AWF18: Myanmar Tragedy – Francis Wade

AWF18: Myanmar Tragedy – Francis Wade

Freelance journalist Francis Wade is a Southeast Asian specialist, who has been lauded by the BBC’s Fergal Keane for his ‘moral courage and intellectual insight’ in relation to his first book, Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’. Who better to chair this session on the Myanmar Tragedy than another journalist with a background in foreign affairs? Hannah Brown begins with the question on many people’s minds – how could Aung San Suu Kyi, pro-democracy activist and Nobel Laureate, allow ethnic cleansing to happen on her watch now that she is finally in power?

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Hannah Brown and Francis Wade, image courtesy Auckland Writers Festival

Francis frames this issue as one of perception and projection. We knew her as an icon of democracy, who sacrificed fifteen years of her life to this struggle, but she had never been tested in the field as a leader. Additionally, many of her constituents have strong Buddhist nationalist tendencies. This collective bafflement felt in response to her lack of action is a ‘problem that is as much of our making as it is hers’.

This lack of action, we learn from Hannah, extends to Aung San Suu Kyi not even publicly using the word ‘Rohingya’. So why is the term so loaded? As Francis explains, contested identities are a major part of the furore – using this term would be akin to recognising their indigenous identity (they have a recorded presence in Western Myanmar since the ninth century). A pervasive and nefarious narrative has spread throughout Myanmar: the Rohingya have constructed an indigenous identity in order to pursue their agenda of Islamification and expansion. This myth has become a ‘staple of the public imagination’.

Hannah notes that everything came to a head around the time of the elections; Francis provides the context. As Myanmar had been under one form of occupation or another for a long time, there was a flurry of new political parties, many representing ethnic groups. There had been fault lines running along ethnic and religious lines for some time. Rapid flux, which the elections signified, ‘breeds anxiety that provides for violence along ethnic lines’. It also makes it easy to rally constituents by playing to their fears.

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Francis Wade, image courtesy Auckland Writers Festival 

We learn that the violence that occurred in August 2017 was the result of six or seven years of propaganda. The military, a much-detested group among the citizenry, has had its reputation rehabilitated through ethnic cleansing, for dealing with the ‘threat’ of Islamification. Francis spoke to the abbot of a temple in north Yangon – who believed fervently that if Buddhists did not defend their faith now, it would be wiped out and lead to the fall of Myanmar.

The monk’s argument was that violence now prevents greater violence down the line. Francis explains that in Theravada Buddhism, the dominant strain of the faith in Myanmar, intention is extremely important when assessing the merits of the action – in this case the acts are minimised.

Francis’s book was inspired not only by wishing to tell as many people as possible about the atrocities occurring, but also to analyse a collective mental state and how this came about. Even former colleagues, people that Francis admired, who were part of the pro-democracy movement were spouting hateful views about the Rohingya. This was personally challenging. He also acknowledged his own role in the narrative – it is a minority of monks espousing these views, but they are given platforms and so much exposure, as they are reported on by international journalists such as himself.

As for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in refugee camps in Bangladesh, Francis believes that their return to Myanmar would be very dangerous for them all. There are still some 300,000 Rohingya left in Rakhine state, in an extremely precarious position.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’
Zed Books
ISBN 9781783605279

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AWF18: The Edge of Europe, by Kapka Kassabova

AWF18: The Edge of Europe, by Kapka Kassabova

Arriving in New Zealand in the 90s, after the roll back of the Soviet Union, it was the excessive freedom and space, the shock of the ocean, that made a lasting impression on  Kapka Kassabova. The European experience is quite different, she explains to the audience and her admiring interlocutor Lloyd Jones. There, people internalise borders – these create a sense of home and delineate one’s space. But the border zone between Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria, the subject of her book Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, is particular; it is a liminal world and culture unto itself.

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Lloyd Jones and Kapka Kassabova, photo courtesy of Auckland Writers Festival

We start at the Red Riviera between Bulgaria and Turkey. We learn of ‘Sandals’, other Eastern Europeans who officially came to holiday in this region but had in fact planned their escape across the border. Many died in the attempt.

For as long as she can remember, Kapka has been obsessed with borders. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain, she wondered why people were allowed in, but they were not allowed out. The book was born out of her sense of urgency to tell the story of the border zone because a generation had already passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union – people were beginning to forget, and to get old.

She shares a couple of pictures with us. In the first, young men and a German shepherd patrol the barbed wire fence in the 80s; the second, taken at the same spot just three years ago, is almost an idyllic vision, with the area reclaimed by nature. This border zone has been a corridor of migration for generations, it is just that the flow of people has changed direction. Walls and fences are going up again, to keep the refugees out. ‘History repeats itself quite literally,’ Kapka notes.

