Insight and Inspiration:
Auckland Writers Festival 2014

ARTS, Books, Features
img_girlisahalfformedthingNotes on Irvine Welsh, A.M. Homes, Eimear McBride, Alice Walker, Eleanor Catton, and other luminaries at the Auckland Writers Festival.

As I stepped into the Aotea Centre last Friday, I was unprepared for the hubbub that would surround me as I descended the stairs. A newbie to the Auckland Writers Festival, I had little in the way of pre-conceived expectations, but the throngs of bookish types fiercely guarding their spots in long queues outside the ASB theatre caught me off guard. The centre was bustling, the bookstands were crowded, and the baristas looked over-worked. The atmosphere was one of excited tension and anticipation, befitting the festival’s impressive line-up of household names, both long familiar and newly discovered.

Friday

The Dark Side comprised of four ten-minute-long readings from Ben Atkins, Paul Cleave, Camilla Lackberg and Eimear McBride: writers who, according to the programme, “mine the underbelly.”

Ben Atkins had his first novel, Drowning City, published by Random House earlier this year. He first completed the novel when he was 17. Now 20 years old, Atkins was still one of the youngest speakers at the festival. His delivery was cool and confident, like the laconic musings of his protagonist. Atkins took clear cues from film noir and Chandler-esque genre fiction, rolling cliché phrases like “You’re going to die soon” and “worthless bastard” into well-rendered details of sight, scent, and sound.

The Edgar-nominated Paul Cleave was next, reading from his latest novel, Joe Victim. As in Atkins’s reading, “men in black” drag Cleave’s protagonist into a vehicle. He becomes the incarcerated subject of police brutality. Cleave relayed the gory events with humour and borderline flippancy. Upon losing an eyelid, the protagonist compares his own body to a car needing spare parts. When the doctor arrives, he remarks, “I hope he has them, since mine are out in the parking lot.”

Camilla Lackberg’s reading from The Ice Princess focused on the contemplative internal thought process of its narrative speaker. Her section ended with a flashback, again involving a confrontation with the police. I wondered if the speakers’ excerpts had been chosen to specifically highlight this commonality.

By contrast, Eimear McBride’s reading from her stylistically unconventional novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, made her a clear outlier in the group of crime writers. She began by confessing that she had struggled to choose a passage to read from, and promptly proceeded to steal the show. A captivating performer, McBride’s training in theatre was obvious. Her use of emphasis, pause, and inflection brought the text superbly to life, making its disjunctive, fragmented format not only comprehensible, but also completely enthralling.

*   *   *

Irvine Welsh was equal parts charismatic, profane, hilarious, and insightful. In conversation with the bubbly Noelle McCarthy, he began by discussing his latest book, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins. Sex Lives follows in the ‘Welshian’ tradition of misleading titles that began with Trainspotting. Apparently Sex Lives was the sort of phrase Welsh thought might look intriguing on the bookshelf. The story came second. “What the fuck do I write about!?” he exclaimed to the crowd.

“In America, everybody’s default conversation is about food,” said Welsh. We learned that there are allegedly more Gordon Ramsay eateries in Las Vegas than McDonalds restaurants; something Welsh puts this down to the current obsession with ‘food porn’. The body culture of Miami has been affecting for Welsh, too. Soon after moving there, he began going to the gym. He concedes, however, “If you’re Scottish you look silly anyway with no clothes on, it’s a birthright.”

Speaking to his former days of heavy drug use, Welsh admitted that while he had left heroin behind, cocaine and ecstacy were regular indulgences when he started out as a writer. The problem with drug education, he says, is that it glosses over one of the main reasons people take drugs: “they’re fun!” Important information might then be dismissed, because of the disparity between the anti-drug warnings received and the enjoyment of the lived experience taking drugs. Bodily functions, the by-products of which feature heavily in Welsh’s writing, are a great equalizer. Interested in the tension between the physical and the mental, Welsh believes, “There’s a democracy in the fact that everybody shits and pisses.”

