I thought about how to express its power – it’s about Christchurch, but is bigger than that. It contains deep wisdom and a powerful historical sense. It is about the world. So I’ve decided to sample Fiona’s words – here are ten quotes.
1: This city took time to assemble. (p.55)
2: An earthquake is not simply a geological event. It occurs within a specific social and political context. (p.73)
3: For a second, as the entire city is flung into the air, there is unison. Then we fall back to earth and the map smashes into a hundred tiny pieces. (p.88)
4: In this city, it is easy to feel lost. (p. 103)
5: In the meantime, through the cracks, other kinds of art have emerged. The art gallery has been closed, but artists have covered walls newly exposed by demolition with imagery and colour. (p.129)
6: The personal is political. (p.158)
7: Forgiveness and retribution are a theme in L’Aquila, as they are in Christchurch. (p.224)
8: We are ‘stoical’. We are ‘strong’ and ‘southern’. To complain is to be a ‘carper’ or a ‘moaner’. It is a sign of weakness. Viewed from another city in another country, however, this resilience can also be seen as a weird suppressed passivity. (p.237)
9: I take a kind of deep comfort in reading thoughts prompted by an earthquake 2000 years ago and thousands of kilometres away. I like the vision of the world as a squirming thing filled with breath, not so far from the Polynesian vision of the great woman lying on her back with us all, naked as newborn kits, upon her belly. (p.248)
10: I’ve come to love this city … now it seems fragile, vulnerable and precious in that vulnerability, as do other cities in this country no matter how cocky they may have tried to be … (p343)
Immensely enjoyable for so many reasons, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, by Fiona Farrell,… http://t.co/NHiV5TJvuu
She is even more intelligent than I expected. Amazingly well read and educated. So she will always be one step ahead of me. Damn.
The whole book-talk thing was not what I expected, as there was a lot of dancing around what actually takes place in the novel, as some attendees haven’t read it yet. But I got a fascinating insight into how Sarah puts together her novels. She starts with around two months of research, although she said her latest book is taking a lot longer, perhaps up to four months.
The first half of the book was a “bit of a bugger to write” with a lot writing, rewriting and editing. But the second part was easier, as she enjoyed seeing her characters grow. It was interesting hearing her speak of characters in her latest novel The Paying Guests, Lillian, Leonard, and Frances as though they are real people, just showing how much thought is put into each one.
My favourite quote from the night was when she described The Paying Guest as “a love story complicated by a crime”. That sums up the novel perfectly.
I definitely recommend attending an author talk if you get the chance. I am looking forward to my next one.
It takes a lot to get me to go out after I’ve come home from work, but the chance to listen to Sarah Waters at Shifting Points of View definitely qualifies. The Paying Guests is one of my favourite books of the year – history, love, crime, and dilapidated houses – totally my jam! Here are some highlights.
“A bit of a bugger to write!” Epiphany came when agent described the novel as a crime story complicated by love, and Waters realised what she actually wanted was a love story complicated by a crime. She was initially inspired by reading about the trial of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters and wondered what would happen if the affair was with a woman. It’s not all flappers and gaiety in the 1920s!
Currently in the research stages, probably set in the 1950s. Probably won’t be out for a while so if you want to read some other books in the same period I thoroughly recommend Eva Rice, particularly The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, which as a bonus deals with a similar ‘genteel house falling into disrepair’ theme as Waters’ The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests. Decaying splendour, anyone?
Jeanette Winterson, Emma Donoghue and Mary Renault. I already love the last two (and we’ve been getting some lovely new editions of Renault recently in the library) so Winterson will probably be my next read while I wait for Waters to finish writing.
Sarah Waters clarified that she won’t be writing about known historical personages anytime soon – “The thought makes me feel squeamish!” – so if you’d like to read about a fascinating real 19th century Yorkshire landowner who happened to have multiple lesbian affairs, place a reserve on The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.
Peter Singer is perhaps one of the most polarizing philosophers of our time. His radical views and ideas have provoked many with inflammatory pro-abortion remarks and animal rights activism. However, Professor Singer spends lots of time at Princeton University, where he works in the field of bioethics and “practical ethics”, which wrestle with the diverse ethical and moral implications of reproductive rights, animal rights, genetic engineering and other bio-medical advances. So he’s pretty brainy.
