The Diversity Debate: Victor Rodger, Marlon James & Stephanie Johnson at #AWF16

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This was my last session of the 2016 Auckland Writers Festival and it was a really lively note to end on. Paula Morris chaired a panel debate on diversity with Victor Rodger, Marlon James and Stephanie Johnson that addressed important issues with good humour, energy and intellectual rigour.

pp_victor_rodgerRodger (right) is a Kiwi-Samoan playwright and screenwriter who has worked on Shortland Street, where he was always the only Pacific Islander in the writing room. He says nothing will change until there is diversity at the top levels of management. “Three of my least favourite words are level, playing, and field.” He agrees that NZ literature is too white: Pacific Island writers embrace poetry and film, but not novels so much. Rodger also sees problems with white writers creating Māori and Pacific Island characters, and in the ways these works are reviewed: “I see a lot of free passes being given across all art forms”. He told the story of a play he wrote that was criticised by a Pākehā reviewer for not having enough swearing in it: they hadn’t realised the swearing was all in Samoan.

marlon_jamesJames is a Jamaican novelist living in the US who recently won the Man Booker Prize. On the subject of writing ‘the other’ (although he has problems with that term), he says he encourages his creative writing students to do the work and try it: “90% of you are going to fail but do it anyway”. He said wryly that he’d recently given up appearing on diversity panels and is sick of talking about identity. He doesn’t like the word ‘diversity’ because it has no emotional weight. It’s like ‘tolerance’. We need to move beyond just having multiculturalism to loving it: “diversity is a sign you’re doing something right … diversity is an outcome we mistake for a goal”.

Morris brought up the problem NZ writers have of trying to get their work read overseas, and this led to an interesting discussion of whether to make the setting of one’s work as generic as possible, in order to attract an international audience. Rodger said “the more specific we make our writing, the more universal it is”.

stephanie_johnsonJohnson (right) is a Pākehā writer and founding trustee of the Auckland Writers Festival. On the topic of reviewing, she said “the reviewing situation in New Zealand is diabolical and getting worse”, with reviewers being paid so little and space for book reviewing in mainstream media shrinking. I think there are signs of hope, though – I was reminded of Giovanni Tiso in the Column Inches session talking about how blogs are taking up the arts criticism slack (see the Booksellers NZ list of NZ book blogs). And in How To Review A Book, David Eggleton reminded us that Landfall and Landfall Review Online (which he edits) pay their writers, and invited everyone to send him their reviews.

The award for Best Audience Question has to go to a man who approached the mic at the end of the panel discussion and said, “I’m a gay disabled polyamorous white man – you may have to google that … why in 2016 is a panel on diversity so narrow in content?” Riotous applause. Morris acknowledged his excellent point, saying they could easily have had a diversity panel discussion every day of the festival focusing on different aspects.

After the session ended I felt a little lost. It was my fifth Auckland Writers Festival session in a row that day, and now all of a sudden it was over. I hung about a bit and chatted to some booksellers and festival staff. Sales of both tickets and books had been really strong (hooray!). Everyone looked tired and happy. People had met their heroes, stumbled across works of genius, heard extraordinary ideas spoken and sung to them. Questions has been asked and answered, persuasive conversations had changed the shape of people’s minds. We had stood in queues and smiled at each other.

So, thank you. Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to make the festival happen (and kia ora to Rachel who runs the AWF Twitter!). Thank you to all the writers and artists and speakers. Thank you to my fellow reviewers, in particular my editor Sarah Forster. Thank you to David Eggleton for his How To Review A Book session, which helped me think about my own reviewing in a more nuanced way. And a special thank you to David Larsen, who attended more AWF sessions than I thought it was possible for one human to handle. (“You don’t need a break! Come on, stay for Paul Muldoon!”) It was a pleasure to sit with him in the middle of the front row, and an honour to have all those conversations between sessions on what had just happened and what we thought about it. Steve Braunias called Larsen’s column on day one of AWF , Drunk on Information, the greatest writers festival blog he’d ever read. I think there might just be a bit of hope for professional arts criticism in Aotearoa after all.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
www.elizabethheritage.co.nz
Here on Twitter.

