Feminist Days, Susie Orbach with Carole Beu at #AWF16

One of the things that particularly attracts me about this year’s Auckland Writers Festival programme is the chance to hear some major feminist thinkers. Feminist Days, Susie Orbach in conversation with Carole Beu, was a joy.

cv_fat_is_a_feminist_issueOrbach has just republished an updated edition of her classic text Fat is a Feminist Issue, which she rather sweetly refers to as Fifi. Originally published in the 1970s, “Fifi, unfortunately, has stayed in print”. Unfortunately because, far from getting better, the problem of body hatred and compulsive eating has become radically worse.

Beu did an excellent job of interviewing, keeping her questions direct and her remarks pertinent and brief. Orbach spoke of the ways in which fatness can be an – often unconscious – “way of negotiating horrors and attacks on our bodies from visual culture”. To be fat is to “take up a different kind of space, to challenge ideas, and express discomfort with way femininity is represented” – although she noted that increasingly boys and men are suffering from a disordered relationship with food as well.

pp_susie_orbachOrbachn (left), who works as a psychotherapist, is horrified by the ways in which she sees her patients accepting disgust of their own bodies as expected and unfixable: “We have normalised self-hatred”. She says, “The public health emergency we have is disturbed eating and disturbed relationships with our bodies … people are frightened of food … food becomes a complicated, magical site, both nourishing and scary.” The point of therapy, though, is “to find the words you never found before, to have someone who can absorb them and recognise their importance.”

Orbach is interested in the ways in which we acquire our senses of our own bodies: “The human body is made in human culture and relationships … Body-to-body relationships create the bodies we have.” She is concerned by the ways in which the distressed body can be transmitted from mother to child, and the rise of eating disorders and body image problems in very young children: “We carry distress in our embodiment”. Orbach spoke scathingly of the ways in which the diet and food industries are poisoning our relationships with our own bodies: “They’re increasing profits by selling us non-foods that are addictive rather than nourishing … it’s vulture capitalism.”

A huge crowd had come to see Orbach, and Beu left plenty of time for questions. Audience questions are always a bit of a crapshoot, but I have to say the standard of questions in this session was very high. Asked about what she hopes for girls growing up now, Orbach said,“To have a life of meaning and contribution, finding things that really interest you … this is very hard under [the] neoliberal ideology of success and money … one of the definitions of human beings is that we have dependency needs, but our culture is vested in us denying this … We need to talk about way of owning these needs and the struggle to be complicated.”

I was particularly struck by something Orbach said towards the end of the session: “We think there has to be a solution to everything, but a listening ear is the most powerful thing we have to give.”

Recently, Orbach has been working on a BBC Radio 4 programme called In Therapy, which is available for free download. I’m now looking forward to Gloria Steinem later tonight!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Susie Orbach will also appear during the Auckland Writer’s Festival with Jeanette Winterson on Saturday, 14 May, at 3.00pm, as well as tonight at the Pop-up festival with Jeanette Winterson, at 9.00pm.

Fat is a Feminist Issue, published by Arrow Books Ltd, ISBN 9781784753092
Bodies, published by Profile Books Ltd, ISBN 9781846680298


Book Review: The Writer’s Festival, by Stephanie Johnson

cv_the_writers_FestivalIn this, a loose follow-up to her previous novel, The Writing Class, Stephanie Johnson turns her attention to the highlight of many readers and writers calendars: The Writer’s Festival.

Despite the fact that she was one of the founders of the Auckland Writer’s Festival with Peter Wells in the late 90’s and has had years of insider knowledge both behind the scenes and out front as a guest, she steadfastly maintains that this is a work of fiction.

Such a pity, because one could have lots of fun speculating exactly who she could be alluding to with these tales of sordid bitching, backstabbing and petty jealousy. It’s all there: publicists traipsing after visiting authors on their best and worst behaviour; an economic crisis threatened by China should a dissident writer speak; secret identities exposed and the age old question of just how small an industry IS it in NZ? Just another year at the fictitious Oceania Writer’s Festival.

With new characters rubbing shoulders with those from The Writing Class, The Writer’s Festival is a fun read; one that made me go back and re-read The Writing Class because I wanted to, not because I needed to.

Like all good humour though, there is more than a kernel of truth to it and you can’t help but feel a little bit sad for the characters, all of them desperately clinging onto something, that in the grand scheme of things, might not be much at all. And from an author with so much experience in the industry, you can’t help but wonder if that’s what she’s really trying to say.

