AWF17: Old Guard, New Guard – Bill Manhire and Hera Lindsay Bird

This session was on Saturday 20 May, 4.30 – 5.30pm, at the Auckland Writers Festival

I love a session chaired by a peer or colleague – in a broad sense – of the panelists. So ‘Old Guard, New Guard’, which featured Bill Manhire and Hera Lindsay Bird and was chaired by Andrew Johnston, was always going to be an exceptional line-up for this poetry-loving, Unity-old-girl, wistfully-dreaming-of-IIML reviewer. Bill the old guard, Hera the new – leaving Andrew to ponder ‘I don’t know where that leaves me, but I think I’ll be the lifeguard’.
hera
Both Bill and Hera had sweeping introductions from Andrew. There was a certain sense of both of them needing no introduction, but on the topic of Bill, at least, Andrew pointed out ‘there are quite a few things that Bill does – most people know some of them, but few people know all of them. His wider contribution to New Zealand culture is huge’. Poet laureate, CNZM. Honorary DLitt from Otago. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, Hera’s introduction contained the phrase – not the first time I’ve heard the sentiment in reference to her work – ‘it’s rare to hear the words “poetry” and “viral” together in the same sentence’. And yet, there’s really no other way to put it. Andrew let Hera explain the genesis of her ascendance to the stratospheric heights of household name poet.

For those who haven’t actively followed Hera’s goings on – or perhaps if you’ve only just plugged back into the literary landscape after a year in the desert – things blew up when two of the poems from her eponymous debut collection were published on The Spinoff. Then the wider internet came knocking.

‘I woke up one day and someone told me I was in The Guardian. There were 300-long furious comment threads. The one that people were angriest about was “Keats Is Dead So F*ck Me From Behind”. I kind of flippantly name-checked the deaths of a whole lot of American and British poets.’

Hera meant no disrespect, though, she assured us. ‘I was careful to only write about poets that I liked.’

At this point, Bill pointed out the similarities between ‘Keats Is Dead…’ and R.A.K Mason’s ‘Song of Allegiance’. Mason’s poem begins:
‘Shakespeare Milton Keats are dead / Donne lies in a lowly bed’…

And ends:
‘Though my song have none to hear / boldly bring I up the rear’.

It’s a glorious comparison – and yet, Hera claims that it’s purely coincidental. At least, as far as she can remember. Whether intentional or not, it still makes for a beautiful bookending of New Zealand poetry to date.

Further elaborating on the ‘furious comments’, Hera pointed out that she often prefers a negative review to a positive one ‘from someone liking you for the wrong reasons.

‘I had lots of considered and thoughtful and intelligent reviews, but there were also a lot of people who it felt like they didn’t understand what I was trying to do.’

Hera noted that she doesn’t mind when people (incorrectly) assume that everything in the first person in her book is actually coming from her own perspective. ‘There’s always a performative aspect.’

That line of questioning let into a conversation with Bill about the dichotomy of being a relatively private person who has had some very public poems – whether through major commissions or through winning major plaudits that pull the spotlight in his direction. Bill agreed with Andrew’s suggestion that his poetry acts ‘as a kind of defense as well as projection.’

They also discussed the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) – which Bill set up and Hera attended. While he fell into the role of workshop convener somewhat by chance, his work in that space means that every reader of New Zealand literature owes him a debt of gratitude. So many writers at all ages and stages have gone through the halls of that building on Waiteata Road – and part of the success of so many of them could in part be chalked up to the drive, right from the start, to get people out of their comfort zone. And importantly, to get them towards being the best writer that they can be within their selves, rather than trying to match to some kind of official framework.
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‘One of the things I’ve always done in the writing workshop world is give people the equivalent of a commission – make them jump the tracks and go sideways from their own sensible selves.’

At Andrew’s request, Bill went into a potted history of the Victoria creative writing programme – both pre- and post-IIML name being added. It was a fascinating wander through time – from implementing a Cambridge-esque optional original manuscript component for English majors through to the IIML of today – in the building now officially called the Bill Manhire Centre (above).

