Different kinds of adulthoods – Hanya Yanagihara and Paula Hawkins at the Auckland Writers Festival 2016

There has been a few bewitching moments in my saga of getting to this year’s Auckland Writers Festival and it seems like the magic hasn’t ceased. On the contrary, it revealed its presence the moment I walked into Aotea Centre, buzzing with electric atmosphere and a lot of funky dressed cats of eclectic ages.

While waiting on my first session, I struck up a conversation with a girl sitting across the table. I normally wouldn’t do that. But a part of this festival are also booky chats with random strangers. Bubbling with excitement. There is so much you want to say. To a stranger.

It turns out that Anita, my random stranger, threw out TV a couple of months ago and now she reads much more. She has no family, no children, she is independent. She lives a different kind of adulthood. We talk about it. How we are trapped in the idea of a certain path we need to take, when we are adults. How and with whom we are supposed to live. I like her. I tell her I am attending Hanya Yanagihara session. She likes the sound of it and buys the ticket.

Hanya Yanagihara, her book is a homage to friendship. Image supplied.

It turns out that Hanya Yanagihara, the author of the most talked book of the year, A little life, also leads a different life of an adult and this experience reflects greatly in her book. Her main characters don’t fit into the model of the nuclear family, the institution of modern age, and don’t or are not able to follow the American dream of success. Instead they nurture friendship, which in Hanya’s opinion is as important as marriage or parenthood, because its nature is expansive and opened.

Paula Hawkins
Paula Hawkins, author of last year’s hit The girl on the train. Image supplied.

Just half an hour later the same stage is taken by quite a different kind of presence: Paula Hawkins, the author of last years domestic noir hit, The girl on the train. Quite shy and rather taciturn about herself, Paula also lives a different kind of adulthood.

Despite not being a mother, her very clear understanding of motherhood but also the natural impossibility of motherhood finds articulation in the voices of her female characters. Train journeys in her story are actually glimpses into the variety of adulthoods.

But ina little life awf16dependence girl on the train awf16does not come without a price. Both Hanya’s and Paula’s writing processes were also mentally and emotionally extremely demanding. Hanya wrote her book in 18 month, writing every single evening and weekend while maintaining her usual job as an editor. Paula had to finish her story in 6 month and to be able to do that, she had to borrow money of her father to bridge that gap of financial instability. One can feel the angst and struggle they both went through to get their work finished.

Sounds frightening and painful? Yes! But stories need to be told. For Hanya the need was urgent and very personal. Was it worth it? Yes! Absolutely. The work of art should change how you see the world and your place in it.

I left sessions somehow grounded and wondered if I did not overestimate the role of magic in this saga. Maybe I should just blame it on the geist of our time. And what a time it is! After all, it’s not an era of a room of one’s own (as Virginia Woolf would put it), but much bigger and still expanding.

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The State of America – Janna Levin, Gloria Steinem, and Thomas Mallon at the Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Janna Levin, Thomas Mallon and Gloria Steinem
Janna Levin, Gloria Steinem and Thomas Mallon. Image supplied

Before the Auckland Writers Festival began, possibly even before I finished reading the programme, I’d picked yesterday’s The State of America session as a must-see.

I’m happy to say that my intuitions were bang on. It was a cracker of a panel, with smart people saying a succession of smart (and sometimes profane) things. Put it this way – if you think Donald Trump’s an idiot and enjoy listening to smart people elaborate on just how true that is then you probably would have enjoyed this hour of the festival as much as I did.

Guyon Espiner, (who drolly summed up his career as writing for newspapers “when they were still a thing” followed by television journalism, which was also alluded to as a thing that had gone the way of the dinosaurs – this got a laugh) was in the enviable position of not really having to do much beyond throw out the occasional question, such was the calibre of the panelists and the flow of the conversation.

And what panelists. Janna Levin is an astrophysicist with a PhD from MIT in Physics. Espiner rattled off a list of her achievements (including an award winning novel) that seemed longer than the queue to get into the auditorium and then followed up with “…but can she explain Donald Trump’s popularity”. To which her response, with reference to her astrophysics background was, “I’m not interested in anything that happened more recently than 500 million years ago”.

Thomas Mallon, who I have to admit, I’m not that familiar with was more conservative in his politics (he didn’t vote for Obama but still wept when he won because of what an amazing thing for America that was), but he was certainly just as scathing of Trump as anyone and possibly more critical of the Republican party and the predicament it finds itself in because of his history of leaning that way politically.

And of course, Gloria Steinem, who if you were looking for a polar opposite of Donald Trump, would make an exceedingly good candidate. When she walked out on stage she was greeted as a rock star, and in her leather jacket, Steven Tyler-esque scarf and silver belt, she did very much look the part.

