Kate de Goldi and Dr. Helena Popovic at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013

Cover: The ACB with Honora LeeI’ve always thought that fiction can teach us as much as non-fiction about life, if not more. A medical book about dementia might give you the facts, but, if you really want to understand the disease, Margaret Mahy‘s young adult novel Memory is hard to beat.

Kate de Goldi and Dr. Helena Popovic both have parents with dementia and they both turned to words to help them deal with it, though in different ways. In a  session at the 2013 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival they talked about their books and their personal experiences of this cruel disease.

Popovic is an Australian doctor whose book In Search of my Father weaves story and science. De Goldi turned wholly to story, writing a powerful children’s book about a young girl and her grandmother.

She had always wanted to write an ABC, but the idea of locating this ultimate way of ordering things in a dementia unit where disorder rules only crystallized after the September 2010 Christchurch earthquake.

De Goldi was in Christchurch at the time, helping to move her mother into a rest home. While running  beside the river De Goldi noticed large cracks in the road and this started her thinking about cracks in the community and in her mother’s mind.

The ACB with Honora Lee mixes comedy and sadness, and many of the scenes will resonate strongly with anyone who has experience of the struggle to extract meaning from the fragments of language dementia sufferers utter.  As de Goldi says “You could almost say dementia is like a book and you’re trying to complete what they’re saying”.

Popovic, asked to define dementia, offered “progressive mental decline that interferes with daily function”. As she said, Cover: In Search of my Fatherthis is a vague definition but until now dementia in all it forms has been regarded as irreversible. Popovic does not agree. She thinks there is a lot we can do to improve our brain function.

Physical exercise, social and mental stimulation all help and it seems that striving to learn a new skill is enough – you don’t have to become expert in it. After being almost inspired to try one of the projects in Rosemary McLeod’s beautiful book With Bold Needle and Thread  this was a great relief to me.

Popovic also thinks the phrase ‘senior moment’ should be banned as sometimes we speak things into existence. A lot can be done to prevent dementia and to improve our brain function in middle-age. She believes there should be a comprehensive campaign along the lines of the stop smoking and drive safely campaigns – cognitive decline is not inevitable.

Not a snappy sentence but a reassuring one.

Armchair travels with William Dalrymple at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013

William Dalrymple was definitely one of the hits of the 2013 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, indicated by unseemly shoving at his session in the big room and a plaintive cry of  “if anyone has a spare ticket I’ll buy it” outside a smaller venue.

Cover: In XanaduAlthough he abandoned travel writing some years ago, he devoted a session to reading from his travel books, and as he said, he still travels for his work. Does getting shot at count as armchair travelling?

Dalrymple read first from In Xanadu, his first book; “a young man’s book” and one with some “hugely embarrassing bits”. In it he follows the path of Marco Polo from the Holy Sepulchre to Xanadu.

City of Djinns was next up. It’s about Delhi, a centre of refinement and manners in the culture of India, but a world split in two by Partition.

From the Holy Mountain is about another world that is disappearing: the world of the Christians of the Middle East.  They survived centuries of Islamic expansion, but now huge emigrations have seen them all but disappear from the lands they lived in for generations.

Cover: Nine Lives Nine Lives is his last travel book to date, and one he is not in at all, apart from a little bit of setting up. It attempts to describe the different Eastern religions, a subject more misrepresented by Western writers than any other.

For Dalrymple the worst thing a travel writer can do is the same thing over and over again. I don’t think he’s in any danger, but he did say he could re-write From the Holy Mountain in the light of what has happened to the Christians of the Middle East.

So who are the travel writers he rates?

Wayne Macauley at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013

Cover: Blueprints for a Barbed Wire CanoeWayne Macauley was one of my festival discoveries at the 2013 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. I read  Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe  in preparation for attending his session (now that’s conscientious festival-going). It reminded me of Colm Tóibín and for me there can be no higher praise. They don’t share subject matter or style, but they both manage to be spellbinding without being showy.

Blueprints is Macauley’s first novel. In it the suburban dream of owning your own home goes very wrong very quickly. Macauley’s description of the physical decay of a model housing estate resonated very strongly with me, in my second year of living in the east of Christchurch.

It’s on Year 12 reading lists in Australia, which is great if you want the kids to read an exemplary prose stylist, but could be a fail if you want them to aspire to home ownership in the suburbs.

