Diana Wichtel, a long-time TV reviewer and journalist, has just won national awards for her first book, Driving to Treblinka, about her search for her father. From the publisher’s blurb: ‘Diana Wichtel was born in Vancouver. Her mother was a New Zealander, her father a Polish Jew who had jumped off a train to the Treblinka death camp and hidden from the Nazis until the end of the war. When Diana was 13 she moved to New Zealand with her mother, sister and brother. Her father was to follow. Diana never saw him again.’
We always used to get the Listener in my house growing up, and I always used to save up Wichtel’s column to read: she was my favourite. I had previously attended The Art of the Critic, where she was the panellist who spoke the least. In my review of that session I mentioned I was puzzled by the way she seemed to speak poorly of her own work. Chair Jeremy Hansen cleared this up straight off the bat: ‘You’ll probably see as we go along that Diana suffers from chronic modesty’.
Hansen was a good chair, asking interesting questions and drawing Wichtel out without pressuring her. She was a quiet presence on stage but she had a mana about her that drew us in. After thirty years of reading her funny, incisive columns, I had thought Wichtel must be a loudly hilarious person. As the session went on, I began to realise that all that time she was carrying a weight of absence, guilt, and unresolved grief.
Wichtel grew up in an atmosphere of not looking back. Her mother shut down conversations with instructions not to upset your father, but looking back, Wichtel wonders whether he might have liked to have spoken about his wartime experiences. ‘The real problem was that no one wanted to listen.’ After he didn’t turn up in New Zealand, a teenage Wichtel was told there was nothing they could do and no way to contact him. She now realises there probably was, and this rearrangement of the narrative of her life has been disruptive and painful.
Wichtel didn’t find out her father had died until several months after the fact. She was a young woman, flatting in Auckland with her sister. There was no funeral, none of the normal processes of bereavement. ‘His death fell into a silence.’ He was just gone, like his family during the war. After that, Wichtel says she drifted. The world felt absurd. It wasn’t until she had a child of her own that she came back to herself. ‘Having a child, you can’t really deny you exist after that because there’s the proof. Without any thought at all I named my son after my father.’ She says she doesn’t judge her mother for what she did: ‘I can’t judge either of them for anything because of the hard lives they had to live. The book has taught me there’s always another story.’
Wichtel’s book details the process of trying, as an adult and an orphan, to figure out what happened to her father. ‘Going back into the past was a very hypnotic and magical thing to do.’ The past is a haunted space, ‘very seductive and painful’; a parallel universe running alongside our own that we can dip into. ‘I want to stay in the stream of history because that’s where I have contact with my family.’ She has visited the remains of the death camp at Treblinka, and says it is ‘dispiriting in the extreme’ to see the current rise of anti-Semitism.
If we had expected that writing the book would bring about some kind of neat emotional resolution for Wichtel, we were wrong. ‘There’s no closure and I don’t want there to be. I’m happy to sit with the guilt – it’s the least I can do.’ It was an extraordinary note to end my 2018 Auckland Writers Festival experience on.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Driving to Treblinka won both the Best First Book of Non-fiction and the Best Book of Non-fiction prizes at the Ockham Book Awards last week. It is available at bookshops nationwide.
Freelance journalist Francis Wade is a Southeast Asian specialist, who has been lauded by the BBC’s Fergal Keane for his ‘moral courage and intellectual insight’ in relation to his first book, Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’. Who better to chair this session on the Myanmar Tragedy than another journalist with a background in foreign affairs? Hannah Brown begins with the question on many people’s minds – how could Aung San Suu Kyi, pro-democracy activist and Nobel Laureate, allow ethnic cleansing to happen on her watch now that she is finally in power?
Francis frames this issue as one of perception and projection. We knew her as an icon of democracy, who sacrificed fifteen years of her life to this struggle, but she had never been tested in the field as a leader. Additionally, many of her constituents have strong Buddhist nationalist tendencies. This collective bafflement felt in response to her lack of action is a ‘problem that is as much of our making as it is hers’.
This lack of action, we learn from Hannah, extends to Aung San Suu Kyi not even publicly using the word ‘Rohingya’. So why is the term so loaded? As Francis explains, contested identities are a major part of the furore – using this term would be akin to recognising their indigenous identity (they have a recorded presence in Western Myanmar since the ninth century). A pervasive and nefarious narrative has spread throughout Myanmar: the Rohingya have constructed an indigenous identity in order to pursue their agenda of Islamification and expansion. This myth has become a ‘staple of the public imagination’.
Hannah notes that everything came to a head around the time of the elections; Francis provides the context. As Myanmar had been under one form of occupation or another for a long time, there was a flurry of new political parties, many representing ethnic groups. There had been fault lines running along ethnic and religious lines for some time. Rapid flux, which the elections signified, ‘breeds anxiety that provides for violence along ethnic lines’. It also makes it easy to rally constituents by playing to their fears.
