My first event today, A Question of Civilisations, was a panel discussion between Iraq-born scientist Jim Al Khalili (left), Egyptian writer and campaigner Yasmine El Rashidi and Iranian-born scholar of religions Reza Aslan, chaired by Radio New Zealand’s Susie Ferguson. The discussion was wide-ranging, from the West’s perception of the East to the ‘youth bulge’ in the populations of Middle Eastern countries; and from the history of Arabic achievement in the sciences to the way media narrative shapes our views of other cultures. I found it utterly fascinating and was very sorry when the session ended.
Aslan characterised the cultural shift taking place amongst Middle Eastern young people as the casting off of ascribed identities, the rejection of both colonialism and counter-colonialism and the creation instead of an identity that does not rely on foreign definitions. Rashidi, who had spoken so intimately at the gala night the evening before, talked about how Egyptian women are choosing to wear the veil increasingly as a sign of cultural identity rather than religious affiliation, and how the sense of inferiority that she remembers feeling compared to Westerners when she was a child is gradually draining away. I was particularly struck by the way Khalili (who is currently the president of the British Humanist Association) spoke of the opening up of the world (in terms of increased connectivity through technology) as hopefully leading to a “moral homogeneity”; a global civilisation in which we can all agree what is right and what is wrong. What an extraordinary dream.
Next up was Scottish author Irvine Welsh (left) in conversation with Noelle McCarthy. In common with the previous session, it was chaired by a Radio New Zealand presenter, giving me that strange sensation you only get when a familiar voice turns out to have a (completely unfamiliar) body. Also in common were themes of media and narrative, and the ways in which news media ascribes story arcs and three-act structures to real life, which is of course messy, fragmented and illogical.
Welsh, who I’d also seen at the gala night the previous evening, slipped very smoothly into interview mode: since the success of Trainspotting a decade ago, he has obviously become a professional novelist and a regular on the festival circuit. His accent – unlike that of many of his famous characters – was easy to understand, and he and McCarthy had an excellent rapport. He came out with some great quotes: “As a Scot, it’s my birthright to look silly without any clothes on”; “I love the way we’re constantly undermined by our physical selves”; “learning to de-role might have saved my first marriage”; “sometimes characters gatecrash their way into a novel”.
And lucky me: I got to spend An Evening with Alexander McCall Smith! (also with an unnervingly embodied familiar RNZ voice, Jim Mora.) From the moment he appeared, Smith (left) had the packed-out theatre audience in the palm of his hand. He was friendly, charming, completely at ease; seemingly genuinely pleased to be with us and enjoying spinning us yarns. He was welcomed onto the stage by a bassoon player, in honour of Smith’s role as progenitor of the Really Terrible Orchestra http://thereallyterribleorchestra.com/wordpress/ in Edinburgh. (He joked that they only get conductors who are on community service.)
The good news, if you’re a fan of Smith’s books, is that there are a hell of a lot of them and they keep coming, at the astounding rate of four or five novels each year. He told us he writes a thousand words a day and that he’s due to finish off
the latest Ladies’ No 1 Detective Agency manuscript by the end of the week (huzzah for more Mma Ramotswe!). He calls this “serial novelism” and notes that it is invariably fatal. And, as if this didn’t keep him busy enough, he’s also a publisher, running a small press that publishes his “friends’ mothers’ books – most mothers do write books”. He invited the audience to send him their mothers’ manuscripts.
As with A Question of Civilisations earlier today, conversation turned to Western perceptions of other cultures, in this case African culture in the Botswana of the Ladies’ No 1 Detective Agency. Because Smith’s books are generally happy, he is often accused of wearing rose-tinted spectacles, of being patronising; of being fundamentally unable, as a white man, to write in the voice of a black woman. His response? Although there are undoubtedly bad things in the world, “I believe in denial, it’s really really good”. Unlike Welsh, Smith chooses to focus on kindness and forgiveness rather than cruelty and degradation, and it’s obviously working – the theatre was full not just of people who’d come to hear him talk, but of devoted fans.
Today has been a mixture of two of the things I love most about writers festivals: seeing writers whose works I have enjoyed, and hearing very different, separate discussions which seem to connect to each other in unexpected ways. Looking forward to tomorrow!
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage