Book Review: Fale Aitu | Spirit House, by Tusiata Avia

Launched over the weekend at the Auckland Writers Festival, this book is available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_fale_aitu_spirit_houseFale Aitu | Spirit House is a dreamworld that not only portrays strong and assured voices, but also explores the whispers of quieter ghosts. With Tusiata Avia’s brilliant language, this dreamworld becomes a landscape that is both quietly eerie and beautiful.

The collection is split into three parts: ‘Fale’, ‘Fale Mafui’e’, and ‘Aitu’. ‘Fale’, meaning house in Samoan, explores the stories that fill the rooms of family homes. Poem This is a photo of my house, describes a household of ghosts and memories, some painful, whilst moving from room to room. The brilliance of the poem lies in the way Avia drip-feeds the tiniest details with each description, hinting at perhaps a tragedy, a deep and dark feeling of loss. Avia warns, ‘The carpet is dark grey and hurts your knees, it doesn’t show any blood… Watch out for the girl in the corner, she is always here.’ It is a place that is rife with emotions and memories that cannot quite be suppressed or forgotten.

What follows is ‘Fale Mafui’e’, a short segment on the Christchurch earthquake. Maifui’e: 2 February 2011 is a title and date that resonates with significance even before the poem has begun. It is an erratic poem that portrays the panicked yet surreal moment of disaster; at first, the poet’s view is filled with “black sea creatures” and the next she is “underwater” in a strange dream that she describes as eternal.

Finally, ‘Aitu’ – spirits, in Samoan, further focuses on the characters and people that flit in and out of life. Poem Today we are in a Hospital Ward, becomes an interesting piece in this context. The process of giving birth feels unsettling paired with the earlier descriptions of ghosts and memories; even the newly born will someday become just recollections. The final poem, Fale Aitu, returns to the concept of spirits that consistently appears throughout the collection. The imagery of these spirits “grazing the glass” doors is a chilling description in such an intangible landscape. Even though there is an attempt to run quickly from the house and escape these ghosts, these spirits are always waiting: “some blowing smoke; some with hooded eyes, pacing”.

Included after Avia’s notes and acknowledgements, however, is another poem. Titled Poetry Manifesto, Avia states how, for her, writing poetry is “a supernatural force” that doesn’t necessarily need the supplementary explanations of academic writing. She talks about spirits and how their voices and words feed into her poetry. In a declaration that made me smile, she simply ends the piece with “I can write poetry, but don’t ask me to talk about it”.

Tusiata Avia’s new collection Fale Aitu | Spirit House is utterly alluring. The supernatural quality of her imagery perfectly brings the concept of ghosts to the fore of her collection. Avia is an expert at her craft and finds layers and layers of memory in old homes, broken buildings, echoed words. Although these aitu are eerie shadows in the background at first, it becomes apparent that these spirits are not here to harm, they drift and “move over us like water”. Memories may flit through the background but they are memories for a reason: they come from what is now the past.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Fale Aitu | Spirit House
by Tusiata Avia
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560646

A Zest for Life: Petina Gappah at #AWF16


‘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

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

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

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

Spirit House, Foreign Soil: Maxine Beneba Clarke and Tusiata Avia at #AWF16

Tusiata Avia gives the best housekeeping spiel, setting the tone for one of the most gentle and respectful conversations between two powerful writers I’ve heard, she told us that if our phones went off we’d have to buy lunch for everyone else in the room.
 A spirit of community clung to this conversation. Which is weird because at one crucial point, Tusiata asked ‘where are all the brown faces in this room? Auckland is the biggest Polynesian city in the world… just saying’. Tusiata Avia and Maxine Beneba Clarke are both brilliant writers – the readings that they gently prodded each other to give throughout the session left us all softly gasping, such was their power. But just being a great poet, memoirist, essayist isn’t what defines them most of the time – it’s their brown skin. And this gets complicated.

