June 21, 2017

Susan Faludi on "In the darkroom" at AWF 2017


I was silencing my phone when a burst of applause told me that Susan Faludi had emerged from the wings of the ASB Theatre. To my surprise, when I looked up, the woman I'd seen in author photos and youtube clips wearing an intelligent gaze and understated knitted things in black or crocodile green, was teetering across the stage on very high heels wearing a neon-blue ruffled lampshade. Oh wait, that was Noelle McCarthy, our chair for the session.

Noelle did a zesty job of taking us through the origins of Faludi's latest book and the book itself. In fact, so focused was she on that topic, that I found myself wondering if someone more noteworthy than I had also complained about how, at her Irvine Welsh session at a recent AWF, she had not seemed to have even read his latest book, having instead much to say about Trainspotting, published twenty years before but clearly still in pole position for her -- and probably for most of the audience, come to think of it.

Susan Faludi's latest book, In the darkroomon the other handtakes second place to none of her previous work, and surpasses it in personal content and, probably, wide audience interest (although I am now reading one of her books of socio-cultural criticism, Stiffed: the betrayal of the American man, and highly recommend it as very readable and fascinating socio-cultural criticism).

There on the stage, with indeed the intelligent gaze I had remembered, and such understated attire that I can't actually remember what it was, she began, "I had grown up with a father who was an autocrat, the ur-patriarch, physically violent to my mother and their children, in particular, me".

"I had a set idea of who my father was."

If you have read the book or heard about it, you will know what she was leading up to. Many people are surprised by things they learn as adults about their parents, but few are handed as big a surprise as Faludi was, receiving a letter from her father after years of bitter estrangement, announcing that "I have had enough of living as a man" and that he was now going to live as a woman, a complete woman, and call me Steffi.

Ironically, or perhaps not at all ironically, in her career as a journalist and author, Faludi had written about gender issues, and "When I knew what was happening with my father I couldn't imagine another way of grappling with it".

What she had to grapple with now, on top of figuring out her relationship with her father, was figuring out who her father really was, on various levels-- personality, gender, and personal history as well, in particular the all-American Steve Faludi's childhood and youth in Hungary as István Friedman, which included escaping being rounded up and deported as a Jew during World War II. "I thought I had my father pegged but in fact I knew nothing about her."

There was even, on travelling to Hungary to see her father, who had returned there to live after sex reassignment surgery in Thailand, an aspect relating to the history of Hungary, which was going through a shift in those years from communist to free market, and having to reckon with a very bad past.

They argued a lot the first year "about what it means to be a woman", but being a journalist helped her to set aside her own judgments, and learn to back off, "which is not my strength". Journalism, she said, was her "superhero outfit."

Reading the book, I had a sense of two people circling around each other, guarded, but looking for openings. "My father took pride in being a trickster, in slipping out of your grasp", something mirrored in his profession: altering images in the dark room. On her part, Faludi says, "I am a big believer that you can't shed your history, your past experiences".

She encapsulates the thread that runs through her book as "Is identity something we choose, or is it something we can't escape?"

Does she have an answer? "Like all chicken and egg questions, it's both. We can't help but construct our identities on what we've inherited, but at the same time we reconstruct."

The most memorable moment, for me, was the sequence which began with Faludi confessing "I felt such grief that my father had had to lock herself away so deeply." Who hasn't had that feeling, on being finally let in on the secret a close family member or friend has been living with, of seeing the initial indignation at having been left out suddenly swallowed up by sorrow, when the empathy hits home.

It was her father who, on his own, volunteered that she should tell his story in a book. "You could do it like Hans Christian Andersen, with fairy tales," he said. "In fact", Faludi pointed out, "Hans Christian Andersen revealed himself more honestly in his fairy tales than in his autobiographies".

"Hans Christian Andersen's theme is one of transformation; the Ugly Duckling was one of my father's favourites."

"What my father was really inviting me to do was to write the most utmost book I could."

And if your daughter is a journalist known for her straight-shooting, well, what is that going to do to "My father had been insisting that the past had no relevance, that it could be locked away in a dark room"?






June 08, 2017

George Saunders on "Lincoln in the Bardo" at AWF 2017

So now he was going to appear, the man who gave me my most disturbing reading experience in recent memory (at least until I read Roxane Gay's Untamed state, which has now joined it at the summit). It was "The Semplica-Girl Diaries", one of the stories in the must-read collection Tenth of DecemberIts hallucinatory defining image shattered me. For months I'd flash back to it while driving, or waiting in the check-out line at the supermarket, or taking off my makeup, each time with the same feeling of claustrophobia and dread, my heart wanting to claw its way out of my chest and the ocean roaring in my ears.

There is a hallucinatory quality to all the stories in Tenth of December, although mostly of a Salvador Dali type rather than the Goya of the Semplica-Girl Diaries. The evident love for science fiction, most noticeable for me in the echoes of Ray Bradbury, though funnier, and his having grown up in Chicago, not just a Chicagoan but a White Sox fan, led me to imagine their author as someone who would spend a lot of his time in a basement den with his computer -- or typewriter in the early days -- amid shelves full of his cult books (Bradbury? John Wyndham?) with an athletics cup or two from his high school years. A kind of a big guy, a Root Beer drinker.

Instead George Saunders is kind of small, and kind of monochromatically sandy-coloured. His face is inscribed with a multitude of expression wrinkles, and the prevailing expression is quizzical and bemused. He is talkative!


Paula Morris opened by reminding us that novels have always been a form for experimentation, and in a nice twist she likened what Saunders has just done literally in Lincoln in the Bardohis first attempt at the form, to all novels, "stories told by a cast of ghosts, exploring what it is to be alive". Turning to him, she asked the long version of what appears in my notes as "1st historical novel - planned? like Hilary Mantel?" -- I confess I don't worry too much about getting down the exact phrasing of interview questions, unless they aggravate or stun me.

Saunders had a friendly, self-deprecating, and predictive (not predictable) reply.

Not really, he said, it was more that "I realised when I was young I had a wedge of talent, and I've been going along on that. I'm not a natural writer. My first drafts are crummy. Though actually, it doesn't mean you're not a good writer. Writing is a craft."

