An audience with Xinran, Helen MacDonald, and Carol Ann Duffy; plus, final thoughts on the Auckland Writers Festival.
In the lead up to this year’s Auckland Writers Festival, I kept wondering how meaningfully one can really engage with writers during these short sessions, and where these experiences leave us once it’s all over. Often the issues dealt with are so complex that they constitute a writer’s (unfinished) life work. Writers festival sessions, therefore, call for necessarily broad brushstrokes, Reader’s Digest versions of events. A tapas menu for literature lovers, the festival allows its attendees to sample a selection of short encounters with an international repertoire of accomplished writers. However, bite-sized need not mean shallow. I attended three sessions at this year’s festival: Xinran, Helen Macdonald, and Carol Ann Duffy. In their discrete ways, these three women use the written word to reflect, question, and help us come to terms with powerful, insistent, and sometimes uncomfortable realities.
Xinran’s latest book, Buy me the Sky, focuses on the effects of China’s one-child policy, considering through extensive research the pressures and burdens faced by the only children born in China after 1979. In conversation with Stephanie Johnson, Xinran begins by giving the audience a nutshell run-down of mainland China’s political background. In 1979, when the one child policy was first introduced, there was widespread poverty throughout the country; the significant gap between the burgeoning population and the meagre food supply meant that the policy was initially received well by city dwellers. However, in rural communities, where families had long-held cultural beliefs in particular traditional family structures, and relied on the labour of their sons and daughters, the policy was met with fierce opposition. Despite years of protest—the peasantry made up over 85% of China’s population at the time—the policy went ahead. This was, as Xinran puts it, a “180 degree turnaround” from Mao’s regime, during which people had been encouraged to have as many children as possible. There was no formal governmental support to see families through this change, and people were entirely unprepared for the social and cultural transformations that would begin to emerge as a result of the policy.
Xinran goes on to tell the story of a young woman who she met in Auckland. The woman, who Xinran refers to as the Golden Swallow, is part of the one child generation. A woman in her early twenties, the Golden Swallow had never touched a knife, never cooked, cleaned, or had a job. As a precious only child, she had been so coddled by her parents that she was completely ill-equipped to deal with the world on her own. Sent to New Zealand alone to take a University course in Management, the Golden Swallow’s helplessness turned into anger. “My mum brought me up like a pet,” she had told Xinran, who grimaces as she continues: “she cut herself off from her mother. Never spoke to her again.” This sort of story, she says, is becoming increasingly commonplace in China.
From the outset, the scenario sounds somewhat strange. After ensuring a child’s upbringing is so sheltered that they are prevented from touching basic cooking equipment, why would one then decide to suddenly send that child to another country on their own? Xinran says that “what is best” can be difficult to determine: “In China, the parents’ generation grew up with no social workers, no books, no media… When McDonald’s first opened in China, people believed it was the best food of the Western world! The thinking is that sending children overseas will give them better opportunities in life.” In New Zealand, it is difficult to imagine the differing realities that drive some Chinese parents to obsess fanatically over their children, that cultivate a skewed perspective on what nurtures versus what smothers.
Xinran asks the audience to picture a primary school where no one has any brothers or sisters, where the concept of siblings is completely abstract. As the one child policy has become more relaxed in recent years, more parents are beginning to consider having a second child. However, many children see the prospect of a younger sibling as something deeply frightening and fundamentally destabilising: a sibling means competition for love, resources, and attention. Xinran shares an anecdote involving a 13-year-old girl who coerced her mother into having an abortion, threatening to commit suicide unless her unborn sibling was terminated. In two other cases, children committed suicide because of similar fears.
At the end of the session, a young Chinese audience member takes the microphone to pose a question to Xinran. He comments that it’s interesting to hear her speak about his generation—is their situation completely hopeless? The strengths of the only child generation, Xinran says, lie in their capacity to think on a worldly scale. Ultimately, she concludes, “I invite people to listen to these single children.” Only by listening can we begin to understand, and only by understanding can things improve.