But being a utilitarian philosopher, he is generally guided by the classic utilitarian notion that “the morally right action is the action that produces the most good”. He acknowledges a perplexing problem – how do us lowly citizens decide what produces the most good, in a world wracked with seemingly insurmountable problems?
That’s where Effective Altruism comes in. A movement Peter Singer promotes. Effective Altruism is an international social movement concerned with charitable works, and seeks to fuse “global empathy” with “critical thinking” so as to enable us citizens of the Earth to ascertain the most “effective ways to improve the world”, and therefore, enhance the way we give.
Mr Singer discussed the dilemmas we face as charitable givers, and how we are often emotionally compelled to favour certain charitable efforts over others (emotive advertising campaigns etc). This is despite the fact that some charities are arguably more deserving, or more productive than others. The questions of “how to give and who to give to” often stifles people who are prepared to help financially, for example, should we give to programmes abroad, or, does “charity start at home”? Is it better to directly help feed starving children in developing countries, or, do we give to biotech’ programmes which conduct research into crop enhancement, which could potentially feed and save millions?
The discussion at the festival had a distinctly globalized feel, as most subjects traversed were generally pegged to a broader global context. This is reflected in his book, which tries to determine the areas of greatest need and deprivation in the world. Therefore, when we consider the world and all its problems in its entirety, it seems that as global citizens the greatest good we could do is probably in Africa and developing countries where things are the most dire. These notions of global giving are quite challenging in light of various domestic issues.
Interestingly, Singer concedes that the works of charitable organizations are tricky to measure because the services they provide might be preventative, therefore, it’s hard to prove a service prevented (or failed to prevent) something which “otherwise WOULD have happened”. It was also pointed out that determining the success (the greatest good) that non-governmental organisations achieve is almost impossible in certain environments where one would have to randomly visit, for example, 200 villages scattered across a region of continental Africa so as to gauge how well an NGO is doing on average. There are many cultural and political variables which determine outcome.
Effective altruism requires a rigorously unsentimental view of charitable giving, urging that a substantial proportion of our money or time should be donated to the organisations that will do the most good with those resources …
I arrived (just) in time on a nippy Sunday for Imaginary Cities. It featured the super-intelligent powers of authors Fiona Farrell, Anna Smaill, Hamish Clayton, and Christchurch City Council designer Hugh Nicholson, and a stellar chairperson in the form of Christchurch Art Gallery Senior Curator Lara Strongman.
Taking the Christchurch blueprint as a starting point, this panel will look at ways in which we imagine cities, either in fiction, in history, or in contemporary life; whether as utopias or dystopias, cities imagined or reimagined.
Blimey. I can only hint at the brilliant barrage of words and ideas we were treated to.
Man Booker Prize nominated Anna Smaill – author of The Chimes – complained of jetlag, but was like intellectual quicksilver. She spoke of cities as places of amassed energy, and how we have only a “narrow toehold” on civilisation. In a city, the natural world is forever leaning over our shoulder.
Hamish talked about the city as a “morbid playground”, and a place that allows us to escape into anonymity. (Especially good for these introverted writerly types).
Designer Hugh Nicholson spoke about the imposition of the imaginary on the real:
Street patterns stay in the city for a very long time.
A couple spin by on a tandem, a white boy on the front, a brown girl behind, both pedalling unsteadily through green trees, both laughing with delight at the prospect of their opportunity. Earthquakes have destroyed their beautiful city, 70 per cent of its major buildings have been or are about to be demolished. But 106,000 of the city’s residents have risen to the call! They have submitted their vision for a new city and here is the synthesis of their dreams, a “flyover of their hopes”.
Fiona loved maps since reading Milly Molly Mandy as a kid. She spoke of Hippodamian grids – “a quick way of slapping down a city on a frontier” and the motivation to citybuild as encompassing politics, power, and the impulse to profit.
The one map we never see is where we are always coming ashore, looking for something.
