Book Review: The Seventh Cross, by Anna Seghers

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_seventh_crossFirst published in the US in 1942, this novel is the first unabridged English translation of the original, written by German born Jewish woman Anna Seghers. Of four copies Seghers made, only one made it to publication in the US, and even then it was posted from France, the others destroyed or disappeared. In 1944, a film starring Spencer Tracy based on this book was one of the few movies of the era to depict a European concentration camp.

As we continue to be deluged with both fiction and non-fiction, movies, TV series about the war, the Holocaust, the horrific and terrible cost, pain and loss of everything during WW2, this novel remains as relevant and important as it was 70 plus years ago.

George Heisler is a prisoner in a concentration camp near a town in Germany. Like the author, George is a communist, hence his imprisonment. Along with six others, one day he escapes. This is the story of that escape, how the others are caught, how George evades capture, how he learns who to trust and who not to trust, and how living on your wits is almost fatal work. The seven crosses are a creation of the ruthless and sadistic camp commander. As each prisoner is caught he is dragged back to the camp and tied to the cross erected for the purpose. Day after day the seventh cross remains empty.

Over the course of a very desperate week George returns to the town he came from – Mainz, where he has both good and bad luck in getting help for his continuing evasion from the Gestapo and SS. For the risk remains that he may be betrayed by any one of the people he meets, or that his contacts are in turn betrayed, or make an error that puts them and all their families at risk. It is a perilous world. But as we know, us humans can be capable of great risk taking for another person, and great acts of kindness. That George makes any progress at all is a miracle, but the biggest miracle is what he discovers about himself.

This novel is exquisitely written in its detail of daily life for the average German over this time. There is much putting the head in the sand amongst the citizens, the constant worry that ears are listening and possibly misinterpreting conversations, asides, who one is seen with. The SA, SS, Gestapo and Hitler Youth are everywhere, there is endless fear that one may put a foot wrong. Right up till the very last page, George’s plight could all go wrong.

This is neither a hard read nor an easy read. It is very detailed in the minutiae of daily life and there are a lot of characters, most of whom are peripheral to the actual plot. A character list at the beginning doesn’t do enough to introduce us to all the characters. However, this is a minor issue, as the story of George is really what carries the whole thing along. It would be great to see a remake of the 1944 movie.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Seventh Cross
by Anna Seghers
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9780349010670

 

LitCrawl Extended: Kaveh Akbar with Kim Hill

LitCrawl Extended: Kaveh Akbar with Kim Hill 

Tara Black attended the first event in LitCrawl Extended 2018 last night.

‘I”m not interested in the politics of exoneration, I’m interested in when I was a dick.’ Kaveh Akbar.

Kaveh Akbar with Kim Hill 1

Notes reproduced with permission of Tara Black, copyright Tara Black

LitCrawl Extended: Kaveh Akbar and Kim Hill
Thursday, 8 November 2018, Meow Bar
LitCrawl Extended runs until Sunday, 11 November

 

Book Review: Towards Democratic Renewal – Ideas for Constitutional Change in New Zealand, Geoffrey Palmer & Andrew Butler

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_towards_democratic_renewal.jpgAt the time of reviewing this particular instalment on constitutional change from Professor Palmer, freedom of speech as a principle was being debated in New Zealand. This was caused primarily by some visiting Canadians, whose provocative views had resulted in them being declined a public venue in Auckland.

Freedom of speech and assembly are not really part of this book on constitutional change in New Zealand. Not just because we all take these basic freedoms for granted, and there is actually an existing Bill of Rights, but because the book is essentially about changing the institutions of political decision-making in New Zealand, especially with regard to how Parliament operates. This seems to be based on the somewhat surprising notion that Parliamentary sovereignty is too broad, and the authors refer to the apparent ‘untrammelled’ or ‘uncontrolled’ rule of Parliament.

This is in fact the second instalment of this academic exercise in constitutional change. The first book by the authors laid out their new constitution and now, having sought submissions from the public and the legal experts, they are offering their amendments to the original proposal. So most of the chapters reflect on the issues that have been raised in this ongoing process of constitutional reflection. Indeed there is even a chapter full of quotes from a variety of people who made public submissions. These include a long quote from someone using very offensive language that should never have been accepted, especially because the person was given anonymity. There are also a number of photos of the authors with groups of students in self-congratulatory poses.