Year 12 is when Macauley’s own life changed; a ‘drop-dead gorgeous’ teacher got the class to read Joyce, Hamlet, Voss and The Waste Land. Now his work may be changing the lives of the kids who read him.

In his sessions at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, it became evident that Macauley is a deep thinker, looking at things most of us take for granted and taking our ideas about them just a little bit further.

In Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe it’s the suburban dream. In The Cook it’s the service industry and the jobs that have replaced manufacturing. Is this good? In Caravan Story it’s the desirability of the arts in society. How many writers and artists do we need?

It’s a big ask for a reader to question things more deeply than they would in an ordinary narrative. But in the hands of a writer as skilled as Macauley it’s a very rewarding undertaking. The man has written an entire book without using one comma.

The Ruins of Empire: Pankaj Mishra at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013

Cover: From the Ruins of EmpireOne of the very best things about writers and readers festivals is discovering writers you haven’t read. I’ve mooched along to sessions just to fill in an hour and found authors I now regard as must-reads; Denise Mina and Geoff Dyer spring immediately to mind.

Pankaj Mishra was a discovery at  Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013. He sounded far too intellectual to mooch along to, but he was fascinating on the radio and he came highly recommended so I went to his session in an alert and mindful manner.

The Economist  called his latest book,  From the Ruins of Empire, “subtle, erudite and entertaining”, and The Wall Street Journal it “thoroughly readable”.

Entertaining and readable. Promising. Subtle and erudite. A bit daunting.

From the Ruins of Empire rethinks the way we understand Asia by telling  the story of the men who met the aggression and challenge of the West over a period of two hundred years,  creating the ideas that have built the powerful Asian nations of the 21st Century.

As Mishra talked about beginning the book  with the Battle of Tsushima I knew I was going to learn something in this session because I had never heard of the Battle of Tsushima.  But that was ok because according to Mishra most of the figures in From the Ruins of Empire are unfamiliar.

Mishra’s story about empire is “not the one that was on parade during the war on terror”. He thinks the histories that show empire as a wonderful thing are fraudulent but acknowledges their ideas have a real force.  He would like us to stop, look and ask “are these histories true?”

If we step back and consider the longer histories of the Islamic countries of Asia even familiar events start to look very different. We have to ask the hard questions of commentators and journalists – what does the ‘rise of Asia’ mean?

Definitely more questions than answers, but I certainly came away examining lots of things I thought I knew, which can’t be bad.

Albert Wendt – A celebration and a fitting end to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013

Search catalogueThe final session of the 2013 Auckland Readers and Writers Festival celebrated the life and work of poet, novelist, writer, teacher, academic and artist, Albert Wendt. Robert Sullivan spoke to this gifted and charismatic author who received a warm reception from his attentive audience.

Albert Wendt has been fundamental in shaping the contemporary literature of the Pacific. In his work he confronts racism in New Zealand, speaks openly about the effects of colonial upheaval on his people and incorporates Samoan storytelling and rhythms of language into Western form. He says his novels have to work when he reads them aloud. If they don’t work, he rewrites.

His novel Sons for the Return Home, the story of a Samoan man and his Western girlfriend, was written forty years ago and has become a seminal text. Leaves of the Banyan Tree took the author over 15 years to write and has been well received around the world. His poetry is some of the most engaging and memorable work produced in this country.

Wendt is a very visual writer. When he spoke, he told us of the black beauty of the lava beds of Samoa, the sun setting over  a circle of white stones where the two oceans meet, and the black star shape of the flying fox bat as it sails overhead. It is no surprise he’s turned to painting in recent years. He says, ‘I love the tactile feeling of the paint. I can get into the zone and stay there.’

Albert Wendt at AWRF 2013Witi Ihimaera, Bill Manhire and Selina Tusitala Marsh read excerpts from Wendt’s work and the audience was treated to performances by the author’s granddaughter, talented opera singer Isabella Moore, and by the Kila Kokonut Krew.

It was a wonderful and fitting end to the celebration of literature that has been AWRF 2013. In her conclusion, organiser Anne O’Brien said 13,000 people had attended the sessions this year which is a 25% increase on last year. She thanked Albert and his peers, the writers from New Zealand and around the world, who came and made the event so worthwhile, and the audience who engaged with the authors and supported the vision of New Zealand’s largest literary festival.