How do fiction and memory fit into this? The city is a time machine. Hamish sees fiction as an engagement with an imagined remembered place. And every NZ writer is dealing with a relationship to place. Anna said that in fiction, you are inheriting the physical remains and stitching them back into a narrative. Fiction can help us understand cities better, said Hugh. Fiona spoke of the power of the novel to comfort, and proposed that the humanities are well named.
The writers spoke about the city in their books. Hamish set The Pale North in a fictional Wellington, and had to think deeply about ethical engagement after Christchurch’s quakes.
Fiction is a hell of a machine when things go wrong.
Fiona read a lot – including Seneca on earthquakes, and used that research as “a rich mass of compost” on which to build. Her next book is a novel that will sit with The Villa as its fictional counterpart.
The dystopian London in Anna’s book The Chimes was born of sensory impressions, and one of the books she mentioned was Peter Ackroyd’s psychogeography about the Thames. The other great influence in her hybrid of fantasy and mythic elements was Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (an amazing book that). She quoted Conrad:
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” (Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad)
Fiona spoke of the new doco The Art of Recovery and how it showed little shoots of hope and energy:
"I find great poignancy & loveliness in our constant attempt to make life better." Fiona Farrell. #wordchch#chchfest2015 ^DR
After reading a review of Perv in The Press’ Your Weekend magazine I was very intrigued. Jesse Bering is a science communication professor at Otago University so this book is looking at perversions from a scientific perspective – not a moral one.
Many thanks to Word Christchurch for giving me the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and sit right up the front of the fascinated crowd. The topic is an uncomfortable one for even the most open-minded of us but he gave the talk with such grace and humility even when heckled by a couple of audience members.
But surely this is what it’s all about: having the conversation. Looking at our own desires and the desires of others and seeing them as just that, without judgement.
Unfortunately I’m still on the holds list for this book but I hear he writes in a humorous way. Phew! That will make the subject a little more relaxed reading!
Last Sunday I shrugged on a heavy coat and ventured out into a grey and dismal Christchurch morning to hear two New Zealand fiction writers – Paula Morris and Patricia Grace.
The On Belonging session was advertised as exploring themes “themes of nostalgia, memory and belonging” however both women confessed very early in that neither of them had read that particular description before that morning, so things would likely veer off a bit. Writers, eh?
But, in fact, some of those themes did come through as Paula Morris encouraged Patricia Grace into remembrance and recollection over the course of the hour. The pair had an easy, relaxed rapport. Patricia Grace, whom I have never had the opportunity to hear speaking in public before, has a calm and softly spoken demeanour. She speaks slowly and thoughtfully.
To start with they spoke a bit about Grace’s background, and the degree to which she grew up in two worlds. That of her father’s family – rural and Māori, compared with the world of her mother’s family – urban and Pākehā. The divide between her life growing up in Wellington “hooning around the streets” with her cousins and crabbing at Mirimar Wharf, and the marae community of her father’s whānau, where she lives now. As a child she enjoyed the environment of sea and bush, with both in close proximity.
In fact, many of the memories she recalled over the course of the hour would factor in the sea, including the passage she read from her novel. I get the impression that Patricia Grace would not be comfortable living in a landlocked country or too far inland. As it is she seems to have a very strong sense of belonging in her seaside community with her brother, cousins and children all living in what Morris compared to a “family compound”.
Then they moved on to discussing Grace’s latest novel, Chappy which has several settings, including New Zealand, Japan, Europe and Hawaii. The novel is about Daniel, as he unpicks the story of his Māori grandmother and Japanese grandfather, the “Chappy” of the title.
Grace said “Chappy” grew out of a story she heard from her husband, who is from Ruatoria, about a Japanese shopkeeper who had lived there and was a much loved member of the community, but who was imprisoned on Somes Island during WWII, and then deported, leaving his New Zealand wife and family behind.
As an aside, due to various First World War centenaries this year, I’ve been looking at a lot of contemporary news reporting and this treatment of Kiwi Japanese during WWII is no different than that of New Zealand Germans in the earlier conflict. It seems we always repeat the same behaviours, demonising the enemy (and anything that reminds us of them sometimes, whether it’s justified or not).