4 Stars

Reviewed by Sarah McMullan

The Writer’s Festival
by Stephanie Johnson
Penguin Random House
ISBN 9781775537984

Dunedin Writer’s and Reader’s Festival: An ancient guide to Modern Life, with Natalie Haynes

DWRF imageNatalie Haynes is funny. Like, she’s-a-comedian funny. Which is not really surprising, considering that was her job for 12 years or so.  Apparently she retired in 2009 to spend more time writing, which is, of course, excellent for the Dunedin Readers and Writers Festival. What Haynes brought to the festival was priceless: an icing on top of a proverbial cake; an extra limb to an already heavily-weighted tree. She not only managed to share – nay, revel in sharing – her written work, but did so in the format of a stand-up comedy show.  Brilliant.

From the first joke cracked about pacing being habitual and also imperative for preventing the horizontal lecture that would otherwise eventuate thanks to jetlag, to the improvised banter around stage-creak ( with apologies for staying away from one side of the audience), Haynes held the floor like a pro. Winning the audience over quickly and kindly with comparisons of our fair Dunedin city to LA (‘bring all your coats and jackets, they said!’ – the weather has been unseasonably generous this festival), Haynes proceeded to form her talk around topics chosen by the audience.

 pp_natalie_haynesWomen, politics, religion and philosophy were chosen from the eight or nine offered up, but even more impressively, Haynes went one step further by deciding to ‘mix it up’. She talked about ‘Women and Politics’, and ‘Religion and Philosophy’ as two distinct categories.  And she so knows her stuff.  From Medea and Eastenders to Lysistrata in Kenya, Haynes seamlessly articulated ways in which the classical world is still highly relevant to today’s society. Surely this woman drinks coffee; her mind and mouth were moving at a furious pace. Or maybe Haynes is just blessed with the so-called gift of the gab. Either way, her energy is infectious.

cv_the_amber_FuryHaynes finished her show by reading the first few pages from her recent novel The Amber Fury.  It would have been great to have another hour with her addressing this text, as what she shared was both evocative and provocative.  Many in the audience rushed for the queue to buy the book, and the line was long for signings after the show. It’s great to see the festival branching out like this (with theatre, too, in Dalloway), although I guess they always have, with events such as the Story Train and Poetry in the Pub already established during the inaugural festival. Haynes’ show felt like a hidden gem amongst gems, and I feel lucky to have been part of an intimate audience who basked in the sunny company of a consummate professional.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Natalie Haynes will appear at the Auckland Writer’s Festival in three events.

Book Review: Buy me the Sky: The remarkable truth of China’s one-child generations, by Xinran

cv_buy_me_the_skyAvailable now in bookstores nationwide. 

We are giving away a copy of this book, and tickets to Xinran’s solo event on Friday 15 May at Auckland Writer’s Festival here.

Xinran is a true inspiration. In her books, she not only explains China as she sees it to the English-speaking world, she also shows herself to be one of life’s truly good people. What flaws she has, she acknowledges, but her ability to listen to and translate people’s experiences in a story is truly special. She uses her fame and influence for good, both in China and in London, where she lives, working with The Mother’s Bridge of Love to help disadvantaged Chinese children.

The theme of this book is China’s one-child policy, which still exists, though in a weakened form, today. It is incredible to think that the vast majority of Chinese children born between 1978 and now are only children. While I am an only child, I haven’t met a lot of other “one-and-onlies” my age, as it wasn’t usual in NZ in the 1980’s to have only one child. The effect that this policy has had, in interaction with the booming Chinese economy, is not altogether positive, as we learn through the chapters of this book.

Each of these chapters deals with a different only child who Xinran has known well. Each child was met in a different way – some were children of friends of hers, others were randomly-met acquaintances (she met Golden Swallow for the first time in a hotel foyer in Christchurch.) Each of them had vastly different family circumstances, but they had one thing in common: they were all Chinese children who were their families’ “one-and-only” child.

Xinran says, in the context of Golden Swallow’s experience: “Chinese only-child families are preoccupied with just three things: making money, cosying up to government contacts for protection, and making outrageous comparisons between their children.” This may not be true across the board, but certainly it can be understood in the context of the booming economy of China, where those who are rich are busy spending their wealth, and those who aren’t can’t take a moment out of the day to enjoy it (or spend time with their only children), as they are so busy earning it. Xinran says that China is moving so quickly these days, she can’t keep up with the changes in culture through her 6-monthly visits home. She learns a lot from her students, as they do from her.