As I said, predictive, because what followed was, for most of the hour, a conversation between two writers, both creative-writing professors after all, about the craft of writing, with Saunders sharing tips such as:

On writing fiction: "You write Frank is an asshole. The gods of fiction don't like it. The gods of fiction say, How so? You explain. The gods of fiction say, Tell us more".

On writing short stories: "When I started I decided, I like Hemingway a lot and I agree with his world view, so I am going to use a Hemingway construction. It was like going on a date with index cards. In the short story, it's important not to know where it's going and let the writing take you where it wants to."

(I actually thought for a second he said "going on a diet with index cards" and maybe he did. It possibly fits even better with attempting a Hemingway style.)

He quotes Einstein, "No problem was ever solved on the original plane of its conception".

He quotes someone else as having said to him, "The story is always talking to you. Listen to it."

He talks about how every story has an understory, and describes it like this: "There's something beautiful (he personifies it as a reindeer) coming up behind you, and if you keep your eyes on the table and don't spook it, the story and the understory will come together".

My favourite lines came when the subject turned to the book at hand. The departure point for the book is Abraham Lincoln's little son's death from typhoid, in the middle of the Civil War. It's known that Lincoln made repeated visits to the crypt where his son's body had been laid in the days after his death. At the heart of the book, which Saunders sets in that time, is the idea that the boy is in the Bardo, the state of existence between death and rebirth according to Tibetan Buddhism, together with a cast of ghosts who, a bit like a Greek chorus, tell the story.

Morris asked Saunders, a practicing Buddhist, to tell us more about the Bardo. Is it a form of Purgatory?

"I was raised Catholic in Chicago", he preambled -- in other words he knows all about Purgatory -- and "Bardo is a little more. My version of the Bardo is that these people full of regret or sick with unrequited love, at the moment of death they balk at the door."

It was a thrilling image, but my true favourite line came when he was asked about Abraham Lincoln. "I'm in love with him," he said simply, for once without his usual loquaciousness. He talked about the arc of Lincoln's learning and growth. "By the time he died he was 100, 200 years ahead of his contemporaries". He calls it Lincoln's spiritual ascension. Another Bardo, I realise.

In a rare moment of personal, as compared to professional insight (the craft of writing), we got "I have a Pollyanna-ish tendency that gets edited out". He says he has a sardonic view of the world, but he is also sentimental. It took him a while to allow his sentimental side to come out in his writing, now he does, and then he corrects it with his sardonic side.

We didn't get questions or observations on some things I would have liked to hear the Semplica-Girl Diaries author on, things like fiction's subversive possibilities, or existential shackles, or fighting words. We didn't get any anecdotes like the one James T. Farrell, also a Chicago Catholic-raised writer, liked to tell about going to Ireland and hearing a local tell people that they'd lose their immortal souls if they read him.

But this wasn't bad, wryly told:

He grew up in Chicago, the South Side, where I didn't, but where I was born, and know enough to know that it was an area where neighborhoods were called things like "The backs of the yards" -- the stockyards.

"Every human being is full of sentiment but where I grew up there was a lot of crimping of the excess. So it was like 'Fuck off', but it meant 'I love you'."

In that sense, I think that the best way to know the passions of George Saunders is to read him. Here, I've found you The Semplica-Girl Diaries in The New Yorker online.

June 02, 2017

A.N. Wilson on "Resolution: a novel of the boy who sailed with Captain Cook" at AWF17

A.N. Wilson

Oh no! Not at the ASB Theatre! At the Heartland Festival Room! Run for it, Karen!

Scooting in as the Town Hall clock chimed, I felt as if I'd plunged into a revival meeting: a giant tent (later recognised as the erstwhile Spiegeltent) packed with faithful, all eyes turned to a man standing alone on a little stage, reaching up his arm, finger pointed.

Unlike the Texas tent show at the start of Blood meridian, however, these faithful were all regular bathers, so the air reeked only of the coffees being clutched at this morning session, and the man was not a reverend, although he had at one point been on his way to becoming one. I was at the Writers Festival and the man was A.N. Wilson, historian, biographer, and novelist, about whom I'd been curious for years, seeing his name come up time and time again in connection with waspish comments, contrary opinions, literary scraps.

And here he was in person, pointing to a large digital screen above him on which was written "George Forster, Librarian, World Circumnavigator and Revolutionary".

"You don't often think of librarians as revolutionaries", he was saying. And I, of course, "What?" He illustrated his point with a librarian in a Barbara Pym novel, whose most praiseworthy characteristic was being a wizard of something ineffably conservative, possibly cataloguing. I can't remember, I was too distracted by wondering if didn't he know that Audre Lorde was a librarian? that Mao was a librarian, well, not quite, but assistant to a librarian, the head librarian at the University of Beijing?

George Forster, on the other hand, was himself a head librarian, at the University of Mainz in Germany, where he was an important figure of the Enlightenment and then active in the Jacobin movement, travelling to Paris after the revolution. One of his friends there was a certain Adam Lux -- just as I was thinking, what a fine name for a revolutionary, Wilson commented "a nice name if you don't think of soap flakes" --  who unwisely wrote a poem about the death of Marat. Dryly, "We don't know what was in his head, because his head was chopped off." Forster, by now outlawed from returning to Germany, died penniless in Paris -- of pneumonia, not the Terror, aged only 40.

But the book A.N. Wilson was there to talk to us about, his new historical novel Resolution, picks up Forster at a much earlier time, a time it would be tempting to call a happier time if it weren't so hard to use the word 'happy' with George.


"One of the things you knew about George Forster if you knew him was that he was the boy who had sailed with Cook around the world" says Wilson. He was just 17 at the start of the voyage, Cook's second expedition to the Southern Hemisphere. He had been taken along as assistant to his father, Reinhold, who had landed the naturalist role on this expedition, which, Wilson was at pains to explain to us, was not about colonisation, but a hunt for knowledge.

Reinhold Forster! It was finding his journals of the voyage in a secondhand bookshop that attracted Wilson's interest. "I couldn't stop laughing!" he said. However, this infuriating and contentious man, despite his journals inspiring such laughter, seems to have had no sense of humour at all. On top of being dogmatic and pretentious.

His son on the other hand revealed an immense talent for illustration (superb renderings of the flora and fauna encountered on the expedition stops), observation (of much more than just the flora and fauna), and recording: once back in England, George wrote a report of the journey, which he called A voyage round the world. It was a huge hit. Some people consider it the first work of travel literature.