Grace started wondering how this man had come to be living there and that formed the seed of what became the novel. The device of having Chappy’s story revealed by other characters was partly due to her belief that she couldn’t adequately convey the mindset and culture of a Japanese character though she felt she could “get into his heart as a human being”.
“Chappy” is Grace’s first novel in ten years, and Morris was at pains to point out this isn’t just laziness.
“People think when you’re a writer and you haven’t written a novel for ten years that you’re just lying around eating bon bons all day.”
In fact, life intervenes. Grace has seven children and a mother who lost her independence – family life does sometimes take precedence over writing novels.
Grace read from Chappy, a passage about sea journeys and stowaways.
Then Morris went on to ask Grace about her earlier novel, Tū (which in Morris’ opinion would make a great movie) and led to her sharing memories of being a child in Wellington during WWII. The American soldiers who gave the kids oranges and chewing gum, the ration books which she though were “cute”. Trams rattling up and down (accompanied by the sound of a tram, rattling past on Worcester Boulevard). The experience of waving her dad off on a military ship so immense she mistook it for a building.
She never intended to write a book about war but found her father’s notebooks and started researching. Her father had never talked about his war experiences (and she had got the impression that he’d never been at the front lines when, in fact, he had) and the stories she had heard from Māori Battalion men, who sang Italian songs, were mainly tales of mischief. Her research revealed otherwise.
Multi-culturalism and te reo Māori
Morris says that Grace is “subversive” and offers one of Grace’s quotes, from 1989, for comment.
New Zealand is a multi-cultural society but you wouldn’t know this from reading our literature.
Does she still feel that way?
Grace thinks that literature and the media have changed since then and technology has helped though she admits “I don’t do technology, really”.
She also has no issue with the novel as a “European form”. “You have to do your own thing,” she says “in the lens of the novel. Make it your own”. Morris believes that published literature is still fairly Pākehā dominated.
A comment from the audience led into an interesting discussion about whether Grace is “political”. The questioner says that “Potiki” and its use of te reo Māori really opened doors to the language for her without feeling educative. Was it intentional?
Potiki was published in 1986 and uses some Māori language components. At the time of its release, Māori was not yet an official language of New Zealand (this was achieved, after much campaigning, in 1987).
Accusations were made at the time that this use of te reo was “divisive” and intentionally political. Grace however thought she was just writing about ordinary people. Morris agreed in this saying that when she wrote Rangatira she used Māori words that lots of people would be familiar with, and any that weren’t would be clear from the context…but apparently not everyone agreed. Morris also pointed out that many writers do this and have to defend themselves, people like Junot Diaz who have to explain that “this is how my characters speak”.
Grace says that the only political part of “Potiki” was the absence of a te reo glossary. She’d had them before but felt that “a glossary is what you have for a foreign language”.
“Nobody did a glossary for me when I came across French in a book or anything”. Certainly my own reading experience with The Lord of the Rings novels and even The Chimes, is that it’s not necessarily an impediment to reading if occasional words are in an unfamiliar language (elvish) or specialised vocabulary (music).
It was a shame that the session had to stop just then because I felt that there was more that could have been discussed on that topic, but end it did.
It’s not often that, in your own town, you get a highly accessible ex-Speaker of the House coming to give an intimate talk about critical political issues. And listening to someone with her background had me in awe given that she’s the Former Attorney-General, Minister of the Crown, current Professor of Law. Nothing too serious …
Shifting points of view sessions. WORD Christchurch events at the Christchurch Arts Festival. Sunday 30 August 2015. Flickr 2015-08-30-IMG_9004
Her exposition at the festival was related to her nifty little book The Struggle for Sovereignty: New Zealand and Twenty first Century State. We have a paper copies and eBooks in the library. This short work provides a concise perspective on how – since the economic reforms of the 1980s – the core parts of the sovereign New Zealand state have been eroded and compromised by globalization and the neoliberal, free-market ideology – basically the deregulation, privatization and legislation which seems to give large business entities powers which don’t keep them accountable to citizens.
