This Zimbabwean born author has, until recently, had an impressive career in international law in Geneva, while being an award winning writer and a single mother at the same time. She says she hasn’t slept since she had her son, which was 12 years ago. “But I am not as efficient as Margaret Thatcher,” she adds.
Looking at her work, that’s hard to believe. Her first published book, An Elegy for Easterly, is a collection of short stories and has won, among other awards, the Guardian First Book award in 2009. Even though it was labelled by her publisher as “the voice of Zimbabwe”, Petina does not feel comfortable talking on behalf of a whole Zimbabwe, never mind the whole of Africa. She feels that labelling writers as “coloured” comes with expectations of what they should write about.
And what does Petina write about? Corruption, hypocrisy, abuse of power, exploitation, memory, love, loss and – superstition. While her collections of short stories bring a multitude of voices of modern Zimbabwe, the story in her first novel, The Book of Memory, is a monologue narrated by an albino woman, who was sold off as a child by her parents and ended up in a maximum security prison in Harare for murdering her adoptive father. She is prompted by her lawyer to write down her memories, her story as she remembers it – so Memory finds herself writing for her life – both literally and metaphorically.
Even though Petina has been writing since she was 11, it took her 6 years to finish the story of Memory. As it was her second published work, it put her under a lot of pressure. As usual expectations were huge. When asked about how she overcame this “second novelitis” crisis (term coined by Bianca Zander), Petina laughs: “Who says I got over it?” But she manages to see the crisis of confidence in a more complex way: “The beauty of being a writer is the elusive nature of satisfaction. I always want to develop as a writer, to always be in battle with myself.”
After the great success of The Book of Memory and after her son “took himself to boarding school” she decided to hand in her notice at work so she could dedicate more time to writing and exploring. “I want to take a gap year. That thing kids do before the university.”
I am with you, Petina! Let that gap year roll into another and another and another …
You’d be forgiven for believing that what you learn at a festival is all about writers and readers and books. But, truth is, you learn a whole heap of other stuff too – like yourself. You learn a lot about yourself.
Here’s what I learnt:
I cannot pack light – I even pack “what if” stationery.
I’m really good at taking notes in the dark. My “blind” notes are superior to those written in the harsh light of fluorescence. It is a minor and little-recognised talent.
Big haired people will traverse entire auditoriums to sit right in front of me, thereby affording me the opportunity to write poisonous little asides in my notebook – in the pitch dark.
At a festival, I can attend events all day, contribute to an audio recording at night, and then blog well after midnight. All this on a diet of caffeine, darling little ginger friands and Japanese noodles from the outlet across the road, that is: nothing green and crunchy passes my lips. This is not the me most of you know. There is, admittedly, a lot more in the way of colourful language while I’m doing it. But it can be done.
But one of my main festival joys is being regifted the beauty of the English language. At festivals, I am reawakened to an abundance of words that I have just stopped using. I am jolted out of my language laziness and fall in love with words all over again. Not all these words are that rare, but they are heard less and less nowadays, words like this:
Jane Smiley: lampooning; nimble; plump; untethered; fastidious
All languages change: new vocabulary is created and many wonderfully evocative words fall out of use. But what can I do to stem the dumbing down of English? For starters I can be on Red Alert for the beauty and specificity of our wonderful language.
If you don’t have a secret identity pre-prepared, we can help you create your own superhero masks and cuffs on the day, and if you’re feeling out of practice we’ll have some superhero training activities to test your superpowers. When you’re ready, hunt for the supervillains around the library! Or have a go at our comics table — design your own superhero/villain costume, participate in our collaborative comics, and colour in some of your favourite comics characters!
There’ll be spot prizes on the day, so dust off your Armageddon costumes and head over to Central Library Peterborough for some comics-related shenanigans.
If you’re after some inspiration or practical advice, we can help –
Quotes are one of those serendipitous things, that infest every festival session. You forget to expect them, until they poke out of the conversation, like fireworks, showing off their intelligence, wit and subtlety with a style and a good measure of flamboyance.