Check out the other reviews by Elizabeth, Claire Mabey, Matthias Metzler and Felicity Murray (and myself) of sessions during the 2016 Auckland Writers Festival.

The Unravelling: Emma Sky at #AWF16

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pp_emma_skyI had never heard of Emma Sky before I saw her name in the festival programme, and this was a mistake, because it turns out this self-deprecating English woman has been quietly influencing 21st-century world history. She was the Governorate Coordinator of Kirkuk, Iraq, for the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004, and served as the political advisor to U.S. General Ray Odierno from 2007 to 2010. She’s met Obama, argued with Joe Biden, and tried to keep the US military in Iraq honest.

I haven’t read her memoir The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, and in fact haven’t even touched it, because the hundreds of copies the booksellers had in stock sold out in a flash. Simon Wilson had read it carefully, though, and his interviewing was excellent.

cv_the_unravellingSky was strongly influenced by her time on a kibbutz as a young woman, and wanted to help make peace in the world. When the war in Iraq broke out – with which she strongly disagreed – she wanted to help. She answered a call for volunteers from the British government and went to Iraq “to apologise”.

“I’m Emma from England and I’m here to volunteer.” When she arrived in Iraq there was no one to meet her and she was shifted from pillar to post before ending up in Kirkuk. “I assumed the British government knew what they were doing but had just neglected to tell me.” Sky was equally wry about the violence all around her: “Insurgents tried to assassinate me in my first week … it usually takes longer for people to try to kill me.” She met the US army when she went to ask them for accommodation: “It’s all rather awkward and embarrassing but my house has been blown up”. She told another funny story about her employer back in Britain asking when she’d return: “I’m very sorry but I can’t come back to work in Manchester because I’m running a province [of Iraq]”. They told her to stop exaggerating.

As well as filling me with a desire to learn more about Iraq, Sky also made me miss England (I am an English Kiwi). I was reminded of Kate Fox’s Watching the English (one of the truest books I’ve ever read), in which she argues that the distinguishing characteristic of English humour is not is dryness but its omnipresence. There was humour underlying nearly everything Sky said, and when Wilson asked her to speak of the horror of living in a war zone, she became uncomfortable. She did try to articulate it, though, telling us that at one point Iraqis stopped eating fish because the flavour had changed, because the fish were feeding on all the corpses in the river.

Based on the success of her work in Iraq, US General Odierno invited Sky to be his political advisor. Her job was to follow him around and tell him when he was screwing up: “It was fantastic!” They were two very different people but obviously developed an enormous respect for one another. One senior US official Sky has far less respect for, however, is Joe Biden. She blames him for screwing up Iraq’s chance to create itself a robust democracy by focusing instead on his own political gains.

Wilson asked Sky about the sexism she had experienced. She seemed reluctant to talk about it too much; maybe – as Mallory Ortberg said at Writers Week in Wellington earlier this year – she’s sick of the ‘you’re a woman, that must be so hard’ kind of question. In any case, if bombs and gunfire couldn’t slow her down, mere sexism never stood a chance. She made a couple of intriguing allusions to her upbringing in a boys’ school, which she likened to a Lord of the Flies experience. Men, she said, “are much better when they’re adults than when they’re boys”. Feels like there might be another book right there.

The hour we had with Sky flew by, and we could easily have done with a whole other hour for audience questions. I would have liked to have heard her thoughts on voluntourism and the white saviour complex, for example. She says her students at Yale, where she now teaches and writes, tell her to get back out into the world. I’m sure that, for Sky, there are many more history-changing years ahead.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage 

Book: 
The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, by Emma Sky

Strangely Human: Michel Faber at #AWF16

For me, literary festivals are a massive intellectual high. I like to pour myself into them and demand stimulation. They fizz me up; I start bouncing around, talking very quickly, and gesticulating as energetically as I can (given that I am usually holding a bag, a laptop, a coffee and several books). I arrived at the Strangely Human session in a state of high excitement, keen to hear Paula Morris interview Michel Faber. And then something happened.

pp_michel_faberFaber is a very serious man. Born in the Netherlands, raised in Australia, and currently living in Scotland, he is a writer of novels (lately The Book of Strange New Things), novellas, short stories, poems and non-fiction. His previous novels The Crimson Petal and the White and Under the Skin have been made into a very successful TV series and film respectively. He takes his writing seriously, and accords it respect and consideration when he speaks of it. He is grieving the death of his wife Eva, and he takes pain seriously too. He said there will be some people in this room who’ve come along to this session to take an hour out of their nightmarish lives. We sort of tittered uneasily, but he was, of course, serious.