Mrs Wilson argues that the NZ State: the public service, the legal system and New Zealand’s constitution, are (often by default) providing a fertile ground for deregulation which affects society in all sorts of detrimental ways. Over recent years, Government policy has re-ordered the New Zealand economic environment in keeping with the neoliberal philosophy, and this is exemplified in insecure work and the trend towards free trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).
Insecure work – In another basic example of how things are going, Mrs Wilson points out that around 30% (over 600,00 humans) of the NZ work force is employed in “insecure/precarious” working conditions – meaning that such roles are “casual”, “fixed term”, “zero hours” etc. Which gives employees minimal bargaining rights for better pay and conditions and no certainty with regard to secure hours for the future. She claims this is due to the global neoliberal trend which NZ has adopted and favours “contract work” over “wages”, as keeping people on contract keeps them working more efficiently, whereas “on wages” people take too long – so the neoliberal (in)sensibility goes.
The TPPA could potentially enable large multi-national businesses the right to sue the NZ Government if our Government enacts laws which hinder their ability to make money – say if we had legislation which made plain packaging on cigarette packs mandatory – a business may have legal recourse if the courts deemed plain packaging affected their ability to make a profit.
Margaret Wilson and Bronwyn Hayward. Shifting points of view sessions. WORD Christchurch events at the Christchurch Arts Festival. Sunday 30 August 2015. Flickr 2015-08-30-IMG_8959
It seems our wonderful Pacific democracy is somewhat undermined – as policy can be rushed or hushed through Parliament without the public knowing or debating the nature of its contents. The Select Committee process can be circumvented due to the policy process being carried out “under urgency” – Parliament can rush through policy faster than normal because of some special “urgent” circumstances. All this basically means it’s very hard for the public to make submissions regarding certain policy initiatives. Which is what the Select Committee process is often for.
Margaret Wilson points out that it might be time for Kiwis to really get hold of our State and demand some changes to our Constitution, for example, which could usher in a more robust regulatory regime and pull back the neoliberal economic steam roller so as to make NZ a fairer, more equitable society – maybe resulting in some better contractual conditions and pay for workers somewhere down the line.
However, I asked her if New Zealand even has a “constitutional culture”, and she said one of the things which came out of the most recent constitutional inquiry was that Kiwis generally don’t have a basic understanding of what a constitution even is because its not taught in schools or referred to and celebrated as a crucial part of our history. Unlike the Americans, who have a very staunch constitutional culture. Just think gun control!
Maybe time to teach politics in schools.
Her book “The Struggle for Sovereignty: New Zealand and Twenty first Century State”, is a great tool – a short and to the point read about these technical political issues.
Here’s some quotes from her session:
Margaret Wilson's talking about the social welfare state historical evolution as a response to suffrage. #chchfest2015
Talk about opening a book with a zinger! I’m looking forward to hearing Jesse Bering in person – 6pm on Sunday 30 August 2015, a WORD Christchurch event in the Shifting points of view section of the Christchurch Arts Festival. His topic? On Perversion. Get your tickets now yo. This is not a session for kids or the squeamish; it’s definitely adult in nature.
I’ve just read his book Perv: The sexual deviant in all of us. As a librarian, I’m an index checker and this is one that’d make your eyes water: sneeze fetishists, autoplushophiles, formicophilia, Miley Cyrus …
This is a book that asks some great questions:
We’ve become so focused as a society on the question of whether a given sexual behavior is evolutionarily “natural” or unnatural” that we’ve lost sight of the more important question: Is it harmful? (p.21)
Jesse takes us right back to the origins of the term:
For the longest time, in fact, to be a pervert wasn’t to be a sex deviant; it was to be an atheist … So if we applied this original definition to the present iconoclastic world of science, one of the world’s most recognizable perverts would be the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. (p.9 /10)
The book is a journey into the world of “erotic outliers” (doesn’t that sound much better than pervert). It contains a good dollop of the personal, as well as science, politics, history, literature, and psychology – and, of course, the nature of sexual arousal. There are also plenty of interesting examples of behaviours; you’ll never look at the yoghurt in your office fridge the same way.
Jesse quotes the Roman philosopher Terence (p. 8):