Hera gave a little insight into her experience at the IIML – and her perception of Bill while an MA student there. ‘Bill was the big boss – I think that the only time I saw him in the classroom was at the beginning of year part. He came up to me with a plate of samosas and silently offered me one.’

She went into some detail regarding her own feelings about creative writing programmes – deemed crucial by some, derivative by others. ‘I don’t think it’s essential to do creative writing courses – but they do speed up the process.’ At what other point in one’s young adult life, she pointed out, do we get the luxury of taking a year out from the world just to write?

Bill talked about students coming in intending to focus on one style – and leaving converted to something else. Hinemoana Baker was an example given as someone who came in wanting to be a short story writer, and came out with her first collection of poetry. That particularly close quarters creative environment seems to have a transformative effect on those who study there.

Both poets read examples of their work – Bill lightheartedly requesting to leave before Hera launched into ‘Keats Is Dead…’, but later drawing an incredible stillness from the crowd as we listened to him read ‘Known Unto God’, a poem commissioned as a response to the Battle of the Somme .

There was much more, so much more. Both poets agreed that they do not exist at nearly such extreme poles as the name of the event would suggest. ‘I’ve always thought of Bill’s poetry being quite modern and mine as being much more old-fashioned than people realise,’ Hera said.

‘I think your work is quite traditional,’ Bill replied, describing it as a familiar house with different furnishing.

Old guard or new – or life guard, an essential role for a panel chair to play, after all – when Bill and Hera and Andrew are three of the face of New Zealand poetry today (and yesterday, and tomorrow), it does make you bloody excited to be a reader in this country, doesn’t it?

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Hera Lindsay Bird
by Hera Lindsay Bird
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560714

Tell Me My Name
by Bill Manhire
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561070

Some Things to Place in a Coffin
by Bill Manhire
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561056

AWF17: Time Travel – James Gleick

Time Travel with James Gleick, chaired by Graeme Hill was at 6pm, Saturday 20 May at the Auckland Writers Festival.

Graeme Hill got the audience on side before James Gleick even managed to get on stage. The early arrival of the chair – or more correctly, the slightly delayed arrival of the writer – gave him the chance to pull out a few decent time travel cracks before things really got started. One wonders how carefully he had to practice his brief backwards sentence.

But then the man of the hour, James Gleick, stepped on stage, and both chaps took their seats. There was no mucking around, with Graeme going straight in with a statement-turned-question about Newton and the seeming impossibility of his intellect and ability.

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James Gleick

‘I feel the same way – that’s the central mystery of Isaac Newton,’ James replied. ‘And this may be a cheesy segue, but I wish I had a time machine.’

Cheesy it may have been, it served its purpose. And who doesn’t love a little morsel of a pun to kick off an evening session after a long day of being overwhelmed by wave after wave of literary talent and intrigue

James Gleick’s book Time Travel: A History weaves together literary history with physics and philosophy to present a thoroughly researched piece of work exploring this concept that has fed into so many different tales over the past century. But for many, the fact that the idea of time travel has only been around since HG Wells’  The Time Machine is bewildering – at least, according to the explanation made in James’ book. It’s so central to our understanding of science fiction and adventure. As James described it: ‘I know six-year-olds who talk about time travel paradoxes over breakfast’.

time travelBut it seems to hold true. James explained that upon looking into the first instance of “time travel” in the Oxford English Dictionary, it was a back-formation derived from Wells’ hero – the Time Traveller. So many of our pop culture references – Doctor Who, A Wrinkle In Time, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, heck, The Time-Traveller’s Wife, if we want to be really on the nose about it – all of these owe a debt to Well and his decision to have a nameless man travel through time on what amounts to – in James’ words – ‘a fancy bicycle’.

The pair discussed the relationship between science fiction and science fact – and the curious coincidence of Wells writing The Time Machine only about a decade before Albert Einstein put forward his idea of relativity.

Graeme was a very enthusiastic – if not always in a useful manner – interviewer, full of gestures and exclamations that certain concepts were blowing his mind. There was a discussion about the idea of time travel as it currently plausibly ‘exists’ – the idea that someone moving away from Earth very quickly, near the speed of light, will experience time more slowly than someone back home. But this is on such an tiny, tiny scale that the time gained would be in the realm of a fraction of a second. After Graeme went into great detail about this idea, James begrudgingly acknowledged the truth of it.