What Faber did to me was force me to slow down. I stopped bouncing. At first I was bewildered, then slightly resentful (how dare he not be seeking to entertain me), then, eventually, grateful.

He read us three poems from his upcoming collection Undying: ‘His Hands Were Shaking’, ‘You Were Ugly’, and ‘Come To Bed’, about the illness and death of Eva. He had her red boots with him on the stage; he’s taking them to parts of the world she’s never been to. Those boots, the absence they represented, were painful. Across from him, Morris was crying. (She wasn’t the only one.) Faber himself seemed calm, measured. He said, “When an author comes to a literary festival I think they should be really there”, and he was.

Faber wrote The Book of Strange New Things while Eva was dying: “I wanted it to be the saddest thing I’d ever written”. It’s about a Christian minister who’s sent to a new planet to bring the word of God to aliens, leaving his wife behind on an increasingly disastrous planet Earth. It will be, Faber says, his final novel: “It’s clearly such a valedictory book”. (He’s considering writing for children in the future.)

cv_The_book_of_strange_new_thingsThere was the inevitable discussion of genre. In my review last year, I described The Book of Strange New Things as a novel at the literary end of speculative fiction (spec fic being science fiction, fantasy and horror). One of my pet peeves is when authors who write these kinds of books try to distance themselves from the ‘taint’ of sci-fi. I thought for a while this is what Faber was doing too. He said the sci-fi “furniture” is there to provide entertainment and thrills and magic, but it’s not at the heart of the book. But then he also went on to say how much comics – especially the work of Jack Kirby – have influenced him. “I wanted to bring that sense of wonder to my own books … that sense of stumbling into an exotic world.” He still reads comics for pleasure, without having “that post-modern analytical relationship” with them. “There’s nothing worse than a really dull work of literary fiction.”

One of the threads running through this year’s Auckland Writers Festival has been artists questioning what change art can effect. Faber says he doesn’t think books make changes in the world per se, but that there’s value in feeling not alone, and “if that’s all that literature can achieve, maybe that’s enough”. I think that’s plenty.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Books: 
The Book of Strange New Things, published by Canongate, ISBN 9781782114086
Under the Skin, published by Canongate, ISBN 9781782112112
The Crimson Petal and the White, published by Canongate, ISBN 9781782114413

A Zest for Life: Petina Gappah at #AWF16

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‘Thanks for coming out, especially on a Sunday when you should really be in church. You’re all going to hell.’

pp_petina_zappahPetina Gappah exudes warmth, intelligence, fun and an almost childlike enthusiasm for learning and striving to achieve. I have to start at the finish by saying that my most anticipated book is now her forthcoming tale about Scottish explorer David Livingstone who died in Zambia, trying to discover the source of the Nile. Gappah is telling the story of the men and women who carried his body for 9 months (dried and smoked … “like biltong”) across Africa, towards the coast. I can’t wait for the book and I know I’m not alone – the entire (packed) room collectively hummed “mmmmmmm!”.

Bianca Zander was a formal chair – reading studiously from her notes. They were excellent questions but the conversation did feel a little stiff, particularly with such a joyous and funny guest to talk to. However, an aside.

cv_the_book_of_memoryGappah read from The Book of Memory, the story of an albino woman prisoner. The reading revealed that humour we’d seen in her from the outset, and the gift of rich dialogue and voice. For Gappah, her protagonist was always going to be albino because she set out to discuss race without talking about it – she is someone white without the privilege of being white, she is black without the identity of a black person. But over the years she took to write the novel, “all of that got lost, and in the end, Albinism was a way of showing that the family had a reason to think that there was a curse at play”.