Tusiata Avia says that something grates inside her everytime she is described as a Samoan poet or a poet of Polynesian decent, or any other iteration of that kind. And for Maxine, it’s the idea that this pigeon-holing needs to happen before there can be an engagement with her work that’s problematic. However, as this issue is rolled around over the hour, I think they strike what it is that truly defines their work in a way that could never define a writer who is missing the threads of heritage that follow these two writers around. And it’s something entirely magical – it’s voices.

Maxine Beneba Clarke has written in many voices – Jamaican, Sudanese, Australian, New Orleans, patois… and this is a result of writing the black diaspora. Tusiata read the poem ‘Vasanga’ to perfectly illustrate this point: The voice of a missionary and the voice of Samoan children attempting to ‘learn’ the precise ways of English pronunciation … funny, outrageous, important to hear.

Beneba Clarke says that she is comfortable in some voices more than others – she can call on the voices of her grandparents for some characters, but for those that are further from her own experiences, she creates distance. For example, the voice of a Sri Lankan asylum seeker in her volume of short stories is told in the third person and that character is accessed by the author through a secondary character who feels closer to her own knowledge and therefore allows the author a comfortable place to tell the story.

This discussion returned to the problem of “othering” – ‘it really pisses me off sometimes’, says Avia. Beneba Clarke experienced baffling criticism from those who couldn’t get past the location and culture of one of her stories about a white woman and a Ugandan man – ‘it was the story of an abusive relationship’, but all they could discuss was the setting ‘which is not the story’.

Both writers draw upon family, history and the discovery of heritage stories. Beneba Clarke described her research trip to the UK during which she visited the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. You really had to be there for the reading of Demerara Sugar – her poem describing the impact of that journey, forever redefining Penny Road for everyone in the room.

The two writers were so generous and understanding of one another – Beneba Clarke next pressed Avia to talk about the way she threads her heritage and her present together (we all must watch Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. Avia talked about the idea of channeling – of having an inherent knowing in her DNA that aided what she discovered about Samoa’s pre-Christian stories from here, and from there. Her reading of ‘Covenant’ was astonishing. The poem’s central image is that of brother and sister ‘grafted’ together by their pajama buttons, chest to chest. That poem will ‘follow me around’ just in the way that Beneba Clarke’s work has been following Avia.

The Hate Race is Beneba Clarke’s forthcoming memoir that addresses the broader issue of race relations in Australia – what it means to be a brown person in white Australia. The purpose, Avia said, ‘is to bring these things out of the dark and into where the light can touch them. Even when it’s painful and unattractive’.

Both writers have mirror poems that describe the difficulty of finding words to tell those stories: ‘I cannot write a poem about Gaza’ (Avia) and ‘What are you going to say?’ (Beneba Clark, on the Westgate Mall Siege in Nairobi). Please go and buy these books – read these poems out loud.

Question time saw a Scouse voice tell the poets that he’s proud to define himself as a Queer Poet and might not they feel proud to be defined, too, because they’ll be easier to find for those coming behind them who need role models? Both said yes – they’re proud of their heritage and it’s important to have a community of people who are also proud to identify with you. But the problem of being defined above all else remains: ‘You are pigeonholed in a white establishment. You’ll go to festivals and you’ll be with an indigenous poet and the topic will be writing the other. It’s good to be proud, but there are wider implications at work.’

Tusiata Avia pinned the issue down, for me, when she said ‘people who only have one voice inside them – who don’t have multiple voices inside their head, following them around – struggle to read other voices. They jar and then that other voice becomes ‘lesser’’. This discussion proved how very wrong that is – all of the voices in this room were rich, powerful, and needed to be heard.

Reviewed by Claire Mabey

Column Inches, then How to Review a Book at #AWF16

I’m suffering a little bit from review-ception (reviewing the reviewer who reviews reviewing…) so please bear with me as I try to stop analysing the fact that, in the act of typing, I’m creating digital content for free and thus participating in the democratisation of information and/or helping destroy the essential watchdog function that the media performs in civil society. And doing this, while also giving a knee-jerk reaction to book-related events that occurred earlier today and thus possibly not making best use of my critical judgement, while also both publishing on and absorbing information from Twitter, that scourge of reasoned debate, that echo chamber of the chattering elite, that reason-we-have-that-dreadful-Trump!

