It was a dark, but not a stormy, night at the Arts Centre last Wednesday, when four mysterious black-clad ladies entered the room. With flickering candles held aloft, they took their places on the stage for an evening of great hair, literary tropes and another chapter in the ongoing battle between Team Rochester and Team Heathcliff (*).
There was no attempt at cool professionalism, as our panellists to a man woman unashamedly confessed their enduring love for that most passionate of genres, the Gothic novel. And the audience was right there with them – many of us had been present earlier in the evening for an outstanding performance of Jane Eyre by Rebecca Vaughan of Dyad Productions.
With chair Rachael King guiding the discussion, we heard from an actor, a novelist and a librarian as they each confessed to teenage years spent wafting about in nighties and imagining themselves in the arms of a dark and brooding hero of uncertain temperament. Rebecca Vaughan had of course literally just come from her performance as Jane Eyre, while Karen Healey and Rachael King have both written novels with a strong Gothic flavour themselves (if you have not read Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead, or Rachael King’s Magpie Hall, I beseech you most strongly to do so at once). And our very own Moata Tamaira has never been afraid to profess herself as a fan of all things Gothic.
The evening’s discussion ranged from the literary – Gothic tropes in literature and film; to the awesomely ridiculous – a slideshow quiz where every answer was Wuthering Heights. We contemplated the various forms of Heathcliff in multiple movie castings (Tom Hardy a clear winner here, although this possibly was rigged by chair Rachael); and slipped sideways into a robust conversation about whether Wide Sargasso Sea had altered anyone’s perceptions of Mr Rochester (is it a true prequel? an early form of fan-fic homage? a completely separate stand-alone story?). I was waiting for someone to mention my own personal fave Jane Eyre “character” Thursday Next, from the Eyre Affair series, but perhaps that’s making things a little too tangled even for this panel and audience.
Finishing with a glorious set of illustrations from pulp fiction novels of the ’60s and ’70s, featuring women with great hair running from Gothic houses (credit to this magnificent blog), we were then sent out into the moonlit surrounds of the oh-so-Gothic Arts Centre, I think each with a new commitment to go back and re-read ALL our favourite Gothic novels. Possibly while dressed in wafty white nighties and floating about on the nearest moor.
The idea for the book grew out of a 2014 blog post in which Reni, a young British journalist of Nigerian heritage, wrote of her “frustration that discussions of race and racism were being led by those not affected by it,” and that when she tried to talk about these issues was told that there wasn’t actually a problem or accused her of being angry. The irony of marking this line in the sand was that suddenly lots of people wanted to listen to Reni’s point of view – including a full (mostly white) art gallery auditorium.
There are a number of themes in the book. One is history, and Reni is keen for black Britons to write themselves back into history. The British connection to slavery and to Africa is deep. I studied economic and social history 1750-1875 at A-level and slavery and colonialism was barely mentioned. I find this appalling because:
a) hello – where was the cotton for the cotton mills coming from?
and b) it has taken me until the last week or two to realise this.
It is this kind of oversight that Reni is trying to point out.
Whiteness isn’t the default. Whiteness isn’t neutral. There are other ways of doing things; there are other points of view. Which is actually quite liberating if you think about.
Reni was assured and matter of fact, and very easy to listen to. Another topic she highlights is feminism. What is the point of feminism that is only for white women and doesn’t have a space for black women and others? Issues don’t happen in isolation, and overlap and intersect all the time.
This truly was a session to make you think about and observe how you experience the world, to make you want to explore further by reading her book, and to shift your point of view.
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 …
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.
The Democratic Republic of North Korea (DPRK) is one of the most misleading titles for anything, ever, as they kind of forgot to add the Oppressive, Centralized, Totalitarian, Cult-like, Single Party parts to the title. Human Rights Watch refers to the DPRK as one of the most “harshly oppressive countries in the world”.
