her humour shone and her “wit, wisdom and naughtiness” kept the crowd chuckling throughout the hour.

Despite all the humour and good cheer there were serious issues on the table. Judy McGregor asked the women whether they agreed with Germaine Greer’s statement that “it’s time to get angry again”. Sandi responded with a call to arms. It’s not enough to be angry, we need to be “enraged”. The talk took on a more serious tone as we were reminded of the dire situation for women in countries like Nigeria, as well as the ingrained sexism closer to home. Air New Zealand’s latest safety video was held up as a “particularly repellent” representation of women, as were some of the billboards on Auckland’s Karangahape Road.
Sandi Toksvig

The point was made that it is time to challenge the patriarchal structures of the culture we live in, rather than making it a simple question of men versus women. Each of the women interviewed has had to deal with her fair share of discrimination. Eleanor Catton has previously spoken out about older male reviewer’s reactions to The Luminaries and their attitudes towards women’s writing in general, and reiterated her point that in our culture there is a structural bias against female artists. These biases tend to exist across the board. Sandi Toksvig recounted similar experiences from within broadcasting; Jessica Jackley spoke about the difficulties for women to get funding for business ventures, due to the fact that most investors are middle aged, Caucasian males who tend to invest in those they can relate to. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku discussed gender equality in a marae context and issues surrounding this. She also brought gasps from the audience when she recounted the story of how racism had her expelled from Rotorua High School at age 12. 
Like much of the festival, the crowd was dominated by women; the group in the packed out ASB theatre was particularly vocal and responsive and the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. Judy McGregor closed the session by asking the women for the advice they would give to a twelve-year-old girl. Ngahuia Te Awekotu began, telling us “Never lose hope, always be hopeful.”. Eleanor Catton followed by asserting “You can do things you’ve never seen done before.” From Jessica Jackley came the advice, “There are very few rules that cannot be broken.”. Sandi Toksvig rounded things off with her two pieces of advice: “Being a grown up is better” and on further reflection “Look to the past and you will have the brightest future”.

My Sunday at the Writers Festival was a day filled with strong female voices that left me feeling inspired, energised and hopeful.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

From the Auckland Writers Festival to the Baileys Women's Prize: Eimear McBride

Iain Sharp, who chaired the AWF session with Eimear McBride, cheers her win (and his call) in the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

Having often in the past been proven hopelessly wrong when predicting the winners of literary awards, I can’t resist crowing a little over my successful prophecy that Irish writer Eimear McBride would take the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction with her remarkable debut novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. The innovative fragmented prose style, which the author describes as not so much “stream of consciousness” as “stream of pre-consciousness”, commands respect in itself. Beyond that, the deeply disquieting subject matter forces readers to think hard about gender divisions and expectations, not just in 1980s Catholic Ireland, where the novel is set, but in general.

I had the privilege of chairing the session with Eimear McBride at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. In the days leading up to the event I felt quite apprehensive. This, I hasten to say, was not because I feared that Eimear would be as dark, moody and difficult as her book. I’d read, heard and seen interviews with her and she was pleasant and cooperative in all of them. My worry was that it’s impossible to discuss A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing without touching on the three topics most likely to upset or offend audiences: sex, religion and politics.

As it turned out, I was fretting too much. Eimear, I soon discovered, is skilled at discussing contentious issues eloquently but without causing umbrage and we were speaking, in any case, to a good-tempered, broad-minded and intelligent crowd.

I also quickly learned that Eimear is adept at fending off questions about how autobiographical her novel is. She clearly prefers to keep her private life private. “If you’ve read to the end of the book, you’ll know the girl can’t be me,” she said during the session, then added that ten years ago, when she first tried – without luck – to find a publisher for the book, she was told it might be more “marketable” if presented as a memoir.

Written in 2004, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was finally published in 2013. Eimear told me that its subsequent success still seemed a bit unreal to her and she was now on the international festival circuit with the likes of Alice Walker and A M Homes. When I met her in the green room, she had just come from attending the hour-long session with Homes, ably chaired by Paula Morris.

