Marlon James – the author who just comes in and is cool – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

When asked about how does it feel writing a new book, Marlon James does not hide the dread of writing vocation: “It’s like a childbirth. You think, how the hell did I end up here again! Was it not bad enough the last time?”

Marlon James (image supplied)

Last years Man Booker Prize winner is a guest of this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. His book, A brief history of seven killings, stretches not-so-briefly over 600 pages, opening questions of power, class and race with diversity. It features a plethora of voices: deceased, witnesses, killers, drug dealers, journalists and reporters, detectives, FBI and CIA agents, beauty queens, members of parliament and also Keith Richard’s drug dealer. It is an exploration of Jamaica before and after the attempted murder of Bob Marley.

Why the shooting of Bob Marley? Because the year 1976 was an exclamation point of social and political instability and general fear in Jamaica. The shooting, Marlon explains, was highly relational not just to Marley’s life, but to life of all Jamaicans – if they can shoot Marley, they can shoot anybody. Marlon turned this moment into a storytelling device, that navigated him through the exploration of “10 different Jamaicas”.

He finds writing hard work and it demands a lot of discipline, but there is nothing else he could do. During the process of  writing, his characters surprise him but also disappoint him. They become human and he often finds himself saying: “I didn’t see that coming!” The only voice he was not interested in, while writing A brief history of seven killings, was his own. It soon became clear that only one voice won’t do either. There had to be more of them, they had to be three-dimensional and authentic. Like the journalist. “He’s such a bad writer, he writes like I did in high school,” Marlon adds, keeping the amount of humour nicely balanced through out the session.

james marlon
Marlon at the signing table.

But how do characters arise? Where do they come from? Some of them support different points of view, others come to existence because of demands of the plot, or emotional credibility of the story. “But some of them just have to come in and be cool,”

seven killingsThat’s where beauty and creative power lies in the novel, in the polyphony of voices. It is this that makes the novel Marlon’s favourite literary form. The novel has also been a place of escape. As a fiction it offers the possibility to explore forbidden things – and there is quite a few of them in his novel: “You have to risk going too far. Discomfort happens all the time.” Rather than talking about love, he risks pornography.”I don’t do love, I am a literary fiction author” he sums up, grinning.

If you tried reading Marlon’s book and didn’t like it, there is a great chance you would like Marlon himself. No matter the size of the stage he finds himself on, he is relaxed, communicative with the crowd, witty and amazingly well read. He just … comes in and is cool.

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Tell it slant – Steve Braunias, Joan Fleming, Vivian Gornick and Chris Price at the Auckland Writers Festival 2016

How best to tell one’s truth? Inspired by Emily Dickinson’s “tell all the truth but tell it slant”, deft writers Steve Braunias (NZ), Joan Fleming (NZ), Vivian Gornick (US), and Chris Price (NZ) read extracts from their work to show us the many and varied ways in which this can be done.

Four Writers Read, Image supplied

Steve Braunias is like a jugular heat-seeking missile, and in his reading extract he had the NZ Green Party in his sights. Acutely observant, witty and irreverent, here’s some of his slanty truths:

Eleanor Catton: “from whose pages, it must be said, one does not come away clutching one’s sides in laughter.”

Metiria Turei: “one of the smartest people in the room, then someone gave her a ukulele. There followed the longest 4 minutes of my life.”

failed Love PoemsPoet Joan Fleming‘s writing is like “a shudder of light” in the dark venue. Erotic poetry like this is hard to listen to in a packed room shoulder-to-shoulder with complete strangers. But she read achingly beautifully from her book Failed Love Poems.

Vivian Gornick who read from her book The Odd Woman and the City has had many loves in her life and talks of herself as a person for whom “lovemaking was sublime, but it was not where I lived.” Friendship plays a much greater role, and her interactions with her friend Leonard bring out the best in her writing: “We share the politics of damage … our subject is the unlived life.”

Beside HerselfChris Price is also a New Zealand poet. She drew the short straw in terms of the line-up, as one of the features of AWF is that events follow in rapid succession and you have to queue to gain entry to some of them. Several patrons had to leave while Chris was reading. It must have been very distracting. And it was their loss, here is a quote from a poem about cross-dressing:

After raiding your wardrobe, I feel so much more myself

Great stuff.

All these authors can write and read and speak and connect. The 45 minutes duration of these reading sessions just passes in a flash.

Now to elbow my way to the front of the queue for the next event!

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The authenticity and secret obsessions of John Boyne – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Did you know that John Boyne is obsessed with stationery? And that Ireland has such remarkable literary tradition because of Guinness? No, me neither. But it is all true. It wasn’t only me who heard it, there was probably 200 other souls at John’s second session of the day. The first one was sold out, of course.

John is one of those authors, who knew they wanted to be a writer since they were little. Many people laughed at him then, but – no one is laughing now! Reading and writing were integral parts of his childhood.

It took John Boyne a long time to get over anger and write about the Catholic priesthood in Ireland.(image supplied)

Besides publishing nine novels for adults and five for young readers, John has always been writing short stories and published one collection. His work has been translated to 48 languages and the story of young friendship in holocaust, The boy in the striped pyjamas, was turned into a film. The list of awards and nominations is endless. When he speaks he addresses everyone. He radiates openness and sincerity.