Some also found some of George's descriptions somewhat erotic. Here's Wilson's comment, in full, worth every bit of space for how it captures his (to me extremely enjoyable) style:  "You probably remember if you're fond of reading Boswell's life of Johnson, as I am, that Johnson loathed George Forster. In the book there was a scene about Tahitian women swimming which Boswell read over and over again. He told Johnson he liked the style. Johnson said the book had no style."

George had little style as well, and little contentment in the rest of his life. He was ugly (and having had all his teeth fall out from scurvy on the expedition, for refusing to eat up his sauerkraut and roast penguin, didn't help), made a bad marriage, and ended his days in exile, as we have seen, and died pretty much alone.

Every step of the way, the A.N.Wilson wit was all that I had imagined, dry, unpredictable, as mischievous as needed without playing to the peanut gallery. On the occasion of the usual 'wait for the roving mike' line, we had "Roving Mike sounds like an Irish tinker".

But then, just before the end, he gave us another side of himself. One of the main reasons he decided to write the story as a novel, he said, was to explore George's relationship with his father, his shame at his father's idiotic ways.

"I was a much younger son of a father who was more than fifty when I was born, and I spent a lot of time with him. I saw that other people saw him differently than I -- I saw later that they thought he was a terrible bore, and I now see he was, among other lovable things."

And then, before anyone could descend into sentimentalism, he looked straight at us, put down the imaginary pointer he had seemed to be holding, and smiled at us. "I think we've reached the end of the Knickerbocker Glory" he said.


May 31, 2017

Chris Kraus with "I love Dick" and "Lost Properties" at AWF17

Thanks to Amber from Parnell Library for this spirited (as befits its subject) post relating her best Writers Festival experience.

Chris Kraus (photo Reynaldo Rivera)

For me, Chris Kraus was definitively the highlight of the Auckland Writer’s Festival this year. However, it wasn’t the Saturday “I Love Dick” session that won it for me. It was the free event “Lost Properties” that left me feeling like I’d really *encountered* Chris Kraus and which was engaging, inspiring and funnily enough, valuable.

Saturday’s talk was fine. I thought Kevin Rabalais was a total let down as chair - painfully well rehearsed to the point of being robotic, though truthfully in itself this was fairly entertaining. The questions were fine (standard) and Chris was great (obviously) but I felt like she deserved a less stiff counterpart!

Nevertheless, there were highlights: Chris read a piece from her novel Torpor that was spectacularly uncomfortable and witty and strange. She talked a lot about her life as a filmmaker (average successes) and how she pretty much accidentally began to write for a living, following these average successes and after instigating the bizarre correspondence that makes up I Love Dick. She mentioned the influence of commedia dell’arte, which immediately had me drawing parallels between the extravagant archetypes in I Love Dick and those of Aphra Behn, The Country Wife, etc (for those that may have studied Restoration era theatre at university!). As she basically writes theory-heavy, intellectual soap operas, these comparisons deeply enriched my appreciation for her work (if I can say ‘soap opera’ and ‘deeply enriching’ together in a sentence).

There was mention of a phone-based BDSM affair that made it to the pages of her novel Summer of Hate, her Kathy Acker biography (I can’t stand Acker but I’m excited to read it) and the pilot for the television adaption of I Love Dick – which, starring Kevin Bacon as ‘Dick’, may seem dubious but nonetheless boasts an all-female writers room.

And then there was the discussion of all the other things that are great and infinitely relatable (as an arts or humanities student, as a woman, as a person who dates) about Chris Kraus’s work: living and breathing theory but feeling isolated by academics and “intellectuals”, the abnormalities of romantic relationships, really deeply loving the terrible adolescent art of men you’re interested in. And, most pertinently: the idea that by ignoring you, it’s possible for a person to become “the perfect listener”, an audience for which you can perform perpetually. Obviously, the whole “lonely girl phenomenology” thing means a lot to me.

However, I maintain that Chris’s “Lost Properties” session was even better – if you can imagine such a thing!

It was an uncommonly informative lecture with a unique perspective, encompassing living creatively (ardently, critically and innovatively) whatever it is that you’re doing, especially if what you’re doing is dealing with the “certainty of hopelessness” that haunts any arts or humanities graduate, ie serious debt.

Kraus discussed why it is exactly that there are so many arts and humanities graduates nowadays, why the hell we think we need four years of formal training to write about or create art, and what we’re supposed to do when we find ourselves “overeducated and underpaid”. If you’re not completely cynical, there was a lot to give you hope and a lot to inspire you, as well as a lot to concern you - for example, threats to student loan forgiveness schemes.

If you couldn’t make it to her sessions, don’t worry – she’s as compelling on paper as she is in real life, and as accessible to those who live by theory as she is to those who are vehemently anti-theory. Read some of her writing and experience her for yourself! While the book which lent its name to the second session, Lost properties (produced for the 2014 Whitney Biennial), is out of print – you can (and should!) borrow many others from Auckland Libraries here.

May 30, 2017

"A personal take" with Adam Dudding & Sarah Laing at AWF17

Louise from our Collections team went along to hear Sarah Laing and Adam Dudding (whose book featured on our Auckland Libraries Top 100 of 2016) talk with Geoff Walker about their personal takes on the personal take. Here's Louise's personal take on the session:


Dudding and Laing were brought together for this event because they both wrote memoirs, but memoirs of completely different styles. I’ll admit I was 100% there for Sarah Laing, whose book I adored, but Dudding and Laing together were a great combo. Adam Dudding wrote My Father's Island, a biography of his father, formidable literary editor and journalist Robin Dudding who founded the influential literary journal Islands. Laing wrote a graphic novel memoir of herself and legendary short story writer Katherine Mansfield, Mansfield and Me.

Laing spoke passionately and personally. She wore a vintage dress and had a sort of old fashioned Mansfield-y hair style. I personally love it when a writer really looks the part. (I apologise, I have no memory of what Dudding wore.) Laing’s connection to Katherine Mansfield was not a contrived one. She was drawn to Mansfield’s writing from an early age, but Laing hadn’t always thought of herself as an aspiring writer. Her graphic novel described her journey as a reader and artist, a woman living in Wellington, and other parallels with her life and that of Mansfield’s.