‘You can call that time travel… but it’s pretty disappointing.’

Graeme used his powers of gesture and outrage at the limits of physics to question, why time, when compared to the three spacial dimensions, could only go in one direction. James explained that in this situation, ‘the idiot’s answer’ is the one he tends to side with. ‘Before we got into time as a dimension, it didn’t matter – we just knew that the past is gone and the future is yet to come. All that is knowable is the present.’

They talked through Newton’s Laws of Motion, and how the work just as well backwards as forward – until they don’t. The example of snooker balls bouncing around on a table was put forward – play any one fragment of a video of them bouncing back or forward, and they are basically the same. But play that opening moment backwards, and the balls suddenly all join together in a perfect triangle – and that just doesn’t happen.

They talked multiverse theory, briefly, and brought in a few more pop culture references, and then wrapped up with questions. James may have been better served by a slightly less animated chair – maybe we ought to arrange a spot of time travel to make that happen ­– but the conversation still packed a whole lot of big thinking in to an hour.

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry for Booksellers NZ

Time Travel
by James Gleick
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN 9780008207670

AWF17: I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

This session was on Saturday, 20 May, at 3.00pm at the Auckland Writers Festival

The first time I heard of Chris Kraus – and of her book, I Love Dick – was around 2011, when I was working in an academic bookshop and one of the postgraduate English courses had it as a set text. We unprofessionally giggled at the title, this book we weren’t at all familiar with.

In the last few years, it seems to have blossomed in popularity – it’s suddenly on the shelves of other indie bookshops, not just where required by one lecturer. And this year, news of a television adaptation broke – only adding fuel to the fire of people buying, reading, talking about I Love Dick. So it was that Chris Kraus’s session was scheduled for the main stage, the ASB Theatre.

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Chris Kraus is, or has been, a writer, a journalist, an artist, a filmmaker. She has, as Kevin described it ‘juggled many careers’. She has authored several books of non-fiction, and several novels ­­– including the trilogy that starts with I Love Dick then leads into Aliens and Anorexia and concludes with Torpor.

Prior to really engaging with conversation, Chris took to the lecture for her first reading – from the recently reissued Torpor. The main characters relationship was succinctly summed up in one passage: ‘Faithful to their distrust of each other, they are celibate’.

The setting of these novels was described as ‘post-MTV but pre-AOL’ – a little US-centric but still managing to appropriately convey their place in time. ‘History becomes a character’, Kevin said.

Chris described Torpor as ‘a much more personal book [than I Love Dick]’, with a more in-depth approach to the lives and the histories of those characters. ‘In I Love Dick, the characters could almost be anyone. They’re almost like commedia dell’arte stock characters.’

‘High intellectual sex comedy’ was one description of I Love Dick, while the format of the book was described as having ‘the letters as evidence, the whole book as a case study’. But, despite the overlap in the names of the characters and of Chris and her then husband, and certain aspects of the story being lifted from true experiences, it’s certainly not a memoir – and Chris would never have wanted it to be. ‘I’ve always found memoir kind of… icky. It’s not something I would ever want to write myself.’

A more recent project of Chris’s has been a biography of Kathy Acker. She described the book as a career biography, rather than ‘cradle to grave’ – taking the chance to really get inside her work, rather than take a more psychological assessment of the entire life of the subject.

Kevin asked Chris about ways in which her filmmaking background prepared her ‘for a life in fiction writing.’

‘I don’t know how much it prepared me – but when I was working, I would always pull the blinds down, so it was dark – like I was transcribing a movie.’

They also briefly discussed Gravity & Grace, a film Chris created in New Zealand in the early nineties. While she is American, Chris spent several years in her teenage years and early twenties living, studying and working here, before returning to New York. For Gravity & Grace, she returned to New Zealand – and though the film wasn’t successful on release, it has seen a resurgence in interest in the years since. This is something that Chris is quite content with – ‘If the film had been successful on release, people wouldn’t be so interested now.’

