A half circle journey – Suki Kim and North Korea

Cover of Without you, there is no usThere are only patchy representations of North Korea in our popular culture – comedians dressed up as Kim Jong-il, Team America, that recent Interview movie. In a world where the Iron Curtain has come down, it is still Unknown. But Suki Kim knows North Korea, she’s been there many times. Suki is coming to Christchurch on Sunday 30 August as part of the WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View events in the Christchurch Arts Festival. Her topic: On North Korea: Inventing the Truth and she’s in conversation with Paula Morris.

Her book Without you, there is no us: My time with the sons of North Korea’s Elite. A Memoir unveils what has been hidden. It starts with the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011 and then goes back into history, and into Suki’s time as a teacher at PUST- the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

If this were the sort of story that invites readers to nod with empathy and walk away both satisfied and educated, I would say that I travelled full circle. But in truth my journey was barely half a circle, a sad one that could never be completed, because those who were at the center of the harrowing history are almost certainly long dead, or old and dying, and time is running out before their stories are lost in the dust of the past. (p. 11)

Suki shows us Pyongyang as a place of rules, bureaucracy, and regimentation. North Korea is full of constraints  – and the constriction is political, emotional, and intellectual. On some of their school trips, there are glimpses of starving people, and forced labour. It is a place where even the sons of the elite have an existence that is controlled, and devoid of freedom.  Everyone is watched, you are likely to be spied upon, and the very words you utter must conform or you might be reported. Suki wants to open the world up to her students, but knows she can’t:

It was a fine dance. I wanted to push them, but not too much; to expose them to the outside world, but not so subtly that no one would notice… Awakening my students to what was not in the regime’s program could mean death for them and those they loved … Awakening was a luxury available only to those in the free world. (p. 70)

Suki teaches, but she is continually taking notes for her book. She observes her students open up,  and how some lie and deceive.  I was swayed by her emotional currents:

And so I went from love to pity to repulsion and distrust, then back to empathy and love again, and these switches of feeling were confusing. I reminded myself that I did not come from a place where mind games were a prerequisite for survival to such an extreme degree, a place where the slightest act of rebellion could have unimaginable consequences. (p. 134)

This is a book that could easily be claustrophic. But it isn’t, because she provides such captivating views of the Koreas North and South, and family history, and her own emotional landscape. Her book will make you understand North Korea in a new way.

Cover of PyongyangIf you want to read more about this strange and fascinating place, I recommend the graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle. It captures that same alienness and constriction found in Suki’s story.

There seems to be a flurry of new books about North Korea. We want to understand.

Cover of The firector is the commander Cover of The girl with seven names Cover of The Great Leader and the fighter pilot Cover of Marching through suffering Cover of Under the same sky Cover of Dear Leader

Quick questions with Margaret Wilson

Cover of The Struggle for SovereigntyMargaret Wilson is coming to Christchurch on Sunday 30 August to speak on The Struggle for Sovererignty. This event is part of the Shifting Points of View – WORD Christchurch at the Christchurch Arts Festival.  Margaret is Professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of Waikato, and she has been an MP and Speaker of Parliament. She will be in conversation with Dr Bronwyn Hayward, author and political scientist at the University of Canterbury.

This session is timely and relevant:

In the era of public choice and free markets, and when widespread public protest against global treaties such as the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is having little effect, does the New Zealand state still have the best interests of its individual citizens at heart? Margaret Wilson argues that the shift to a neo-liberal public policy framework has profoundly affected the country’s sovereignty and that New Zealanders must continue to engage in the struggle to retain it for the sake of individual and community wellbeing.

Thanks to Margaret for answering our quick questions.

What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?

I’m looking forward to meeting people in Christchurch who share my values.

What do you think about libraries?

Libraries are essential for a democratic community – they provide pleasure, knowledge and well being for a community. (My sister is a librarian!)

What would be your “desert island book”?

I would take the bible and the Koran to try understand why religion is so important to so many people.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

If I had the time and money I would tour the world watching cricket.

Happy birthday, Emily Brontë

Cover of Wuthering HeightsOh Emily. Your creations and their goings-on out on that moor have captured the imaginations of millions of women everywhere. And more than a few men I guess, although I’ve never met one.

You only lived for thirty years but Cathy and Heathcliff (and Linton and Isabella and Edgar and Hareton and Nelly) are immortal.

Even your possessions still fascinate.

Here’s to you, and to Wuthering Heights, and thanks for one of my favourite books.