According to Welsh, the continued destruction of the Welfare state in the United Kingdom is becoming closer to the United States model, and with disastrous results. This has led to the ghettoization of the underprivileged, as it is becoming increasingly difficult for people living in state housing to advance their circumstances. When asked whether he believes that Trainspotting the film glamorized the lives of people in such circumstances, Welsh responded, “Cinema automatically glamorizes everything.” With that considered, he didn’t believe the film had made grisly reality glossier than it should be.

The session ended with some wisdom on why being successful makes it easier to write. The first reason was money: “Money’s always a good thing. It is, it just is!” The other was fame. One should avoid fame at all costs, but it helps with writing because “it keeps you inside doing your work.”

Saturday

A.M. Homes, author of May We Be Forgiven and recipient of the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction in 2013, was nervous on the opening night of Auckland Writers Festival. With so many accomplished writers speaking, it was “like a competitive storytelling thing”, she said.

May We Be Forgiven features an intricate plot and richly detailed characterization. Both deadly serious and darkly comic, the novel explores modern America’s social foibles and contemporary fears through black satire. The book focuses on the relationship between two brothers, one of whom is a Nixon scholar. “Really, there’s no such thing as a Nixon scholar!” Homes remarked with a smile. This character was the difficult to write: “I was writing about a person who didn’t know himself.”

Homes is interested in using fiction to illustrate moments in history, in this case, the impact of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Homes stressed that she is not, in fact, a Republican, but simply found Nixon’s legacy fascinating: in particular, the notion that “if the president does it, then it’s not illegal.” At this point, Paula Morris addressed the audience, “Do you guys remember when Nixon resigned?” I couldn’t help but think how perfectly the undulating murmur of ‘yesses’ highlighted my position in the crowd as one of a younger minority.

An adopted child, Homes suffered through immense trauma when her biological parents suddenly reappeared in her life. Writing her memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter, “was like picking at a scab everyday.” She found that the baggage of her childhood could not be left behind in favour of the “perspective” that her publisher demanded, having deemed her first draft “awful.” Unable to re-write the text, Homes let it sit for ten years before broaching the idea again. Upon showing her publisher the unchanged first draft, the response was now, hilariously, “this is brilliant!”

Homes also discussed North America’s relationship to history, “which is none!” She pointed to North America’s aversion to self-criticism, and posited the country as suffering from a kind of “Alzheimer’s”: “Americans do like looking in the mirror, but they wanna add botox.” As for the ‘Great American Novel’, Homes has tried and failed. “It turns out a woman can’t write one, so I’ve written the large American novel instead.” However, she said she has tried to stay out of the gender debate when it comes to her writing, preferring not to categorise herself as a ‘female writer’: “I’m the A.M. Homes writer!”

The floor was opened up to the audience for a brief question and answer session at the end. Mine was the last to be answered: “Since our memories often change over time and may be quite selective, to what extent do you feel that the ‘self’ that emerges from your memoir reflects you?” Her answer revealed the biographical fallacy that informs readers’ common interpretation of memoirs. “It’s one self. People read about you and think they know you. You don’t know me; you know things about me. I am many, many people.”

*   *   *

Eimear McBride’s session, in conversation with Iain Sharpe, began with a reading from the start of her novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Although this was the second session in which I heard McBride read her work aloud, I was no less enraptured by her command of speech and diction. The reading added a new dimension to her words for those who had read them, and also helped to contextualise the discussion of her work for those unfamiliar with her unique “stream of pre-consciousness” style.

