On the way to Sydney, we stopped in Auckland

David MitchellIn a packed session at the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival Nicola Legat (publisher at Random House, Festival trustee) spoke with three regional winners of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. You can read some background information about these writers and the Prize itself in a previous blog of mine. These writers are on their way to the Sydney Writers Festival for the announcement of the overall winner of the prize.

Aminatta Forna (whose mother incidentally lives in New Zealand) was born in Sierra Leone, and raised in the UK. She won the Best Book category for the Africa region of the Prize with The Memory Of Love. This novel, about love and war, is set in Sierra Leone, and in her deep radio-quality voice, she read us an excerpt. She has well-crafted turns of phrase – “leaning across her frame like an old woman at the garden gate” (a child using a bamboo(!) walking frame). One of the protagonists is Kai, a young doctor in a hospital that is severely underfunded, coping with shortages of what we would call essentials, with equanimity  – “scalpel poised like a conductor when the generator fails, waiting for the lights to go back on”, and of proceeding with operations with no anaesthesia available, tying patients to the bed, giving them a twisted sheet to bite from until they faint from pain – whew.

Craig Cliff  has a day job as a policy analyst for the Ministry Of Education in Wellington. I should imagine this would have honed his skills of observation, and being able to hunt down the smallest detail for authenticity in his short stories. Nicola Legot described his stories as ‘sly, funny and affectionate’ and I would have to agree. He read from A Man Melting (Best First Book – South East Asia and Pacific Region) and chose the short story ‘Unnatural Selection’ to showcase his work. He had set himself a challenge to write a longer piece of fiction (it ended up being 14,000 words!) and for it to be written in the first person and female. He immediately regretted his decision, but persevered anyway, telling the story of Rachael, newly returned to New Plymouth from her OE. He later said how much he’d enjoyed his own time overseas where there was “no Paul Holmes, no Winston Peters, no word on Dan Carter’s latest calf injury and  I could pretend that Jason Gunn and Fat Freddy’s Drop don’t exist and  say that I’d won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games and get away with it” (at which point Americans would say “you won it at the what?).

David Mitchell was adorable – he was funny, friendly and often stopped reading to berate his poor editing skills – “should have taken that piece out, oh well, too late now”. He began by asking who Paul Holmes was and was astonished by everyone’s laughter. He persisted in asking the question until he was answered – no doubt he’ll google Paul later. He read from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Best Book, South Asia and Europe), a scene where Jacob is explaining why the scarecrow in the garden is called Robespierre – “because his head falls off when the wind changes”. His character also wishes that “spoken words could be captured and kept in a locket”. He confided that it was his mother that drew the picture of the Japanese fan in the book – because “it was free!”.  When he was reading, he was so in character,  it was as if we were hearing the contents of his personal diary.

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