Lloyd describes her work as part excavation and part revelation of worlds that no longer exist. Kapka wanted to express the labyrinthine quality of the border zone, and the dense layers involved. She describes the places she journeyed to as distinct realms. There are Muslim villages that were established during the Ottoman period scattered through the mountain ranges to the north of Greece. ‘They have no place in the official histories. They are ordinary people in an extraordinary place’.

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Kapka Kassabova, photo from Auckland Writers Festival

But much of this fertile region is empty except for phantom villages, some with only ten inhabitants left. The border culture has decimated the region and affected the psyche of those exposed to it. Kapka contends that the harder a border is, the more endangered people are. A culture of paranoia and surveillance spreads; the threat becomes internalised. She reads an extract from the book that features two generations of border guards – a sense of dread permeates the scene. Her reading amplifies the qualities she displays as a speaker: quietly compelling, eloquent, possessed of reserve.

For the refugees flooding into the region today there is little movement. There is stasis, an unbearable condition, where they cannot go forward or back. Kapka quotes Lloyd’s writing to describe the situation: they ‘run out of road’.

This was a wonderful session, although Lloyd, in all his enthusiasm and open admiration for Kapka, sometimes added to her thoughts a bit too early. I would have loved to hear her finish all of her polished thoughts. I look forward to reading the book, which Lloyd describes as the one Kapka was meant to write.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Border
Published by Granta Books
ISBN 9781783783205

AWF18: An Evening with Karl Ove Knausgaard

AWF18: An Evening with Karl Ove Knausgaard

Expectant energy sparks in the theatre as the capacity crowd waits for Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose six-volume series My Struggle propelled him to stardom and established a category of writing all of its own. He has everyone talking, including the people sitting behind me: ‘He is very serious’, one says. ‘Apparently the books aren’t entirely based on his life’, says another.

This collective anticipation finds release in the applause that greets the ‘Norwegian literary phenomenon’ (this epithet is a permanent attachment) as he and Paula Morris take the stage. She begins by asking whether he ever dreamed of this success. The short answer: ‘No’. His first book in the series, A Death in the Family, was about his ‘very ordinary life’, which both he and his editor were doubtful anyone would want to read about. A low print run ensued; it took off. ‘Being alone in a room and writing what was in my head’ somehow led, to his bewilderment, to being here in New Zealand.

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Photo courtesy and copyright Auckland Writers Festival

It took many years of practising, Paula suggests diplomatically, to find the right way to tell the right story. Karl outlines his ten years of struggle, the 800 pages of false starts: ‘This was my job, I did this every day and I was failing’. The story he wanted to tell was that of his father’s death and of his own feelings of hate, shame and grief, all jostling in the balance. He tried to write about it for five years, until he thought ‘fuck literature, I am just going to write this at it was’. This removal of restrictions brought sudden relief – the book poured out of him. As he now tells his students, ‘It’s easy to write a novel, it’s just hard to get to a place where it is easy’.

This new-found freedom resulted in his extraordinary series. Its unique form evolved from his love of diaries and the comfort they offered through the details of the everyday, which he merged with the dramatic form. This combination allowed him to be ‘boring’, to integrate thoughts and to leave the book’s dramatic arc up to one hundred pages at a time. It also became much easier to write – he wrote book five in just two months. But Karl Ove sees this as no feat – it is a matter of having low expectations and just writing. ‘When you have restrictions of quality it is much harder’.

He tells us that the accident of memory was responsible for a lot of the work too (he meditates on memory often). In the first book, he needed to lay the ground work so that the reader might feel the effect of his father’s death in a way similar to himself. He ended up, accidentally, writing about when he was 16 in a scene that constitutes half the book. He narrates how he and his friends were on a way to a party, the difficulties in getting beers and then getting there, only to be refused entry. But that is his point: ‘And that’s it; that’s life. It’s boring, there’s a sea of mundane and then death. Death is completely different, it is charged with meaning’. As are love and birth, he offers, the subject of his second book.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard, photo courtesy and copyright of Auckland Writers Festival

And what of the controversial title? He explains this was ‘coincidental, like everything else in these books’. His struggle is about a little life, about ‘misunderstanding things, failing, burning a finger when making food’ – juxtapositioning this with the other My Struggle, which is totalitarian in nature, does inform the work though.