With all of these topics in the spotlight of my brain, it’s very difficult to actually write anything down. Somebody famous (maybe I should google it, being a digital native and all) said that all writing is political, and, having just reveled in the wonderful Spirit House, Foreign Soil event with Tusiata Avia and Maxine Beneba-Clarke, I’m particularly conscious that I’m a Pakeha critic participating in a literary festival that is attended overwhelmingly by white, middle-aged women. As Avia said, we’re in the biggest Polynesian city in the world, yet just look around the room.

Let me try to rein myself in a bit. As ex-NZ Herald chief Tim Murphy (@tmurphyNZ) asked, is opinion drowning out the news? Presumably what you want is the facts of today’s sessions: except, do you? David Fisher (senior reporter at the NZ Herald) says there’s a board in the Herald newsroom with live metrics from the Herald website. “There’s a massive upswing between 9am and 5pm with an average engagement of 30 seconds.” He attributes this to readers wanting a “brain-break” during the working day. They’re mostly following the more clickbait-y headlines – sorry, “the content readers appreciate” – for lots of coverage of The Bachelor etc. In the evening, though, that’s when the long-form pieces of journalism are published, because that’s when they’re read. The lesson, said Fisher, is that people want entertainment when they’re on their boss’s time and something more in-depth on their own. So I guess it partly depends what time of day you’re reading this, as to whether you want the bare facts of who said what at the festival, the salacious detail (at the book reviewing workshop, David Eggleton said the NZ Listener is a shadow of its former self! – you’ll never believe what happened next!), or an in-depth critical evaluation. Perhaps Tweet me and let me know?!

Column Inches was my first session today. The Limelight room was packed out – people standing at the back – to hear Murphy and Fisher discuss the current state of NZ journalism with ex-journo  Janet Wilson and political blogger Giovanni Tiso. Grateful thanks to the festival usher who, impressed by my yellow Booksellers NZ media pass, placed me at one of the tables in the front with the festival patrons. This must be how famous people feel!

It was an interesting session, not least because the mood of (most of) the panel seemed to be at odds with that of (most of) the crowd. The crowd seemed to be in a proper isn’t-it-dreadful, finger-wagging, hand-wringing state. The decline of newspapers! The rubbish on the internet! The death of proper journalism! The youths with their Facebooks and their smartphones, and so on. It reminded me of The State of America session yesterday, when we came not to explain Trump but to deride him.

Wilson was going for the populist vote, as it were, by pandering to this element of the audience. “Opinion is drowning out journalism because it’s cheap and easy to produce … what we’re getting now is opinionist fact … the merger [of Fairfax and NZME] is happening because neither organisation has tried hard enough … no one’s actually on Twitter but it still gets reported”. Hear, hear, grumbled the audience. Fisher tried to talk about the ways in which the Herald is using information from website use to inform the ways they publish the news. Wilson hates metrics (a popular comment.) I assume she meant that she understandably hates the idea of the news being driven only by what is popular instead of by what needs to be said, but she came across as being against analysing reader behaviour.

I would have liked to have heard much more from Tiso, Murphy and Fisher about their ideas for the way forward. The time for wishing people would buy newspapers is past. The time for creative solutions to protect the role of journalism in a democracy is very much here. The idea of a tax on broadband to fund investigative journalism was mooted, but the discussion moved swiftly back to Twitter-bashing. I took notes on my laptop, Twitter defiantly open in a browser window next door. I sent several Tweets about the session. That’ll show them.

Time for a quick coffee and a chat with fellow Booksellers NZ festival blogger Claire Mabey and then I was back in, for a book reviewing workshop run by Ockham award-winning poet David Eggleton. It was a funny old session, neither a lesson (despite the list of Latin words on the whiteboard) nor a lecture nor, really, a workshop. Instead it was a discussion of various aspects of book reviewing: its purposes, ethics, limitations and craft. I found it very interesting, but I gather from the increasingly exasperated questions from fellow attendees (“so, when you’re writing a book review, how do you actually start and what do you actually write?”) that not everyone’s expectations had been met.

