Xinran at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season

It was interesting to hear Xinran speak at a WORD Christchurch event. She spoke for more than an hour and we could have listened to her for much longer. Xinran is a very good story teller. She told many stories from her 300 interviews in China. She spoke about some negative effects of the one child policy, especially the way these children were treated as little princes or princesses, spoilt, cossetted, and given very little opportunity to grow up as independent people.

Cover of Buy me the sky Cover of The Good women of China  Cover of Miss Chopsticks Cover of China Witness

Some stories were hard to believe and in fact were probably isolated cases, such as the child who demanded that her mother buy her the river. Other stories concerning mothers doing everything for the child were not so surprising when there was so much pressure on children to perform academically. For the same reason, we heard similar stories of Japanese children in the past, even if there were two or more children in the family. Xinran admitted that the one-child family was probably a necessity, however. It’s hard to know how these negative effects could have been avoided.

Many people wanted to ask her questions. One woman wanted to know more about her charity The Mothers’ Bridge of Love concerning girls who were adopted out to foreign countries like New Zealand. Xinran talked a little about this and how such girl babies were smuggled out by mothers. The long term result of a preference for male children is now the huge imbalance of adult men unable to find partners, especially in rural areas.

Her speech only covered negative aspects of the one child policy. I am looking forward to reading her book Buy Me the Sky to find out if it also includes some positive aspects.

Anna Sun
Upper Riccarton Library

The evils of inequality

Cover of The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do betterThe gap between the rich and the poor has become one of the most topical issues in many countries post GFC (Global Financial Crisis) and post Neo-Liberal economic reforms. More and more people seem to feel that the rich (particularly the super-rich) don’t pay enough tax and have managed to sneakily get away with taking no responsibility for the GFC while the rest of us languish in our lacklustre lifestyles working squillions of hours per week…and all the while paying our fair share to keep society running! Or so the Russell Brand sentiment goes.

So its against this backdrop that The Spirit Level should be read, I guess…

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone is among a handful of cornerstone works for anyone who is interested in 21st century political and economic thought. I reckon. In fact, I’d almost argue that it is a grand thesis which seeks to give policy advice on how to solve (or markedly reduce) a catalogue of society’s ills through its recommendations and findings.

Inequality = poor outcomes

The key message that authors (and epidemiologists) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett want to drive home is that the more “unequal” a society is, the more likely that society is to manifest higher degrees of illness, mental illness, drug abuse, widespread poor educational outcomes, obesity, social mobility and cohesion, violence, teen pregnancy, among other societal ills such as rapacious consumerism.

The focus on “inequality” is really on Income Inequality – the income gap between those at the top, middle and bottom. The argument being that countries with larger income gaps experience more societal ills.

International research

Their claims with regard to what drives poor outcomes in terms of societal well-being are backed up by some quite robust research comparing and contrasting various developed countries (and comparing States to States in the USA). Lots of graphs, statistical data etc drawn from reputable organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank (among many others).

However, not all variables are taken into account which might frustrate some people – claiming rates of obesity are higher in the USA compared to Japan because of the USA’s rough private healthcare system is a bit unfair when you leave out factors such as Japan’s healthy and entrenched culinary traditions, and genetic factors (skinny genes).

More tax…good?

But, it also seems that countries which have higher income taxes and high levels of wealth redistribution (i.e gather large amounts of tax revenue to pay for generous education, welfare, healthcare and maternity leave programmes) are more “equal” than countries which have low taxes and far less social spending – we see less of the aforementioned health and well-being problems if we practice the former!

However, the authors seem more concerned about Income Inequality (even if the average income is quite good but the top income markedly better), not so much tax. But what is outstanding is that pretty much all of the “most equal” countries have really high income tax regimes (Japan, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway).

So you are kind of left to draw your own conclusion about which is the most important – income equity or high tax rates, or both?

Sadly, New Zealand and Australia rank really highly in terms of inequality according to the authors, and therefore, this is what drives a variety of problems here and in Oz. Not just “people being lazy” etc.

Don’t be put off the by the academic sounding nature of the book, it’s really well written which makes all the technical sounding stuff really palatable.

What matters – Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande is a surgeon, writer, and public health researcher. His Auckland Writers Festival session was sold out, and I can see why. He explains the most important stuff about life, and does it in an interesting and engaging way.

His latest book Being Mortal looks at “the realities of aging and dying in his patients and in his family” (his father had a brain tumour). It has been a bestseller, surprising Gawande who thought its release in the holiday season might not make it an obvious pick:

Who is going to buy a book called Being Mortal for their Dad?

Atul talked about end of life priorities. The medical system works to preserve life at all cost, and yet people’s priorities aren’t necessarily living longer. He talked about a longrange medical stufy which revealed that older people may have disabilities and bad health, but they are often happier than the young. Older people can also have a sense of poignancy about life. The medical profession needs to be aware of this:

Our duty is bigger than health.