Karl Ove still struggles – he feels a strangeness living in Sweden. ‘There is still a distance in me and that is language’. He is often silenced as he doesn’t know what is appropriate to say in certain situations. This results in retreat. It makes him wonder, ‘Where is your identity? Is it culture? Is it language?’. He, unsurprisingly, has thought about this problem of language – which has also allowed him access to so much, and resonated with so many readers. ‘These things that you think belong to you are charged with something that is not you, that will stay on when you are dead.’ It leads him to question how much of the book is particular to him. ‘Probably almost none of it’, he muses.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Karl Ove Knausgaard was supported by Norwegian Literature Abroad to be at the Auckland Writers Festival.

AWF18: The Rest is Noise – Alex Ross

AWF18: The Rest is Noise – Alex Ross

We find out in the first few minutes of this session, knowingly chaired by Fergus Barrowman, that Flying Nun was the first foray for Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, into popular music. This writer, who so wonderfully filters twentieth-century history – wars, technology, social changes – through classical compositions in his widely accessible The Rest is Noise, has just risen in esteem – at least among those members of the audience who are familiar with Flying Nun. You get the feeling that this crowd is more in touch with Sibelius than Chris Knox.

Barrowman.Ross_Still_01.pngUp until this point in college only dissonance had been admissible to Alex, but ‘the lyrical and melodic’ elements of bands like The Bats and The Clean, with their ‘sweetness and straightforward nature’, encouraged him to discover popular music. Working at a student radio station, he also began listening to punk and jazz – the beginnings, perhaps, of his book Listen to This, which reveals the boundaries between pop, jazz and classical to be porous. Does he wish to remove borders between musical genres altogether? Alex believes that borders exist for a reason; that every music has its centre, but sometimes elements that lay on the outskirts may easily cross over into another.

We might think of classical music as static and unchanging, but it too alters as it moves through time. But then how do you bring, for example, improvisational openness to academic music? Some of the more interesting musicians, the ones to watch in Alex’s opinion, are the ones who easily move between genres – jazz and classical for example – as if they had grown up in both worlds or occupy the middle ground. But improvisation is something classical musicians need to get a handle on, as the newer compositions require more input and invention on the part of the performer.

And what of the condition of classical music in the public sphere? Audiences are often blamed for not attending classical concerts with new programming, but, as Fergus points out, this is essentially inviting them along to listen to new music. Alex concedes it is hard to find the balance between old and new. It was also a balance he was seeking in writing The Rest is Noise, where he tried to appeal both to the obsessive specialist and the lay reader, and where he consciously attempted not to take sides with either the avant-garde, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and atonality on the one hand, and then Sibelius and co on the other. He ‘wanted all these composers to be taken seriously as heroes of the modern’.

Alex uses episodes in The Rest is Noise with great skill to draw attention to wider movements or tendencies. One such event opens the book – the world premiere of Strauss’s Salome. Everyone gathers, expectant, wishing to be part of the sensation. Could this happen again, Fergus asks? No, for as Alex explains, these composers where huge cultural figures of their times – he tells us that The New York Times ran ‘Puccini’s boat stuck in fog’ as a front-page headline.

The issue of classical music’s reach flows through to questions from the audience. How do you attract younger and more diverse audiences to it, when it is perceived as elite? Alex takes issue with the elite angle – as classical is often compared to pop, which is elite in the systems surrounding it: it makes use of massive apparatus (from multinationals to stadiums). Classical audiences are more diverse, but not in terms of income levels. He believes a lot more work needs to be done concerning who gets to play and be played. But, like everything else in the arts, it is not for everyone.

Alex has a reworking of Schoenberg’s quote ‘If it is art, it is not for all and if it is for all, it is not art’. His approach is more pragmatic: ‘If it is art, it’s not for all and if it is for all, it does not exist’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Alex Ross will appear with STROMA
Sun, 20 May 2018, 4:00pm – 6:15pm
Great Hall, Auckland Town Hall

AWF18: Big History – David Christian

AWF18: Big History – David Christian

In the ASB Theatre, chair Geraint Martin announced to the audience that we were going to traverse 13.7 billion years – from the atom to the present day – during the course of this session. Professor David Christian’s big history was on the table and the view was set to be panoramic.

The origin of this ‘big history’ is found within David’s idea for a history of humanity. Concerned that universities and educational institutions were primarily teaching national histories, he believed that, in the context of a world where nuclear power exists, it was important to tell the history of humanity – it would cultivate an understanding, perhaps, that we were all in this together. As he thought about how he would achieve such a thing, he looked back in time, and eventually arrived at the conclusion that he would need to start right back at the Big Bang.