Like many writers, Gappah suffered from anxiety of anticipation of the kind of criticism that says that a writer can only write from experience. “But I remembered that writing is an act of imagination and once I remembered that I was able to write this very interesting character”. The prison in which the character is stuck is an imagined space, but based on the largest high security prison in Zimbabwe that also contains within it the largest women’s prison. The place is, therefore, a very strange mix of offences (women are imprisoned for abortion, for example). Gappah had the opportunity to visit the prison but if she did, the government would have made her sign an agreement that would mean she could never write it. So she chose the version living in her imagination and formed from other pieces of information she gathered.

Being a high-flying trade lawyer in Geneva did come in handy, however, as the novel evolves as narrative of evidence to be used in a case of appeal. “I restrained what legal language I gave the character though – I didn’t want it to be a lawyerly book”. “And my secret passion is to be a historian anyway”, she laughs.

Petina Gappah is one of those extraordinarily talented people who you can’t envy – she is so generous and open that to be envious would feel like you were moving farther away from a person who you should really try to aspire to be more like. Writing time is early morning, before work, with the evening dedicated to revising the morning’s word count. Petina can survive on 5 – 6 hours sleep (she notes, not as good as Margaret Thatcher who got by on 4 hours – “I think that’s why she was so grumpy”) and she admires the Graeme Greene method of writing 500 words a day, meaning you can achieve a novel in three months – “and he meant exactly 500 words – he’d stop mid-sentence!”

cv_an_elegy_for_easterlyGappah discovered reading in 1980 (she was born in 1971) when her family moved to a place in Rhodesia where there were three libraries (her early schooling was extremely basic – “we had nothing”). She read all of the books in the children’s section, and thinks she read about 500 of Enid Blyton’s novels “but not Noddy, that was just a bridge too far”. Thomas Hardy is a particular influence and the kind of writer she wished she had spent more time aspiring to be before she published An Elegy for Easterly.

The kind of writer that Petina Gappah is not, is one that can write episodes of violence and physical destruction. “For me, I want to leave that to the readers imagination. I have respect for the writers, like Marlon James, who can go to that place, but I just can’t do it”. When she was young she read a book called Let’s go to play at Adam’s, which ‘I just can’t get out of my head and I wish I had never read it’. It is the story of a group of kids who kidnap the babysitter and do atrocious things to them. There are two things Petina will never read aloud and that is a death scene and a birth scene – both difficult to write, and almost impossible for her to revisit.

Alongside her avid reading was always avid writing. Since the age of 11, Gappah has been starting (not often finishing) stories. When she was first published, age 37, she was overcome with imposter syndrome, and with the (to her) unexpected  success of her book of short stories An Elegy for Easterly (“meant to be just a little thing that came out before The Book of Memory which was the one that people were really excited about”) came an anxiety that she was going to be truly found out when her novel finally came.”But I would rather have my neuroses than be one of those writers who thinks everything they do is the shit!” I really love this woman.

A consequence of her success is her labeling as a ‘Zimbabwean writer’ or the ‘voice of Zimbabwe’. A problematic categorising that we see in many writers of colour – the anthropologisation of their talents. Gappah in no way wants to be seen as a spokesperson for Zimbabwe or for Africa – of course that would be impossible. Perhaps even more frustrating is that the labeling defines the kinds of conversations about her work. She praised Zander for asking her questions about craft and background and research. Gappah is so obviously a talented writer – it feels ludicrous that the urge to pin her down to anthropological contexts is so often the urge that wins out.

We learn toward the end of the hour that Gappah has left her job: “I handed in my resignation soon after the staff party last December – the wine just wasn’t up to standard”. “I want to do what the white students do – I want to take a gap year”. Gappah put her brothers and sisters through university when her father was unable to, so she is now looking forward to time for herself.

In answer to an audience question – “What would you have wanted adults to have done for your 11-year-old self to encourage you as a writer”, she explained that nobody knew what being a writer meant when she was a child, for there were no black women writers from Zimbabwe until 1988. The best gift, she said, “is to encourage them to play with their writing. Encourage them to keep a journal. With my son we write a story about our holiday and then bury it in the garden to dig up the next year and remember. This is the gift we can give our children – the gift of play and record and remembering”.