As we headed onstage, Eimear was a little nervous. She was anxious, she told me, about losing her voice. As it turned out, her voice held superbly. She not only read – inimitably – from the novel but even did an impromptu recital of the first stanza and the refrain from Yeats’s “The Stolen Child”, which features in the book.

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "Dear Leader" with Jang Jin-sung

"Jang Jin-sung in discussion with John Sinclair" was how the AWF programme had it, but that wasn't really how it turned out. Jang Jin-sung, the poet and propagandist who defected from North Korea to South Korea in 2003 and made a new life for himself, first as an intelligence analyst (I suppose the months of "debriefing" would have helped him learn the trade), then as a journalist, and now as the bestselling author of a memoir titled Dear Leader, did not actually enter into discussion with "political speechwriter, public servant and yoga teacher" John Sinclair.

Sinclair had some questions lined up, which I'm sure he had spent a fair amount of time excogitating, but they seemed more about providing the translator with periodic rest stops than about initiating exchanges of thought. For it was very clear that  Jang Jin-sung had things he wanted to get across to this large gathering of fellow Pacific Rimmers in the ASB Theatre -- I started to say "very large" but considering that when we reach 5 million we'll have 10% of the population of South Korea, perhaps it didn't seem that large to him -- and he already knew what they were.

He looked at us for a moment, at the start, offering a friendly "Hello, everybody, nice to meet you", and then at Sinclair for the time it took him to pose his first question, which was 'Do you speak English?", before settling into an intense face-to-face with the translator, whose name I wish I'd caught, because he was wonderful to behold, kind, attentive, and respectful, holding a little pad in the air before him on which occasionally he'd jot down a word, like a seamstress putting in dress pins here and there to keep the underlay in place.

If I tell you that the answer to "Do you speak English?" was "I believe all emotions come from language. Since my childhood I had learned only two emotions in my language, loyalty and hatred. Loyalty to Kim Jong-il and hatred of America", I think you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about.

Here are some of the things Jang Jin-sung wanted to tell us:

"I have only read three books. People think that because I'm a writer I have read a lot of books  But there are only two literary heroes in North Korea - Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, and that was all we could read. Then one day I came to discover Lord Byron's poetry." In North Korea the works of foreign authors are printed in just 100 copies, only made available to high-level officials. It was one of these Byrons which made its way into Jang Jin-sung's hands. "Since then I wanted to become a poet."

Just as well for him, as Kim had shifted the emphasis from novels to poems as the best medium for propaganda. Paper cost too much, and poetry was more economical: "With only two or three lines, you can change the way people think." Poets were in the front line, the "professional revolutionists".

"During the great famine (1994 to 1999) 3 million people died from starvation in North Korea. On a business trip I saw a young girl and gave her some cookies, but she refused and begged me to give her dental paste. I asked her why. The girl said she put a little on the rotting food she found on the street to avoid getting sick. She had lost her little brother to starvation. I wrote a poem about her, called 'The Most Delicious Thing in the World':

     Three months ago, my brother said
     The most delicious thing in the world
     Was a warm corncob.

     Two months ago, my brother said
     The most delicious thing in the world
     Was a roasted grasshopper.

     One month ago, my brother said
     The most delicious thing in the world
     Was the dream he ate last night.

     If my brother were alive today,
     What would he say this month, and next, was
     The most delicious thing in the world?

This was the moment when I turned from Great Leader Literature to Realist Literature. When Kim Jong Il died there were three years of funerals. When 3 million people died, there was no funeral."

"There is only one question left for North Korea. It is not, will the country collapse? The only question is when will it collapse. When I was in North Korea, I thought it would not, because of the terror the regime uses. But now that I live in the free world, I know that the answer lies with the free world."

"The outside world must separate the North Korean government and its people. You must negotiate with the people, not the government."

"Please support the people."

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: Eleanor Catton, Jessica Jackley, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Sandi Toksvig in "Gender Divides"

Guest post by Angela, Readers Services, Central City Library.