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David Christian

Moving through the disciplines (from cosmology to physics and archaeology), navigating their particular jargon and ideas, he searched for the concepts that were shared across them in order to form an origin story – to take the knowledge that exists and present it as a whole. This is an old concept, he told us, it is just that it has disappeared from view in recent times.

In terms of jargon and the ideas represented therein, there was no ignoring or avoiding the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Explaining these concepts to the audience, he paraphrased Joseph Campbell’s explanation of Shiva’s cosmic dance that brought the world into being: the energy of the dance is the first law – it makes it possible for things to occur; the forms of the dance, which change endlessly, the second. But while forms appear, they too will disappear. Eventually only energy will survive.

And entropy is ever present, hovering in the background – that inevitable and gradual decline. David has been called pessimistic, but he now takes a purposefully optimistic view on the future challenges facing us – inspired in part by his son’s observation that he wanted to turn to the drink whenever he listened to his father speak about big history, entropy aside.

His optimism is rightfully cautious. We are the first species to exert such power over the biosphere, David reminded us, which we could destroy in the time frame of 24 hours. He compared our species to children driving jumbo jets, needing to learn to control our power and to live in a manner that doesn’t negatively impact the earth. He believes that there is the possibility that we can solve the crisis of the environment and manage ourselves better if we get the political technology right to facilitate agreements.

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Photo of David Christian, copyright Auckland Writers Festival 2018

How did we become this powerful? Information. Once we crossed the Rubicon of language, our capacity to communicate what we had learned turned us into information accumulating machines. Communication and collective learning have driven our greatest achievements and will perhaps also drive our undoing, if we go on unable to check ourselves. David believe this management, of self and of the biosphere, to be the great challenge facing the next generation.

David shares this framing of the past to encourage care of the future – it is ultimately a project of empathy. Big history is ambitious in scope, and like many new ideas, was met with scepticism at first. Scholars, after all, are used to highly specialised areas of analysis and instinctively reject this broad picture approach. However, it is not an either-or situation, it can be a both-and. David responds to these critiques by saying that ‘you may lose view of the familiar, but what you will see is new’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

David Christian’s current book is:

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything
Published by Allen Lane
ISBN 9780241254684

 

 

AWF18 – The Absent Sea: Carlos Franz

The Absent Sea: Carlos Franz, Friday 18 May, 10 – 11am at Auckland Writers Festival 2018

Chilean writer Carlos Franz, who arrived in Auckland some 24 hours before his conversation with Tom Moody, has spent the little time he has had in Auckland trying to find traces of Katherine Mansfield in the city, with little success. When you come to a country you don’t know, he levels, you spend your time looking for the elements familiar to you from literature.

This relationship between literature and place, in addition to power, emerges in various guises during the course of a convivial conversation. Carlos discovered literature as a place of refuge at the age of fourteen, when both his country and domestic life were a mess (his parents were going through a bitter divorce; the country witnessed a coup). He found that he could ‘live inside the book’ and that he too could create worlds through writing.

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It is this fourteen-year-old self that Tom asks to hear more from in relation to Allende’s overthrow. Carlos remembers being terribly disappointed and ‘instinctively against it’. The coup had practical implications: a curfew was enforced for the entirety of his youth. And psychologically: lunches at his grandfather’s would play out in the divides between left and right, ending in terrible arguments and family rifts. At the private school he attended, he was found to be an outsider again – first a reader among sporty types; now a leftist among the right.

He tells us that The Absent Sea, the only of his works to be translated into English, is his attempt to understand his relationship to Chile’s tumultuous past. The protagonist returns to Chile 20 years after the coup, to Pampa Hundida, a fictional city. It is a small town in the northern desert of Chile, a fertile and rich oasis surrounded by a menacing environment, a spiritual hub where once a year 100,000 people from across Latin America gather to celebrate the virgin and expunge their sins through rites.

For Carlos, Pampa Hundida can do something that a real city cannot. By mixing attributes found in the real world – physical, spiritual and otherwise – he was attempting to comprehend what happened in Chile – where force and the law, cruelty and compassion hung in the balance. ‘What could lead us to such cruelty? What sort of forces were latent that suddenly appeared?’

Tom guides the conversation to contemporary Chile and its literary scene, which is characterised by many small independent publishers – so many, according to Carlos, that it is in fact ‘hard to say what is happening’. The big ones are bankrupt and there is a reliance on Spanish publishing houses for distribution. We get a feel for Spain’s hegemony in Spanish-language literature – Carlos calls it the Rome for Spanish language writers, in that this is where the major critics, writers and publishing houses are. They are the gatekeepers deciding who will be lucky enough to be published beyond Latin America.