Eggleton’s philosophy is that book reviews should strive towards honesty, generosity, and clarity. They should inform and entertain, sure, but the critic should think hard about what level of informing is appropriate, and entertaining the reader should not come at the expense of the book. This prompted an indignant rant from a man in the front row with a rather lovely southern US accent – there’s this woman in the New York Review of Books! And she’s really mean to some authors! And she even includes plot spoilers! It was a magnificent rant and I’m sorry I didn’t take more detailed notes. At one point he definitely used the word “shenanigans” in all seriousness. It’s a shame too that I missed the name of the reviewer because of course I now want to read all her reviews. The appeal of the really passionate hatchet job cannot be denied.

Near the end of the session, Eggleton (left) read us a review he had written sometime in the 90s. It was published in a newspaper (you know, before they died) and reviewed a book of NZ short stories. He read the entire piece aloud and then, well, then reviewed it – at which point the review-ception in my brain reached some kind of critical tipping point.

Eggleton was also very hot on editing one’s own reviews, especially with an eye to removing repetition, so I’ve obediently been reading over what I’ve just written and trying to make sure that the same words don’t appear too many times in a paragraph. I hope I have informed you to the appropriate level and entertained you without disrespecting our community. If you feel really strongly, I’m at @e_heritage on Twitter.

Events attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Life Lessons: Hanya Yanagihara in conversation at #AWF16


The oft misquoted ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb’ seems like a good lead into the thoughts that Hanya Yanagihara shared this year at the Auckland Writers Festival. With the publication of her … Continue reading

The Girl on the Train: Paula Hawkins at #AWF16

When I got home from today’s sessions, I looked at the movie trailer for the movie of this book which is due for release in October. Emily Blunt is perfectly cast as Rachel, the main character in the novel, a drunk whose life has spiraled down into an absolute mess. The highlight of her day is the daily commute on the train, fantasizing about the lives of the people who live in the houses the train passes twice a day, premixed gin and tonic in the bag at her feet. Until the day that as she passes, she sees something happen with a couple she has given a fantasy life to, setting her on a path that will actually give her a life back. Paula Hawkins and chair Nicky Pellegrino, were very careful in their discussions not to give too much away about the plot, as there were people in the audience who had not read the book.

Pellegrino’s approach to the session was to find out from Hawkins how she came to write this phenomenally successful novel. Originally a financial and business journalist, she became a novelist after she was commissioned to write romantic fiction – chick lit.  She wrote four novels under a pseudonym, with declining levels of success, until, broke in finances and spirit, she made a last ditch attempt with a shift to the murder mystery thriller genre. Fascinated by female thriller writers such as Agatha Christie, PD James and Patricia Highsmith since her teen years, she was intensely interested in the psychology of why people under immense pressure end up doing terrible things to others. Not so much the depiction of physical violence, but the psychology of it. She said people don’t really want to read about happiness; it is far more appealing to explore one’s dark side in the safe space of a novel, taking us out of the everyday predictability of such things as the train commute.

She wrote frantically for the first six months, secreting herself away from the rest of the world, desperately aware that she had to make a success of this novel, or she may have to give up being a writer and find a real job again. So she says the novel is written with intensity and she was under no illusions that it would be a hit, although aware that parts of it, including her characterisation of Rachel, were actually very good. So success, when it came, was unexpected.

With Rachel, Hawkins tapped into her interest in the power of memory, how unreliable memory can be, and how the same thing or event can be remembered differently by those who saw or were a part of it. For Rachel of course, this is exacerbated and aided by her drinking problems, which has distorted and destroyed everything in her life. Rachel seems to have polarized readers, Hawkins saying that many people don’t like her at all. This was not her intention – to make an unlikeable person – but rather wanting to make a real person who actually wants to get out of the situation she has found herself in. There are many women out there whose lives have not panned out how they imagined they would – failed relationships, childless, dead end jobs, single mothers, large mortgages, and in our society, alcohol is an easy pit to fall into. When I read the book I don’t remember feeling judgmental towards Rachel, but sorry for her yes, and I certainly cheered her on when she starts the long journey to fix herself.

The reviews and commentary on this book have compared it to Gone Girl, and the rise of a new genre of writing which made this audience laugh – grip lit, or was it chick noir, or was it domestic noir? The use of the word ‘girl’ was also discussed. The book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and sequels may well have started this trend, but Hawkins sees all of this as a massive coincidence: there is no similarity at all between any of the female protagonists. Gone Girl was a sociopath, in full control of everything she did, whereas Rachel is simply a lush who happens to stumble across a situation that she thinks needs sorting out. The media seems to love giving stuff labels, and in Hawkins’ words: “Would the media ever pigeon hole fiction written by men as ‘men’s fiction’ the way it labels books written by women as ‘women’s fiction’, or ‘chick lit’?”

She also talked a bit about the feminism backlash the book has received, but goes onto say that the subject of domestic violence, crime in the home, the realism of violence in our world, and relationships gone wrong are what the attention should be focused on, and not whether the title has a ‘girl’ or a ‘woman’ in it.

The session was very thought provoking and it was so interesting to be taken behind the scenes of a novel that is so much more than just a psychological murder thriller.

The Girl on the Train: Paula Hawkins, Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The State of America, with Janna Levin, Thomas Mallon and Gloria Steinem at #AWF16


The ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre was packed out to hear cosmologist Janna Levin, writer Thomas Mallon and feminist icon Gloria Steinem discuss the state of the United States of America, ably chaired by Guyon Espiner.

US FlagTrump-bashing was the order of the day and Mallon wasted no time getting stuck in. “I’m less interested in explaining Trump than in vanquishing him … he is dangerous, grotesque … If this means the end of the Republican party, so be it … He believes in nothing.” This played well with the crowd, who, drawn by their horrified fascination with the current US presidential nomination race, had come in their hundreds to receive an explanation from US intellectuals who presumably had some kind of insight into what the hell is going on.

Insight was duly delivered with varying degrees of helpfulness. Levin admitted right away that she couldn’t explain Trump’s popularity at all. “I have very little insight to the human psyche, I do math … I live in a bubble of academics, and we don’t realise what others are thinking … We didn’t take [Trump] seriously soon enough – and by ‘we’ I mean sane people.” I think this is an important point: there is a danger in surrounding yourself only with people who agree with you, and developing the delusion that you must therefore be in a national majority. Although she was playing it for laughs, I think Levin’s last comment is very telling: there a danger too in characterising your own point of view as ‘sane’, thus demonising the views of your opponents.

I found Steinem’s view much more insightful. She spoke of how Trump is “a backlash candidate”; a backlash, that is, against the advances of civil rights, feminism, environmentalism etc over the past few decades. Trump supporters “feel displaced by a lack of hierarchy … they have been raised to believe their identity depends on racial hierarchy”. Mallon added that “people will vote for Trump even though they fear his presidency because he gives them a chance to insult those they feel aggrieved by [such as Muslims and people of colour, but also professional politicians and the media]”.

Steinem gave an interesting historical perspective, saying that the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s drove the racist Democrats into the Republican party, which has become more extreme. She hopes that Trump may cause the old centrist Republicans to reemerge.

Steinem is optimistic: “I’m a hopeaholic”. Speaking about the upcoming Presidential race, she says Clinton can be elected “but it’s gonna be hell … Trump is ruthless … I live for the day an atheist is President! A single, gay atheist … the only thing better would be a pagan.” She said that “hope is a form of planning”, and noted that within our lifetimes the USA will no longer be a majority white country – “This is crucial source of backlash but also of hope because change is inevitable.”

Moving on from Trump, Espiner invited the panellists to explain America’s allergy to public healthcare and gun control: two other issues on which we as New Zealanders feel comfortably superior to the USA. Steinem says you have to follow the money – the reason these things are so hard to change is because they’re protected by wealthy and powerful vested interests. Only in the ballot box are we all equal: “It’s up to us as the social justice movement to combat money with people power.”