Laing reflected on moments of her youth to assemble a story of how she moved towards becoming a “real” writer. Laing said Mansfield was a “taunting trickster spirit” for her, a mentor and constant presence. Both Mansfield and Laing grappled with idea of “only” writing short stories or “only” writing comics and both wanted to do serious work.

Dudding talked about his initial writing process: it was encouraging to hear a writer say that to figure out how to tell the story of his father he literally googled books about fathers and read a lot. He discussed his struggle with a long format, and partly because of this difficulty, his book was not written chronologically. He describes within the book the things he got wrong, comparing people’s conflicting memories of his father. He said he found wrestling with the uncertainties really interesting. Robin Dudding was revered in the New Zealand literary scene but privately he could be severe, a perfectionist, a man of kindness but also of darkness.

There was a general discussion of what to include and also what to leave out of a memoir. Laing wanted a visual understanding of Mansfield’s physical life: the food she ate, the house she lived in, her clothes and furniture, details that are often omitted from written biographies but necessary in a visual one. Dudding said how horrible things are really interesting, which the audience appreciated. Laing said as a memoirist you have to be hard on yourself and Dudding spoke of a moral contract: you have to forgive yourself for betraying others. You reveal yourself in the memoir but only as much as you want. You don’t ask permission from a dead person – ultimately it is your words, your ideas and your truth as a writer or artist.



May 28, 2017

"Must Not Reads" at AWF17

Amber from Parnell Library also went to hear the "Must Not Reads" session at the Writers Festival, where a panel of writers presented their choices of writing you should never read. Here's the post she wrote for us about it  -- definitely not a "Must not read"!

As someone who loves – LOVES – to complain, I was pretty amped for "Must Not Reads". What I imagined was four writers griping for an hour, unstructured, just bitching. I wanted to hear what they hated and who was a total waste of time and just a terrible writer and really sexist, derivative, totally phoned in etc.

It wasn’t really like that at all, but it was still pretty good. Chaired by Rosemary Tan, the four panel members were: Brannavan Gnanalingam, Roseanne Liang, Bill Manhire and Stephanie Johnson.

Stephanie began with a truly retro passage from a Harold Robbins book (forgive me for forgetting particulars) that featured all of the elements of your standard vintage popular fiction love scene: breathiness, women begging to be hurt and saying things like “you’re so strong!” to their dour male suitors. It was gross and I’m glad I mostly read Goosebumps and Horrible Histories as an adolescent – although, her story about a cousin who used to charge other kids money for finding and reciting the dirtiest bits in these kinds of books was very impressive.

Stephanie Johnson
This was followed by a fairly predictable but quite understandable pick: Fifty shades of Grey– Roseanne Liang’s choice. Bill Manhire was invited to read out an appropriately carnal passage which naturally is scorched into my memory and will resurface periodically until I die – thanks for that, Bill.

Roseanne Liang

Brannavan Gnanalingam chose V.S Naipaul’s A bend in the riverdrawing comparisons to Heart of darkness and reasoning that if it were written by a white man it might have been seen a little differently – ie it might have been assessed as racist in its depiction of Africa as a fundamentally violent and ill-fated expanse. And that it probably wouldn’t have been nominated for the Booker Prize either – apparently Paul Theroux had a hand in ensuring A bend in the river didn't win (due to its lazily racist slant), which I found confusing because in my very minimal experience with Theroux I found him to be scornfully racist?

Gnanalingam also cast aspersions on one Ian McEwan book in particular which again I cannot remember – stating that that if you like McEwan you will not like his books. Gnanalingam got as close to the kind of popping off I was hoping for, so I’ve decided I have to read his books – he seems like a great guy, and I always found McEwan a bit boring.

B. Gnanalingam (photo Candy Capoco)
Bill Manhire complained mostly about small annoyances like poems being butchered for garden advertisements and newsletters – rearranged to look all nice and properly “poem” like, totally obliterating any of the original structure. I can definitely get behind this kind of grievance. He also mentioned The Three Christs of Ypsilanti: A Psychological Study by Milton Rokeach which no longer feels quite right to him morally. I on the other hand added it to my “Must Read” list (yes it does seem rather cruel to stick together three psychiatric patients who all think they’re Jesus, but it also sounds like a great read!).

Bill Manhire (photo Grant Maiden)

Stephanie’s second choice was Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan, which apparently ruined the last fragments of long abandoned Christianity she was clinging to. She talked a lot about it, but really all I could think was: “Boohoo?”

Roseanne’s second choice was Lena Dunham’s Not that kind of girl, which felt like “fair enough” until she admitted that it was over the molestation controversy, which the other panel members judged as seeming very far-fetched and willfully dense (an opinion to which I generally adhere, although in the the context of the book it’s endlessly debatable) and to which she sort of went “Yeah, like I liked it and I used to like her but then that happened so… idk?”. If I was looking for something to classify as phoned in, it would be that choice of  “must not read”.

There were some classic arguments raised throughout the evening – the death of the author, whether or not we need to care that our literary and cinematic heroes might be pedophiles or racists, whether “trigger warnings” are ridiculous (Hi Stephanie – they’re not! Love from a delicate millennial).

All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable evening, but I’d have appreciated some teeth – so it’s lucky that I love to complain!

May 27, 2017

Teju Cole, Roxane Gay & Ashleigh Young on "The Art of the Essay" at AWF17

Amber from Parnell Library shares her experience of hearing Teju Cole, Roxane Gay and Ashleigh Young talk about the art of the essay.

 I attended "The Art of The Essay" with the highest of hopes and the shiniest of eyes. I love Roxane Gay and I love Ashleigh Young. Having only recently been introduced to Teju Cole by way of his presence at the Auckland Writer’s Festival this year, I was thrilled to see him - because I believe that anyone that mentions Italo Calvino as a source of inspiration is immediately worthy of my time. And most importantly: I love to read essays. More than fiction, more than poetry, about as much as I love reading short stories. I had expectations.

Teju Cole
The panel members did not disappoint me! And the turnout was very impressive – apparently the queue was huge even at 10am, in anticipation of a 10:30am start (confession: I say apparently because I was late – in fact the very last person admitted, thank god).