One thing that Gloria Steinem talked about was the insidious and pervasive influence that whole industries have on the US political process. She puts the lack of a functional public healthcare down to the insurance industry, and says that members of the legislature are often Insurance Agents by trade. When something seems nonsensical or against what most people want, if you follow the money it leads you to the source of the issue (like the NRA’s power to halt gun control laws). This somewhat mirrored Susie Orbach’s comments from yesterday in which she pointed out the various industries that make money from creating and exploiting feelings of inadequacy about our bodies.

Even so, Steinem still claims to be a “hopeaholic”, and thinks that things will change.

Possibly wanting to give the American panellists a break from the negativity, Espiner asked each what was cool about the US. This lead to discussions of the strength of diversity. The belief in innnovation, and an openness that Levin claimed shows on American faces.

There were many laugh out loud moments during the hour and some marvellous quotes, like the following.

I had the kind of happy childhood that is so damaging to a writer.

Thomas Mallon on the disability afforded him by a stable upbringing.

On Donald Trump

It’s a death knell for critical thinking.

Janna Levin

The only ideology he has is himself.

Thomas Mallon also described him as “grotesque and dangerous”.

We didn’t take it seriously soon enough. And by “we” I mean “sane people”.

Janna Levin

He’s a kind of proxy insulter.

Gloria Steinem

We survived Benedict Arnold. We survived Lee Harvey Oswald… We will survive this preposterous son of a b****.”

Thomas Mallon not mincing his words.

On Social Media

It’s a terrible way to discuss ideas.

Thomas Mallon on the limitations of Twitter.

I’ve been maligned a lot but not with such brevity.

Gloria Steinem on being misquoted and copping flak about it on Twitter.

On who could be the president

I want the girl to win.

Levin’s 9 year old daughter is Team Clinton.

Oh, I live for the day. A single, gay, Atheist. The only thing better than an Atheist would be a Pagan.

Gloria Steinem when asked whether an Atheist could ever be president.

It’s going to be hard to top this session for smart, wry, commentary. I think it may well be my favourite session of the festival.

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Creativity and Craziness – Jeanette Winterson and Susie Orbach at the Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Jeanette Winterson and Susie Orbach, Image supplied

This pop-up event, especially added to the programme because of the sell-out popularity of the original, had many points of departure from everything else I have thus far experienced at the fest.

In a dark cavernous room with a bean-bag strewn floor, somewhere down several flights of stairs at Aotea Centre, married couple Jeanette Winterson (of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit fame) and Susie Orbach (of Fat Is A Feminist Issue fame) were going to “riff with each other and the audience on the subject of madness and creativity.” There was to be no presenter. May the best interrupter win!

Why be happy when you could be normalJeanette kicked off by asking the audience who thought they were creative. Up went the hands (mine too it must be added). Then, who thought they were crazy, another sea of waving arms (not me – I have no truck with this latest fetish for thinking one is somehow special because of being nuts. Most people are bog standard normal from what I can see). Then who thought they were both.

And we were off.

Here are some of the provocations flung our way (and backed up by reading and research I must add):

  • All children are born creative – Winterson
  • I don’t agree retaliated Orbach – the potential for creativity is always there, but for it to develop it requires the gap between the parents (caregivers) and the child to be filled with opportunity
  • Creative work is a lie-detector – it forces you to face your truths – Winterson
  • There is no one true self, there is an adaptive self with kernels of truth – Orbach
  • Therapy is the most creative act that I ever engage in, creativity is not only about making things, it is about the relationship with yourself – Orbach
  • It is a myth that you have to be crazy to create, creativity is actually on the side of mental health – Winterson
  • The internet has exploded the ease with which knowledge can be achieved – Orbach
  • The internet is the democratisation of shite – Winterson

All this happened conversationally with little relationship revelations: who dyes her hair, who can’t stand bright lights, who would never eat on stage. Even though they often disagreed, interrupted one another and are completely different people – there was a palpable respect, acknowledgement and pride in one another’s achievements. There was attraction, there was love.

Towards the end I found my mind returning to that phrase “riff with each other and the audience” and I pictured my darling husband and I up on that stage. I played around with that notion for a bit. Then I shut it right down. Bottom line truth and spoiler alert here:

I cannot abide being interrupted!

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Susie Orbach and feminist issues – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

This afternoon I had the back of my head blown off (in a good way) by a psychotherapist.

Susie Orback
Susie Orbach: Image supplied

Susie Orbach is the author of a number of books, most famously Fat is a Feminist Issue which came out in the seventies and which Orbach refers to as “Fifi”, as if it’s an aggressively groomed poodle instead of a guide through the murky waters of how we feel about our bodies and food.

Despite the fact that Orbach has revisited the book in recent times, adding to it as our issues with our bodies, rather than getting better have only become more expansive and weird, she’s never re-read it because she’s not sure she’d be kind to her younger self. “I’m frightened of it”, she says. Is it a shame that we still need books like this? She thinks so.

Cover of Fat is a feminist issueFifi has unfortunately stayed in print.