Cover of Being MortalCover of The Checklist Manifesto Cover of Better Cover of Complications

The care of the elderly has a strong emphasis on safety – resthomes are selling this to adult children rather than the aged, who are more concerned about having freedom and autonomy:

Safety is what we want for those we love; autonomy is what we want for ourselves.

Atul talked more about the hard conversations around the end of life, and that those discussions are a process and not an epiphany. Doctors should be talking less than 50% of the time. These are conversations that count:

70% of us will die with someone else making the core decisions.

A question from the audience about The Checklist Manifesto took us right to what is happening in medicine today. Auckland is one of the eight cities in the world that use this system. It has been enormously successful – the use of a checklist has led a 47% reduction of deaths in surgery. A childbirth checklist is being devised for use in Northern India.

Atul is about medicine, but very much about people.

On Chatham Island time with David Mitchell

The WORD Christchurch event with novelist David Mitchell ran on Chatham Islands time. With no session before or after, time was flexible. It started a little late and David was generous with his time, going well over the nominal finishing time. David was thankful for the restorative properties of Whittaker’s Hokey Pokey chocolate and a power nap. He was on top form with the conversation flowing easily between him and Rachael King – an award-winning author in her own right. David assured us we could go at anytime, he didn’t want to hold anybody’s babysitter up but we could have listened to this self-effacing Englishman all night. It was amazing for us starstruck fans to hear it took three days to get over his own fanboy awe and introduce himself to Haruki Murakami at breakfast.

On Middle Age and the role research plays in his novels

He used to go off around the world whenever he wanted to research his books, staying at backpacker hostels when he was researching Cloud atlas on the Chatham Islands, and drinking with the locals. Now he negotiates absences from home with his wife, and he stays at comfortable hotels. Interspersing quality time at home with stints at literary festivals allows his wife to have time to do things, and him to tuck the children into bed. He wrote Crispin Hershey from the Bone Clocks as a foil against believing the publicity machine. Several of the literary festivals Crispin attends have since invited David – a great way to travel to parts of the world – a tip for new authors maybe? He chooses the literary festivals he attends carefully, hoping to pick up useful experiences and nuggets of information from the places he visits, and they may later be woven into his books. Should we expect to see Iceland featured in a novel sometime?

Sometimes there is no substitute for being there. Without having ridden a bicycle in the snow in Europe, he wouldn’t have known that despite how many clothes you put on you still end up with snow up your nose, down your neck, up your sleeve and in your armpit:

Snow’s up my nose, snow’s in my eyes, snow’s in my armpits, snow howls after us through a stone archway into a grotty yard with dustbins already half buried under snow, snow, snow. Holly fumbles with the key now we are in…

Hugo Lamb with Holly Sykes, Bone Clocks

On Children

Rachael explored the Faustian aspects of David’s work, and whether we fear more for our children than ourselves. Rachael and David discussed how now having children has affected them, and their fears for their children and the world they could inherit. The world ravaged by climate change and desperately short of oil David describes in the last chapter of Bone Clocks is a warning.  Despite recurrent themes of death and cheating death, he doesn’t like to write too much sadness in novels. They are ultimately are for your enjoyment. David said as a parent he would never write anything in a novel that hurts children – if he puts them in harm’s way ultimately he always kind of saves them.

Cover of The Bone Clocks Cover of The Thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet Cover of Cloud Atlas Cover of number9dream

On writing and being a nerd

The upcoming new Slade House novella and the Bone Clocks are part of an overarching Uber novel where characters and references pop up in other novels. He delights in these nerd-like aspects of his work, creating links between characters in his books in a Tolkienesque way. He’d like to put more of this in his work, but he feels he is already asking a lot of his readers with the way he structures his novels.

On the fantasy scale he feels he is only about a 3 or 4, partly due to his books being character and not plot driven. Despite being a bit of a nerd and creating back stories for his characters, he doesn’t have his entire novels mapped out. He has an idea where the novel is going, the characters drive how it gets there. The characters need to develop depending on the limits of the period and the setting as with Orito Aibagawa the daughter of the Japanese Doctor in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. His wife warned him not to make her a whore and he always listens to his wife! Orito needs to come and go from the island of Edo-era at will. The problem was the island of Edo-era the one window on the West for Japan at the time  had very restricted access, so he makes her a doctor’s daughter she has a certain status which means her presence is not questioned and she can move around freely he also gave her a disfigurement or why would she still be single.

He pleads guilty to research. David limits his writing output, so he can spend a couple of years researching novels such as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and he relishes it. David says when he is researching he scoops information up. Later it shines light on your work as sun on leaves synthesises results.

Last time he was in Christchurch he had barely four hours to research the Chatham Islands in the Christchurch public library, taking notes from Michael King’s A land apart : the Chatham Islands of New Zealand  before we gently chucked him out at closing time. The character at the start of Cloud Atlas who collects teeth from skulls on the beach comes from that research. He would dearly have loved to able to have met Michael and shouted him a drink.

Scoop information up – later it shines light on your work, as sun on leaves synthesise results.