The first question of the hour was ‘Where to start?’. Teju Cole began by affirming the importance of having the time and privilege to actually sit down and write an essay (and yes, this does always need to be mentioned!) and when the adage “starting with the end” was raised, Ashleigh Young admitted that actually, for her it’s more like looking for an answer, or attempting to write her way “out of bewilderment”. Roxane Gay says that for her, striving to be “dazzling without being ostentatious” is the primary goal, rather than having an end in sight.

 On matters of truth, there’s a fairly unanimous agreement that there’s not really any such thing. All three panels members are seemingly more comfortable writing around truths, and for multiple viewpoints and realities. For Teju Cole, who admits he doesn’t write “super personally” (and is mostly pretty serious), this is where the art of “productive discomfort” is utilized - which I take as meaning: not telling a reader what to think or how to think, but rather demonstrating for them the potential flaws in their beliefs. For Ashleigh Young, the approach is achieved through not quite being “present” in her stories; instead observing, describing, watching and filtering (something she says she is not quite sure how to feel about, but which I personally love about her work).

I think the very large crowd at this point can agree when the narrative power of the nominative plural “we” is exalted. Roxane Gay is asked whether or not she considers herself to be a “truth teller” to which she replies “No. I see myself as a writer.”

Roxane Gay (photo Jay Grabiec)
Roxane Gay speaks a lot of truth – a lot of unapologetic, uncomfortable, and alarming truth. But while she eschews the notion that everyone needs to be understood and listened to (“Trump fans: it’s just racism”) she maintains that she does take care to think outside of herself, and to consider how best to speak to those who do not share her views, or even are directly opposed to them. This is what I personally love about her - necessarily harsh, but charitably accessible.

Then, the host (Simon Wilson of The Spinoff ) asks - well, he asks Ashleigh and Roxane - about writing about “being fucked up”. There’s a bit of an awkward silence – I mean, *I* am feeling awkward and annoyed at least. Does occasionally touching on eating disorders, suicide, or depression -- among many, many other things – make Ashleigh Young “fucked up”? Is Roxane Gay “fucked up” because she lets us know what a constant struggle it is to be an outspoken woman, let alone an outspoken black woman, let alone – the audacity! – an outspoken black woman who doesn’t care if you think she’s fat?

 I roll my eyes so hard I give myself a migraine, instantly.

 Roxane retorts perfectly, “Isn’t that always the project?” (yes, yes it is – always!) and she and Ashleigh agree that actually it’s about discussing vulnerability, exploring empathy, just trying to be honest – “admitting to humanity” as Roxane puts it.

 The question “What have blogs done to the essay?” is swiftly answered with a fairly unanimous “Um…not much?” The dual forces of a) democratization and b) depreciation are touched on, with all agreeing that blogging and essay writing are very different things. For Roxane Gay, they’re more like a letter. Someone says that they consider form to be merely “a conduit for presence” which I totally agree with and love – so much that I really cannot remember who said it, though my bets are on Teju Cole. All panel members use and appreciate Twitter – not for writing purposes per se, but as a sounding board, a network, a little community.

 And then the host annoys me again – this time saying to Roxane something like “You get a lot of trolls on the internet, eh?” to which she concedes, “Uh yeah, yeah I do”. This is annoying to me because if you know Roxane Gay, you know she really does suffer “trolls” on the internet but it’s more like quite disruptive and horrifying harassment. Thankfully, Teju Cole steps in and does a much better job of being host here – reminding us that while it probably seems funny, it’s a huge part of Roxane’s life and beyond what the average Twitter user can imagine.

 Overall, I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to sit and listen to these three very talented people. I left feeling like I  understood their writing a little more having seen them irl, in the flesh. All three authors chose excerpts to read aloud that were perfect: from Teju Cole, the essay ‘What It Is’, a musing on invasive metadata in the form of an incredibly strange and offensive CNN chyron, in which something is described as ‘Literally the “Some of my best friends are black” of #NotAllMen’ – a line I will never forget. From Roxane Gay, an essay from Bad Feminist“Typical First Year Professor” (“I don’t save lives – but I try not to ruin them” is a brilliant understatement in my opinion). I’ve read more of Ashleigh Young than either Cole or Gay, and yet cannot summon a stand-out line from her piece “Witches” (probably something to do with her aforementioned tendency to not quite be *in* her pieces) but it’s a beautiful, bittersweet reflection on adolescence, innocence, and the corporeal form. 

Ashleigh Young (Photo Russell Kleyn)
However, I cannot say Simon Wilson endeared himself to me. I internally cringed at his treatment of Ashleigh Young and even more so of Roxane Gay. I’m not sure if it stemmed from a lack of familiarity with Gay’s work (in which case: poor planning) or the rather more loathsome “tall poppy syndrome”. Regardless, it nearly ruined it for me and left me feeling very apologetic on behalf of Auckland.

And last of all: shout out to the man in the floral shirt who thought it was acceptable to walk up to the microphone HALF-WAY through Roxane’s essay, to stand around and fidget in preparation for his very tedious question. Seriously, thanks – it gave me something to bitch to her about at the book signing and I’d probably have been too shy to say anything otherwise. And if you were wondering – yes, you did annoy her! And yes – she did read more than she’d intended just to “fuck you off”. Which, for me, was the perfect ending.

May 25, 2017

Anne Enright and "The Gathering" at AWF17

Thanks to Chelsea from Central Library for this blog post and fan mail combo!


If you thought your days of pushing and elbowing your way into a theatre were behind you, think again. The ladies (and a splattering of men) of the Auckland Writers Festival were here to see Anne Enright and there was no stopping them. Even the sacred reserved seating stood no chance. If you’re unfamiliar with Anne Enright, she is Ireland’s current Fiction Laureate and winner of the Man Booker Prize for her 2007 novel The Gathering. Personally I’ve been slow to the Anne Enright party, having read only one of her books. However, said book The Green Road completely blew my mind, so I was keen to hear more of what she had to say.

Kate De Goldi, award-winning author in her own right, chaired the event and opened with a quote from The Green Road, “I’m sorry I can’t invite you to dinner, I’m Irish and my family is mad”. This fairly succinctly sums up Enright’s writing, with much of her work focussing on the family unit with a dose of Irish humour.