And what of the English-speaking world’s resistance to translated works? Carlos acknowledges that is notoriously difficult to be translated into English – only 2 per cent of works published in English are translated. Diplomatically, he suggests this is because the English-speaking world is vast, and has novels in English from Pakistan to South Africa, and that perhaps we are thus satisfied. But, he warns, this leads to cultural isolation. Over 40 per cent of works published in Spanish are translated; readers are better informed about the rest of the world. (As we find out during question time, he read Mansfield’s The Garden Party at age 15 – it was translated in the 30s).

Carlos rallies the audience, saying in these times of diminished outlets for literature, one can still take a stand. There is an act of rebellion in participating in literature at all: ‘Writers and readers are resisting a world that is trying to crush us’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

The Absent Sea (El desierto) 
Published by McPherson
ISBN 9781944689902

Carlos Franz will appear again at free event Disappearances
on Sunday, 20 May 1:30pm – 2:20pm
Limelight Room, Aotea Centre

 

 

 

AWF18: Fiction and Factions – Fiona Farrell

Fiction and Factions – The University of Auckland Free Public Lecture: Fiona Farrell 

fiona_farrellWhat makes a novel political? In the salubrious surrounds of the Heartland Festival Room the expectant gather for Fiona Farrell’s lecture and settle in with their wines. What follows is accomplished, rich and moving (what goes better with wine than sweet words?).

Does the novel’s political status depend on authorial intention or because contemporary political figures are mentioned? And why is it that her most recent work, the novel Decline and Fall on Savage Street, the companion volume to The Villa at the Edge of Empire, is the only one of her works that has been dubbed political?

Fiona agrees with Carol Hanisch that the personal is political; you cannot escape it. Every imagining is inescapably political – all of her own works are political for they are the product and culmination of her Irish ancestors arriving here, having an education and the good health to write, and the readers with the money to buy her books.

Julius Vogel, flush with the success of the colonies and in his ‘gouty retirement’, wrote New Zealand’s first political novel, Anno Domino 2000 – it was ‘tosh’. There are other, better known (and simply better) examples: 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale ‘have regained currency’ in light of the Five Eyes network, mass surveillance, images of burqas and conceptions of Islam. Fiona’s point is that the ‘political is reframed within our preoccupations’.

In some novels, the political dimension is quieter. There is Jane Austen with her efficient, coded comments: by using ‘retrench’ in relation to Sir Walter’s finances in Persuasion, she alludes to the libertine Prince Regent’s response to a parliament asking him to reign in his spending. Words become politically charged. We are asked to consider ‘excellence’ and ‘opportunity’ – these are loaded, tinged with the neoliberal.

But in this sphere, absence is also striking. There are no novels about the Wahine or Erebus disasters. Fiona suggests that perhaps we feel too close in a small country, that ‘fiction is eclipsed by reality’. War novels were written long after the war. It was some 20 years before Robin Hyde’s Passport to Hell, and Maurice Gee’s Plumb was written decades after the events he describes in it. Fiona contends that these imaginings are closer to the truth than the journalism of the time with its edits, omissions and political motivations.

The novel can place its ‘finger on the incident so tiny it would otherwise go unnoticed’ and can lead to a change in thinking. But in the public sphere, our divides are not critically examined – gender, race and the political, where left is set against right in a ‘fierce and visceral manner’. It is not the law that silences us, but rather what Fiona dubs ‘supermarket syndrome’ – fear we might bump into people or lose that promotion. Instead our public political imaginings are left to the political commentators, the likes of Garner and Hosking.

Finally, Fiona turns to Christchurch and its prolonged disaster – the subject of her two books. Its unsteady ground was charged with disaster capitalism and the dominant narrative that played out was that ‘it was a great place to do business’. In Christchurch, the writing is on the hoardings at the library under construction; they speak of break-out rooms, an espresso bar and so on, but no mention of books. Here, Fiona identifies a public dismissal of fiction, part of the same movement and culture that does not respect universities, that lauds money and the physical.

The novel does such important work in a nation lacking wider critical political discourse. It can locate the ‘Tiny intimate pain where all politics have their origin and end’.

I was moved to think that quietly and thanklessly, the New Zealand fiction writers carry on, boats against the current, keeping political discourse and imaginings alive.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Decline and Fall on Savage Street
Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770626

You can see:
Fiona Farrell in conversation with Alex Miller 
on Saturday, 19 May 2018, from 1.00 – 2.00pm, Heartland Room
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