New Zealand writer Anna Smaill is on the Man Booker Prize longlist

We’re all very excited to hear New Zealand author Anna Smaill is on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize for her book The Chimes. I’ve read it, and loved it. It’s a dystopia, yes, and also timeless and full of history, music and atmosphere:

You can hear Anna talk in Christchurch at a WORD Christchurch session Imaginary Cities, on Sunday 30 August along with Fiona Farrell, Anna Smaill, Hamish Clayton, and Hugh Nicholson  (chaired by Christchurch Art Gallery’s senior curator Lara Strongman). It’s part of a Shifting points of view season in the Christchurch Arts Festival.

Masha interviewed Anna at the Auckland Writers Festival – read her interview Anna Smaill – from a writing musician to a musical writer:

The first impulse is the sense of time going past. It’s almost having the experience of pathos in the moment, having feeling of something happening that is already gone. I’ve always had very acutely this feeling of things being transient and ephemeral and I wanted to capture them.

I definitely think the impulse to write first came from that. Of course it is also a way of working things out for me. Just to process my experiences, work out what I think about things. It always seemed a necessary thing to me. And also it’s a great entertainment.

And just the other day Anna answered some quick questions.

Best of luck, Anna.

Quick questions with Anna Smaill

Cover of The ChimesAnna Smaill, author of the wonderful moody and musical dystopian novel The Chimes, is coming to Christchurch.

She is speaking on the panel Imaginary Cities as part of WORD Shifting Points of view in the Christchurch Arts Festival.

Thanks to Anna for answering our quick questions.

What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?

Both my parents grew up in Christchurch, so we often came down for family holidays and I have many childhood memories of the city, as well as more recent ones from the two years I spent there as a student. However, I haven’t visited properly since the earthquake. What I really want to do is simply walk around for a few hours, visiting and remembering old places, but also taking in the changes and the new landscape and life of the city.

What do you think about libraries?

Libraries are lifeblood! We grew up within walking distance of our local library (Leys Institute in Ponsonby), and for my sister, brother and me it was variously a source of entertainment, education, after-school care and, finally, employment (we each worked there as shelvers then library assistants).

I always feel happy in libraries. They seem like places of equality and wondrous possibility – built around this essential humanist ideal that everyone deserves access to knowledge and literature. Now I take my daughter to Newtown Library in Wellington, and to Wellington Central, and it’s great to feel that connection starting up again.

What would be your “desert island book”?

Cover of War and PeaceAh, that’s a hard one. I’m tempted to echo the very astute Helen Macdonald and cover all bases by opting for The Complete Works of Shakespeare. But I do think I’d miss the texture and immersion of fiction. So, I’m going to take War and Peace, because it has the broadest emotional scope of anything I’ve ever read, and because its great length means I’m less likely to be driven mad by repetition before I’m rescued.

Share a surprising fact about yourself

Most of my bio notes point out that I trained as a violinist, but I don’t usually mention my brief but thrilling tenure as a trombonist in my school jazz band. I really miss the trombone – what an instrument it is! Such swagger and sensitivity! I often daydream about taking it up again.

More Quick questions with WORD Christchurch guests.

Tell me a story : audiobook bliss

Cover of The adventures of Augie MarchScrolling through shelves of audiobooks on Overdrive recently I came across The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, I’ve always skirted round this heavy weight literary man (multiple award winner including the Nobel prize for Literature in 1976). This time on impulse I decided to “give him a go” and I’m chuffed that I did! I was immediately hooked by the opening paragraph and the narrator’s gravelly, fast paced “Bronxy” voice.

I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles

For me an audiobook is completely at the mercy of the narrator; if the voice, inflection, pace etc doesn’t grab me, that’s it, no matter how enjoyable the writing. In this case both work so well together. From the word go I became absorbed in the life story of Augie, a poor Jewish boy born to a simple minded mother and a long ago absented father in the Chicago of the early decades of the 20th century (Al Capone, Prohibition era.)

I was impacted by Bellow’s sentences let alone the epic tale full of vivid, larger than life characters trying to get ahead and live the American dream. It did require very focused listening so as not to miss out on the richness of the language or get mixed up with the many characters. Also it’s a long book and there’s a limit to the amount of sitting around listening an able bodied person can do. So I’ve been doing a kind of relay – listen, read the book, listen and knit, read the book.

So many knockout sentences but I’ll leave those discoveries to you if you so choose! Except for another little taste, a description of Grandma Lausch, Russian pogrom refugee, not really Augie’s grandmother, but ruler of his childhood household nevertheless.