That is not to say that there aren’t some very substantial proposals being put forward here. These include replacing the Governor-General with a new head of state, and therefore a form of republicanism. The removal of the term ‘the Crown’ from the New Zealand constitution, and thus from the legal system, could have profound implications for the Treaty of Waitangi and claims related to it. Then there are aspects of the political process that the authors don’t like relating to elections and the role of Parliament. Changes here include having a fixed four year term for Parliament, and giving the right to vote to 16-year-olds, if not making voting compulsory as well. Perhaps most significant would be the idea of giving the judiciary the power to review legislation, and, if deemed unconstitutional, to declare it invalid.

This power was apparently already there, but now needs to be broadened. The authors make the point that the international trade agreement (TTPA) would have allowed for corporations to challenge legislation that offended them. However, the authors do not address the loss of economic sovereignty at all, especially during the late 1980s when Palmer was a key legislator. But they do assess the role of certain legal cases that help make their case. One being that High Court review undertaken on behalf of the anti-TPPA campaigner, Professor Kelsey, which highlighted how the Official Information Act was not being complied with. The authors are all in favour of more transparency in government, and enhanced roles for Parliamentary officers (such as the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman). Just as long as Parliament itself is not allowed to pass its Acts under urgency anymore, and thus ruin certain landmark pieces of legislation.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Towards Democratic Renewal – Ideas for Constitutional Change in New Zealand
by Geoffrey Palmer & Andrew Butler
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561834

NZF Writers & Readers: Charlie Jane Anders – Beautiful Fantasy

Tara Black reviews Charlie Jane Anders – Beautiful Fantasy, and below that – Elizabeth Heritage also reviews it, with lots more words! They both did beautifully!

NWF18 Charlie Jane Anders

A small but devoted crowd turned out this morning in the festival tent to hear Christchurch spec fic writer AJ Fitzwater interview Charlie Jane Anders. Anders is a transgender speculative fiction writer and organiser from the US: ‘willing to be a bad influence for a good cause’. It was very pleasing to see two women on stage each with pink hair (I may be a little biased).

Negotiating stereotypes and tropes is a topic that often comes up in conversations about spec fic, and that’s where we started. Anders talked about how the stereotype is that science fiction is masculine, and fantasy is feminine. Often a fantasy character will say to a sci fi character, “this is something you can’t possibly understand” – ‘for a man to say that to a woman just bugs the hell out of me’. In Anders’ novel All the Birds in the Sky, Laurence, the male character who is a computer scientist, ‘cries early and often’. He’s less sexist than many techy guys and ‘that made me like him more – and I really wanted to like him.’

All the Birds in the Sky follows the two central characters from when they are children. Anders said she wanted to honour that teens are often more introspective and noodly than adults. ‘I was much more articulate at the age of 13 than I am now. I talked like a college professor because my parents were college professors. 13 was the age that nearly wiped me off the face of the earth.’

Anders was learning disabled as a child: ‘I couldn’t make words on paper’. She was helped by a teaching assistant with whom she is still friends. https://www.buzzfeed.com/charliejane/how-being-a-special-ed-student-turned-me-into-a-lifelong-wri?utm_term=.wsgWWE3rRB#.kjrJJlDyBZ She said if she writes disabled characters she will always take care to do so mindfully.

Anders and Fitzwater had a great rapport on stage, which always makes a difference: at one point Anders commented ‘these are the best questions ever!’ One of her questions was in relation to the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin – what do we owe Le Guin to do now?

Anders said her next novel that comes out in January 2019 is Le Guin fan-fiction, and she’s sad she’ll never get to show it to her. What we owe Le Guin to do now is to approach gender in books mindfully, and to think about the ways in which societies are not just mechanistic. Cultures are made up of more than just what’s on the surface: historical accidents, folklore, deep history.

Fitzwater asked about Anders’ short story “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue”, a terrifying dystopian tale of forced de-transition. Anders said: ‘I tweeted out a trigger warning for that story, which I don’t usually do. The story came out of just sheer terror. I wrote it around the time of the [US presidential] inauguration, and I was freaking out. You could already see the wave coming.’ It was published in the Boston Review. Anders said she wanted to get that story into a fancy literary magazine because she wanted nice, well-meaning cis-gender people to face the terror of violent transphobia and have a moment of sitting with that.