In conversation with Noelle McCarthy, H is for Hawk author Helen MacDonald discussed the divide between humans and other animals. Hawk details MacDonald’s relationship with Mabel, the goshawk she decided to train as a means of dealing with the life-splintering grief she felt following her father’s death. MacDonald concedes this decision was definitely an unusual one, even for a “writer-naturalist-falconer-historian.” Goshawks, she tells us, have a reputation as “murderous psycho killers” in the hawk world: the sort of bird coveted by tattooed biker blokes who tend to “tell you how big the rabbit was their goshawk caught that morning.” “I realised you couldn’t tame grief, but a Hawk you could tame,” she says. To MacDonald, Mabel seemed as wild as her own ravenous grief, and taming her became a physical way of engaging with the emotional torment and loss she was suffering.
Having bought into the idea that the modern world was constraining, “I lost myself, I went too far… this wasn’t the romantic poet’s view of the world, it was the world of a hawk.” Although MacDonald tried to immerse herself in Mabel’s world, she believes humans can never inhabit the psyche of wild animals, never truly understand what it is to inhabit the world beyond our own anthropomorphic musings: “It is important for humans to see how we use nature to prove our own constructs.” This, she says, was an important part of her relationship with Mabel. “The joy was that we shared this life, but she’s not like me.” Seeing Mabel hunt other animals cemented the distance between human and hawk. MacDonald felt accountable for the deaths, and often had to break rabbits’ necks to prevent Mabel from eating them alive.
“We don’t see death much, nowadays,” she observes, commenting on the importance of acknowledging death in the world. MacDonald describes the experience of being on tour as “astonishing.” The number of grieving people who have come to hear her speak has been overwhelming, she remarks. “Perhaps the book is an opportunity for speech about these things… one person told me that the book is for anyone who has ever wanted to escape their life—which is everyone!”
According to MacDonald, around 10–15% of falconers are women, and that percentage is higher than it used to be. She laughs, remembering an early excursion with a “bunch of 40-year-old men in tweed.” “I literally got offered snuff!” she exclaims. Apparently, long ago, women were considered to be better at falconry than men. This assertion has prompted some rather condescending questions from journalists. MacDonald purses her lips and puts on her best ‘older male journalist’ voice, “Do you think that women are better at it because they pay attention to non verbal cues?” She turns to face the audience, deadpan. “No.” MacDonald finds it frustrating when people reduce Hawk to the script of motherhood; she’s had numerous interviewers comment on her ‘maternal’ feelings towards Mabel, too. “Of course I [had them], and if I was a man I would have felt paternal,” she adds.
The session ends with musings on the sorry state of our environment. It’s difficult to legally interact with wild animals, and face-to-face intimacy is important if people—especially children—are to respect and understand them. MacDonald can attest to this first-hand, after spending time working with school groups at a wildlife sanctuary. “When small children are able to see birds of prey in real life, it can ignite a life-long passion for conservation.” It’s difficult not to lose heart, not to grieve, when the world seems so damaged by human consumption, but MacDonald remains positive. “As Naomi Klein says, we just need to get out there are start kicking butt.”
John Campbell gave a warm introduction to his session with British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and the audience responded with love for both interviewer and interviewee: Campbell received his own round of applause as he stepped up to the lectern to speak. “You’re very popular,” Duffy remarked. The pair made a good match; Duffy’s dry wit and Campbell’s boyish enthusiasm made for a dynamic—if at times incongruous—combination.
“I hear you don’t like talking about your poetry,” Campbell begins tentatively. “I’m keen for people to read my poetry, but I’m not keen for people to read me,” Duffy agrees. Accordingly, the session was discussion-lite, and reading-heavy. Duffy performed a series of poetry readings between short spurts of questions from Campbell, beginning with excerpts from The World’s Wife, a collection of poems written from the perspective of the imaginary wives of famous male figures throughout history. Listening to Duffy read is one of those spine-chilling experiences that leaves you misty-eyed and runny-nosed, wondering where time has gone while the room stands still around you. Duffy’s command of speech and language can be accurately described as spell-binding, a term which seems particularly apt for her poems Mrs. Midas and Mrs. Tiresias, whose protagonists inhabit a world perpetually subject to magical change.
The tale of King Midas’s golden touch enthralled Duffy as a child, but left her feeling queasy as an adult: what would happen to Midas’s lovers? Like many of the poems in The World’s Wife, Mrs. Midas encompasses comical elements as well as sobering emotional undertones. In one sense, Mrs. Midas’s increasing distress and loneliness reflects the toxic effect of capitalism on human relationships; “The pursuit of greed and wealth cost [Mr. Midas] his humanity,” says Duffy.
In Mrs. Tiresias, the protagonist deals with an unexpected shock. In Greek mythology, Tiresias sets out for a walk, and stumbles upon two snakes mating on the ground. He kills the two snakes with his walking stick, which angers the Gods. As a punishment, Hera turns Tiresias into a woman for seven years. Duffy found the idea of a man suddenly becoming a woman “fantastically hilarious.” (Of course, after experiencing his first period, Tiresias campaigns for menstrual leave, “twelve weeks per year.”) This moment in the session didn’t sit right with me. Listening to Duffy read Mrs. Tiresias, it seemed to me that Mr. Tiresias’s real punishment was not womanhood, but sudden and complete estrangement from his body. As a man trapped in a woman’s body, he had effectively been transformed from a cisgender male into a transgender woman. Contrary to Duffy’s sense of this as an outre and humorous phenomenon, the implications of this enforced gender re-assignment seemed tragic and disturbing to me, considering how the real experiences of many trans-identifying people are anything but “fantastically hilarious.” I could not join in the laughter.
What of the process of writing poetry? “If I begin a poem, I’ll finish it,” Duffy says. As it turns out, she ‘writes’ a lot of poetry in her head that never makes it to paper: “the ‘not writing’ of a poem happens before you write. There are a lot of silences before writing.” Campbell notes that we are often confused about what the role of poetry should be. In Duffy’s opinion, there isn’t a unique way of feeling love or bereavement. “We share these things. Poetry celebrates that through language. We go to poetry or music when we feel intensely: poetry is the music of being human.” She believes that when someone reads her poems, they become “about the reader.” That is why—she smiles—good poetry requires a special combination: “a good reader as well as a good poet.”
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There are many different types of readers present at the Auckland Writers Festival. Some have been looking forward to it for months, purchasing tickets to sought-after sessions on the day of release, while others have been dragged along at the insistence of a friend or relative. Whatever our reasons for attending, the festival presents us with opportunities to feel—for around 20 dollars—a moment of connection with a host of highly educated, articulate, intelligent humans.
These moments can be truly inspiring, but what about those who lack access to such experiences? We live in a country where many cannot afford food, let alone tickets to writers festivals. The festival did offer many free sessions that were open to the public, and this is a great initiative. However, problems of access are more complicated than finance alone. They run much deeper, into issues such as socio-economic background, race, and gender. Initiatives like I, Too, Am Auckland—a project run by students at the University of Auckland—demonstrate effectively how subtle, everyday racism affects Maori and Pasifika students in academic communities. Thinking along these lines, it isn’t difficult to imagine how some might feel uncomfortable or unwelcome at events like the writers festival, whose audience is predominantly comprised of Central Auckland dwelling, well-off Pakeha. Of course, these are weighty, complex issues whose reach and resolution far exceeds the scope of writers festivals. There are fundamental shifts in societal attitudes and in access to education, food, and job opportunities that would need to occur before such events could become truly accessible to everyone.
So, where does this leave us? In small ways, through short windows, the sessions I attended at this year’s festival brushed against harsh truths: the traumatic effects of China’s one child policy, sexism, and environmental destruction. Writers can be powerful. Their work can bring the world closer to us, help us to question and understand our place within it, and to become more attuned to the problems that it holds. Perhaps, then, if we are privileged enough to experience literary enrichment on this scale, we ought to feel motivated to continue learning once the excitement is over, to look beyond our own filter bubbles and engage more deeply with the unfathomable strangeness, cruelty, and potential of the world from which great writing emerges.
The 2015 Auckland Writers Festival ran from May 13-17 at the Aotea Centre.
Main Image: Cover artwork from Buy Me the Sky.