Highly-respected British historian and biographer A. N. Wilson, author of The Victorians;
Science writer James Gleick exploring the mysteries of time travel;
Novelist and Kiwi expat Stella Duffy, who is currently completing Ngaio Marsh’s unfinished novel Money in the Morgue;
Canadian storyteller Ivan Coyote, who was the breakout star of last year’s popular WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival.
WORD Christchurch’s programme director Rachael King says:
The audience for our last festival increased by 50% on the previous festival, showing there is a real appetite for these thought-provoking events in Christchurch. We are thrilled to collaborate with the Auckland Writers Festival to be able to bring such high-calibre speakers to the city.
Get your tickets now. If you buy tickets by 21 April, you do in the draw to win a 10-session pass to the Auckland Writers Festival, which runs 16 to 21 May.
Another great option is the Autumn Season Pass – it costs $90 plus $3 booking fee and gets you into all six events. All season pass holders automatically also go in the draw to win books from all six writers, courtesy of UBS.
Get reading these six writers – visit our page WORD Autumn Season and find their books in our collection. Or go to your local bookshop.
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.
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.
I am bordering on late when I arrive at a packed out Upper NZI Room at the Aotea Centre for a session that, as a South Islander, I feel duty-bound to attend.
I’m pointed in the direction of of a clutch of empty seats near the back by one of the friendly festival ushers/helpers.
This session dares to ask – is the South Island, home to 23% of New Zealanders, another country? Is there something distinctive and different about hailing from the Mainland?
Ready to answer these, and similarly not-that-serious questions are Christchurch writer Fiona Farrell, Otagoan, poet, and former sportsman Brian Turner, and transplanted Banks Peninsula raconteur, dog enthusiast and columnist Joe Bennett.
Radio New Zealand presenter (and non-Mainlander) Jesse Mulligan is in charge of wrangling this trio and extracting what wisdom he could on the topic of Te Waipounamu.
As a dyed in the wool Cantabrian myself the notion that the South Island might be considered sufficiently “different” and “special” from the rest of New Zealand to warrant it’s own hour of discussion was in itself a little off-putting. We’re the normal ones by which the rest of the country may be judged, thanks – I said to myself in a way that somewhat alarmingly reinforced the stereotype, and caused me to peer out from behind my metaphorical eyepatch. But I am not alone. When Mulligan asks who in the crowd was a Mainlander, a sea of arms waved in unison. No red and black stripey scarves were seen, nor are any couches set alight, but early days…
Yes, it seems that this corner of the Aotea Centre was packed to the gunwales with South Islanders. Here we had all converged…to hear us discuss ourselves. But perhaps if you’re a Mainlander who lives in Auckland, the chances to gather like this are rare? Kia kaha, my southern brothers and sisters, kia kaha.
Each representative of The Other Big Island is asked to read something that speaks to their identity as a South Islander.
Farrell chooses a poignant passage from her book The Villa at the Edge of the Empire about solastalgia, the feeling of distress caused by the loss of a familiar landscape or environment. My one Cantabrian eye moistens noticeably.
Turner chooses to read several things by different authors including Margaret Atwood and Ronald Wright. I can’t remember the exact details but the theme seems to be that of the rural landscape being irretrieveably altered and damaged in the name of “progress”. What definitely sticks with me was how he describes himself as “a cussett sort of a coot”, because who, outside of a Larry McMurtry novel, talks that way? Splendid.
Bennett is rather less lyrical in his description of Turner who claims to sometimes call “my pet rock”. Certainly the difference between the two men is stark – Bennett all rambunctious energy, Turner barely moving and thoughtful. Mulligan, to his credit, manages almost to reign Bennett in at times, which is generally the best you can hope for, in my experience.
Bennett’s reading is of a very brief passage from a Owen Marshall short story “Cabernet Sauvignon with my brother”, which he chooses for a very specific description of dryness that he feels really perfectly captures that place.
I love the accumulated heat of the Canterbury autumn. When you rest on the ground you can feel the sustained warmth coming up into your body, and there are pools of dust like talcum powder along the roads. It’s not the mock tropicality of the Far North, but the real New Zealand summer. It dries the flat of your tongue if you dare to breathe through your mouth. After spending the vacation working on the coast, I was happy to be back in Canterbury.