As in A.M. Homes’s session, the subject of memoirs cropped up, as A Girl was informed by autobiographical details from McBride’s life. In the nine years it took to get the novel published, McBride had been told the book would be more sellable as an autobiography. “If you say it’s a ‘memoir’, then we’re a go!” one publisher had declared. McBride wondered if that particular person had read the ending of the book. Sharpe commented that with first novels especially, readers have a tendency to collapse the distance between the author and protagonist. In fact, the difference between the autobiographical and the fictional is one that is important to McBride. She highlighted the notion that fiction may provide a greater scope for the ever-elusive concept of universality. “There’s a wider truth you tell about yourself when you write fiction.”

A Girl is time and place specific, set in Ireland towards the end of the 1980s. McBride spoke to the influence of the evangelical movement in Ireland, “off the pulpit and into the sitting room,” and the influence that had over women’s lives at the time. This effect can be seen within the book, where Catholicism becomes a means for certain women to feel in control by judging other women. McBride emphasised women’s lack of vocabulary for giving voice to their own issues and concerns, an impediment that barred them from empowerment. “There is no secular sex in Ireland.” McBride herself grew up around evangelicals; seeing friends and relatives speaking in tongues seemed par for the course. Times are changing, though; exemplified by the nuns McBride witnessed queuing up to buy her book, although “they hadn’t read it at that point!”

A second reading in the session drew from the scene of the Grandfather’s wake. Here McBride showcased the dark humour that permeates A Girl, as the audience chuckled at phrases such as “We do our own post-life stuffing in this house!” and “they’re merging at the fruitcake.”

McBride was witty, modest, and above all, passionate. After so many years of rejection, she had been forced to reconsider her reasons for writing. “To think of yourself as a failed writer makes you question what you’re writing and who you are writing for.” For McBride, A Girl marks a step towards giving voice to an unseen side of the female psyche. It is this deep engagement with what it means to be a woman that shows the real nature of McBride’s passion: one which extends outside of literary form alone and into wider issues of societal concern and gender politics.

*   *   *

When news hit the New Zealand media that Eleanor Catton had won the Man Booker prize last year, as John Campbell put it, “there was a spring in everyone’s step.” She was not ‘the’ winner of the Man Booker Prize, but as the event title suggests, ‘our’ Booker winner. Campbell simply gushed over Catton, personifying the enamoured admiration that abounded in the packed ASB theatre. There was an overwhelming sense that the crowd, too, was treasuring Catton: a record breaking 2115 tickets had sold for the event.

The session began with Catton discussing her fascination with astrology. After some crowd-pleasing jokes involving picking John Campbell as a Libra, Catton launched into an in-depth account of astrology’s influence on the structure of The Luminaries, the role of mathematics in the zodiac, and the contentious description of astrology as a “science.”

Catton also distinguished herself as a true lover of language. Musing on the difference between being precise and pedantic, she explained how the intricacies of etymology inform her writing. Campbell noted that The Luminaries reminds the reader of how language ought to be used. “It speaks to a modern individualism that ‘envy’ and ‘jealousy’ have become conflated,” said Catton. Another case study was the word ‘should’. Catton was interested in the “preservation of the hypothetical” conveyed by the original usage of the words ‘should’ and ‘shall’, which were markers for things that one may never intend to do, but that could be imagined, often with humour or irony.

“Good ideas are always borne out of bad ideas,” said Catton. Her original concept for The Luminaries had been to write a novel with a circular plot that ended at the point in time where it began. After realising that this was a “stupid idea,” she achieved circularity in a different way, by using the astrological calendar as a structure. The Luminaries ends in the cycle preceding the one it started in.

The conversation turned to fame. One’s “interaction with strangers starts dropping away,” she stated. Her celebrity status, especially in New Zealand, has turned her into a symbol for some people that can make them feel entitled to a piece of her. “I don’t want to appear ungrateful,” said Catton hurriedly. She needn’t have worried. The impression left was that of a capable and intelligent young woman who has been suddenly thrust into the limelight, but has by no means reached her peak.