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On the audiovisual side of things, the topic of the I Love Dick adaptation was brought up – specifically the all-female writers’ room. While Chris is not involved in the project directly, she expressed her ‘total trust’ in the writers. ‘And most of the episodes in the first season are directed by women who had previously directed independent films.’

Virtually all authors self-identify as passionate readers, and Chris is no exception. She referenced Nicky Hager’s 2009 title Secret Power when discussing her memories and missings about New Zealand. And she talked about having saved up Dostoevsky for the proper occasion – and that this trip was it. ‘All these plane rides, instead of playing video games, I’m reading these books.’ She described the book club, of sorts, that has been woven between flights and different places on the globe – all these people she’s encountered who have also been reading Dostoevsky.

There was more, of course – you can never capture everything. She talked about her experience as part of the St Mark’s Poetry Project, and of her work at publisher Semiotext(e). It was an illuminating session, with plenty of live reading from the author – leaving the audience ready to jump into a Chris Kraus title or perhaps leaving the more widely read among the crowd even more excited for the forthcoming television show. 

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Wellington people: Go and see Chris Kraus on Monday 22 May at City Gallery!

I Love Dick
by Chris Kraus
Published by Serpent’s Tail
ISBN 9781781256480

Torpor
by Chris Kraus
Published by Tuskar Rock
ISBN 9781781258989

AWF 17: In the Bardo: George Saunders

George Saunders appeared on Saturday, 20 May at 12 noon at AWF 2017

George Saunders was a geophysicist in a previous life. He’s been a short story writer for quite some time. And his latest turn has been as a novelist, with the release of Lincoln in the Bardo.

He was in conversation with Paula Morris, who broke the ice by pointing out that for quite some time now, George’s books have been dedicated to his wife – who is also called Paula. ‘So for years, I’ve been pretending they were dedicated to me.’

Paula went on, however, to expand on what George has been achieving in his work, noting that Lincoln in the Bardo serves as a reminder that the novel is still a very experimental format – after all, at it’s crux it is ‘a story told by ghosts that explore what it is to be alive.’

george saunders

George Saunders, photo by Chloe Aftel

They discussed the original genesis of the book as a series of drafts for a play, and the shift to the long-form prose format of the novel. George extolled the  virtues of rewriting – which is eventually led him through the marshes of his play drafts (‘the idea of monologues intrigued me’) through a foray into a fiction piece in the third person (‘Gore Vidal-esque’)before arriving at the final cut. ‘Your first draft doesn’t need to be good … in a certain way, the writer’s job is just to not suck.’

So he settled on the ghost-based narration. ‘But ghosts are a bit like dream sequences – a teacher once told me that you have three dream sequences in your career, so don’t use them up all at once.’ It’s safe to say that this particular instance of ghosts/dreams has been put to good use, with Lincoln in the Bardo receiving plenty of praise and securing a spot in the New York Times Bestseller List.

I went into the session with a relatively unusual relationship (or lack thereof) with George Saunders. I hadn’t read any of his books, but I knew of his work – Tenth of December was read by many a Unity Books colleague in my time working there – and I had heard him speak very on a podcast very recently. So I had a sense of knowing what I was in for, while still gleefully knowing that I had yet to read and unpack his work.

He speaks candidly, with a chirpy tone – he described himself as sounding like ‘a Valley Girl on quaaludes at one point’ – but he at the same time be brings forth these cutting truisms and opinions about writing, about reading. As someone who fancies themselves quite dedicated to both, my notes were scribbled as much for personal reference as supplies for this piece. Here are just a few:

‘There’s that thrill as a young writer when, for the first time, you write something truer than reality.’BookSaunders-kuI--621x414@LiveMint

‘I talk about writing in the language of sales. It’s a contract, where my job is to anticipate your resistance … my best self comes out through revisions – your best self is led out through the intimacy of the conversation.’

‘A writer takes a chance, pushes you away – and then on the next page they bring you back with an uplifting, luminous scene.’

‘I know writers who plan everything out – and then they write it, and it gets subverted. I like to see where a story goes.’

That final point can apply to writer and reader alike – and George reinforced this as he pointed out ‘part of the job of the story is to not know where it’s going’. He even pulled out an Einstein quote to really drive this home, as applicable to the story as to a physics equation: ‘No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.’