Plans are already underway for the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2014. Do try and get here if you can.

Transitional Christchurch – in Auckland

Search catalogueChristchurch: A Transitional City Part IV is that rather fabulous looking book bound in brown paper. It documents Christchurch’s transitional projects, street art, and pop-ups. Architectural designer Barnaby Bennett presented the session. I found it difficult, not because of anything lacking in him but because the session was really aimed at Aucklanders. As Barnaby observed: “You could put anyone from Christchurch up here and they could talk about it eloquently.”

There were a lot of questions and discussion on Christchurch “Crisischurch”: CERA, Christchurch City Council, Gerry Brownle, Ngai Tahu …

Barnaby showed slides of things like the Pallet Pavilion, the Think Differently book exchange (the fridge), street art featuring bandaids, and even our own Central Library Peterborough got a look in.

I thought Barnaby’s observation that “Temporary things stay much longer and start to inscribe patterns of behaviour” was a valid one. We have certainly seen that happening. He mentioned that “things go into a liquid state before they start freezing” and that these transitional things are “crystallising”.

A challenging session and one that brought out to me that all of New Zealand needs to get a clue about what is happening in Christchurch. As Barnaby said,  game playing in Auckland is based on what has been gotten away with in Christchurch.

He ended by saying:

Christchurch has brought out to me the lack of solidarity in New Zealand.

Jackie Kay – ‘What you can survive makes you stronger’

Red Dust Road by Jackie KayOne of the highlights of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013 for me has been discovering the work of British author Jackie Kay. How did I manage to live so long and not come across this woman? She is a multi-award winning poet, short story writer, memoirist and novelist. She writes for children. She’s also one of the most endearing, funny, exuberant people I have come across. When she walks in a room, the energy lifts. You can’t help but be drawn to her bright smile and her genuine warmth.

Jackie Kay’s writing contains the bittersweet wisdom of someone who’s faced big challenges in their life. She was born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father then adopted by a white couple with Communist Party affiliations. In 1960s Glasgow this was unusual to say the least. This, together with her candid sexuality, means she’s faced prejudice from many quarters. Throughout it all, she’s stood by what she believes in. Jackie Kay is one amazing woman.

Her latest collection of sJackie Kay at AWRF 2013hort stories, Reality, Reality is brilliant. You’ve just got to read it. I bought it off the stand at the Festival and wolfed it down. The title story introduces a woman who performs daily cook-offs against imaginary competitors to the blinking red eye of her security alarm. At her session, Kay read from ‘Those are not my clothes’, a tragically funny story of an elderly woman in rest home. The author says she’s drawn to older women characters because their stories tend to disappear under the radar.

When I spoke to Jackie Kay, she told me she was on her way down to Christchurch on a kind of pilgrimage. Her adoptive parents met in Christchurch at the Coffee Pot above the Communist Party Bookshop. She was looking forward to finding the street they lived in which has apparently just been released from behind the Red Zone. In addition, her old neighbour from Glasgow is a psychologist and is now living in our fair city.

If you see Jackie, make her welcome. You’ll be very pleased you did.

It’s (pretty) easy being green

Back to the land at CCLWhy is a Writer’s Festival like a box of chocolates? Because there’s something inside for everyone.

Today I saw Tony Murrell, from Radio Live’s garden programme, host a lively session with The Gardener magazine editor Lynda Hallinan and sustainable gardening writer Janet Luke. All three are highly regarded gardening experts. They’re passionate about plants and their enthusiasm was infectious. I’ve never seen the microphone passed to so many people so quickly. It seemed everyone in the audience had a question to ask or a comment to add.

Tony Murrell has noticed a huge resurgence in interest in growing food at home in recent years. He laments the fact that many of today’s gardeners have lost the skills needed to grow veges successfully and have to spend money on re-education, tools, catalogues, fertilisers, etc. This results in expensive crop of perpetual spinach, lettuce and tomatoes which people get bored with and ‘turn back into camellia hedging’.

His panelists disagree. “It’s not all about money, Tony,” said Janet. “You are such an Aucklander!”

Linda said, “Don’t spend anything! Don’t build raised beds, don’t hire a garden designer, don’t buy a tonne of compost. Just buy a spade, dig a hole and plant things.” She believes gardening journalism has made it sound difficult and it’s not. “It’s natural. Plants grow and produce fruit because they are fulfilling their biological function. People think it’s harder than it is.”