Mulligan then asks a questioned designed to provoke, “why don’t you move to Auckland?”
The answers were vary in the degree to which they take the question seriously. Turner, with some earnestness observes that he needs wide open spaces and “the sounds of silence that aren’t silence”.
Farrell quips that she “probably couldn’t afford it” (A ha! An Auckland property market joke – they’re easy… but they’re still funny), and Bennett says it has never crossed his mind and points out how wrongheaded, presumptuous and arrogant the question is in the first place.
Discussion moves on to the portrayal of the South Island in the media and Bennett claims that the northern-driven media are often patronising and fall back on the trope of the South Island as “a visitable theme park of prejudice”. Cripes.
Farrell, recalls with dismay how, after reviewing the covers of a weekly publication that may also be a sponsor of the festival so shall not be named, *cough* The Listener *cough*, for the year 2013, found that 25 were about food, and Christchurch didn’t feature once. You can almost but not quite, hear the “tsking” from the audience.
Farrell also paints an interesting picture when discussion of a South Island personality comes up when she says that the myth of two old codgers meandering down a country road discussing cheese really is a myth – they’ve likely sold their farms to foreign interests and are incredibly wealthy, meanwhile the majority of the rivers have been left unswimmable. And yet, we should fight to try and keep some part of this myth of wide open spaces, and bucolic beauty alive and real.
In the end, did we learn anything about what it is to be a South Islander from this session? Maybe the northerners in attendance did? It was certainly entertaining enough to hear the conversation, though I couldn’t help thinking, since all the panelists were of a different generation from me, that what being a Mainlander means to them, might be quite different to what it means to a part-Māori Gen Xer from Linwood. But maybe that’s a different discussion again?
It’s been a miserable, dark, rainy afternoon – I admit, it’s the first time in a long time but even so I’ve got used to good weather now …
As Autumn, (crisp and blazing riots of red and orange hued leaves) becomes clumps of wet, slippery mulch on pavements and in gutters, my thoughts turn to hugely enjoyable reads in the warm and dry ‘Inside’ that will blot out the slowly encroaching cold and wet ‘Outside’.
My reading recommendations normally come in the guise of ‘Have you read?’ conversations with friends; looking at the If you like… website page or the close scrutiny of library blog posts such as those recently written by the Library Angels attending the Auckland Writers Festival – I hastily place a hold on the work concerned and cross my fingers that the entire population of Christchurch are a little slower off the mark than me.
Today, I engaged in a spot of ‘playing around’ within the Bibliocommons catalogue and found the following. If you type ‘Rainy’ in the search box and then choose the option ‘List’ from the Keyword drop-down menu you locate page upon page of lists created by people around the world who have the word ‘Rainy’ somewhere in the List headings they have created. Not just recommendations of books you understand, but DVDs, music, crafts for all age groups.
Of course the drawback is that you spend a long time wading through the information and writing down titles to put in your ‘For Later’ shelf but still it’s another way to locate a hidden gem that needs to be read, listened to or watched.
Anyone else out there utilise this facility? Anyone make their lists public for all to see and glean information from? Or place anything of interest in their ‘For Later’ Shelf from these Lists?
I am concerned, as I enter the main auditorium at the Aotea Centre, on the last day of the Auckland Writers Festival, that I may not have the brain power left to fully appreciate a session on Gravitational Waves. It’s been a long festival and I think I may have already overstuffed my brain with Big Ideas and Deep Thoughts.
As a yawn escapes, I’m expecting the worst.
Fortunately Janna Levin is a brilliant and engaging communicator. I needn’t have worried. I’m able to follow the concept of waves in gravity, caused by the distant collision of black holes… quite well, actually. She throws a couple of oranges around, as a way of demonstrating how gravity curves spacetime (without gravity, the trajectory of a thrown orange would be a straight line), and this unexpected kineticism helps cement the idea.
Basically she’s explaining the science and significance of the big scientific announcement we all remember from February of this year but which most of us are a bit unclear about, in terms of what it all means. Thanks to Professor Levin, I understand a lot more about this.
The actual working behind all these ideas requires the kind of maths that most of us find bewildering – fortunately we have people like Janna Levin to do all that complicated numbers stuff and happily almost none of that makes it into her presentation. Instead she peppers her talk with a range of pop culture references (Third Rock from the Sun, Alien, Doctor Who).