Reviewed by Claire Mabey

Books: 
An Elegy for Easterly, published by Faber & Faber, ISBN 9780571246946
The Book of Memory, published by Faber & Faber, ISBN 9780571249626

Xu Zhiyuan: Culture Crisis at #AWF16

pp_xu_xichuanFifty years ago, China underwent a cultural revolution, and with the anniversary of this momentous moment in Chinese history so close, Jeremy Rose began the session by asking Xu Zhiyuan the question, “How will China celebrate this anniversary?” With certainty, Zhiyuan said that there will be no mention of this event. For the country, it is still taboo to mention this revolution, especially in the media and public spaces. While he was born in the year of the death of Mao Zedong, a post-revolution 1976, Zhiyuan says that there was still at that time a shadow that the citizens live under, and that this remains to this day.

He expanded on this by using a metaphor that he was told by a friend. “It’s like a snake’s shadow” coming from above, hanging on a chandelier, “even if it doesn’t move, it can eat you at any time.” It is this looming fear that creates this cultural crisis.

In admiration of well-known bookshops, such as Shakespeare & Company in Paris, Zhiyuan opened his own bookshop (One Way Street Library) in Beijing in an attempt to create a cultural icon for China. Here talks and discussions are held, but while initially these included everything from politics to current affairs, Zhiyuan says that in the last few years this has shifted more to talking about art and literature. The taboo and fear of the past generations still exists, it is an ever-present shadow. Rose asked, “How do you know what not to talk about?” Zhiyuan responded by saying, almost jokingly, “it’s like dating a lady”. When can you cross the line, when can and can’t you do and say certain things. Zhiyuan says that what might be okay today might not pass in a month, “it’s about feeling the mood”, and practicing walking on the border.

But this fear for Zhiyuan and newer generations moves into a slightly different space. With the globalisation of China as a major economic power, an element of consumerism has been introduced into mainstream culture. This has left people feeling fragmented, and fearful of losing everything. Zhiyuan says that everyone feels weak and has no expression. The materialism that is pushed in the home is creating a spiritually and culturally weak society.

cv_paper_tigerAnd this is where for Zhiyuan this culture crisis comes from. He says that it is important for the new generation to learn about history and culture, especially in this globalising age. He compares China’s global economic expansion to the British Empire’s expansion. The main difference for him lies in the fact that the British expansion included culture, writers, anthropologists, and so on, where with China this is not present, even in the digital age.

Rose mentioned the tone of Zhiyuan’s book, Paper Tiger, as being very pessimistic. But Zhiyuan says that it is precisely because he is optimistic “that I can say a lot about the dark side of China.” He remains hopeful of the future, even with all of the problems facing China.

Attended and reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Book: 
Paper Tiger: Inside The Real China, published by Head of Zeus, ISBN 9781781859797

Jeanette Winterson: Gap of Time at #AWF16

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jeanette_wintersonHouse lights are down and Cyndi Lauper’s Time after Time is playing. For a small moment I let myself wonder if Jeanette Winterson is going to do an interpretive dance. A guy with an iPad is two rows in front of me and if he is planning on filming the entire thing on that it’s really going to aggravate me. The crowd starts to froth away as the song runs right through. But as it comes to the end, there’s a hush … and Jeanette Winterson walks on stage. Uproar, applause. Rock star.

The voice of an actor begins, reciting Shakespeare. Jeanette is standing on stage, listening. ‘Nothing. Nothing is the key word in that piece – A Winter’s Tale is a post-Freudian play 300 years before Freud, because the motivation for the action is a damaged past and a superstitious mind. Why? What was Shakespeare trying to tell us?’ Finally, she speaks!

cv_the_gap_of_timeThe Gap of Time is Jeanette’s (I’m feeling over-familiar, I’ll just call her Jeanette) “cover” of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. It’s one of his late plays and, as Jeanette tells us, offers us forgiveness in a way unprecedented for Shakespeare, with three generations of women appearing on stage together at the end, alive.

‘In the atom smasher of the writer’s mind, autobiography and imagination collide’. The hour is full of quotes like this – clarity and enthusiasm trip off her tongue in a session format full of theatre, choreography and texture.

At the centre of A Winter’s Tale is an abandoned child – and for Jeanette this central figure of a castaway lingered in the back of her mind, ready for reworking into a story of her own abandonment and subsequent self-discovery. But, ‘a story has to work,’ so the fun of recontextualisation starts with making King Leontes a Banker (giving him ‘the power to devastate lives’), Bohemia becomes New Orleans, and the structure is inverted so that the discovery of the abandoned baby begins the story.