Paula brought up the contradictory elements of the narrative – an entirely intentional move by the author to reflect the nature of individual experience. ‘Historical accounts are often contradictory … there’s the complication of understanding something, the limits of our own perception.’ With the multiple perspectives telling the story, multiple versions of the truth become inevitable.

The discusison also covered the idea of the bardo – a Tibetan term for a transitional space between life and death. ‘It’s not purgatory,’ George explained. ‘It’s a lot more workable.’ He referred to one school of thought in Tibet that suggested that any deeply affecting emotions and experience become amplified many times over in the bardo – regrets, unrequited love, that sort of thing.

Discussing the spiritual aspect of the book let into conversation around George’s own religious upbringing – in a Catholic family in the south side of Chicago in the 60s. That particular kind of religious exposure wove its way into the discussion several times – discussion of the devotional scapular, to Lincoln’s saintly attributes, to one particular nun that paved the way for George’s future as a reader and writer through trust in his capabilities.

But as a flip side to heavier religious influences, there was frivolity – inherent in his view of the world, it seems. He described coming across two ‘working-class girls’ on the street who caught his attention with their particular cadence of speech – so he went home and tried to emulate it on the page, unraveling things about these two characters that had leapt from life to his page, from reality into fiction. He summed it up, saying: ‘I like when a story comes out of genuine verbal joy.’

As a member of the audience, the whole conversation was genuine verbal joy – and this reviewer will certainly be shuffling George Saunders titles to the top of her to-read pile.

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408871744

Civilwarland in Bad Decline
by George Saunders
Published by Vintage Classics
ISBN 9781784871291

AWF17: Resolution – A.N. Wilson

My second session for the day, again, a writer I had not heard of before. This man is amazing, the session was packed, full, in the gorgeous Heartland tent complete with ‘stained glass’ borders around it, the perfect setting for such a unique storyteller. A. N. Wilson is English, public school and Oxford educated. He is very well known in the UK as a writer, newspaper columnist, for his extensive writing of biographies, novels, and for his religious views. He has written biographies of all sorts of people – CS Lewis, Queen Victoria, Jesus, Dante, as well as the city of London. Much more recently his increasing interest in historical fiction has resulted in the publication of Resolution, the subject of this session.

The man is a born entertainer, and there were so many laughs from the audience as he regaled us and weaved all over the place with his tales of life on the high seas, the Pacific Islands as seen by Cook and his crew, the French Revolution, Captain Cook himself, Boswell, what scurvy does to you, a stale marriage, Goethe, public school education, and, hilariously, roast penguin.

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Most of us will know Resolution as the ship that Captain Cook captained on his second voyage to New Zealand/South Seas over the years 1772-1775. This novel is not about the Resolution or its voyage per se, but more about George Forster who was on this voyage.

Having had enough of botanist Joseph Banks on the first voyage, that of the Endeavour, Cook employed naturalist Reinhold Forster for this second voyage. I don’t know the reason, and I vaguely recall Wilson saying something about this, but Reinhold also took his 12-year-old son Georg on the voyage with him. What an extraordinary thing to do with a 12-year-old child, going to the other side of a little explored world, looking for the southern continent – Antarctica – in a sloop not much bigger than the tent we were all sitting in.

Reinhold made himself as unpopular on the voyage as his predecessor Dr Banks did, plus it seems young Georg didn’t have the best time either, being under the control and domination of a tyrant of a father. His refusal to eat his daily ration of sauerkraut resulted in him getting scurvy which must have driven Cook crazy, but because George was under his father’s control and not Cook’s there was little Cook could do. Refusing this daily dose was a whipping offence, such was Cook’s passion for the health of his crew.

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Resolution and Adventure in Matavai Bay, by William Hodges

Georg was a born artist and during the voyage did the most exquisite and detailed drawings and paintings of flora and fauna encountered on the voyage. Fortunately, most of these works were acquired by the British Museum (another wonderful diversion story by Mr Wilson), and can be viewed there. Georg rocketed to fame when at the age of 23, he published his journal of the voyage, some weeks ahead of Cook’s journals, and considerably fatter. It was an instant success, to the absolute fury of Cook, resulting in Forster being admitted to the Royal Academy.