In particular, This OK GO music video, filmed in a single take on a gravity defying “vomit comet” as she calls it, shows us what gravity actually is – namely falling. Falling towards a mass, in our case, the Earth (which is itself falling through space in an orbit around the sun). Most of us think about gravity in the wrong way, as the landing.
Though the music video above could make you believe otherwise, gravity is actually quite a weak phenomenon (compared to light, for instance) and therefore difficult to detect. We feel its effects here on Earth, of course, but if a gravitational wave originating in a far off galaxy were to pass through you now, would you even notice?
The answer is it has and you didn’t. But luckily scientists have been trying to record such an event for a while now and on September 14, 2015 at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (09:51 UTC) two installations called Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO), one in Louisiana, the other in Washington State, recorded gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes that happened 1.3 billion years ago.
How? Well, they do it with mirrors…and a laser inside a 4km long concrete vacuum.
Imagine two ships bobbing on a calm ocean with a taut rope between them. Should a wave come along you’d be able to detect a change in the relative positions of the boats because of the movement of the rope. In this case, the boats are mirrors and the rope is a laser, and there’s two of these pairs stationed 3000km apart in America. And I’m sure it’s a lot more technical than that (and involves a lot of maths) but that’s the basic idea of how you detect gravitational waves. The sound of these gravitational waves is within an audible range. If they weren’t so very weak and quiet, you’d be able to hear them.
After months of checking and re-checking the maths, they made their announcement on what they’d found earlier this year.
Questions at the end of the session wondered about the possibility of multiple universes – most scientists working in this area seem to think this is likely – and one older gentleman went well out of scientific realms and into spurious sociology remarking that Levin was “a very attractive woman” and was therefore surprised that she’d be interested in science and maths since, in his opinion, those two things didn’t go together very often.
At this point you could actually feel the rest of the audience cringing and trying to collapse in on itself, like so many black holes.
Fortunately Levin had a fantastic answer for this which she communicated in a straightforward manner – if society tells women that their purpose is to be attractive, and you’ve already achieved that then why would you do anything else? But that’s not what it was like at her house.
A complex idea, communicated simply. Just like the rest of her lecture.
Whatever your political leanings or beliefs about feminism, there is no denying that Gloria Steinem’s life has been an extraordinary one.
At the Auckland Writers Festival recently she discussed her beliefs, hopes for the future, and life’s journey as encompassed in her memoir My life on the road.
The audience was full of feminists of all ages. Teenagers to grandmothers, gathered to hear what she had to say. And as it turned out, to talk to each other about it afterwards. By far, of the all the sessions I attended at this year’s festival, this was the one that had the most noticeable sense of community about it, even as disagreements occured – but more on that later.
I arrived early, and was treated to an unexpected glimpse of the woman herself – off to the side in a roped off area in the balcony concourse of Aotea Centre – Gloria Steinem was addressing a small crowd in some kind of reception hosted by the US Embassy.
Later when she walked out on stage to sit down with Nick Barley, The director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, there were a higher than average number of “whoops” from the crowd, which led me to wonder if the Americans in the audience might be responsible, and sure enough, Steinem herself confirmed that the mayor of Los Angeles was in attendance.
Given the incredible life that Steinem has had, it’s difficult to recap that here and this session, even with it running slightly over time, was never going to be long enough.
But here are just a few things that stood out for me the most –
Steinem reading out the dedication from her book which is to the English doctor who provided her with an abortion when she was 22 years old, had just broken off her engagement, and was en route to India. It was illegal at the time and the doctor made her swear to secrecy. This is not a topic that women often discuss this openly and plainly and for that reason alone it made an impression.
Her discovery in India of “talking circles” and the realisation that the ability to talk about terrible experiences is transformative.
All movements start this way, with consciousness raising groups – now we call them book clubs…
Her mild (I can’t believe it’s only mild) annoyance that, in her eighties, she’s still described by people as an ex-bunny because of the 1963 exposé she wrote on conditions for the women working at the Playboy Clubs. She was a journalist and went undercover for a time as a bunny in order to reveal shocking practices like telling women that they were required to undergo an gynaecological exam in order to serve liquor in New York State.
At my advanced age people still introduce me as an ex-bunny. It has been a blight in some ways… People say “What does she know? She was a bunny”.