The discussion ranged far and wide and touched on so many things – this is mainly what has caused the metaphorical gaping hole in the back of my noggin as all the ideas have tried to escape – but always was grounded in the basic idea that western culture, or more correctly “Vulture Capitalism” is grooming us to view our bodies in completely the wrong way, and making a nice profit out of it, thanks very much.

This session solidified for me, some of the vague disquiets I’ve been feeling in recent years about self-image, messages about food, the beauty industry, and the media.

Orbach is of the opinion that painting particular foods as “bad” or “good” isn’t useful when helping people to learn how to eat well.

Refined sugar isn’t that great, but it’s not poison…They’re making it as attractive as heroin.

Regarding the “obesity epidemic”, she points out that many people of all body types eat compulsively. Focusing only on people on the larger end of the spectrum isn’t really getting to the seat of the problem. Instead of dealing with the problem eating, what you’re really focusing on is the “problem body”, which when you think about it, is kind of the wrong way round of doing things.

She’s also not a fan of dieting and views Weight Watchers and their ilk with a cynical eye, given the combination of incredibly high recidivism rates (in the 90%+ region) and that it’s incredibly lucrative.

If dieting really worked you’d only have to do it once.

Hard to argue with cold hard facts like that.

Orbach herself was anything but cold and hard. She seemed genuinely embarrassed by the applause she received and listened with great patience (occupational hazard, I guess) to an audience question that was so long-winded people were beginning to shuffle in their seats and check their watches.

The session touched on so many big ideas it’s hard to squish it down into a meagre blog post – like globalisation and how that has hastened a merge towards one acceptable version of beauty (the kind that prompts Fijian teenagers to bulimia, Korean women to jaw-shaving surgery, and plastic surgery selfie-apps for 10 year olds).

This is something that Orbach is actively working against in her work with Endangered Bodies.

Orbach also talked about her BBC Radio show In Therapy, in which she has attempted to recreate “the intimacy of the therapy session”. I have never listened to it but it sounds intriguing. Completely unscripted, Orbach interacts with actors as if it were a real therapy session. All she knows about their characters beforehand is a few brief facts and then the rest is her reacting to what the actors create. There are plans a second series and for a book based on the transcripts of the show (due out in November).

When asked for thoughts on how to help young people avoid the unhealthy body obsessions that are so prevalent now that they’re not even considered real mental health problems any more, she offered that when her own children were growing up she made sure never to express disappointment or exasperation with her body because “I wouldn’t want them to think that the way you become a grownup woman is by hating yourself”.

Which, when you think about it, is bloody good advice and it’s a bit shameful that we need it. Challenge laid, Ms Orbach. I’m going to try and follow it if I can.

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The odd woman and the city… and me – Vivian Gornick at the Auckland Writers Festival

Vivian Gornick, Image supplied

I can say, with absolute certainty, that every good friend I have would love to sit in a cafe, with a good coffee and a tasty little nibble and Vivian Gornick for company. All that intelligence, that wit, that wisdom, that chutzpah coming at you in an accent straight from the Bronx. I did not want this session to end.

Vivienne is the doyen of the Personal Narrative. This is where you write about your life – everyone knows you are the narrator. But you shift the events around, you change all names other than your own, you play around with years of observation. You create a collage of your life. You do it so well, that even Gornick’s best friend – Leonard, a gay man, phoned her after he had read The Odd Woman and the City and asked: “Can I audition for the part of Leonard?”

How does Gornick pull this off? First she walks the streets of New York – she finds this walking very healing. On her walks she observes and: “I talk to anyone who will talk to me.” She has done this for decades and collected together all these little anecdotes. She pulls the story out of these situations. It goes like this:

Writing begins with a feeling. Intelligence brings art to that feeling. You need to think, and thinking well is the hardest thing in the world to do. It is not the same as obsessing. When the thinking goes well it flowers, without warning, into something beautiful. And that is when the writing is great.

The Odd Woman and the CityGornick loves walking, her friends, Feminism, New York and intelligent conversation. She is 79 and lives alone (like 50% of New York’s population.) She feels qualified to say that the real perils of old age are not the physical problems which have been given so much attention, but the spiritual and intellectual losses of good like-minded company.

She means conversations like this:

“Fifty years ago we would have been our parents. Who are we now?”

“They passed” said Leonard. Fifty years ago you entered a closet called ‘marriage.’ In the closet was a double set of clothes, so stiff they could stand up by themselves. A woman stepped into a dress called ‘wife’ and the man stepped into a suit called ‘husband.’ And that was it. They disappeared inside the clothes. To-day we don’t pass. We’re standing here naked. That’s all.”

“I’m not the right person for this life,” I say.

“Who is?” he says, exhaling in my direction.

I hope Gornick and Leonard will still be having conversations like this when they get really old. Actually, I hope I am still having them too.

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First full day of festivalling – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

It was full steam ahead with all things literary today as we, your festival angels, attended sessions, took frantic notes, felt our brains get bigger, and tried to process it all.

Listen to our audio wrap up of our day in “festivalling” and what we’re looking forward to on Saturday.


(8 mins, 10 sec)

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