‘I wanted to grab cis people by the lapels and make them listen to my fear.’ Trans people are not ‘some monstrous creature from your id coming into your bathroom scaring your kids’. She has had feedback from readers that it has been opening some people’s minds.

Discussion turned to the theme of climate change. Anders said: ‘If you’re writing about the future and you’re not including climate change then you’re shirking your duty.’ She said you have to face up to the scale of the problem without getting defeatist.

‘Environmentalism can get a bit puritanical, like humans are just bad.’ But that isn’t helpful: you need to focus on solutions. ‘How the hell are we going to get rid of cars and bitcoin?’ She recommended that spec fic writers talk to scientists to help get it right.

The City in the Middle of the Night, the sequel to All the Birds in the Sky, comes out in January 2019.

Picture by Tara Black, words by Elizabeth Heritage

Book Review: Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, by Siobhan Curham

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_don't_stop_thinking_about_tomorrowStevie and Hafiz are two fourteen-year-olds from very different backgrounds. Stevie is a talented guitarist who is passionate about music – but she has a difficult home life, living with the challenges of her mother’s unemployment and crippling depression after the recent death of Stevie’s father. Hafiz is a gifted footballer, new to England after a gruelling journey on his own from his war-torn home in Syria, desperately missing his parents. The one thing Steve and Hafiz have in common is that both of them are struggling to fit in at school – until they find each other.

This is a fabulous book about diversity, mental health, the plight of refugees, and overcoming prejudice. But mostly it is a story about friendship. The book unfolds in chapters alternating between Stevie and Hafiz’s perspectives. Slowly we learn more about their backstories and the events that have led them to the moment where a well-meaning teacher instructs the new boy to sit next to the lonely girl. This is a very contemporary tale, with its empathetic and tactful discussion of mental health issues and the refugee experience. Stevie and Hafiz’s voices are unique and genuine and the author carefully avoids slipping into a schmaltzy treatment of some very tough topics.

My daughter and I were both big fans of Curham’s earlier books, The Moonlight Dreamers and its sequel Tell It To The Moon, so I was very keen to read this new novel. To my surprise, I think I like this new book even better than the other two; no mean feat. Both of the characters are endearing and extremely likeable. And how can you not love a book that includes a Spotify playlist? This is a thought-provoking and extremely enjoyable read for anyone twelve and over.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow
by Siobhan Curham
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406387803

WORD Christchurch: FAFSWAG Vogue

WORD Christchurch: FAFSWAG Vogue

Before you read this – or in fact instead of reading this – go and experience the FAFSWAG Vogue interactive dance video: https://fafswagvogue.com/  Turn the volume up and soak it in.

FAFSWAG is a queer Pasifika arts collective based in South Auckland whose name derives from fa’afafine and swagger. ‘We celebrate queer brown bodies, contemporary Pacific arts and cultural restoration.; They also perform phenomenal Voguing, a highly theatrical dance style special to the queer and drag communities and rooted in the fight against racism and homophobia. I attended the Vogue workshop run by Manu Vaeatangitau and Pati Solomona Tyrell of FAFSWAG, and Manu explained that Voguing originated amongst queer black prison inmates in the US, then expanded out to Harlem, and thence to the rest of the world.

The workshop was held at the Aranui Wainoni Community Centre. I was a bit nervous showing up by myself but was quickly made very welcome. The festival blurb said the workshop was for beginners, and I told Tusiata Avia – who had made the event happen as part of her guest programmer role for WORD 2018 – that I hoped it was okay that I had turned up. Yes Elizabeth, she said gravely, you are allowed to be here.

Being allowed to be present, to take up space, and to be who you are in the body that you have had been a major theme of the previous night’s event, Comfortable In Your Skin, also programmed by Tusiata and also featuring Manu and Pati. Conversation had been about being queer, being brown, and being bullied for it. Sonya Renee Taylor had talked about radical self love: not just self-confidence, which is inward-looking and fleeting, but aroha, which is connective and spills outwards. Manu and Pati referenced it specifically in the workshop and it felt like we were working our way towards it together.

