Auckland Writer’s Festival, Saturday 17 May

What an absolutely jam-packed and wonderful day this has been. Already, this morning seems an age ago. And there’s still a whole day to go!

We started with veteran homes_amnovelist A.M. Homes, who, I was intrigued to discover, is known as A.M. rather than a more standard first name. She was a pleasure to listen to: intelligent, candid, wry, unafraid. She was also very, very funny: “I’m up for adoption now too if anyone’s interested…I come with a child, pets and a very big life”. She spoke about her writing life and its constantly shifting mix of truth and fiction, darkness and humour: “everything is and isn’t a joke”.

One of the things I am particularly enjoying about this festival is the mix of the literary with the scientific. Homes − in common with the scientists I have heard speak − talked about how “the future for all of us is going to be not what you know but what you can imagine.” I was also struck by a comparison with yesterday’s session on the West’s characterisation of the East: Reza Aslan said that we always use the ‘other’ to define ourselves, it’s what we’re afraid of. Homes said she’s more interested in the ‘other’ than in herself, it’s what draws her to fiction and keeps her writing.

Dikotter, FrankNext up was historian Frank Dikotter on The Tragedy of Liberation, the fate of China under communism in the 1940s and 50s. In contrast to the previous sessions I’d attended, in which people sat on the stage in conversation, this one was a lecture delivered by Dikotter pacing up and down the stage, as though to express the thrust of his thoughts through motion.

Dikotter, who is based in Hong Kong, has been granted access to the Chinese archives, and what he has uncovered about the fate of the Chinese people under Mao is horrifying. The statistics of deaths and torture, of children as well as adults, are all recorded there, largely forgotten, and Dikotter has taken it upon himself to publish them to the world in a series of very successful books.

Although Dikotter’s delivery was measured, his argument carefully structured and his every assertion meticulously backed up by fact to the best academic standard, what really came across was his anger. I wasn’t the only one to notice: in audience question time, someone got up and complained that he was partisan and that this was not the way to have a constructive dialogue about the past. I was reminded of a book I read recently, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. (Cixi was the power behind the Chinese throne in the second half of the nineteenth century. I have reviewed the book here). This also is written by a passionate scholar determined to redress a perceived imbalance in history. I left the session interested to read Dikotter’s books and examine his bias for myself.

Al-Khalili, Jim (c) Furnace LtdThe next session was a definite high point for me: Jim Al-Khalili taking on Science and the Big Questions. I had seen him yesterday in A Question of Civilisations and had been struck by his obvious passion for science and the exploration of important ideas. His conversation with Shaun Hendy was pleasingly ambitious in its range: how the universe began and will end; the nature of time and space; the way mathematical laws could extend not just throughout our own universe, but through every conceivable variation of a universe in an almost infinite multiverse. Quite a lot to cover in an hour on the Aotea Centre stage at the Auckland Writers Festival.

paradox I enjoyed the session immensely, and it went really fast – and I now know that, while my subjective experience of time is largely irrelevant to the universe, time is not in fact the absolute constant that clocks would lead us to expect. Khalili managed the trick of appearing authoritative without being dogmatic or unapproachable; teaching without patronising; and inspiring creative thought and the desire to learn in his audience. The proof is in the purchase: I went straight out to buy his book and get him to sign it for me.

The really big event for today, though, was definitely An Evening with Sandi Toksvig. If you’ve never heard of her, I urge you to immediately download the free podcasts of The News Quiz from BBC Radio 4, plus as many of her episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and QI as you can get your hands on (actually, just watch the whole of QI, it’s reliably wonderful).

Toksvig initially came onstage by herself, Toksvig_Sandijust to tell us jokes (“I love that, in the English language, we can have the man who fell into the upholstery machine but is now fully recovered”) and generally chat to us. She was irresistibly funny, charming, and wise; and, while being obviously one of the smartest people in the room, made us believe there was nothing she’d rather be doing than talking to us. I was sorry when Sean Plunket came onstage to interview her – I felt he added nothing, and confined her to boring interview questions when I would much rather have heard her natter to us about whatever took her fancy. (I would also have loved to hear her speak more about her books). But it didn’t really matter: Toksvig’s ebullient charm filled the packed and enthusiastically applauding theatre.

Once again I have ended the day with a brain absolutely buzzing with a delicious mix of words, ideas, and exciting new discoveries of authors and thinkers. Bring it on!

Events reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage on behalf of Booksellers NZ

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