His future as a scientist and naturalist would appear to be sealed, and he ended up being the librarian at Mainz University in Germany. He became extremely interested in the revolutionary ideas of Benjamin Franklin and the Enlightenment, being one of the founders of the Jacobin Club. He was in Paris when an Austrian/Prussian force took control of it, resulting in him being considered an outlaw for his ideas. He ended up dying in Paris, unable to return to Germany. He was only 39, but look at what he had packed into those years. He had married unhappily, to Therese Heyne, with whom he had three children. She remarried and became a successful novelist, in the Jane Austen vein. In yet another wonderful anecdote, Wilson told the story of how he saw Forster’s small desk that he had on the Resolution with him, in a Captain Cook museum in Whitby that had been donated by a descendant of Forster’s.

Without having read the book the father-son, parent-child theme would appear to be quite strong. Wilson talked a bit about this when asked about why he chose Georg Forster as the subject for his novel. He said that he had read Reinhold’s journal of the voyage, finding it very funny, and in total understanding as to why he was known on the ship as the ‘tactless philosopher’. He did get to wondering what it would be like to have this man as his father.

Wilson, it seems, had a wonderful relationship with his father who was much older than the average father. He spent lots of time with his father, good time, but couldn’t help notice that others saw his father differently, not necessarily in a good light, from how he saw him. I think we all have this with our parents to a certain extent, but for Wilson, it would appear there was a most noticeable and puzzling difference to the two types of relationships.

Aside from this most personal of revelations, this was an extremely entertaining and polished delivery. Wilson was very at ease with this audience, we hung on his every word, he had wonderful illustrations – Forster’s art work, portraits of him pre and post scurvy, his wife, the guillotine in action. The information, the stories, the anecdotes just flowed out of him, and he was even able to incorporate the noon chiming of the Town Hall clock into yet another French Revolution piece of gore – Quasimodo, as well as the Red Arrows overhead with a passing helicopter. We would never have got that level of entertainment sitting in one of the fully enclosed Aotea Centre theatres!

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

You can see A.N. Wilson with Simon Wilson talking about The Human and the Historical, at 1.30 – 2.30pm on Sunday 21 May. 

Resolution
by A. N. Wilson
Published by Atlantic Books
ISBN 9781782398288

AWF17: The Art of the Essay: Roxane Gay, Ashleigh Young, Teju Cole

The first thing to know about this session is that the queue started forming an hour beforehand – for this, a panel discussion about essays. And it wasn’t just a few die-hard fans sitting to fight to the front of the room – by the time I arrived, around 10:05 (the session due to start at 10:30), the line wound up along the ramp to the main atrium, doubling back on itself. I talked with those around me, and we wrung our hands – would we get in? Was the wait going to be worth our while?

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We did – and it was. The room was packed – all seats taken and the last of the late arrivals standing or cross-legged in the back of the room – but all rapturously attentive to the figures on the stage.

All three panellists were international faces, including the New Zealand representation.
Roxane Gay is a writer for myriad formats and forums as well as an English professor at Purdue University in Indiana. Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American writer and noted art historian, with a column in New York Times Magazine and several books to his name. His awards include the PEN/Hemingway Award and the mysterious but lucrative Windham-Campbell Prize. And then, of course, is Ashleigh Young, a name that surely needs no further explanation to readers of this blog or familiar with the contemporary New Zealand literary scene. She is a 2017 recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize.

‘We’re here,’ Simon told the packed house, ‘to talk about essays!’ So they did, spinning a broad discussion of craft, of influence, of intent.

Teju spoke about the privilege of the essayist – the fact that being in a position to take the time to sit down to think about things deeply and put pen to paper is quite a luxurious position to be in. Ashleigh described her writing process as very rarely starting with any great insight, commenting that ‘an essay is me trying to write my way out of bewilderment’.
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The issue of reliable narration in a non-fiction format was bounced around the three panellists. It is something that Ashleigh seemed to grapple with. ‘All I can write from is quite deep inside my own experience. I’m always trying to be honest about the truth as I experience it.’ Teju spoke of ‘productive discomfort”, describing his style of essay creation as ‘always writing subjectively, but not always super personally’. Continuing on the same vein, Roxane was asked ‘Do you see yourself as a truth teller?’ – which she responded to simply and clearly. ‘No – I just see myself as a writer. I don’t overcomplicate it beyond that.’