She was as wrinkled as an old paper bag, an autocrat, hard-shelled and jesuitical, a pouncy old hawk of a Bolshevik, her small ribboned feet immobile on the shoekit and stool Simon had made in the manual-training class, dingy old wool Winnie(her dog), whose bad smell filled the flat, on the cushion beside her.

Augie takes us on a series of often bizarre adventures, as he tries  on different lives inspired by people he comes across, on into post WW2 America; ultimately most are a wrong fit. He never does settle but in the end he celebrates the ride. Martin Amis, among many others, called this “The Great American Novel”. Worth checking out.

Cover of The LacunaBarbara Kingsolver is another great American writer and, apart from her wondrous ways with words, she has the gift of being able to narrate her own work with a warm, clear and expressively easy to listen to voice. She takes on different characters and different accents with aplomb. Hearing her read The Lacuna, probably the finest of her novels, is a real treat. I love this book and find her narration adds to its magic.

I listened to it as a pre-loaded digital audio book from CCL’s Playaway Collection that let me listen while moving about and “getting on with things”.

This story, coincidentally, covers the same time span as Saul Bellow’s novel. Very briefly, for readers who haven’t caught up with The Lacuna, the story’s protagonist is Harrison W Shepherd born, like Augie March, in the 1920s in the USA to a less than ideal family situation.

It takes us for a time to Mexico and into the lives of Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera and of Lev and Natalia Trotsky who are hiding from Stalin and his Secret Police. Harrison in his early 20s becomes part of these two remarkable households as cook, secretarial assistant and friend. He is “uncurious about politics”. He cares about people and writing. He becomes inextricably involved. Consequently he is devastated by the eventual murder of Trotsky at the hand of a guest he himself invites into the guarded house, and by the confiscation of his own writings along with Trotsky’s.

Oh… I just had to delete a big paragraph outlining more of the plot! Hard to keep quiet when you fall in love with a character(s) and feel honoured by knowing them, their aspirations, trials, hopes and sorrows, the burden of events beyond their control. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about friendship, art, history, the Cold War –  its propaganda and witch hunts, the damage of Press inaccuracies and lies and the fragility of a man’s heart and of his reputation. It looks to be a tragedy and in many ways it certainly is but the ending is a not. It’s a very rich listen!   According to Muriel Rukeyser a US poet of the same era as our two stories said,

The universe is made up of stories not of atoms.

I reckon we’re never too old, too busy or too anything, to bend our ears to a gifted story teller.

Chatting to authors

Roberta interviews Kathy Lette. Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2012, Aotea Centre.  Flickr, CCL-AWRF-2012-05-11
With Kathy Lette. Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2012, Aotea Centre. Friday 11 May 2012, Flickr, CCL-AWRF-2012-05-11

I bet this has happened to you: you’re reading a great book and you think – gee, I’d really like to interview this author. I did that for years before the day came when I sat opposite my first real  live author – absolutely scared witless and thinking – be careful what you wish for!

Here’s the authors I’ve interviewed (click on their names to read the full interviews):

Lionel Shriver: A 15 year old girl who changes her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel – just to pique her father – is not someone to be toyed with. This was my first interview ever at my first ever Literary Festival. I walked with heavy boots to her hotel, but I floated back on a little cloud nine. That was when I realised that there was nothing to be scared of, because authors love librarians!

William Dalrymple: He didn’t sit still for one minute in this interview held on the top floor of an Auckland Hotel. I had to chase him around trying to keep up with him. I was already nervous (he is a famous travel writer of books like Nine Lives – in Search of the Sacred in Modern India), and my uncertainties around the technology involved in getting the whole thing recorded were greatly exacerbated by Dalrymple’s restlessness. I start hyperventilating just thinking about it.

Kathy Lette: This interview really was like chatting to a good friend over a coffee. What a blast! Irreverent, sexy, fun, OK maybe a bit flippant. But at least she sat still!

Andrew Miller: Forever endeared himself to me by being the only author I have ever interviewed who asked: “How are things in Christchurch?” We were just post earthquake and the gap between life in Christchurch and life in Auckland made me feel so sad. His best known work is Snowdrops, a debut novel that made the Booker Long List in 2011. He was a pleasure to interview.

Roberta and Jeffrey Eugenides, Flickr, CCL-AWRF-2012-05-12
With Jeffrey Eugenides, Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2012, Aotea Centre. Saturday 12 May 2012. Flickr, CCL-AWRF-2012-05-12

Jeffrey Eugenides: that is correct – the Pulitzer prizewinning author for his novel Middlesex. Terrifying to interview. Read right to the end and you will know why. The photo says it all really. 

John Lanchester: One of those interviews that never really had a lift-off point. I was chatting to him about his book Capital – which I had loved. His Publishing Agent sat with us throughout the interview. What did she think I would do to him?

Laurence Fearnley: I am a big fan of this Kiwi writer. We bonded over a coffee at one of the WORD festivals. She really thinks about her interview answers. She gives you her full attention. I am so fond of her.

Roberta with NoViolet  Bulawayo, Christchurch WORD Festival 2014,
With NoViolet Bulawayo, Christchurch WORD Festival 2014, 30 August 2014. Photo by Roberta Smith.

NoViolet Bulawayo: A young Zimbabwean author who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013 for her novel We Need New Names. We chatted for ages. I had to ruthlessly edit what had been recorded to get this interview down to a reasonable length. So young, yet so wise (her not me!)

There’s no doubt that interviewing is nerve-wracking – I felt my stress levels rise just writing this blog!  But I would not have missed these opportunities for anything. How about you? Do you have an author you would like to interview?

Remembering a wonderfully wacky Word Witch

Margaret Mahy 1936-2012

Three years ago today Margaret Mahy our favourite award winning author, writer, librarian, mother and grandmother died.

Take time to remember.

Read MM picture books – here’s a few to get started with …

Down the back of the chairBoom, Baby Boom BoomDashing DogBubble TroubleA Lion in the MeadowLeaf Magic

Young Adult reads

The changeoverKaitangata Twitch24 HoursThe Tricksters

Get to know MM

Margaret MahyMarvellous CodeNotes of a Bag LadyMy Mysterious World

Do what Margaret enjoyed – read, walk around the garden and have a sleep (apparently she could do this quite easily). Don’t walk down Cambridge Terrace though, or at least make sure your trousers stay up when you do.

Have a MM lunch – a salad sandwich made with wholemeal bread and cheese and tomato and lettuce and spring onions, and avocado and hard-boiled egg and anything else handy.

I’m going to remember Margaret by driving over the winding hill to Governors Bay and then wandering along the wiggly track at the bottom of the road. I won’t be alone. I’m taking a dashing dog, a bubble trouble baby, a gaggle of geese, a couple of mixed-up pirates, a librarian, a three legged cat, a boy with two shadows, a tin can band, a dragon, a lion and of course a witch.

Our procession will be one of nonstop nonsense, full of mischief and mayhem. A magical way to remember Margaret Mahy.

 

Meet Kids Book Award Finalists at Shirley Library

Are you a young writer who wants to improve your writing? Do you love to meet authors and hear how they write their books?  We’ve got two events coming up at Shirley Library just for you!

On Saturday 8 August Shirley Library will be hosting some of the wonderful authors who are finalists in this year’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Karen Healey is a finalist in the main book awards and both Desna Wallace and Natalie King are finalists in the Children’s Choice Award. There are two events for kids and teens that you can come along to for FREE:

  • Writing Workshop with Karen Healey, 10:30am-12:00pm, Saturday 8 August – Join Karen Healey, author of While We Run, for a young adult writing workshop. Recommended for ages 10+.
  • Fast Track Fiction, 5:00-6:00pm, Saturday 8 August – Join Karen Healey, Joanna Orwin, Desna Wallace and Natalie King as they unlock the secrets of their success as writers. Recommended for ages 10+.

You need to book for both of these events but they are free. To book phone 03-941-7923.

You might like to read the finalist books from these wonderful authors so check these out:

Nurses at war – Anna Rogers at South Library, Saturday 25 July

Cover of While you're awayWe know quite a lot about  New Zealand men at war. Less is known about the lives of military nurses. Anna Rogers, author of While You’re Away: New Zealand Nurses at War 1899–1948, will talk about the contribution made by these remarkable women and speak about three nurses – two of them from Canterbury – who served overseas in South Africa, the First World War and the Second World War.

Nona Mildred Hildyard  Original Filename: HildyardNM.jpg, Kete Christchurch
Nona Mildred Hildyard, Canterbury Times, 10 November 1915, Kete Christchurch HildyardNM.jpg

More about Nurses at war

Cover of The Other Anzacs Cover of While you're away Cover of A nurse at war Cover of Anzac Girls