Not a shy African woman

An hour with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Chaired by Paula Morris this session provided another full-house and an insightful look at the issues of interest to this relatively new and exciting author. The thing around your neck, Chimamanda’s first collection of short stories, explores cultural clash and the migrant experience, building on the success of her earlier prize-winning novels Half of a yellow sun and Purple hibiscus

Paula Morris opened her questions by asking Chimamanda whether she was conscious of an African and Nigerian identity while growing up in a middle-class home in Nsukka. Chimamanda answered that she had no real sense of being anything other than Ebu, a Nigerian tribe, and that it was only when she left Nigeria to attend John Hopkins University in the US that she was viewed as African and suddenly expected by her teachers and fellow student to be an authority on all things African. She added that while to some extent she had to accept the label of Nigerian and African writer, she felt uncomfortable representing a whole continent. She also talked of having the authenticity of her first novel Purple hibiscus questioned by a white, male American university professor because her African characters drove cars and weren’t starving!

Spending half her time in the US, Chimamanda believes allows her to look at Nigeria from the outside, making her clearer eyed. This sentiment was also echoed in a later session by Tash Aw who also finds his voluntary exile in London affords him more clarity in analysing his home country of Malaysia. But Nigeria was she said “where her heart is” and while her country often infuriates her she belongs there and “loves it very deeply”.

Chimamanda was outed as an Enid Blyton fan, she joked she was reading the Famous Five back in her hotel room, and that her teenage years were spent in the quest for lashings of ginger beer. The fact she had never actually managed to taste ginger beer was remedied by one of the ARWF crew who brought her a Bundaberg, how topping! When questions were opened to the floor one gentleman complimented her on her modest demeanour while waiting to come on stage and called her a traditional “shy African woman”, a compliment Chimamanda was not having a bar of. Talented, beautiful, intelligent and not shy, an hour with Chimamanda was a real delight.

The next 100 years

The famous opening line from Allan Ginsberg’s poem Howl goes “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”. This afternoon I got the sense that I simply saw the best minds of my generation as James Surowiecki, George Friedman, Hendrik (Rik) Hertzberg, Richard Holloway, Marcus Chown, and Mohammed Hanif sat in comfy chairs to discuss the deliriously lighthearted topic of where humanity might be going in the next century.

I had hoped that this session might be a little more freeform with the gathered “big brains” perhaps riffing off each others ideas a little more but I guess this was difficult given that each person (notably no women) had quite different “realms of interest”. The next 100 years is a pretty big topic after all and discussion on this  could go in any number of directions. Initially Chair Sean Plunket did pretty well in sharing the spotlight amongst the six men but as the hour and a half long session wore on the three Americans tended to dominate necessarily veering the discussion into the area of world economics and politics. James Surowiecki and George Friedman were particularly, yes I will say it, long-winded in their responses to questions. Continue reading

The Publishing Revolution

A couple of journalists, an academic and an editor took an hour to come the conclusion that nobody knows anything in this session. It was free and very crowded, as all the other free sessions have been, but the Aotea Centre staff had come over all concerned with Health and Safety issues so I was way up the back not blocking anyone’s ingress or egress.

This did afford me the chance to observe a lot of whispered conferring about some desperado sharing the space up the back who had to be sternly told not to interupt from the floor. When he did get the chance to ask a question he had to be reminded that it was questions they had asked for, not statements, to which he plaintively replied “why do they always cut me short”?

The back may be the place for observing bad festival behaviour, pity it’s my third-to-last session although the next two feature poets and rock musicians, so still plenty of opportunities for unseemly shenanigans.

So what is the future of print journalism? Rhonda Sherman of The New Yorker thinks the present model is over, it’s just a question of what the next model will be. Pamela Stirling of the Listener was more confident; in trying times people gravitate to brands they trust and with a 60% subsrciption rate they still trust the Listener. Martin Hirst, Associate Professor of Journalsim at AUT, doesn’t know whether he’s excited because he’s so terrified or terrified about how excited he is.

The panel seemed to agree (although I can’t be sure as I had some trouble hearing but I modelled through it and forebore from sharing this fact with the rest of the audience – more on that subject later) that we are moving from an analogue culture to a digital one and we don’t know how our children or grand-children will get their news. We can however be fairly sure it won’t be from some words printed on a piece of paper delivered to their gate in the morning.

Diggers, hatters & whores

With a title like that you know that Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s latest book is not going to be a staid or plodding historical piece and you’d be right. Eldred-Grigg has always had a knack for bringing distant times to life, whether it be in fiction, or as in this case non-fiction. This morning he delivered a session discussing Diggers, hatters & whores: the story of the New Zealand gold rushes and it was pretty interesting to hear about a period of New Zealand history that has never really been sufficiently investigated before.