Here are some of the top quotes of this year’s Auckland Writers Festival – hand picked by festival angels Moata, Roberta and myself:
Laughter is crucial – it’s like an orgasm of the mind. // Gloria Steinem
Even if love is not going to save anyone, we keep on doing it. It has no result in culture that is so result orientated. // Hanya Yanagihara
If one dream dies, I’m going to dream another dream and I’m going to dream it bigger. // Pettina Gappah
The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late. // Jeanette Winterson quoting her mother
My endings might be sad, but I like to think of them as authentic endings. // John Boyne
I’ve had the kind of happy childhood that’s so damaging to a writer. // Thomas Mallon
In the story “The Princess and the Pea”, I never wanted to be the princess. I wanted to be the pea – writing helped me do that. // Vivian Gornick
Characters of children’s books need to be rebels. // Edward Carey
If you don’t understand the book, read it again. If you still don’t understand it, read again. If you still don’t understand it, throw it away. // David Eggleton on importance of understanding a book when writing a book review
Most opinions are just emotions in fancy dress. // Joe Bennett
Assumptions are the mother of all stuff-ups. // Helene Wong
I have a brain tumour. I experience many unfamiliar and unreal moments. I am frequently unfamiliar even to myself. // Tusiata Avia
I could never see the distinction between Science and Art. Medicine is art to me. // Jean-Christophe Rufin
Creativity is a kind of anchoring. It is a lie detector which prevents us from living life in a blur. // Jeanette Winterson
Do you remember the excitement of finding a true friend in high school days? When you were lost but then found yourself by finding a friend? When you realized there is someone else out there, who likes the same weird books as you do, listens to the same music and shares the same humour and passion for so many other exciting things? The one you could talk to late into the night and (nearly) never run out of things to say? And when you did, it was nice and comfortable to just be quiet. Together.
I came across such friendship at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. Though it revealed to me on the stage, it was clearly not staged. Christchurch born poet Tusiata Avia and Maxine Beneba Clarke, Australian poet and writer, were like two shy girls, who have gathered in their hideaway, somewhere far from the adult’s world, to share their most precious and beloved sweets with each other. Sitting behind the coffee table on the stage, they were begging each other to read another poem. And another. And another – almost forgetting about the presence of the audience.
There was something truthful and playful in their relationship, in this game of exchanging tiny little gems. In the era of authorship and general egocentrism, it is very rare to see such genuine friendship amongst authors. Most of the time, we read about one single author, we listen to her or him speak on the stage about their work. So having two minds and hearts tripping on each other with such sincerity was really refreshing.
Maxine and Tusiata read poems from their award-winning books. There was a big stack of them on the table, with stationery stickers in various places, marking pages populated by voices that wanted to be heard. Gifts that Maxine laid on the table included her newly released poetry collection Carrying the World, a collection of short storiesForeign soiland three other collections of poetry. Tusiata brought along her Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, Bloodclotand freshly launched Fale Aitu | Spirit House, all poetry collections as well.
Voices captured in their work are voices of diaspora. Many different voices, who speak many different Englishes. But for Maxine as well as Tusiata the main reason why these voices need to be heard and their stories told lays in the human experience and not in the cultural aspects these voices bring with them. So they are both getting a bit tired of culturally and racially focused receptions of their work, when their intention is to show something universal, something human. “It is not a great position to be in,” says Tusiata. “If you are a ‘writer of colour’ you are pigeonholed at the beginning of every presentation. People need to identify you before they engage with your work.”But at the same time, she confesses, that identification is unavoidable, as “poetry is so personal and our personal paths are about where we are from.”
They are not the only ones raising their concern about the biased reception of work from ‘writers of colour’. During the Sunday session titled The Diversity debate, Marlon James declared, half jokingly, half serious, that he will not be attending any sessions about diversity any more. Pettina Gappah earlier that afternoon talked about the burden that sort of labelling gives to ‘coloured writers’: “This label comes with expectations of what you talk about in your work.”