There was discussion about the ways in which an essay will develop – whether there’s a specific end point in mind, or whether the end makes itself known through the process of the writing. ‘When I start the essay, I have the answer – but by the time I’ve finished it, I’ve misplaced it,’ Teju said – to knowing laughter from some of the writers in the room.

‘Generally, the ending is something I do not know when I start,’ Roxane said. ‘But when I get there, I know then – this is what I want to leave the reader with.’ She went on to describe the best essays as being ‘dazzling without being ostentatious’.

‘Isn’t that a fine line?’ Simon asked.

‘It’s a very fine line,’ Roxane agreed. ‘But you know it when you see it.’

All three writers read a piece of their own writing – all very, very different pieces, representing the breadth of what the form can be. Which is, for Ashleigh, part of the appeal – even describing the essay as a ‘generous’ form. ‘I suppose the thing with the essay is that nobody’s been able to quite define it just yet. It’s a baggy monster of a form.’

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Simon WIlson, Teju Cole, Ashleigh Young and Roxane Gay onstage. Photo by Sarah Jane Barnett, copyright Pantograph Punch

Teju read ‘What It Is’, a short piece that ran in The New Yorker – a response to news in the modern world, that, while bleak at times, had the audience in stitches. One of the two women I spotted knitting in the audience laughed particularly uproariously at the line ‘But the burning question no one has raised yet is whether Ebola is the Newsweek of halitosis.’ – a line that you’ll have to read the full piece to get the glorious context for. It’s only just over 400 words.

Ashleigh read an excerpt from ‘Witches’, one of the essays in her collection Can You Tolerate This? – a beautiful and lyrical piece reflecting on the move from wild and fearless childhood to self-conscious teenage years.

Z_feministRoxane’s excerpt came from ‘Typical First Year Professor’, one of the first essays in her collection Bad Feminist – looking at her first days as a fully fledged English professor in the middle of Indiana while being who she is – a black woman with immigrant parents, a feminist, a liberal thinker, a queer woman. ‘Nuance is really important to me,’ she said later. ‘Most of the people in my immediate life disagree with everything that I am.’

The panel reflected on the certainty of one’s self and strength of character that need to exist in order to write essays. ‘There has to be a fundamental boldness, the knowledge that this is worth talking about,’ Teju said.

Roxane agreed. ‘You have to have the audacity to believe that the way in which you narrate the world matters and deserves to be heard.’

Thank goodness for Roxane’s audacity, and that of Teju and Ashleigh. Our literary world is enriched by the contributions that each of them make – and listening to the three of them in conversation with Simon was an absolute treat.

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

You can catch Roxane Gay in her solo event Sunday at 10.30am – 11.30am
Ashleigh Young has one more event, Saturday evening from 6.00pm – 7.00pm
See Teju Cole talk about Photography Favourites 12noon – 1pm, Sunday 21 May

AWF17: Vanishing Voices, with Russ Rymer

Russ Rymer spoke at 10am, Friday 19 May at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2017.

This was a free session – yes, free! What a joy to see at 10am, the first session for the day, that the room was almost full – there were around 300 people there, I found out from a volunteer.

I went into this session knowing nothing about the writer, aside from the small blurb in the Festival programme. I wanted to be engaged by the presentation, to be stimulated by new information, ideas delivered orally rather than by the written word. This is especially fitting given that Russ Rymer was speaking about the extinction of tribal languages around the world, which he then wrote into an article for National Geographic, winning an Overseas Press Club of America Award. I gather this is the Oscars of the journalist world. He has had a very successful and respected career as a journalist and writer, also being a Guggenheim Fellow.

russ rymer

Rymer went to three regions around the world, travelling with linguists who were doing their own research – likening them to Indiana Jones-types, and with locals who could also speak English. The first place he went to was the “dark hole of language,”as linguists know it, the remote village of Pilizi in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is in the far north-eastern corner next to Bhutan. This has been disputed land for a very long time, which has left much of the state untouched, and so a rich trove for researchers. Even if it did take three days to travel to Pilizi where the language Aka is spoken.