Some sustainable gardening tips:

  • Lasagne your compost heap
  • Pile fallen leaves into a black polythene bag, tie it off, punch a few holes in it and store behind your garden shed for a year. It makes great compost.
  • If your plants look great above the soil but have nothing beneath, your garden has too much nitrogen and not enough potassium.
  • Janet Luke and Lynda Hallinan at AWRF 2013Blue flowers attract bees. Plant rosemary and borage to help pollination.
  • Chop out the middle of your lemon tree and prune to a vase shape.
  • Avoid systemetic sprays – they hurt bees.

If you’d like to know more, visit your library and check out Linda Hallinan’s Back to the land and Janet Luke’s Green Urban Living. They’ll give you plenty of helpful advice on how to get your garden doing what comes naturally.

The Joy of Art – The Brilliance of Pat Hanly

Hanly at Christchurch City Libraries“People are too new here and nature absorbs them.” Pat Hanly

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Ron Brownson, Senior Curator of New Zealand and Pacific Art at Auckland Art Gallery, about the work of artist Pat Hanly.

The talk was given in celebration of the publication Hanly, edited by Gregory O’Brien, which is arguably one of the best art books published this decade. Ron Brownson believes this book is ‘better than a TV programme, it is better than a TV series. It is a mini capsule of excitement.’

Ron Brownson at AWRF 2013Ron Brownson is a charismatic speaker. He quickly engaged his audience and treated us to a feast of Hanly’s paintings blown up on slides to the size of the gallery wall. He said, ‘If you’re going to have colour, you’re going to have a glut of colour’ and that was certainly what this art-starved Cantabrian needed. Vibrant blues, reds, greens and yellows filled the space, engaging the senses and lifting the spirit, as Brownson took us through the major series of Hanly’s art.

Auckland Art Gallery has just been bequeathed one of Hanly’s Showgirl Paintings and the curators are anxiously awaiting its arrival on New Zealand soil. It is a work ‘delicious in its sensuality’ containing the figure of a dancing girl which is Chimera-like in spirt. It will be a great addition to the Auckland Gallery collection.

Gil Hanly at AWRF 2013No man is an island, not even a painter, and it was wonderful to see Pat Hanly’s wife, Gil, taking photos for the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. She added some interesting background information to the talk, in one instance filling us in on the events that led up to the painting Fire at Mt Eden. Warring gangs in the neighbourhood set fire to a house close to the Hanly home and the family watched as the flames leapt into the night. Although Hanly’s works are abstracted, they are of this world.

Some people say they don’t understand Hanly and Brownson believes he knows why:

‘They don’t understand about joy and happiness. (Hanly’s) painting is full of joy. It enjoys living.

Scarlett Thomas – Tapping into Creative Writing

The End of Mr Y at CCLScarlett Thomas teaches Creative Writing at Kent University in England.  She has written eight novels including Our Tragic Universe and The End of Mr Y which was longlisted for the Orange Prize.

Who better to write a book about how to write?

Her latest work, Monkeys with Typewriters, is a guide to creative writing and contains Scarlett Thomas’ best advice. In conversation with Paula Morris, she said this is the book she wishes had been available when she started out.

The title comes from the Infinite Monkey Theorem which puts forward the proposition that a monkey, hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time, could almost surely type the complete works of Shakespeare. Let’s just say it’s a long shot. According to Thomas there’s a one in 15 billion chance of a monkey typing the word banana, but this isn’t the point. The point is that it’s the words on the page that matter because they are the story. What was going on in the writer’s mind or life when s/he wrote them is irrelevant.

Scarlett Thomas at AWRF 2013A couple of writing tips:

1. Make the task seem manageable. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a short novel of 60,000 words. Break that down into 3,000 words a day and you’ve written a novel in 20 days – doesn’t seem so hard now, does it?

2. The only thing that drives characters are desires and objectives. Like people they act for a reason. Find the one key driver that is a superobjective for your character, it could be the need for comfort/control/balance/fame/popularity, and you have the beginnings of a believable character.

Some authors moan about the difficulties of being a writer. Thomas believes this is because they haven’t worked at Pizza Hut. Her advice for discontented writers? “Do some rubbish jobs so you appreciate how wonderful being a writer really is.”