His work captures two groups of voices: voices from very young people and voices from old people (and not many in between). He prefers to use different prepositions when describing his work: he writes ABOUT children and ABOUT adults, and not FOR them. His books classified as books for young readers are stories about children, who find themselves in the adult situation. John doesn’t believe in classifying literature by the age of a reader: these are modern, booksellers terms, he says. What is important is that story is told, not how it is labelled.

history  boy in stripped    boy mountain   absolutist

He considers himself as a happy person. So why so many scenes of dreadful sadness and even worse – sad endings? “My endings might be sad, but I like to think of them as authentic endings.” And so are his characters. Their complexity comes to surface in the challenging conflicts and difficult life situations they find themselves in. Like Father Yates, the protagonist in A history of loneliness. Its theme of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Ireland occupied most of the session. But complicity of such issues can only be addressed justifiably in art.

His advice to writers? Don’t take reviews personally. Don’t believe the good ones and don’t believe the bad ones. And if you meet a reviewer, who has been brutal with your work, shower them with kindness and praise – it will make them feel really bad!

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“Herstory” in history – Barbara Brookes at Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Three of my favourite things came together at the festival this morning: art, books and networking! Barbara Brookes was giving a presentation on her beautiful book A History of New Zealand Women at the Auckland Art Gallery and I had a message for her.

Meeting up with Barbara Brookes
Meeting up with Barbara Brookes

When I booked a taxi from my home to the airport on Thursday morning (many long blogs ago), my taxi driver, Frank, was a chatty man – and when he heard I was off to Auckland Writers Festival, he said I should go say hello to his sister for him – her name is Barbara Brookes he said. What are the odds? So here I am doing my networking thing, Frank, hope you get to read this blog!

A History of New Zealand Women is a truly beautiful book. It is a book to own. Barbara spent 35 years researching it. She saw the writing of it as part of her personal journey through life. As she said: Some women are into slow cooking, I’m into slow writing!

A History of New Zealand WomenIt is a multi-layered book, and certain myths crash landed very early on:
Myth number 1: That Pakeha brought an improved way of life for women. Wrong. In fact Māori women who married English men lost their traditional rights, even their landownership rights and became completely subservient to their English husbands.
Myth number 2: That the arrival of the English meant more opportunities for Māori women. Wrong. What represented opportunity for English women, a new life in New Zealand, meant dispossession in many cases for Māori women.

So how did we all get to be on more or less the same page as women? Take your pick: childbirth, abortion, the fight against introduced diseases, two World Wars, the introduction of women into the workforce, the shared love of shopping and independence from the restrictions of marriage as the only way up and out, the rise of feminism, the fight for equal rights and equal pay, birth control. These were the bonds. And they were strong.

Many of the old problems are much reduced or gone. But this is life we are talking about, and new problems have come along to take their place. Like the over-sexualisation of young women and even children, domestic violence, and the one Brookes believes is the most worrying: the decline in importance of the male breadwinner and its effect on family dynamics, and the loss of quality family time as a result of the many freedoms that we all now enjoy.

Just when it was getting really quite depressing, I got chatting to a beautiful young woman in the signing queue who said: I’m one of the young women everyone seems so worried about, but we do know about the over-sexualisation of young women, and we know about the dangers of programmes like The Bachelor, but we are also strong, we are also aware.

It was like the baton had been passed on. There is a whole new wave of young women out there. The future is in their strong hands.

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Te Kupu o Te Wiki – Kino kē (awesome)

Kia ora. To encourage the use of Te Reo Māori we are publishing weekly kupu (words) and phrases that can be used with children.

Kupu (word)

kino kē

Kino kē koe, e te tau!
You are awesome, my darling!?

Whāngahia te Reo

Auckland Writers Festival – how to do it on the cheap

One thing I absolutely love about Auckland Writers Festival is the atmosphere. The whole space, the plaza and Aotea Centre breathe together with the events! It is a festival in true meaning of the word. It doesn’t take much to soak up this atmosphere, you can just park yourself comfortably in one of the couches and be present.

Here are a few tips on how to do the whole festival thing with minimal financial input (ignoring the costs of travel and accommodation):

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Emergency poet Deborah Alma will diagnose you and prescribe – a poem.

Visit the emergency poet. For the last three days of the festival, an ambulance has been parked in front of the venue. Emergency poet Deborah Alma can asses your state and prescribe the right medicine, which is – a poem! Her 10 minute one-to-one consultation sessions are booked out, but she has an extensive collection of pre-mixed medications ready to heal you. I diagnosed myself with severe indecisiveness. I got a little red pill. Inside of it was a role of tiny piece of paper with Mary Oliver‘s (note the surname!) verse: “Tell me, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?” (I’ll take it to the Writers Festival, I answered to Mary, and I was cured!)

Deborah’s pharmacy.

Attend free sessions. There is plenty of very well-themed and diversely crafted free sessions on offer right throughout the weekend. Be it a debate, a reading, a discussion or a workshop-like event, you just have to bring your open mind and get in a queue.

Talk to a stranger, you might find a book mate. Standing in a queue is a perfect time to find out what else is going on at the festival and to update yourself on sessions you missed out. I never imagined it would be so easy to start a conversation!

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Reassuring piles of books.

Browse through the book stalls and catch glimpses of authors at the signing. Book prices are reasonable, so you can always buy one and get it signed by the author. Most of authors are very approachable, so you might get a chance of a chat!

Watch the fashion show roll out in front of your eyes. I would need an extra day at the festival just to sit in the corner of the foyer and watch the spontaneous fashion procession go by. It is so mesmerizing, it almost feels like being on another planet: diversity of styles, unpredictability of combinations, colours and materials is just divine. I wish my mum could see it!

Find your own truth captured on one of the cards.

Look out for freebies. Make sure you sniff around properly. This year organizers printed out cards with authors quotes, which you might find lying around on the tables, and also a small charming booklet of stories and illustrations, some of them made especially for the festival.

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