Global Letters:
Auckland Writers Festival 2014

ARTS, Books, Features
img_orphanmasterssonSessions on North Korea, fascist Italy, and the Arab world compelled at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival.

The Auckland Writers Festival is a truly international event, not just in scope but in subject. Friday, in particular, seemed designed to take attendees on a tour of the globe from the comfort of Aotea Centre.

We started in Asia, with two back-to-back sessions on North Korea. Adam Johnson was up first, off the back of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son. He’s a gentle giant, calm and thoughtful, with a rapacious curiosity, and was intermittently hilarious as he articulated an outsider’s attempt to understand the peculiarities of this singular totalitarian state. Six years of research ensued, culminating in a trip to Pyongyang to see what colour the houses were painted, and where he was more excited about the manhole in front of the statue of the Great Leader than the statue himself. Ultimately, though, his work isn’t reportage, but fiction. “The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction must be believable.”

Which sounds like a great quip, but the next two sessions illustrated the maxim vividly. Whereas The Orphan Master’s Son is the work of an outsider trying to get in, Jang Jin-sung’s memoir Dear Leader is the work of an insider who got out. Jang was a member of Division 19 (the poetry section of the United Front department) whose work caught the eye of Kim Jong-il. In his session, Johnson described Jang as the only North Korean voice to come out of North Korea; for his own part, Jang attests that the DPNK has only two literary heroes: Kim Jong-il and Kim il-sung. This of course controls the language that one has access to, and the voice that one can speak in. “I believe human emotions come from language. For me since my childhood, I only knew two emotions: loyalty and hatred. Loyalty to great leader and hatred of enemies.”

Sadly, the time given for Jang’s voice was doubly compromised. First, and by necessity, he spoke through a translator, which limited the amount which could be shared in an hour; perhaps more frustratingly, the interlocutor sometimes relied on Jang to provide more generic information about the North Korean system, giving few opportunities to share the specific personal stories that capture the true insanity of the blinkered society. The glimpses given, though, were tantalizing. For instance, that poetry rose to prominence over the novel, in part because of Kim Jong-il’s preference for the latter, and in part because it required less paper and was more cost effective at communicating propaganda. Poetry, it seemed, was an economical form of brainwashing.

Jang eventually gained personal access to Kim Jong-il himself, which allowed Jang to bear witness not only to the dictator’s platform shoes but a surreal scene where, during a musical performance, Kim Jong-il broke unexpectedly broke into tears at an innocuous moment, upon which his coterie of generals all raced for their handkerchiefs to grandly emulate their great leader’s emotions. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t being exposed to the peculiarities of Kim Jong-il that provoked Jang’s escape, but his confrontations with the horrific suffering during the famine known as the arduous march: children begging for toothpaste to soothe their stomach, a woman selling her daughter for 100 won (about $1 USD at the time) so she could eat. Leaving was a perilous risk, and the escape to China was only a way station to South Korea, where things could go horribly wrong. “There are two essential items defectors take when they cross the border: poison such as cyanide and sharp razor.” Living now in South Korea, the question remained how we approach North Korea going forward. Jang urged us to remember the distinction between the North Korean government and the North Korean people: “There are so many statues and portraits of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, but ordinary North Koreans respect George Washington in $1 U.S. bill.”

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In The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett chronicles a rather different relationship between poet and dictator. The story of Gabriele D’Annunzio is one of a poet who sought to be the voice of a nation, and in doing so, willed the accoutrements of the political theatre of fascism into being, convenient tools picked up by Mussolini and Hitler. You might think this is a story of regret and woe, until you hear that D’Annunzio himself stormed the Allied-occupied city of Fiume after WWI and became its dictator for sixteen months, claiming it back for Italy. (Who hadn’t asked for it and weren’t interested in it.)

That event could provide enough colour for a book on its own, but in this session it was relegated to a two-minute anecdote near the end. That’s not a criticism, but proof of the astonishingly rich subject Hughes-Hallett has chosen to profile. As with many sessions at writers’ events that focus on biography, questions of prose style and process took a back seat to a potted history of her subject’s life. While this can often leave the audience feeling like they’ve absorbed the marrow of the book, here it’s clear that every detail, rich and small, is unexpectedly fascinating. D’Annunzio was a wild egomaniac, a master of publicity hoaxes, an unrepentant Lothario, a revered poet, an irresponsible debtor, a playwright who once staged a six-hour play that featured five choruses and a full-size ship—and that’s all before he entered politics and joined the military.

Hughes-Hallett did expert work summarising all of this in a cogent, friendly manner. She’s clearly besotted (if also bemused) with her subject, but also the larger setting of the era, briefly touching on the birth of Italy, the rise of Mussolini, the Parisian theatrical scene of the early 20th century, and much more. By the time D’Annunzio is flying over an Italian plane over Vienna during WWI and dropping pamphlets in a scene Joseph Heller would have rejected from Catch-22 as being too on the nose, one can’t help but recall Adam Johnson’s statement. D’Annunzio’s life is unbelievable, and judging from not only the session but the prize-winning status of The Pike, he’s found a biographer in death who can render his life just as vividly as he lived it.