Sunday

One of the highlights of the programme this year was the indomitable Alice Walker, best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Color Purple. As Dr. Selina Tusitala Marsh gave a warm introduction, the audience welcomed Walker to the stage with a standing ovation: it was immediately clear that this was going to be an emotionally charged hour.

Walker attributes the extraordinary global reach of her writing to “the subjugation of women, which is global.” Her work is also known for stirring controversy among conservatives. The Color Purple is currently banned in North Carolina, and is among the most challenged books of the last century. Walker commented that she has considered travelling to North Carolina to ask them why. “There are things they should ban before they ban a book.” Nuclear power and weapons are at the top of Walker’s list. “Where is the courage in our leaders?” she implored. Nuclear weapons, she believes, are “created by paranoid and scared people, because they don’t have the courage to talk to people.”

For Walker, the solution lies in placing more women in positions of power. “The feminine is lacking.” As such, a drastic reconsideration of our current societal model is needed, with recourse to something “radically different from what we have. What we have is killing us.” The knowledge of indigenous women would be a good place to turn, in response to what Walker sees as a “coarsening of [our] behavior to each other,” an increasing lack of emotional intelligence across the globe. “We must find the ones who have not been trying to live in this concoction that is killing the planet,” she said.

Walker also spoke to the role of language in activism, and the power that words can imbue on their subjects. Such terms can provide minorities with a means to express the specificity of their situation, and serve as a means of empowerment. One example was Walker’s term, “womanism,” a neologism that pertains specifically to African American feminists and their experiences. “The wonderful thing about womanism is that man is in it, and he’s completely surrounded!”

Walker held the room with a quiet yet commanding confidence as she launched further into a discussion of our world’s sicknesses. “Woman is forced to create more and more people; the earth is trodden with beings she can barely support.” Much of the advice Walker offered is plain common sense: we need more conviction, to stop being distracted, to resist the fracturing of the mind and the control of the mind that has led us to this “precipice.” We need to learn how to be silent, how to unplug. Walker’s highly traumatic experience of divorce drew her to meditation. “It helped me get through the intense suffering.” Her participation in a women’s circle also brought counsel through ruthless honesty. “Nothing short of the sometimes brutal truth will shift things.”

It was extremely touching to hear Walker speak about such a personal topic, especially without prompting from her interviewer. Glancing around the room, I could spot many audience members wiping tears from their faces, a testament to both Walker’s affecting stage presence and her immensely inspirational legacy within feminist discourse. The session ended with a touch of humour and hope. “Hard times require furious dancing,” said Walker. “No networking. Just dance.”

*   *   *

The finale to my Auckland Writers Festival experience was Gender Divides, a panel discussion on feminism featuring Eleanor Catton, Jessica Jackley, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Sandi Toksvig. The session was facilitated by Judy McGregor, who opened by addressing the “shimmering mirage of gender equality in New Zealand.” Questions ranged from a general consideration of the issues facing women today, to racism, technology’s influence in society, domestic violence, and the pay gap.

Ngahuia Te Awekotoku was brilliantly sharp in relating the issues discussed to Te Ao Maori and the New Zealand context. Her critique of Sir Toby Curtis’s discussion of women’s place in the marae was particularly on point: “Within the marae there is no place for women to speak, and yet they are the first to speak.” She also discussed the rise of Maori women in academia, who are now outnumbering men. On the flipside, employment rates among Maori men are still much higher than their female counterparts. Te Awekotoku brought light not only to such inequalities in our present, but also reminded us of the historical injustices that have fuelled them. New Zealand still has a long way to go in celebrating influential Maori women. The writings of Te Puea Herangi, for example, remain unpublished. The harsh reality of racism in New Zealand was brought to the fore when Te Awakotoku relayed the story of how she was expelled from Rotorua Girls’ High School. She was 12 years old, and the only Maori child in the class. “My math teacher called me a ‘black abomination’.” A unanimous gasp resounded in the theatre.