We learn that the violence that occurred in August 2017 was the result of six or seven years of propaganda. The military, a much-detested group among the citizenry, has had its reputation rehabilitated through ethnic cleansing, for dealing with the ‘threat’ of Islamification. Francis spoke to the abbot of a temple in north Yangon – who believed fervently that if Buddhists did not defend their faith now, it would be wiped out and lead to the fall of Myanmar.
The monk’s argument was that violence now prevents greater violence down the line. Francis explains that in Theravada Buddhism, the dominant strain of the faith in Myanmar, intention is extremely important when assessing the merits of the action – in this case the acts are minimised.
Francis’s book was inspired not only by wishing to tell as many people as possible about the atrocities occurring, but also to analyse a collective mental state and how this came about. Even former colleagues, people that Francis admired, who were part of the pro-democracy movement were spouting hateful views about the Rohingya. This was personally challenging. He also acknowledged his own role in the narrative – it is a minority of monks espousing these views, but they are given platforms and so much exposure, as they are reported on by international journalists such as himself.
As for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in refugee camps in Bangladesh, Francis believes that their return to Myanmar would be very dangerous for them all. There are still some 300,000 Rohingya left in Rakhine state, in an extremely precarious position.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’
The Aotea Centre had opened up all three levels of the ASB Theatre to accommodate the crowd who gathered to hear Toby Manhire interview neuroscientist, writer, and Harvard professor David Eagleman about brains.
Manhire started with the big question: yanny or laurel? Eagleman explained that we hear different things because that audio file is low quality, which allows your brain to bring its own interpretation to the sound. ‘The brain is locked in silence and darkness inside the skull’ yet we can have a full, rich visual experience with our eyes closed (for example, when we’re dreaming). ‘Your seeing of us now is happening inside your head.’ Already my own head was starting to whirl a bit, but we were only just getting started.
Eagleman has been working on sensory substitution, whereby you feed data into your brain via an unusual sense. For example, deaf people can hear by feeling the sound on their skin. Just when I was trying to figure that one out, we moved on again to the Mr Potato Head model of evolution. I didn’t fully understand it if I’m honest, but it’s got something to do with plugging devices into the brain. For example, could we ‘feel’ the economic movements of the world? Manhire asked whether there was a risk these devices could be hacked. Eagleman said not, but I’m not convinced. That whole thing sounded spooky.
Eagleman compared the brain to an inner cosmos: ‘the densest representation of who you are’. We tend to feel like we know who we are, but the deeper we go into neuroscience, the more uncertain we become. Our brains have a hundred billion neurons with a thousand trillion connections. ‘It’s the kind of thing that totally bankrupts our language.’ No kidding.
Manhire ran through a few brain FAQs. It’s not true that we only use 10% of our brains, actually we’re always using all of it. Consciousness – that tiny part that flickers to life when you wake up – is just a tiny speck of the brain. It’s true that brain cells are not replenished over our lifetime, but false that bigger-brained people are more intelligent.
There was an interesting discussion about how neuroscience can contribute to the criminal justice system. Eagleman told the story of Charles Whitman, who committed the first mass shooting in the US in 1966. Afterwards, he was found to have a brain tumour pressing on his amygdala. So does that mean it wasn’t his fault? ‘It strains our notions about justice. A lot of neuroscientists think we don’t have free will.’
Discussion moved on to the nature of memory. Long story short, it’s nowhere near as reliable as we think. ‘Memory is a myth-making machine. We’re constantly reinventing our past to keep it consistent with who we think we are.’ It doesn’t bode well for this review, that’s for sure. I started to worry that I was taking the wrong notes. I’m including lots of quotes here: what if I’ve misremembered them? Memory is physical change in structure of brain. ‘It’s a live electrical fabric that’s constantly reconfiguring itself.’ We feel we’re the same person we were in the past but in fact we’re completely different. Yikes!
So I’m now a different person from who I was when I became annoyed at a particularly daft audience question – one of those that has led Madeleine Chapman to call for an end to all festival audience questions ever. A person asked, essentially, how can we make wrong people be right? We can’t, nor should we, was Eagleman’s response – if memory serves.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World
by David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt
The Brain: The Story of You
by David Eagleman
There was standing room only to hear Associate Professor of Pacific Studies Damon Salesa deliver the 2018 Michael King Memorial Lecture, which he did with aplomb to an appreciative audience.
Salesa started with an acknowledgement of King’s achievements. He was important for explaining Māori to Pākehā, ‘and then his second career was essentially the reverse’. King was born into a deeply colonial world, but by the time he died Auckland was a Pacific city.
The theme of Salesa’s lecture was le ūa na fua mai manu’a – the rain came from Manu’a (metaphorically, you should have seen it coming). ‘Have our leaders seen the rain coming? Because it’s pouring.’ Salesa used a combination of statistics (‘numbers tell us certain kinds of truth’) and stories to illustrate the reality of 21st-century Auckland.