I settled in with the packed crowd at the ASB Theatre for what I was sure would be an entertaining and informative discussion on the gender divide and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. Dr Judy McGregor led the discussion with Man Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton; broadcaster, comedian and writer Sandi Toksvig; former academic and author Ngahuia Te Awekotuku; and entrepreneur Jessica Jackley.

All of the panellists came to the topic from different perspectives. Jessica Jackley, a social fundraising entrepreneur, talked about the lack of access poorer women in the third world have to finance and loans and how micro-financing platforms can help them start small businesses. This wasn’t something I’d thought too much about, but she talked about how giving women the ability to earn money helps increase the prospects of children in poorer parts of the world and helps narrow the economic gender divide.

Ngahuia Te Awekotuku talked about traditional gender roles on the marae and how, on some marae, women don’t have speaking rights. She also lamented that Maori women are underrepresented in Maori academia. The women do most of the academic research but it is the men that get the jobs. Ngahuia and Judy laughed at the fact that they both had the distinction of being expelled from Rotorua Girls High, though Ngahuia’s recollections of the racism she experienced there from the teachers was horrifying and sad.

Eleanor Catton was asked to comment on the uproar her comments about male reviewers had caused. She clarified that it was more about the disparity in the number of male book reviewers to female and that books written by men are more likely to be reviewed by well-known publications than books written by women. She also discussed the extra pressure put on women to represent their gender as a whole, not just themselves.

Sandi Toksvig also talked about this pressure: you feel as a female comedian that you have to be funny, or otherwise people will say that women just aren’t funny. Another topic she discussed was the ageism experienced by women in the broadcasting industry; most of the female presenters on British television are young and women seem to be let go once they reach a certain age. Sandi was a delight, I remember seeing her on various British comedy shows when I lived in Britain and she’s just as funny as I remember. She brought a great levity to the discussion.

All-in-all it was a fun and inspiring talk. The panellists also discussed the female thinkers who inspired them, the pressure put on women about their appearance and the inherent biases in their respective fields. I found it thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: the extraordinary Jacques Roubaud

Was French poet Jacques Roubaud amused to hear that a poet named Anne French was to interview him at the Auckland Writers Festival? I'm sure this famed member of Oulipo, the writers group whose work is characterised by wordplay (among other ludic literary techniques such as palindromes, collage, use of mathematical permutations and patterns, even plagiarism, as long as it is playful) enjoyed the plaisanterie. 

He did not, however, smile when Anne said, as part of her introduction, that he teaches poetry at the European Graduate University (where he is Professor of Poetry), interrupting her with a three-line manifesto:

"I don't teach poetry!"

"It's impossible to teach poetry!"

"I don't try."

Jacques Roubaud, Ode to Paris bus line 29, Attila, Paris, 2012 © Editions AttilaSeeing (and hearing) Jacques Roubaud was my Writers Festival stand-out, I have to say. There he was, the man who had sat in Parisian cafés sharing a word game, sharing perhaps a light for their Gauloises, sharing molecules with the great Raymond Queneau, creator of Zazie in the Metrothe man who walked the countryside with the genial Georges Perec, author of Life A User's Manualcomposing poetry as he went, like the wandering Japanese monks of the 12th and 13th centuries who so inspired him; yes, there he was, khaki pants, checked shirt and dark red pullover, corduroy jacket, looking like any man you'd find sitting next to you on a bus in Paris, except that man would likely not be composing a poem called "Ode to Paris Bus Line #29", as Roubaud did while riding the bus, nor be so fascinating to listen to.

Jacques Roubaud is a mathematician as well as a poet. Talented in both fields, eventually he had to decide to study one or the other, mathematics or poetry. He chose mathematics, he tells us, because "I liked numbers". Not because mathematics is an art, as Anne French seems to be about to suggest. "Mathematics is not an art, it is not a science. It is completely apart. It's alone in the world."

In his new book Mathematics: a novel  he elaborates, "I sought out arithmetic to protect myself. But from what? At the time, I would probably have replied: from vagueness, from a lack of rigor, from literature."