Her thoughts regarding feminism and the trans community.
Anything that blows up the gender binary is a good thing… It’s fundamentally the right thing because it’s dispensing with false categories.
On the younger generation of feminists, and the concerns that some mothers have that their daughters aren’t sufficiently well educated about feminism.
Women say to me with some alarm, “my daughter doesn’t know who you are!”
But does she know who she is? Because that’s the whole point.
As you would expect there were some really challenging questions from the audience covering topics as broad as decriminalising prostitution, if feminism is supportive enough of women in non-Western countries with different cultural norms, how to promote feminism at your high school (answer: find something that’s sexist and unfair and fight to fix it) and abortion law in New Zealand (over which there was some confusion and disagreement in the audience, but is, as one woman asserted, covered by the Crimes Act 1961.) One woman read out a question which she had rather appropriately written on the back of her birth control prescription!
But probably the best part was that Steinem threw the mic open, not just to questions, but to women wanting to make announcements for upcoming events and “troublemaking meetings”. She also encouraged everyone, as they left, to talk to two or three other people and to try and make connections. Because, I suppose, this is how movements that aren’t just book clubs happen.
No doubt there was a lot of talking and making of connections in the book-signing queue after the session as it was so long it nearly made it out the door and into Aotea Square. An hour later Steinem was still signing.
Michel Faber’s novels defy easy categorisation. He has written in genres as varied as historical fiction (his novel The crimson petal and the white, is set in Victorian London), horror, and science fiction.
Born in the Netherlands, Faber’s family moved to Australia when he was 7 years old, and he describes himself as something of an outsider, an alien, an outlier. He now lives in Scotland, which for a migraine sufferer, has a much more overcast and hospitable environment.
When he sat down to talk at the Auckland Writers Festival with Kiwi writer Paula Morris about his work (and life), I was woefully unprepared for how raw and heartbreaking the conversation would become.
This unexpected poignancy was largely due to his discussion of the loss of his wife Eva, who died in 2014 from cancer. Her diagnosis was made while he was writing his latest (and what he claims will be his last) novel, The book of strange new things, and he admitted that her illness had an affect on how the book developed. The novel has a dystopian, futuristic setting, with a pastor sent to a far-off planet to minister to the indigenous population there. He is separated from his wife and themes of love and loss permeate the tale.
Although the setting is sci-fi one, this Faber says, is just “the furniture”, and to some degree is there for the entertainment aspect. At its heart the story is about human beings, faith and love. Though he lost his faith himself when he was 11, he still feels that religion has a purpose for being and he’s interested in what it gives to people.
Religion is intrinsically ridiculous but there is a reason that people have needed it.
Regarding the adaptations of his books for the screen, he was very happy with The Crimson Petal and the White, and on such good terms with the star Romola Garai that he stayed at her house at one point when they needed to be in London for treatment for Eva. He’s even happier with the film version of Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson.
His feeling regarding literary fiction is that it should be interesting and entertaining as well and that’s what he tries to achieve with this books. There’s a risk, he says, that literary authors will write for the entertainment of other literary authors thus forcing ordinary readers towards entertaining but not very good fiction, that doesn’t give them anything of depth.
He doesn’t want people to regret, after several hundred pages, reading his books – “how pointless is that?”
There is actually nothing worse than a really dull work of literary fiction.
Shortly after the session started, a member of staff appeared carrying a pair of red women’s ankle boots. They were placed next to Faber’s chair, he uttered a quick thank you and carried on with what he was saying. Later on as Paula Morris asked him about what Faber would be working on in the future, since no more novels were in the pipeline, he talked about the projects that involved his wife and explained the mystery of the red boots.
His next projects will be working on Eva’s unfinished short stories as well as writing a biography of her life, not for publication, but for the family. As for the boots, he was taking them to parts of the world to which she had never gone and taking pictures of them in contexts in which he thought she’d be happy…
Then he read several poems from a new book called “Undying” (due out in July) which deals with Eva’s illness, her death, and the grieving process. And this was when everyone started crying. In particular, the poem “You were ugly” which describes the physical changes to Eva’s appearance in illness is brutally honest and heartbreaking with its revelation that after death those changes are forgotten, that her beauty returns. Even Paula Morris was seen to be dabbing her eyes after that one.