The session began with a discussion of gold, which is something I hadn’t expected but Eldred-Grigg thought it worth pointing out that it was not universally cherished and hoarded across cultures.  Certainly the charms of the soft yellow metal have long been known by European cultures but Chinese culture favoured silver, and of course Māori, though aware of the presence of gold in southern rivers, preferred the toughness and cool beauty of pounamu.

From there he traced the beginnings of the gold rush phenomenon, one which never really took root until modern industrial capitalism provided the energetic drive and motivation for large numbers of people to seek, not necessarily riches, but freedom from a life of servitude and drudgery.  Gold could buy this freedom and so many young men followed that dream in gold rushes in all parts of the world including our own corner of it.

There were many things to take away from this session but probably the one that I found most interesting, and that Eldred-Grigg came back to himself a few times was that our notion of who these “diggers” were is quite incorrect.  The romantic image of an old, wizened, “man alone” character is, he says, a fiction.  Diggers generally worked in teams or “parties” and were usually young, energetic men from places like Germany, Scandinavian, Britain and Ireland.  The Chinese came too of course, often in families.  Those diggers that did live alone were the exception rather than the rule, so much so that they were known as “hatters” possibly because their solitude made them a little mad.

And, of course, yes there were whores but also many women preferred to sell grog in the goldfields, sometimes legitimately, sometimes on the sly.

It was an incredibly illuminating session and I’m glad I was able to go to it before I spoke with the author this afternoon.  Check back here on the blog for that interview which I’ll post in the not too distant future.  Um, it’s gold?


Ponsonby: urban village

In 1957 it had one cafe and 15 second-hand shops – sounds like bliss to me but things can’t stay the same, especially not real estate on small sections close to town.

I’ve only been visiting Auckland regularly for about 10 years so to me Ponsonby has always been the hip strip of Ponsonsby Road; coffee and shops that stock Vivienne Westwood. I thought it was my South Island inablity to handle traffic that made crossing it a dance with death, then Metro said even the locals have trouble, but it wasn’t always like that.

So, I’ve never lived in Ponsonby and I never will so why did I enjoy a book about it enough to be keen to see and hear its writers? Because  Urban village; The story of Ponsonby, Freeman’s Bay and St Mary’s Bay is an impressive piece of social history with a proper bibiliography (you can take the girl out of the library …)

Peter Wells had whirled from New York and Judith Thurman to Ponsonby and Jennny Carlyon, Diana Morrow and a surprisingly large audience, most of whom looked as though they lived there. I had to laugh when Wells remembered a famous murder that happened on the corner of Richmond Road. Quick as a flash came a not-so sotto voce riposte from the back row “that’s Grey Lynn”.

As you would expect from two PhDs the book is the result of two years digging  into the layers of people who make up the history of the three areas and the authors presented it as a show and tell of slides, an original idea for a festival that is mostly about words rather than images.

Stiil keeping track of library mentions and not disappointed – when gentrification got into full swing the most popular books in the library were the do-it-yourself books – worringly for those who bought a renovated villa do-it-yourself plumbing and electricity.

An hour with Mohammed Hanif

There was another great turnout for Mohammed Hanif, who won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book last night. Ali Ikram was our genial host, doing his duty with aplomb.

Hanif grew up on a farm, joined air force and flew planes before he drove a car. He then worked for the BBC as a journalist. Ikram asked about the significance of mangoes, saying it was not a throwaway title.

Hanif said his publisher told him novels with soft fruit in the title have a different connotation, However, in Pakistan the context is quite clear. The mangoes had a special part in the death of 1980’s bombing of dictator Mohammed Zia Ul-haq’s plane – it was one of the twenty-two theories of how the plane’s demise came about.

Continue reading

Tsiolkas: Libraries saved my life

Christos Tsiolkas moments after winning best book, Commonwealth Writers' Prize
Christos Tsiolkas moments after winning best book, Commonwealth Writers' Prize

We’re asking all writers we interview At the Auckland festival about libraries and what they mean to them. When I put the question to Commonwealth Writers’ Prize best book winner Christos Tsiolkas, he said that wandering the shelves at libraries saved his life.

“In the sense that, it was through the public libraries that …

His eyes look down as the sentence trails away, but he opens up his life to explain:

“In my early adolescence I was not a very happy young man, dealing with issues of sexuality, dislocation – I’d gone from a heavily migrant school to a quite Anglo, what we call skip in Australia, school. I felt quite displaced.