There were 20 or so of us attending; a mix of ages, body sizes and shapes, ethnicities and gender expressions. Manu and Pati gave us an introduction to the elements of Vogue Femme: hands, catwalk, duckwalk, floor work, and spins & dips. Hands and catwalking were my favourite – duckwalking is extremely hard on the thighs and dips are a right bugger on the knees. But there was a wonderful energy in the room – we were all giving it our best shot and there was heaps of laughter and applause for everyone.

That room in the Aranui Wainoni Community Centre felt like a safe space where all kinds of bodies were welcome. The previous Centre was destroyed in the earthquakes and the current building is new. I got talking to a local woman who told me that, in the rebuilding of schools in Ōtautahi, the original shapes and contours of the land were being rediscovered. What was here before is like a thin mask, she said. And it’s cracking and falling away – the real Christchurch is emerging. It reminded me of what Pati had said at Comfortable In Your Skin: these days at their brother’s all-boys South Auckland high school being queer is no big deal, and on mufti days kids come to school in drag. Our real faces are coming through.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

 

WORD Christchurch 2018: Adventurous Keynote – Robyn Davidson

Just over forty years ago, at the age of 24, Robyn Davidson set off to Alice Springs with $6 in her pocket and the intention to go into the desert. She’d ‘never done anything which required manual dexterity, patience or an understanding of design’. Three years later, she walked 3000km across the Australian desert with four camels and a dog.

This journey, even more extraordinary at the time for having a woman at the centre of it determining her own path, is the subject of her best-selling memoir Tracks, and of the keynote address for WORD’s adventure themed festival. She tells the sold-out theatre that if she could do this – young and starting with no skills – that anyone, with tenacity and preparation, can take on adventure. Succinctly: ‘You are as powerful as you allow yourself to be’.

robyn davidson

Photo provided by WORD, courtesy M Williams 

Robyn takes us from her need to do something ‘big and private and very personal’ to the relief of the desert and, eventually, the ocean. We start in the mid-seventies – and the context of the times is important to this journey and its continuing appeal, not only in terms of its spirit, but in its distance from us now in our social media saturated lives (she quips that someday soon it will be illegal to get lost). For Robyn and her generation this was a time of challenging the status quo and a wide-spread desire for freedom –and ‘being free involves some kind of risk’.

Arriving in Alice Springs, Robyn set her sights on wild camels as the means for crossing the desert. 10-15,000 of them were introduced from Pakistan to help with the building of desert infrastructure. (As an aside, which brought a collective gasp from the audience, there are now 1 million feral camels running around.)

She experienced countless setbacks in the three years at Alice Springs, while acquiring the skills necessary for the environment she was about to enter. Robyn made a deal with an Austrian running camel trips: she would learn the ropes and work for free, and at the end of the year she could select two camels of her choice. He reneged on the deal.

Once she had assembled and trained four camels, the problem then was that she had no money for essential supplies. Enter Rick Smolan, the photographer, who suggested applying to National Geographic for funds. The cost, according to Robyn, was her soul; she exchanged complete solitude for the intrusions inherent in the documentation of the journey.

His images are so powerfully associated with her journey that even Robyn feels they have invaded her memory. At the time, the presence of Rick’s camera invoked disquiet – she felt that she was constantly aware of herself. And through his lens, the public warmed to her; unwanted fame was to follow.

The journey itself, in all its vicissitudes, took nine months. There was the spirit sapping, exemplified by the arrival at a well marked on her map, only to find it dry (the next well was ten days walk away). There was the lift in spirits – three Aboriginal men turned up at her camp and one of them ended up accompanying her for the next month. Eddie lived as his ancestors had for the last 50,000 years, and with him Robyn learnt how to be in the desert. Then there was the complete release of a month by herself. She believes her consciousness permanently changed – she was integrated with the desert, no longer a separate entity, but part of a vast net and so at home in the world.

As Robyn tells us during questions from the audience, ‘this trip cannot be recapitulated’ – it belongs to another time and would be impossible to do now. But carving out time for deep contemplation remains essential and more urgent than ever. And adventure is available to us all. As she asked at the beginning of the session, ‘Why do we stay in our paddocks and behave?’

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Write-up of Adventurous Keynote: Robyn Davidson on Wednesday, 29 August from 7.30pm 

Tracks
by Robyn Davidson
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408896204