The second area was in the Mexican desert with the nomadic Seri people, around 1000 to 1300 of them, who have a very small vocabulary as, being nomadic, they have very few possessions that they need identifying labels for. Again, this area is untouched by the West, due primarily to the murder of the first Catholic missionary in the 1700s. The third language was that of the Tuvan people, in remote Siberia. The Tuvans live an urban existence much like we do, but their language is uniquely different from the rest of Siberia and Russia. Unlike in the other two communities, approximately 200,000 people speak Tuva.

Tuvans

马上的图瓦人 (Image of a Tuvan, from Wikipedia)

This sounds pretty simple really – investigating tribes and their language around the world, suffer living in primitive conditions for a little while, speak to a few linguists, and kaboom, you have an article, and bonus an award! Not so. And not for a minute did Russ Rymer go down this path. This project of his was a life changing experience, and has turned him into an advocate for the preservation of thousands of near-extinct languages.

This is something difficult for the average first-world native speaker of English to understand. Never once have we felt that we could communicate an idea or message in any other way than we do. Consider, for example, our decimal-based counting system -learning your numbers is probably the easiest thing about the English language. Even the French change the way they count when they get to seventy. Or words for colours. In one of the languages Rymer investigates, there is no word for yellow. Yet their most precious items are necklaces made from yellow stones picked by ancestors from the rivers. The rivers were picked clean of the stones generations ago, so now there is no word for yellow, only for the necklaces. In this same language, the Aka, there are only two words for animals – those that can be eaten, and those that can’t. For the Tuvans there are 89 different words for a cow!

The anecdotes and the facts were incredibly interesting, as was Rymer’s travelogue, particularly of his time in India. But the whole crux of his research, his article and his presentation to us was: what happens when the last person who speaks the language dies? It is gone, vanished, just like that. And no way of recovering it.

And this perhaps is the greatest challenge facing language extinction – the people who speak the language are dying out, and so the language also dies. What is lost when a language dies? Language is not only words, sounds; it is the expression of ideas, thoughts, culture, identity, spiritualty, communicated in its own unique and precious way. He informed us that there are 7000 languages in the world, dying at the rate of one a fortnight. We now have only a few languages spoken by many. Look at the millions who speak Chinese, the 1.2 billion speakers of Hindi. These are staggering figures.

Here in New Zealand we have our own indigenous language – Te Reo Māori – that could well go down the same path if the careful nurturing and attention given to it over the past few decades does not continue. In Australia, 90% of the indigenous languages are considered endangered.

Loss of a language is also loss of a culture, loss of identity, loss of pride. So much of how things are done in a community are wrapped up in oral communication, for example, in Pilizi, disputes are solved by an elder or shaman telling a story complete with metaphors that fixes whatever the problem was. What was particularly interesting was hearing about the amount of environmental and ecological knowledge, centuries old, wrapped up in these endangered languages. Being urban-based, we have lost touch with the land, with nature. Scientists are finding that by interviewing peoples in their native languages, they are learning much more about the local ecosystems than they ever could have by their own observation and research.

I could go on and on with what I learnt and enjoyed from this session. I was especially pleased at the end when two women, one younger Māori, one older Pakeha, stood up, greeted him in Māori and thanked him most graciously for his time and for contributing to the preservation of endangered languages. The younger woman was now ensuring her children were learning to speak Te Reo, which led Rymer onto his final point: How absolutely crucial that it was for parents to talk to their children and grandchildren in their own language, not just for the sake of the words, but for the preservation of the ideas and cultural values that those words articulate.

I found this session very enlightening. Rymer was a wonderful speaker, warm, gracious, funny, and I think a little stunned by what these two women had to say, stating that he will have to come back to New Zealand to study further the state of Māori language in this country, something it was pretty clear he knew very little about – his appalling pronunciation of the word Māori– but he was so gracious and humble, I think we could forgive him!

Attended and Reviewed by Felicity Murray on behalf of Booksellers NZ