Following up her much quoted commentary on the biases of male reviewers, Eleanor Catton pointed to the lack of dialogue happening between herself, the media, and her readers. Among the biggest frustrations were interviewers who wanted her to re-iterate a point of view she had already stated, instead of using it as a jumping off point for further discussion of the issue. Some of Catton’s favourite interviewers had been male, while many of her female critics had also made comments based on her appearance, youth, and other characteristics potentially irrelevant to one’s reading of her novel. As such, problems with sexism and the treatment and reception of female writers were ones related to a larger hegemony, in which women were also complicit.

Sandi Toksvig displayed her status as a well-seasoned television personality, tapping into her obviously broad database of both intellectual knowledge and hilarious anecdotes. She named the gender divide as a part of our cultural conditioning, where men are encouraged to take centre stage. “If you go to a party there’s always a man who is willing to tell long and boring stories.” She described her experiences of sexism at the BBC, where “there are very few women in charge of anything.” Toksvig is a rare example of a mature woman in a position of power in British television. One younger co-host once told her she was “tainted by experience.” I could hear a loud, disapproving murmur coming from the audience, to which Toksvig replied, “I bloody am!”

Jessica Jackley’s thoughtful insights informed by her entrepreneurial pursuits were refreshingly grounded in lived experience, as opposed to theoretical musings. She pointed to the potential of crowd-funding platforms in democratizing the distribution of funding to entrepreneurs. Traditionally, angel investors, who were often privileged Caucasian men, tended to favour entrepreneurs that they found ‘relatable’: other privileged Caucasian men. Jackley even noted that they were often unaware of their own biases. By looking to the general public for funding, businesswomen now have access to more diverse avenues for getting their projects off the ground.

Soon enough, McGregor posed the issue of “body size,” a term that I found a little narrow, considering the breadth of commodification experienced by women not just in terms of size, but of skin colour, use of cosmetics, and numerous other aspects of their appearance that are constantly subject to scrutiny. The group mentioned the role of the Internet in deepening these concerns, giving examples where young girls were opting for plastic surgery because they disliked the way they appeared in photographs online.

While most of the issues covered were relevant and topical, the panel barely scratched the surface of the problems facing today’s female population. Little was said about queer women’s rights, for example. Perhaps the topics could have been explored in more depth had the format been a more open and flowing conversation between the panelists, where questions would mainly be posed to the entire group. As McGregor took to asking individual questions to the speakers, it was difficult for ideas to develop beyond initial commentary. Nevertheless, it was heartening to watch an avid discussion on gender equality from the diverse viewpoints of these four admirable women. While speaking up isn’t always easy, as Ngahuia Te Awakotoku put it, “it is a challenge that most of us enjoy.”

*   *   *

I should note that, for me, the festival really started at the University of Auckland. The University had invited Jacques Roubaud (poet, novelist, and member of the Oulipo movement) to hold a two-hour-long workshop with postgraduate students of English and Creative Writing. The atmosphere was intimate; there were no more than twenty of us in the room. The workshop was an open forum for questions and discussion. Topics covered included the ten Japanese styles of writing, Roubaud’s ‘four states of being’ in a poem (the page in the mind, the page in the book, the oral and the aural), the difference between composing, speaking and writing, the destruction of memories through text, and, of course, Gertrude Stein.

The thing that set this session apart most significantly from those held at the Aotea Centre was not its small scale, nor its longer time frame. It was the presence of young attendees. Despite the incredible line-up of speakers and cheap student rates, the audience at the official festival was comprised overwhelmingly of an older generation. I found the festival to be an inspirational experience and one that I think would prove extremely enriching for other young readers. There is a huge potential for the festival to reach students in particular, especially considering the University of Auckland is a major sponsor. The Auckland Writers Festival offers a brilliant array of inclusive, diverse, and thought-provoking events. Thus, the question that remains is not one of content or quality, but of how a wider audience might be reached.

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

Main Image: Cover artwork from A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.