To begin with, De Goldi and Enright discussed the roles within The Green Road, in particular the role of the mother. With the theme of motherhood being so important in Irish tradition and Enright being a mother herself, she has a keen interest in breaking stereotypes and exploring women in all their imperfection. Rosaleen, the mother in The Green Road, is a needy woman who is so angry that her adult children have all left her that she decides to sell the family home to spite them. Her self-indulgence is in contrast to her daughter’s selflessness as a dutiful wife, mother and daughter. The two sons in the novel represent Irish migration, with one being an aid worker travelling to far-flung places like the Irish missionaries did, and the other taking the traditional route of New York.

Enright’s writing is structured and concise which is necessary in a book that spans decades. What isn’t said in Enright’s novels is just as important as what is, as when Dan’s homosexuality is not named when the reader first meets Dan as a teenager in Ireland, but when we meet him again in 90s New York, he is free to express himself. Enright explains that she did not address his sexuality at first because she ‘had to wait for the world to catch up’.

De Goldi and Enright then touched on the novel The Forgotten Waltz, another book that explores the complexities in women; their loves, mistakes and sexual desires. It was at this point that Enright’s sardonic humour really shone, as she lamented the ongoing fight for feminism. Speaking of women’s rights in Ireland, she told us how the abortion referendum began in the 80s, a referendum that is still continuing today. She had the audience in hysterics when saying “We forgot that sex produces children – if you read a newspaper you’d think sex produces bikinis”. She also garnered applause when she said that by writing about families she “risks being described as domestic – another word for female and not very important. Which is bullshit”. If Enright ever runs for president she has my vote.

After a brief reading it was time for questions, which ironically all came from men, a fact that was not lost on my disgruntled neighbour. I couldn’t blame her, I too was thinking it strange. To be fair however, the first questioner did tell us about his love for feminism and his daughters, as well as his whole backstory, as is often the case with those daring enough to brave the microphone.

As the session wrapped up Enright praised De Goldi for her high quality questions, suitable praise for De Goldi as she had clearly done her research. Then the applause was over and the race was on again, this time to be the first in the signing queue. I somewhat regretted my choice to sit at the front of the theatre as I set my face in grim determination to make it out.

A good twenty minutes later I had my recently purchased copy of The Gathering signed. I had meant to tell Enright of my love for Ireland but I became completely starstruck and barely muttered a syllable. Placing my embarrassment aside, I set off to find a strong coffee, turned the pages of The Gathering to its first chapter, breathed in the new book smell, and began to read.



May 21, 2017

Teju Cole in 'Known and Strange Things' at AWF17

Karel from Central Library contributed this post on Teju Cole's first session at the Auckland Writers Festival, "Known and Strange Things", from the title of his 2016 essay collection. 



I'm only a recent convert to the work of Teju Cole. I'd seen his name in various publications, usually rapturous critical plaudits from people I admire - just recently Ockham book award winner Ashleigh Young referred to Cole as a 'strobing light of intelligence and a deep comfort' - and friends would berate me, often quite ferociously, for not having read his books. Yet it wasn't until I stumbled across Cole's tribute to the late John Berger, one of my literary heroes, that I felt compelled to delve into his growing canon. This connection with Berger now seems entirely appropriate. It could even be said that Cole is ostensibly picking up where the great art critic left off. He shares Berger's ability to explore well-worn topics with unique & challenging perspectives & they both have an unwavering curiosity in other human beings, especially the migrant experience.

Thus it was with a giddy kind of fervor that I went along to see Teju Cole at the Auckland Writers Festival. There was a palpable sense of expectation inside the ASB Theatre when Cole came on stage. He was wearing a pale blue suit jacket with a scarf neatly tucked into the pocket & wouldn’t have looked out of place in a high street menswear catalogue. He started by reading a passage from 'Black Body', his essay on James Baldwin that examines ideas about race, identity and the nature of historical burden. It points to Martin Luther King Jr, John Coltrane, Bessie Smith; 'people just on the cusp of escaping the contemporary, and slipping into the historical - people who could still be with us but who feel, at times, very far away, as though they lived centuries ago' before later referencing Drake, Beyonce & Meek Mill. It feels like a microcosm of Cole's oeuvre, presenting the human experience as both singular and intertwined, exploring this dichotomy with distinct moral clarity and eloquence.

He also spoke about how he came to writing, having originally pursued a doctorate in Art History but finding himself driven by an insatiable need to pursue an outlet for ideas that had built up over a lifetime. His first book, Every Day is for the Thief, began life as an online blog before being published in a more traditional format. Sometimes youth can present confusion in its capacity for endless possibility but as the book slowly morphed from something autobiographical into more fictional terrain it also became more authentic to the creative voice that Cole sought. 'Art is a lie that brings us nearer to the truth', as Picasso once said.

He mentioned some of his influences, writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez & Berger but also Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colors Trilogy), Edward Said & even passing mention of Jacques Derrida. Photography is a vital ingredient in Cole’s creative mix & he talked about how it compliments and enhances his prose. A side note, his Instagram page, where he posts a lot of his photos, is a work of art unto itself & well worth checking out. In fact the online world looms large for Cole, especially in his public persona, and he discussed the difficulty in having a social media presence in the knowledge that the medium can be both an incredible opportunity for direct communication & a void for absurd myopia.

At one stage there was a strikingly confronting moment where he read to the audience from an online piece in which he took the opening lines from a myriad of famous novels, Moby Dick & Mrs Dalloway amongst others, and followed each of them with a reference to death by drone bomb. It was horrifying and comical all at once and highlighted the political edge that runs through all of his books.

There was a short amount of time for questions. If I’d felt bold enough I might have asked Cole to elaborate on his decision to boycott PEN America’s freedom of expression award given to Charlie Hebdo a couple of years ago, perhaps the only point of contention where his ethical compass has left me a little disappointed, but it seemed that maybe the best place to find that answer would be within his work itself. 

The afternoon finished with Cole speaking of his love for New Zealand, marveling at how the natural world’s majesty is only a short drive from anywhere & everywhere, giving everyone a chance to view themselves with some sense of cosmic perspective. It was a charming & endearing note to end on.

As I walked out of the ASB Theatre I sensed electricity permeating through the Aotea Centre, as though the audience had been given an opportunity to free themselves from self-imposed shackles and begin lively, animated discussions about Cole or indeed about all kinds of questions that had been gestating inside of them for the past hour. John Berger once referred to his readers as 'co-conspirators', joining him in breaking down established ways of thinking & sabotaging the oppressive conceits of societal hierarchies. Cole engages his readers in that same way, illuminating those more elusive parts of life that seem mysterious and unquantifiable and taking Berger's conspiratorial dialogue to new & exciting places. I strongly recommend you delve into the work of one of contemporary literature's greatest new voices.