I could feel myself being challenged after each of the sessions. They made me think of myself as a reader and my own reception of work written by ‘writers of colour’. And they also made me wonder, if true friendship happens, when we look at the world above and beyond pigeonholes of colour, sex, race, ability, language, culture, age and socio-economic status. According to Maxine’s inscription in my copy of her book, that may as well be true. “From my heart to yours”, it says.
Which, when read again, it could also sound like a tutorial on how to read.
Each week during term time (except the first and last week) the team from Science Alive bring their Science Snippets sessions into our libraries. Excellent Science Alive educators lead children through interactive activities to stimulate their interest in science, and there is something to take home every week! There is a different theme for each session and this coming week from Monday 30 May it’s Matariki.
You are sure to learn all about Matariki and the stars. We have a great page for kids about Matariki. Learn all about Matariki and traditions, what happens at Matariki and find some cool colouring pages.
Here are some great nonfiction books that we have in the library if you want to learn more about Matariki and the stars:
For some reason, it took me ages to read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. I’ve been told it’s been very popular in book groups and it’s been shortlisted for a few literary prizes. It was one long read, but not because it was boring or dreary, far from it, I had settled into a reading malaise and just didn’t read very much.
This is Hannah Kent’s first novel and it is based on fact. Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be put to death in Iceland, in 1829.
A servant with a past as bleak as an Icelandic winter, Agnes is found guilty for her part in the murder of two men, one of whom was her employer and in the book, her lover as well.
The author has used a great deal of factual information and certainly done her homework to make details as accurate as possible, but also filled in the emotional details and made a sympathetic case for Agnes’ innocence with fictional aspects. Agnes is regarded still today in Iceland as an evil woman of almost witch-like proportions.
I loved the book, it was very evocative of the landscape, time period and people, and Agnes became very real to me, a woman whose circumstances overwhelmed her control over her own life and future. Knowing it was based on a person who existed and met such a tragic end, made it all the more riveting.
Since becoming obsessed with Vikings through the television series, and Danish crime dramas such as The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, anything set up there in the cold Northern climes piques my interest. The intense, dark and never ending winters, the hard lives and meagre existences hold a great deal of fascination.
My family and I moved to Christchurch at the beginning of 2009, and one of the first things we did – as you do – was go to the library and sign up for a membership. The staff probably cringed when they saw the five of us arrive, but they were so nice and helpful and friendly, it was amazing.
We had gone into Central Library because the concept of more than one library in a town was a bit unknown to us, and after we collected our cards we set off exploring…
Did you know there was a WHOLE ROOM just for children? An aisle of science fiction? (Our favourite) young adults had it’s own space! There were heaps of CDs and DVDs. And magazines. There was even an upstairs with a whole floor of non-fiction… It was bliss.
Well, we all know that the Central library built in 1982, is no more. And like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a new library will be built on Cathedral Square. Hey, that could be a good name for it: The Christchurch Phoenix, what do you think?
So what other milestones has the library seen in it’s 157 years:
26 May 1859 opens as the Mechanics Institute library, based in the Town Hall. Membership was for paying members only, and the subscription was set at one guinea per annum or seven shillings and sixpence per quarter
In 1863, the library moved to a new wooden building on the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street.
Canterbury College took over the running of then named Canterbury Public Library in February 1874.
In 1920 a travelling library service to country areas was begun: boxes of books, which were changed quarterly, were sent to places like Darfield, Mayfield, Culverden and Hinds
Uncle Jack (Librarian Ernest Bell) and Aunt Edna (Edna Pearce) created a children’s radio show on 3YA in the 1920s, broadcasting stories, plays, poems and songs
In 1948 ownership of the Library was handed over to the Christchurch City Council (after decades of wrangling, in true Christchurch fashion!)
1952 – finally – free borrowing introduced
1975 first computerised lending system introduced
2 February 1982 the Governor-General, Hon. Sir David Beattie officially opened the new Public Library building on the corner of Gloucester Street and Oxford Terrace. Warren and Mahoney were the architects and C. S. Luney Ltd was the principal contractor for the building
1989 Christchurch City Libraries starts Australasia’s first public library online catalogue