Buy me the Sky explores how having only one child can affect families in different ways, and throughout the book she asks a question about a cultural incident in China – the Yao Jiaxin incident – of each person she interviews, to see what their thoughts are on it. This incident saw a privileged and talented piano student kill a peasant woman with a fruit knife after running her over in his car accidentally; just in case she caused trouble for him. Each of the only children is their parent’s everything – this incident reflected Yao’s need to remain his parent’s everything; and it caused him to have his own life taken, as China still practises capital punishment for first-degree murder.

Every time I said I was an only child to a new friend the answer was always ‘Oh you lucky thing, you must be so spoiled.’ I wasn’t, possibly because my parents were from huge families, but why would one want to be? How exactly can this be said to be lucky? The stories in this book are mainly of spoiled children – spoiled in different ways. Spoiled by money, spoiled by attention, spoiled by love, spoiled by high expectations – the culture of China adds to this, and these children straddle between old familial ties and the modern world.

The final chapter in this book touches on the difference between children from cities, and those from the countryside. In China, the progress of culture marches on in cities, leaving vast areas of the countryside behind – in terms of technology and in terms of values and beliefs. For instance whilst Chinese living in the countryside have not been as detrimentally effected by the one-child policy, the rates of female infanticide are much higher. In 2009 there were 33.31 million more men than women in China, as a result of female infanticide.

Read this illuminating book to better understand the changing culture of Chinese people. Many recent Chinese immigrants to New Zealand will be part of the generations described by Xinran in Buy Me the Sky – the one-and-only chance to carry on the family lineage.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Buy Me the Sky
by Xinran
Published by Rider Books
ISBN 9781846044724

Xinran is appearing in Christchurch in WORD’s Autumn Season, and twice at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. I saw her several years ago in Christchurch, and I highly recommend going along to her session (and reading this book).

Gender Divides and the Michael King Memorial Lecture, Auckland Writer’s Festival Sunday 19 May

A lot of folk today looking pretty shattered − but still smiling. This year’s Auckland Writers Festival has been absolutely full steam ahead the whole time, packed full of fascinations and inspirations. Thank you and congratulations to the organisers for delivering extraordinary experiences.

My first session today was oneJackley_Jessica I’d been really looking forward to: Gender Divides, a
panel discussion on feminism between Sandi Toksvig, Eleanor Catton, Jessica Jackley (right), and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, chaired by Judy McGregor.
As with Science and the Big Questions yesterday, the topics were so broad as to make discussions in such a tight timeframe necessarily superficial. However, there was still a lot to be gleaned.

Catton spoke about the challenge, as a successful female artist, of having to be feminist as well as having to be heard. She said that women making good art is itself a feminist act. Toksvig commented that successful women in public life feel a responsibility to represent all womankind, not just themselves − a responsibility men never seem to feel to other men.

mark_zuckerbergI was particularly struck by Catton’s comments that she hates lists (eg of writers) that contain just one woman’s name. The presence of that one name does not legitimate the absence of all the other women. It was also very interesting to hear from Jackley, a social entrepreneur and micro-financer, about the different expectations of male and female entrepreneurs. Males are able to look scruffy (in a Zuckerbergian (left), been-up-coding-all-night kind of way), whereas females are expected to look immaculate at all times in order to be taken seriously.Author, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku

The session closed with McGregor asking the four panellists what advice they would give a 12-year-old girl, and I loved their answers. Te Awekotuku (right): never lose hope. Catton: you can do things that you’ve never seen done before. Jackley: you can write your own rules. Toksvig: look to the past and you will have the brightest future.

My final session for this year’s festival was, unfortunately, the weakest one. I went along to the Michael King Memorial Lecture expecting a high standard of considered, wide-ranging thought and communication, commensurate with King’s own impressive achievements. What we had was entrepreneur Ray Avery talking about his autobiography and his book about New Zealanders of note, which he urged us to buy.

One of the first things Avery (below) did was ask how many of us had heard of him, commenting that “being slightly famous is very complicated”. He spent nearly an hour telling us about his life, a classic rags-to-riches story. He also boasted about committing adultery, which I found alienating. However, he has undeniably had a largely positive impact on the world: as he told us repeatedly, the company he runs Avery_Ray(providing eye surgery in the developing world) has restored the sight of an impressively large number of people.

Avery’s main point seemed to be that the meaning of being a New Zealander is to be like him: entrepreneurial, resourceful and “with no respect for the status quo”. With this strong sense of identification between the traits he admires most in himself and our perceived national character, it is no wonder Aotearoa is his adopted country.

This weak point notwithstanding, this has been a superbly stimulating festival. I have discovered lots of new thinkers and authors whose ideas and works will provide food for thought in the months and years to come. Thank you to everyone who spoke – and I’ll see you all next year!

Events attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage


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