May 19, 2017

True Stories Told Live at AWF 17





The 18th Auckland Writers Festival has sailed into town, bigger and richer than ever: more than the ocean liner it felt like to me last year, an entire flotilla experience. Books, songs, lunches, salons in the square, a street festival, and the clincher, a sail around the Hauraki Gulf.

I'm going to say that the barge of beaten gold with purple sails in the flotilla has to be the Gala Night with its True Stories Told Live, for whose story is synonymous with applying a smidgin of artistry to your truth if not Cleopatra? For those unfamiliar with the format, the gala features eight writers telling a seven minute true story, or mostly true story, on a theme; this year the theme was "The heart of the matter".

"The heart is the first organ in the human embryo to form. It starts from two small blood-filled tubes and ties itself into an elaborate four-chambered knot. It gives rise to the first cadence we ever hear and the last." These were the first lines of the evening's first story, told by that rare soul, poet and medical doctor Glenn Colquhoun. Then it turned into poetry, a mix of English poetry and the Maori poetic tradition, two small blood-filled tubes which he wanted to tie together "to give rise to a new life". The story-poem was for his great-great-great-grandmother Mary, who had given away her out-of-wedlock baby to a woman who married into the Colquhoun family in Scotland. "I have come 200 years to wake you from your sleep", he distilled for us from the te reo which, following tradition, he sang.

I found myself wishing I could have seen his performance without the glaring, gigantic, electronic image on the big screen which hung above him. He needed to be in his real dimension only, a man, a vast empty stage, something happening that was akin to sacred.

You might be getting the impression that Glenn Colquhoun was the storyteller who most impressed me, and you'd be right. But they were all wonderful.

Glenn Colquhoun

The Irish writer Anne Enright, known for her intelligent, unflinching novels, the 2007 Booker Prize winner The Gathering for one, was rounder (no, I don't mean plump, I mean not angular), funnier and more mischievous than I had imagined her. Her haircut was positively Tin Tin like (a compliment) and her story came from a place in her past, a headland north of Dublin where her family had a house, "some said chalet, more of a shack", and which also housed a lunatic asylum.

Anne Enright

Esteemed theologian and NZ treasure Lloyd Geering (Pip Muir's announcement in her introduction that he was 99 years old was met with a round of applause-- lesson to myself: if you want to be reassured about not losing cachet with age, hang out at writers festivals) told a wonderful story about a trip from Beirut to Baghdad by bus, back when Iraq was still called Mesopotamia. I couldn't stop looking at his limpid eyes behind the glasses, as guileless as children's, and thinking of what Bruce Chatwin said: only the very young and the very old should be allowed to tell their dreams.


Lloyd Geering (photo W. Nichol)

Fijian Kiwi Gina Cole was greeted with a grand round of applause, to my especial pleasure. Gina won the first creative writing contest we ran with Alternative Bindings for the Auckland Pride Festival, and now her first published book of stories, Black ice, is in our collection and was also an Auckland Libraries Top 100 choice for 2016. Her story was about even longer ago than that, her first year at Auckland Uni, a story of misadventure and friendship, wry and warm, impeccably told.

Gina Cole

James Shapiro, Shakespeare scholar from Brooklyn, was the funniest storyteller, as the Brooklyn in his bio might have suggested, as might also the topic, his "harrible" (as they say in Brooklyn) early experiences with Shakespearean productions, studies, and one particular professor.

James Shapiro (photo Mary Cregan)

Ivan Coyote! Shout out to Ivan Coyote! Shiny as a Swiss knife, as an old manager of mine used to say (not about me). An important story and a wonderful story, as are all the stories in The tomboy survival guide, which I'm reading right now, told by a pro. A true pro, I mean: as well as being a writer, Ivan has long been using storytelling to explore gender and identity. Also a person in a notable state of true being, I also mean, after having met them at the Gala Night After Party. Go see Ivan Coyote!

Ivan Coyote (photo J Tymkov)

Mpho Tutu van Furth told a beguiling story about the three princes in her life. The first was "Red rental shoes" who gave her her first real kiss, the second was an English boyfriend of the so very English ways, so odd for apartheid-era South Africa, especially considering that they included cutting the grass in her family's front garden in Soweto, prompting the neighbours to say "Trust the Tutus to be the only family with a white gardener!", and the third, why, "The third was when I fell on one knee to ask Marcelline to marry me".



Inspector Rebus's Ian Rankin closed with a story which started with a poetry contest in high school and the book he got from the library (silent cheer from me) and ended with this wisdom worthy of a writer, a writer of mysteries, no less: "Fiction has to be credible, the real world does not."



May 10, 2017

Bring on the unlikable women, says Roxane Gay!

Roxane Gay (photo: Jay Grabiec)
One of the pieces I liked best in Roxane Gay's anthology Bad Feminist -- yes, that Roxane Gay, the one who will be appearing this month at the Auckland Writers Festival, and if you can't make it, you'll be able to read about it here -- is the one called Not here to make friends, subtitled On the importance of unlikable female protagonists.

"U" is the scarlet letter of our times, says Gay. It's a brilliant metaphor, unlikability as today's most terrible sin (I remember Hunter S. Thompson identifying stupidity as the number one sin of his time, or maybe it was looking stupid), and for how often it's the female who ends up wearing it, just like Hester with her "A" in Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic tale of adultery among the Puritans.

Apparently the unlikablest protagonist of recent times is Amy from Gone Girl. The equally amoral Patrick Bateman from American Psycho is nominally unlikable, okay, but no critic is saying he needs to display a big "U" on his Valentino shirt. Partly of course it's because he's so much fun to read about, if not to be around, with his "scathing self-awareness" (quoting Roxane Gay) that you have to love (speaking for myself-- Gay more pragmatically deems him "a very interesting man").


But it's not just that. How many men in fiction are allowed to get away with murder -- not necessarily literally -- compared to women? Gay is fierce on "this liking business" which crops up time and time again with female characters, quoting the term Lionel Shriver used for that combination of approval and affection readers were peeved not to have felt for the narrator of her provocative novel We need to talk about Kevin. An ambivalent mother! Horrors!

