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.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 16:16
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