‘Remember that in Shakespeare’s time, London was a new city and half of the population were under 20’. The theatre was a place to pack the most into a precarious lifespan, it was for everyone and it was entertainment as much as it was an expression for the ‘dreaming part – the unsaid things that are inside’.

Jeanette then sets out to entertain us with a reading from the novel with sound effect, dramatic pause and a musical interlude. It’s a dark and stormy night, there’s guns, cars, grief and a baby is discovered. The two most striking images for me were a description of forgiveness ‘like a tiger –we know that it exists but it’s only rarely seen up close and wild’ and ‘Grief is living with someone who is no longer there’.

My only criticism of the session is that I wanted more discussion and analysis from Jeanette – the reading revealed her relationship with theatre and with the offering up of storytelling as an act between actor and audience. At the conclusion, the applause was fervent and generous. But question time offered up more of the real gold – note the answers are more or less what she said, but not exact quotes!

Question: How did you have the courage to re-write Shakespeare, and how did you do it?

Shakespeare was an entrepreneur who loved language. Finding the language to fit the meaning and the feeling is what it’s about – that’s the job and the fun of being a writer. ‘It’s a lie detector test’ – the act of finding the language challenges you – you’re being forced to tell the truth. Shakespeare’s big vocabulary is a clue – it’s an expansion of thought, unlike the ‘karate chop syntax of the daily news’ or the fatuous feeling of a soap opera, Shakespeare was constantly working to express the complexity of daily life. You need language to deal with the huge volcano inside yourself – you need it to be free. Shakespeare is like going back to place of invitation – it’s a gift and you should accept it.

The time is ticking, too fast. Next question: Does the book contain the revelation of where Perdita is from?

‘You mean you want a spoiler?!’ Did your mother never finish stories, are you in a panic? Don’t worry, I understand – my mother used to read me Jane Eyre and in her version, Jane Eyre ran off and got married and did missionary work. . . But yes, the book ties it all up and only veers of slightly at the end. ‘That’s why we have end pages in a book – the blank pages is where the story goes.’

Two minutes to go … next Question: The baby is talked of as a blessing but do you need to have regret to have forgiveness?

Babies are always a blessing. The next generation shapes the future and if only we can continue the species long enough we might one day get it right. The Tempest came after the The Winter’s Tale and finally Shakespeare produced a father deserving of his daughter – Prospero allows his daughter to go forward.

Argh. Time is so up. Final question: How do you feel about hearing the different voices reading your book in the audio version?

I love it – it comes to life as a collaboration and a community.  Shakespeare worked in collaborative world – with actors and audiences there was always room for revision and invention. That’s what the pleasure is – the voices and the power of the language. And even when we come across a production that isn’t very good and we need to leave at half time – the text is always there. There’s no need for regret or disappointment because there will always be another production coming along – the best thing to do is immerse yourself in it.  Literature is the thing that doesn’t fracture under intense pressure. When you’re broken you lose your words, your ability to express the feeling and the thinking. Going to the theatre, reading, is like taking ‘homeopathic dilutions’ of language that affect you later – it is inside you and that is all we have in the end.

Time is utterly up. ‘But I want to leave you with this. Language and Love.’

Standing ovation. Nobody wants to leave. ‘You’re very kind but you have to leave’, she says. OK Jeanette, anything you say, but come back soon please!

Reviewed by Claire Mabey

Books:
The Gap of Time, published by Hogarth, ISBN 9781781090305
Oranges are not the Only Fruit, published by Vintage, ISBN 9780099598183
Many Many More…

 

 

 

 

 

An Evening with Gloria Steinem at #AWF16

There are some moments at festivals that leave you shaken and inspired. That happened tonight.

The ASB theatre at the Aotea Centre was packed to the gunnels for an evening with Gloria Steinem, and it quickly became clear that the title was spot on: we were with her in a profound way.

1000509261001_2030838387001_Gloria-Steinem-A-Changed-LifeThe interviewer, the director of the Edinburgh Book Festival Nick Barley, could not have mattered less. It was annoying that they’d shipped in a British bloke to interview Steinem when we have people right here steeped in the history of NZ feminism who could have brought valuable insight to the stage, but never mind. If his questions were anodyne, he at least had the sense to mostly listen.