Why would I want to read about "likable" characters, Gay asks. Just the opposite!

"I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more unlikable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things -- human."

(I know - you already want to read the whole essay! And you can, on BuzzFeed, where it first appeared, although it's worth getting your hands on the whole anthology.)

Gay either picked up on a trope whose moment had come (she notes that the novelist Claire Messud had recently asked "Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?" in an interview in Publishers Weekly about her book The Woman Upstairs), or generated new interest in a phenomenon that I'm thinking goes back at least as far as Euripedes's Medea, which is to say over 2000 years ago. At any rate, it's hard to read around in book culture these days without coming across lists like Book Riot's 100 Must-Read Books with Unlikable Women.

So far none of them have featured my most-memorable book with an unlikable woman, Good Morning Miss Dove, a book I read in my formative years, thank you Miss Petit, School Librarian, for the recommendation. You can't be exposed to too many unlikable women -- or, as they were called then, women with "an independent streak" -- in your formative years. Actually, having recently reread the book after finding a copy in the Central City Library basement -- a hallowed copy 'presented' to our library by the Blockhouse Bay branch of the Labour Party in 1976 --  it did me good even now.

Miss Dove herself is not a librarian but a geography teacher, a gray-haired, bun-coiffeured institution at Cedar Grove School where she has been known to generations of pupils as "The terrible Miss Dove", for reasons you can probably guess, having to do with discipline and expectations. She doesn't want to be anyone's friend. She turns down a proposal of marriage from the Bank President. She refuses to let herself aspire to anything except being strong and useful.

As it turns out, she has other things as well, like gallantry and guts, which her pupils can only dimly perceive, if at all. Some come as a revelation even to herself. The biggest of these is when she wants to say something profound about life, after having learned that hers is at risk, and the words which come out of her mouth are "I have been happy".





Good Morning Miss Dove, described in two of its cover blurbs as a minor classic, was my gateway drug to all those books I've loved with tough old women who make different choices and have a different regard for consequences. Miss Brodie from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Aunt Augusta from Travels with My Aunt. Mrs Moore in A Passage to India. I wonder if Miss Petit, the gentle, meticulous librarian who put her in my hands, and who is inextricably linked with Miss Dove in my memory, guessed. I think she did.


January 31, 2017

Great Summer Read: The book that had been on my TBR forever

I couldn't help noticing how many people taking part in the Great Summer Read seem to get through their To Be Read lists at such a fast clip compared to me. I'm talking about you, person whose book which had been on her list "forever" was The girl on the train, not even two years old! Why I've had Vanity Fair on my list for 15 years! And wasn't it nice to see that someone logged Vanity Fair for this challenge. I wonder how long their "forever" had been!

How long had my choice, The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett, an English author who celebrates his 150th this year, been on my TBR list? I'm not actually sure, but when I encountered it last year in the basement of the Central City Library, a quaint little volume marked on the inside back cover with a pre-smiley-face-era smiley face (no circle! a nose!) by an early, contented reader whom posterity can only know as "L", I didn't waste the opportunity. Reader, I took it out. And then, as sometimes happens with quaint old books, it was due back, and I still hadn't read it, so I took it out again. And again. And again, until it became the book which had been on my other TBR list forever, the "To Be Returned" one, which meant something had to be done, so thank you Great Summer Read!


A fantasia about the denizens of a luxury London hotel at the turn of the century, involving the kidnapping of a middle-European prince, a murderous maitre, or maybe it was the cook, a beautiful and spirited girl and her American millionaire father, The Great Babylon Hotel is described on its back cover as "the forefather of all the comedy-thrillers which were to bob up successfully throughout the present century", which for us was the last one. It was a bit of a cross between an opéra bouffe and the cartoons the great Peter Arno used to draw for the New Yorker, dated but still genial, but alas! lacking the music of the former, and the wit of the latter.

I found myself wondering how it had come to be on my list. So as librarians do, I went looking for sources. Almost the only Arnold Bennett fandom I could find was from twenty years ago. A piece in the New York Times blog Bookend found much to admire in Bennett, despite an unprepossessing opening which surmised that if you were to ask ten literature lovers (my alternate phrase for "poets over 40 or people who travel with a copy of Trollope") whether they've ever read this one-time giant of English literature, you will invariably find that "no more than one in ten will have read an Arnold Bennett novel".

My result was one out of one: I sounded out my uncle, a prolific and wide-ranging reader, 88 years old, who responded that he had indeed read Arnold Bennett. He did use the verb "sample", though, and added "but I couldn't get into him".

The Bookend writer went on to report on how Virginia Woolf dissed Bennett as an Edwardian (read "out-of-date") whose lack of interest in the interior, as opposed to the exterior, things in life led him to write books which leave you so dissatisfied that upon finishing them "you feel you must join a society, or, more desperately, write a cheque".

Virginia has a mean tongue, but I suspect I might have felt that way if I had finished the book. As it turns out, I didn't. I couldn't. At first my opinion was "A bit of a trifle, and dated, but enjoyable in its own way", but as I read on the enjoyment was more and more in its own way, and less and less in mine, until at page 36 I had to acknowledge (after skipping to the end to make sure there were no unexpected developments) that it was gone for good. I hadn't arrived at the page Nancy Pearl would have wanted me to reach according to her "When can you stop reading a book rule", but I had gotten close enough to fire off a mental salute to Nancy on knowing her stuff!

I do have a romantic thing about old hotels, and maybe it was simply that which suggested this book to me. If you do too, I can recommend Hotel Savoy, a literary classic by the Austrian writer Joseph Roth set in a ramshackle hotel in Poland after the first World War, John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire, which features two hotels, a summer resort in Maine and a rundown Viennese pensione (if you've only tried one of his recent books, think again, this is one of three very funny, inspired books he wrote in his early period, the other two being The world according to Garp and A prayer for Owen Meany), and of course Eloise, a picture book for all ages narrated by a little girl, a relative of Ramona from the Ramona and Beezus books, who lives at the Plaza in New York.

Plus two magnificent movies: the legendary Grand Hotel from 1932 with its all-star cast led by Greta Garbo and John Barrymore, and Wes Anderson's reverie The Grand Budapest Hotel, not based on The Grand Babylon Hotel, but on Stefan Zweig's The post office girl, also recommended!






 
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