The talk turns to his poetry and Roubaud has an excellent phrase for what happens in the translation of a poem: "le droit de douane", customs duty. He once decided to meet the challenge by writing a poem which could be translated into all languages and lose nothing.

It's a sonnet entitled "La vie",  and he recites it for us in its English version, "Life". The entire crowd in the chock-full Lower New Zealand Room listens quiet as a mouse, breathing as one.


000000 0000 01
011010 111 001
101011 101 001
110011 0011 01

000101 0001 01
010101 011 001
010111 001 001
010101 0001 01

01 01 01 0010 11
01 01 01 01 01 11
001 001 010 101

000 1 0 1 001 000
0 0 0 0 0 110 0 0 0 101
0 0 0 0 01 0 0 0 0 0 0

The applause, and Anne, invite him to go on. He tells us about a book of poems he wrote which were ordered black, white, black, white, like a game of  'Go'. "I was 'White'. I left the game unfinished.. The last poem was a 'White'. I was young, I had some hope."

He is now 81, and working on a long, experimental Project which he calls a "treatise of memory", not a memoir, of which Mathematics is the third volume out of seven completed -- so far. Only the first three volumes have been translated into English.
What Jacques Roubaud is probably most famous for is belonging to Oulipo, which stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, "Workshop of potential literature". It's a group of French-speaking writers who create works using "constrained writing techniques" as a way of triggering ideas and inspiration. Notable members have included Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino.

syndetics-lcAsked if he can give some examples of Oulipo writing, he starts with one of the more famous works, Perec's  La disparition, literally The Disappearance, published in English as A void.

"Well, the book looks a bit weird but it is a very fascinating novel -- it has this character who has disappeared. The character is Mister E. The characters in the novel try to find Mr. E."

Mr. E is the letter "e". The entire book is written without a single word containing "e", except for the author's name.

He gives a few other examples of Oulipo constraints, and then, ah, this one as well: "One cannot be a member of Oulipo if one wants to be a member of Oulipo. It's the exact opposite of the Academie Francaise. It can take seven years to decide on a name. Sometimes we tell people they are now members and it has taken so long they have forgotten they were candidates."

Roubaud feels that a poem must "move with the times" in the head of the person who received it, so that it is an always "mobile" work, a work "in the process".

He asks if he may recite again, an emblematic poem in this sense. Here it is:

Les nuages

That's it.


Question time:

"Is there anyone here from Auckland Libraries? I want to say that I am shocked that Auckland Libraries doesn't have your books, except the one with some other author! "

I am too far in the back to be able to make my way down the aisle to assure the indignant fan that copies of Roubaud's works are undoubtedly on order, but probably not easy to get (even the Festival bookstall was only able to put their hands on a handful of copies of Mathematics, which were swooped down on and quickly purchased by the first to arrive).

I can see that Anne French is casting about for a way to sidestep the issue and not finding it. Jacques Roubaud, who has been leaning forward, listening attentively, holds up a finger.

"May I comment?" he asks politely. "I am not surprised. I do not have a lot of readers. I have [pause] 100 readers, worldwide."

After such a great performance, I suspect there will now be a real number (to use a mathematical metaphor) in Auckland. And here's what Auckland Libraries has or will soon have for them:

syndetics-lcMathematics : (a novel) by Jacques Roubaud ; translated by Ian Monk.

The form of a city changes faster, alas, than the human heart : one hundred fifty poems (1991-1998) by Jacques Roubaud ; translation by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop (on order)

Exchanges of light by Jacques Roubaud (on order)

And the book "with another author": 53 days by Georges Perec, edited by Jacques Roubaud and Harry Mathews (Perec died leaving the book unfinished, Roubaud and Mathews put it together from his notes), translated by David Bellos. Two copies of this one, both out at the moment, one to me.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: Peter McLeavey

Guest post by David Ashman, Preservation Manager, Auckland Libraries

I chose '08 - Peter McLeavey' from the programme of AWF events because I have worked with Jill Trevelyan, author of Peter McLeavey: the life and times of a New Zealand art dealer, and I had met Peter on a couple occasions and felt drawn to attend out of curiosity, conviviality and a sense of allegiance.