“I used to escape both to the library at school, but also to the public library near my home and just wander the shelves. I picked up everything. I spent hours in the film section and got introduced to the writings of Pauline Kael, the writings of Jim Agee – and then I would go and discover literature.

“That’s one of the things about the space of a library. You can go and do that wandering. There’s something about the solidity of the space and the communality of the space is really important to me.

Tsiolkas also sees the value of libraries as a place for community.

“I love that you see the young students – a lot of them are Muslims, because it’s a heavily Arab area where I live, but they may be Vietnamese, the may be Anglo, they may be Greek . They’re using the computers and you realise not every home has that access that a lot of us take for granted.

“You see old men reading the newspapers in their community language, you see young kids wandering the shelves like I did and picking up ideas and picking up new discoveries – that’s exciting.”

Even in the digital age, libraries have an important role, he says.

“You can do that kind of searching on the internet, but you can’t do it in that communal way that the public library represents. In an incredibly globalised, rationalised world it’s a kind of a small miracle that we hold on to them. It’s important that we do.”

A full interview with Christos Tsiolkas will be published in the near future. In the meantime, tell us if libraries have saved your life, and how, by posting a comment :-))

Going Gaga

I’m willing to bet I was the only person in the big crowd who went straight from The New Yorker night to the Vector Arena last night. Judith Thurman/Lady Gaga – both thrilling, both the same size from where I was sitting, both mistresses of their respective art forms.

The New Yorker  is Michelle Obama’s favourite magazine, not sure how she feels about Lady Gaga and The Pussycat Dolls. Not sure how I feel about The Pussycat Dolls.

I did find these events equally thrilling, but one was a bit quieter than the other. Rik (I feel I can call him Rik having spent 90 minutes in the same auditorium – I’ll be dropping the Lady off Gaga next) Hertzberg was working on The New Yorker when they published In cold blood.  I know I was in the nosebleed seats but were child labour laws different then?

There was so much here; The New Yorker doesn’t do reader surveys because “they like to read what we like to write.” The New Yorker has over 1,000,000 subscribers. J.D. Salinger’s For Esme with love and squalor was first published in The New Yorker.

I could go on and on, like one of the questioners from the audience who seemed to think the panellists could help him launch his book in the States, but I still need to process The Pussycat Dolls.

Saturday’s Festival wrap-up

We recorded this wrap-up at the Aotea Centre where the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize was announced.

We had two very special guests, Vanda Symon, a Dunedin crime writer, and Christos Tsiolkas, who had just been named winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. After sterling work blogging all day, Robyn was kicking her heels up at The Pussy Cat Dolls and Lady Gaga concert.

Understandably this post is a little longer, approximately 17 minutes, but we think you’ll find its worthwhile hearing our guests, who take us on quite a wide-ranging discussion.

We also hope to have some more images on flickr soon – and please keep your comments coming in.

And while we had an absolute blast last night, the coverage continuees today with a full day of sessions:

  • Stevan Eldred-Grigg makes his appearance and Moata will be there
  • Mohammad Hanif – who won best first book at the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize last night – will read
  • Other international guests Monica Ali and Judith Thurman are on stage
  • Joanne Drayton will talk about Ngaio Marsh
  • A panel will gaze into the next 100 years
  • Poetry readings, songwriting and more!

Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellows Celebrate 40 years

Grudge match – Ernest Rutherford vs Katherine Mansfield – who are New Zealanders most proud of? K.M.’s got a House but she didn’t win a Nobel Prize, Ernest’s on the $100.00 bill but he didn’t do his best work on the French Riviera thereby allowing other New Zealanders to do the same.

Do the Menton fellows have an opinion? I didn’t ask them but I hope they’d pick a Modernist over a Physicist any old time.

Do they feel any pressure to live up to “I seen the little lamp” – one of the great lines in literature – when they put pen to paper in Menton? Do they actually do any writing at the Villa Isola Bella ? Some did, some didn’t, apparently there have been “some rum ones” but these Fellows were all on their best behaviour as they shared a favourite piece of Mansfield’s writing and in some cases talked about what they wrote while they were there.

Bill Manhire – Daughters of the late Colonel, wrote Lifted

Tessa Duder – read the  Claire Tomalin and Joanna Woods Mansfield biographies – wrote Is she still alive?

Stephanie JohnsonBliss, The woman at the store – wrote the first draft of The shag incident and of the play Strange children

Roger HallDaughters of the late Colonel

Russell HaleyAt the Bay

I don’t think Michael Harlow and Owen Marshall mentioned their favourite K.M. works or maybe I just forgot to note them down.