North Korea is described by Suki Kim as basically the world’s biggest cult. At the centre of this cult is the “eternal, supreme leader” Kim Jong-un, who rules with an iron fist. The myth of the supreme leader goes on despite persecution and the millions that go hungry due to food shortages. There is no contact with the outside world as borders and lines of communication are sealed, and government agents watch everyone who might seek enlightenment.
Author and South Korean American Suki went to North Korea to teach English to the sons of the elite as part of a special international programme at a university titled “The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology” (which was quite unscientific, and devoid of technology). Without You, There Is No Us is her memoir of this experience, which beautifully infuses impressions and emotions into the issues of world politics and international relations. Political material can be achingly dry and hard to relate to; this most definitely isn’t.
Hearing her speak was timely. The entertainment industry is producing lots of young adult dystopian fiction (think The Giver, Hunger Games). Spookily, her depictions of life in the DPRK had me thinking such fictions are somehow based on these North Korean facts.
Every aspect of daily life is monitored within the Institute she taught at, and everything – from the articulation to the architecture – is geared towards control. The university is intentionally designed with sterile, glazed spaces – privacy is at a premium. The idea “there is no I in team” is taken to an illogical extreme as Western notions of individualism are staunchly repressed and this was manifested in the language of her students. The words “I” or “Me” are almost never utilized by the students, who robotically state “We” and “Our” in a true spirit of collectivization and group identity. There is no place for individual ambition, it’s all servitude to the State. She did her best to teach them. And what she encountered was classes of bright, eager young men who have been lied to their whole lives, not only about the greatness of their country and its leaders, but about everything. They believe they have the internet, but it’s actually an intranet. To make it even more painful, in a show of nutty nationalism they think their “internet” is the best in the world.
Suki developed a fondness for this innocent bunch of kids, who almost never get to see their parents (but pretend this is normal so not to incur the wrath of their overseers) and are in many ways hopelessly lost – with only the guidance of a regime which lies to them.
Over time, Suki sneakily and quietly attempted to inject the smallest of radical ideas into their naive minds. Like the idea of choice, for example, when shes is asked pointedly by the students “how many TV channels does [“wicked capitalist”] America has”!? She gingerly answers “thousands”, trying not to appear boastful in light of North Korea’s one channel which presents shows full of propaganda about the Great Leader. She endured many Q&A sessions regarding details of our lives in the West, but she could not be completely honest with her inquisitive class, as most subjects were off limits. A knowledge of the truth hurt!
"The real gulag is in the mind." Suki Kim on her North Korean students' lack of general knowledge. #wordchch#chchfest2015 ^DR
I did manage to ask Suki during our own Q and A time if North Korea had any allies these days, and she said they don’t, not after the fall of the Soviet Union – “North Korea are all on their own”, much like the kids in her class whom she grieves for deeply…..
“Without you there is no us” is a beautifully written memoir detailing daily life in a closed society, and which is laced with stories of her own family history detailing the separation of loved-ones who may never meet again as they are spread across the two Koreas.
Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever read such well written personalized account of political and international relations.
I had just finished her latest novel The Paying Guests, and have also read most of her other novels.
I decided to try a talking book version of The Paying Guests for a change and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Except that I found myself sitting in my car; thinking, just another minute, another minute, aggghhhh, damn I have to go, but I desperately want to know what happens next.
I haven’t decided if listening to the talking book is the best idea or not? I know usually I would have been up to the wee small hours reading, but instead was stuck waiting for my next chance to get in the car and hear what was happening.
If you enjoy amazing attention to historical accuracy, multi layered characters you love, loath, are distressed by and empathise with, some love and captivating storylines I would recommend trying a novel by Sarah Waters. But beware the always agonising twist, just when I think “huh,” with an air of authority, “I know what’s going to happen next!” I am always wrong.
Oh those twists.
I am lucky enough to be attending Sarah’s talk Crimes of Passion session on Monday 7 September and looking forward to blogging about it after. Stay tuned!