Rhana Devenport
What I hadn't realised until I had made my way down to the burrows of the Aotea Centre was that it was a panel discussion that included artists John Reynolds and Yvonne Todd and was chaired by Auckland Art Gallery Director Rhana Devenport.

What ensued was a lively and insightful discussion among three people who know Peter well, hold him in high regard and carry a swag load of affection and respect for the man.

This affection didn't prevent revealing Peter's sometimes less than flattering dark side, though it never steered into sensationalism or offensiveness.

It was revealed that Peter liked to be in control to the extent that you didn't buy art from Peter, he sold it to you, if he wanted to. John recounted his own story about having decided he wanted to buy a particular artwork by Laurence Aberhart and being taken by surprise to find himself negotiating with Peter for the right to write a cheque and bring the work back to Auckland.

John Reynolds
The panel continued in this vein with their own personal anecdotes, fond memories and sometimes bizarre stories that conjured up a picture of a man who was generous in his support of artists, committed to New Zealand art, and who had an idiosyncratic approach to business.

The session had begun with a clip from the documentary from a few years back called 'The Man in a Hat' and it ended with another tantalising glimpse from that documentary of a man not just in a hat, but also wearing a warm, thick and comfortable cloak of mana.

All three panelists and the chair provided an entertaining and highly informative hour that came to a close all too quickly and left me wanting to delve deeper into Peter's story; for that I will need to read Jill Trevelyan's highly regarded book.

And just when it all seemed to be over, a member of the audience stood up and revealed that he was Peter's nephew. As if to confirm Peter's need to be in control he recounted the story of how as an eighteen-year-old he had announced he would like to be an Art Dealer, like Uncle Peter. His mother telephoned her brother and asked if he would take Paul on and show him the ropes, as it were. There was a moment's silence, then Peter said he would call him when he was ready -- thirty-five years later, Paul still hasn't received the call.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "May We Be Forgiven" with A.M. Homes, chaired by Paula Morris

Guest post by Campbell, Readers Services, Central City Library.

I’m here to see A M Homes speak; I’ve recently read two of her books. I’m not late, but the lights are off and the room is almost full. Naturally people take the end seats first and I navigate around people’s legs and bags to get to a seat by the left wall. I stand on somebody's bag and feel something squish beneath my step. I spill some water on some lady. I am sorry. I’m doing my best. She is on stage already, dressed head to foot in shades of black, her white skin is not tan but not pale, a generous helping of brown hair is thrown this way and that. A yellow dot floats over one cheek. Sitting with her on stage is Paula, in a black and white stripy skirt. Paula wants to talk about Jewishness. Her theory about the title of the book is wrong. The stage behind them is all black and orange, the festival colours. They talk about Scarlett Johannsen suing a French author, then talk about having a cold. She gestures with her hands, linking her fingers, holding hands with herself, touching her fingertips together flinging her hands outward. She is super confident, super relaxed and super healthy. She invites the entire audience to an artistic retreat just out of New York. I want to go. People are still coming in, they are missing the gold. The rare empty seats are filling up around me. A man behind me is obviously annoyed that I am using my phone as a light to take notes, I put my finger over the light and write in the muted red glow, it is just enough. She tells jokes. One falls completely flat but she turns the failure into a joke, this gets a laugh. She talks about being adopted and jokes that she is still up for adoption, one person sitting close behind laughs loudly. She drops names. She talks about her memoir, says it was like picking at a scab every day. It felt awful but she came out of it feeling like she’d had a massive therapy session. I would say that sounds accurate. She reads a passage from the latest book. I know the book and remember the scene. It involves a surprise orgy at laser tag. It’s a good scene. She reads quickly, in short stops and starts, only looks to her left. She is different when she reads. Later she says ‘in America we like to pretend things didn’t happen’. She talks about America. They translate very few books. Her books are not popular there.

A.M. Homes

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