We are heading towards a population of old white people and young brown people: the fastest growing group of babies are Māori and Pasifika, and the caregivers for elderly Pākehā will be Pasifika, Māori, and Asian. Aucklanders tell themselves they are super diverse, but they live in very segregated ways. For example, two thirds of Pacific people don’t have a Pākehā person living in their neighbourhood. ‘I found a school with no Pacific students 16km away from a school with 99% Māori and Pacific students.’
Auckland is often called the world’s largest Polynesian city, but really, Salesa says, most Aucklanders live next door to the world’s largest Polynesian city. He compared the ethnic makeup of the members of the Auckland Blues with the members of the team’s board – ‘and the board of the Ministry of Social Development is even whiter’. But on the other hand ‘the NZ public knows something that our organisations have yet to learn’: there are 13 Polynesians in the NZ cabinet and four Pacific ministers (including of course Salesa’s wife, the Hon Jenny Latu Salesa, who was in the audience).
Salesa noted that Pacific people are often at the sharp end of statistics around poverty and incarceration, but outperform other demographics in wellbeing and happiness. ‘Life is tough but for Pacific people but life is also good’: Pacific people are least likely to be lonely, and most likely to be good neighbours to religious minorities and migrants. Salesa stressed Pacific people’s agency and creativity, giving examples such as Three Wise Cousins (the tenth most successful film of all time in NZ) and the building of the Lesieli Tonga hall in Māngere.
Salesa challenged us to think what it would be like if New Zealand truly became a Pacific nation by embracing Pacific values: compassion, respect, family, speaking the languages of others as well as your own. ‘Pacific people are the future: Pacific people know your future before you do.’ He noted that what we call innovation in NZ is often just adopting what’s happening in the US: ‘most NZers make lousy Americans’ but we are the best in the world at being Pākehā, Māori, and Pasifika. ‘I’m really inspired by this Pacific future.’
To round off his lecture, Salesa had invited some Pasifika students to perform a song they had written. They introduced themselves as The Black Friars and proudly sang: ‘Make a change, make a choice, raise your hands and raise your voice’. It was an inspiring and energising session, and a great tribute to the legacy of King.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Arriving in New Zealand in the 90s, after the roll back of the Soviet Union, it was the excessive freedom and space, the shock of the ocean, that made a lasting impression on Kapka Kassabova. The European experience is quite different, she explains to the audience and her admiring interlocutor Lloyd Jones. There, people internalise borders – these create a sense of home and delineate one’s space. But the border zone between Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria, the subject of her book Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, is particular; it is a liminal world and culture unto itself.
We start at the Red Riviera between Bulgaria and Turkey. We learn of ‘Sandals’, other Eastern Europeans who officially came to holiday in this region but had in fact planned their escape across the border. Many died in the attempt.
For as long as she can remember, Kapka has been obsessed with borders. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain, she wondered why people were allowed in, but they were not allowed out. The book was born out of her sense of urgency to tell the story of the border zone because a generation had already passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union – people were beginning to forget, and to get old.
She shares a couple of pictures with us. In the first, young men and a German shepherd patrol the barbed wire fence in the 80s; the second, taken at the same spot just three years ago, is almost an idyllic vision, with the area reclaimed by nature. This border zone has been a corridor of migration for generations, it is just that the flow of people has changed direction. Walls and fences are going up again, to keep the refugees out. ‘History repeats itself quite literally,’ Kapka notes.
Lloyd describes her work as part excavation and part revelation of worlds that no longer exist. Kapka wanted to express the labyrinthine quality of the border zone, and the dense layers involved. She describes the places she journeyed to as distinct realms. There are Muslim villages that were established during the Ottoman period scattered through the mountain ranges to the north of Greece. ‘They have no place in the official histories. They are ordinary people in an extraordinary place’.
But much of this fertile region is empty except for phantom villages, some with only ten inhabitants left. The border culture has decimated the region and affected the psyche of those exposed to it. Kapka contends that the harder a border is, the more endangered people are. A culture of paranoia and surveillance spreads; the threat becomes internalised. She reads an extract from the book that features two generations of border guards – a sense of dread permeates the scene. Her reading amplifies the qualities she displays as a speaker: quietly compelling, eloquent, possessed of reserve.
For the refugees flooding into the region today there is little movement. There is stasis, an unbearable condition, where they cannot go forward or back. Kapka quotes Lloyd’s writing to describe the situation: they ‘run out of road’.
This was a wonderful session, although Lloyd, in all his enthusiasm and open admiration for Kapka, sometimes added to her thoughts a bit too early. I would have loved to hear her finish all of her polished thoughts. I look forward to reading the book, which Lloyd describes as the one Kapka was meant to write.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
Published by Granta Books
Pip Adam, Dominic Hoey and Xue Yiwei talk of the inspiration of place, and the ways in which location gives vital realism and urgency to their stories, in conversation with Julie Hill.
Illustrated notes below, by Tara Black
by Dominic Hoey
Published by Steele Roberts
The New Animals
by Pip Adam
Published by VUP
by Xue Yiwei
Published by Linda Leith Publishing
Check out ALL of Tara Black’s coverage of the 2018 Auckland Writers Festival here.