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Sessions on North Korea and fascist Italy expanded what we knew about their respective subjects, but it was a roundtable session, A Question of Civilizations, that shattered our preconceptions. Susie Ferguson chaired three heavy-hitting commentators with ties to “the Arab world”: the Iraqi-born scientist Jim Al-Khalili, who now resides in Britain and whose book Pathfinders profiled the scientific renaissance of the medieval Islamic Empire; Egyptian journalist and campaigner Yasmine El Rashidi, the only panel member on the ground still living in the region and observing change in real time; and prolific commentator and Iranian-American author Reza Aslan, most recently known for his biography of Jesus, Zealot.

Hopefully, the session will appear online; there wasn’t a minute without an unexpected insight or distilled truth. Aslan, perhaps the most seasoned television personality of the bunch, led by pointing out that the median age in the region is 25 (and Yemen is 18), whereas in the United States it’s 37. This unexpected truth points to a deeper instability in the fundamental fabric of Middle East and Arabic culture, where a swell of youth attitudes is upending traditional cultural divides. The resurgence of the veil in many countries, for instance, is not an expression of fundamentalism but an embrace of cultural identity in the face of western disapprobation (and one that frustrates a generation of elders who fought against it). Our misunderstandings are nothing new, of course; Al-Khalili’s summary of centuries of scientific history made it clear that during the Dark Ages of Europe, there was a golden age of scientific thought in the Arab world, now ignored in not only our western history but by the region itself. “We’re still waiting for a scientific Arab Spring.”

It’s a region whose identity is challenged by the shifts of history, most prominently in the post-colonial era, where so many countries have been artificially brought together by maps drawn in Europe, only for the western world to then be surprised when young nation-states comprised of historically warring populations struggle to find a national unity. Of course, for every poor conflict-torn Arab state, there’s one nearby that’s incomprehensibly wealthy; Al-Khalili pointed out that at 21 every Qatari man is given a house by the government.

“Is the picture of the Arabic world becoming blurred?”, Ferguson asked. “It should be blurred,” Aslan rejoindered. Simple narrative building is the opposite of understanding. El Rashidi shared the story of writing for The Wall Street Journal and being asked to get a story about Egypt that says XYZ; when she explained XYZ wasn’t what was happening on the ground, she was told that they needed it anyway because that’s what the New York Times was saying. There’s a complexity that we reject in the favour of single sentence explanations, and the roundtable reached feistly heights as Aslan dismantled the narrative building of the news, saying that he’d observed no difference between his time in scripted TV sessions in L.A. and in newsrooms. “We tend to as a society define ourselves in opposition to an ‘other’, and the most convenient other right now is Arabs, Muslims particularly.” But that other is heterogeneous, shifting, and full of contradictions. I won’t pretend that an hour fully explained that world, but as a corrective, as well as for access to three perceptive and lucid commentators, it was the most valuable session of the festival.

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A few stray notes on other sessions: Irvine Welsh was dryly hilarious and revealed he was now re-writing the script for Spring Breakers 2: The Second Coming; the following day, he shared the stage with Breaker Morant scribe and raconteur David Stevens in a free session, as both shared their experiences, from the fortuitious to the farcical, in writing for the screen. Stevens stole the session with his stories of inadvertently being forced to adapt his play The Sum of Us to the screen and being hired to adapt an Alex Haley novel, which he belatedly discovered did not exist. Strong female novelists dominated the programme. First-time Irish novelist Eimear McBride provided a skeleton key to A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by reading her novel aloud and bringing the chorus of voices to life; sadly, no one has offered her the chance to do an audio book, but hearing her link her work to James Joyce helped place her work in a larger context. Ceylonese-born Australian Michelle de Kretser, promoting her 2012 novel Questions of Travel, was unfamiliar to me, but her dry, generous, and consistently funny manner sold the entire room on her book, inspired by ten years working at Lonely Planet. American stalwart A.M. Homes entertained as she offered herself up for adoption and lamented that because she wasn’t male apparently her 600+ page novel, May We Be Forgiven, won’t count as a Great American Novel: “It’s only a Large American Novel.” And in the largest selling event in the history of the festival, Eleanor Catton completed her victory lap for The Luminaries with a thoughtful and hilarious conversation with John Campbell. Between lengthy discussions of astrology, the dangers of being overconfident in one’s opinion, Campbell’s fulsome praise for both the book and Catton herself, and an unsolicited shoutout for Joan Fleming’s interview with “our Booker Prize winner,” Catton mentioned she valued belief, curiosity, and wonder. A concise summary of the festival as a whole.

The 2014 Auckland Writers Festival ran from May 14-18 at the Aotea Centre.

Main Image: Cover artwork from The Orphan Master’s Son.