I was struck all of a sudden by the oddness of the event: to have invited three Americans to the stage to explain their country to us, because we think they’re screwing up. And all three of the guests took our fascination with their society to be completely natural: America is so globally all-encompassing that of course we would feel involved. Would there have been such a large turnout for a panel discussion on the state of China, or Germany, or India? I wondered too under what circumstances there would be a session at a literary festival in another country to dissect what’s wrong with Aotearoa (and who would they invite to do the explaining?).

In considering this event, I was reminded of Helene Wong’s warning in her magnificent Michael King Memorial Lecture earlier today: beware the ultra-nationalism growing overseas because it could happen here as well. Maybe we shouldn’t feel so superior to the US after all.

The State of America, reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Thomas Mallon‘s solo event, Power Tales, is at 3.00pm  on Saturday, 14 May
Janna Levin
‘s solo event, Gravitational Sensations, is at 4.30pm on Sunday, 15 May


Hearts of Darkness: Herman Koch at #AWF16


cth-herman-koch-jpg-20140612Well, Herman Koch was a revelation. One would think that the author of the dark and satirical, macabre, slightly evil novels The Dinner and Summer House With Swimming Pool would look like the appalling characters in his books, with a menacing air about him. But no! He was delightful, light hearted, funny, self-effacing, insightful and very interesting.

Herman Koch was already a successful author in his native language, Dutch, before the publication of the English translation of The Dinner in 2012, now translated into 40 languages. The most interesting thing about Mr Koch was that at one stage, while working hard at becoming a writer, he was also an actor of sorts, part of a comedy revue team that bore a passing resemblance to Monty Python, which certainly explains the black comedy of his writings.

We also learned from Mr. Koch that foreign language books may be translated into English by an approved/official translator, but the version sold to the American reading public is usually quite different from that translated by the translator – words changed, sections deleted. So…word to the wise – read translations published by non-American publishers – they could be more authentic.

cv_the_dinnerAnd all of this was before Mr Koch talked about the aforementioned two novels and his new book. Chair, Stephanie Johnson began by asking him about Paul, one of the two brothers in The Dinner who meet with their wives at a local restaurant to talk about the behavior of their sons. I never picked it up when reading the book, but apparently the character of Paul has Aspergers, as does the teenage son. Mr Koch came to write the story thanks to knowing a family where the father and son were diagnosed as Aspergers, and the father had the audacity to suggest that Mr Koch should also get tested. Very funny.

The other brother in The Dinner, Serge, was based on a local politician in looks and charisma, with a supposed good moral heart. His morals are of course, called into question, with the crime committed by the teenage son. On a lighter note, the Americans are making a movie of The Dinner, with none other than Richard Gere in the part of Serge. That should guarantee a good box office taking.

summer_house_with_swimming_poolIn talking about Summer House with Swimming Pool, Mr Koch also told us how his own doctor reacted to the character of Dr Schlosser, who is repulsed by bodies, sickness, and his patients. Apparently most general practitioners see lots of themselves in Dr Schlosser which is a little disconcerting for us as patients, and brought about some hysterical laughter. He said this book is black comedy, bleaker but with more black humour than The Dinner. He had more fun writing it, poking fun not only at the medical profession but also actors and Dutch holiday-makers.

Mr Koch read most engagingly from the first chapter of his new novel Dear Mr M, due for translated publication in August. It has the same trademark black humour, more misogynistic characters, and it is a thriller, of sorts. Should be a winner!

Mr Koch is a most happy man. He makes a living as a writer not only in his own country, but in a multitude of others. He enjoys seeing his books on display in airport bookshops around the world, knowing they are being read and enjoyed, and that the human condition is much the same anywhere in the world, in all societies and communities.

Hearts of Darkness: Herman Koch was attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray

Herman Koch will also appear at the free event Excavation, alongside Lynn Jenner, Julie Thomas and Cilla McQueen, at 4.30pm today, Saturday 14 May.

The Dinner, published by Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922147561
Summer House with Swimming Pool, published by Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922147561