The interview part of the session was thus mostly a retread of Steinem’s greatest hits. Even though she’s been talking about this stuff for literally decades, she still shone with mana, humility and generosity.

Where the session really got going, though, was with the audience questions. For a start, we weren’t limited just to questions. Steinem invited us to comment, to give answers – “you all know things I don’t know” – even to make organisational announcements. The magic was that it felt genuine. We really all did feel that we were with her, talking in what used to be called a consciousness-raising group (“now we call them book clubs”).

One young woman asked where Steinem sees feminism in fifty years’ time, and she said “I want it to be wherever you want it to be”. Although she is rightly hailed as a leader of the feminist movement, Steinem came across as genuinely non-hierarchical. She gave us all the sense that it is within us to shape not only feminism but our society and politics at large. Steinem said some women bemoan the fact that their daughters don’t know she is, “but if your daughter knows who she herself is, that’s the whole point”.

Another young woman – and it was very heartening to see so many young people present tonight (she says at the grand old age of 35) – asked about nomenclature, which I sometimes think is the bane of feminism today. Steinem said “it isn’t about the word, it’s about the issues”. A 14-year-old girl asked how she can be a feminist in her high school when most of her peers don’t know what feminism is. Steinem told her to find an instance of injustice (try comparing the budgets for boys’ and girls’ sports teams, for example) and organise to challenge it: “change that one unfairness and that will be feminism”. The doing is the thing.

A couple of women asked how to stay motivated in the face of apparently unending sexism and prejudice. The answer is to stay connected: “We are communal animals and need each other … if you have support you can go forever and it is the greatest life in the world”.

Although of course the crowd mostly comprised her admirers, I was pleased to hear some people challenging Steinem on some topics – critical debate is important and too much sycophantic devotion can’t be good for anybody. Yesterday at The State of America a woman in the audience asked her to explain her comment about young feminists supporting Bernie Sanders because that’s where the boys are. She said she’d been cut off mid-sentence in that interview and was making a larger point, although unfortunately she was then cut off again before she could fully explain. She did comment wryly on the Twitter storm: “I’ve been maligned a lot in my life but never with such brevity”.

Tonight one woman got up and challenged Steinem’s stance on sex workers’ rights, and there was a short, lively argument about whether or not the Swedish model criminalises sex workers’ clients (the audience member said it did, Steinem said it didn’t). There was another interesting argument – between audience members, mostly, rather than with Steinem – about abortion in Aotearoa, how legal it is and how feasible. That was when I particularly wished the chair had been a New Zealander with the appropriate expertise, so they could have added some clarity.

Two women availed themselves of Steinem’s invitation to make organisational announcements: one spoke about a new website for young Kiwi women who are struggling, which will be launching next month, and another about how Thursdays in Black has been relaunched on campus to protest against sexual violence.

Before her well-deserved standing ovation, Steinem urged us to connect with each other, to talk to a couple of people we don’t know right now and share ideas. There was a real buzz in the Aotea Centre after the session, as we lined up in the signing queue (nearly out the door) and people just generally hung about to chat. I got talking to a few different women and connected in person to people I’d only seen on Twitter, it was great.

And then, after about twenty minutes in the signing queue as I got closer to Steinem, I started fighting back tears. All of a sudden it was my turn. I gave her my copy of her latest book My Life on the Road, told her my name. She signed it for me. I tried to put into words the profound effect feminism continues to have on my intellectual and emotional development, and the depth of my gratitude to the women who have come before me – are still around me – and who have fought for my right to be recognised and treated as a human being complete unto myself. I tried to tell Steinem that she is my forebear and that her work and legacy has helped to shape me and my sense of myself; my sense of who I can be and what I can do in the world; my sense of my own value and voice. I wanted to convey my visceral feeling that in some fundamental sense I come from her, that she is part of my whakapapa. I wasn’t very articulate; I think the actual words I spoke to her included the phrase “you are the grandmother of my brain”. She smiled at me and looked me in the eye and said “someday, someone will thank you in the same way”.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage