There was a great buzz at the Aotea Centre on Thursday night for the gala festival event,
in which eight writers were invited to speak on the theme of truth and lies for seven minutes, with neither scripts nor props.
Auckland Writers Festival director Anne O’Brien introduced the evening with the rather startling assertion that artists have 229% more sex than average (truth? or damned lies and statistics?), before Carol Hirschfeld (left) stepped in with her newscaster’s air of unflappable calm to MC the evening.
First up was Nigerian British poet and performer Inua Ellams (left). Obviously supremely confident in front of an audience, he took to centre stage (rather than hiding behind the podium) to tell us a story of a long-ago breakup. “If all breakups were this beautiful”, he said, “I’d break up every day.” He painted a vivid picture of a Cambridge dorm room, a beautiful girl, and the sun coming out to illuminate a tear on her cheek. He helped heal the pain of heartbreak with poetry: “poetry helps me rediscover who I am”.
Ellams finished with that famous quote from Keats: ” ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Ellams was followed by celebrated photographer Marti Friedlander, hailed by Hirschfeld as a national treasure. She started with one minute’s silence for the abducted Nigerian girls − an uncomfortable truth if ever there were one − before lightening the mood by remarking that, in marriage, lies are often preferable. Charmingly, Friedlander confessed “I’ve told some fantastic lies in my time and I’m pleased to have told them.”
Next up was American novelist AM Homes (right), who, it turned out, had lied when she agreed to do a scriptless event, instead taking to the podium to read us an extract from her memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter. Nobody minded: she’s a superb storyteller, and gripped us all with a tale of her own beginnings. A lawyer heralded her birth: “your bundle has arrived, and it’s wrapped in pink ribbons.” She compared the discovery of bits of data about her birth parents to being a recovering amnesiac. Homes recalls the strangeness of meeting her birth father and recognising her body on him, “the departments of ass”. She left me with a desire to read her books.
The fourth writer/performer was explorer and historian Huw Lewis-Jones, standing in for Lawrence Hill, who had been prevented by illness from attending. Lewis-Jones strode barefoot onto the stage and structured his talk around his lack of shoes. He invited us to consider their absence: Was it to better appreciate the carpet? To use shoelessness as a prop? To illustrate the way his journeys follow in the footsteps of great explorers? Eventually he hinted he was following the advice of a kuia, who had told him to take off his shoes for his talk in order to better connect to the earth − and so as to not walk mud into the building.
British Lewis-Jones was followed by Scottish Irvine Welsh (left), author of Trainspotting. After commenting on the zombification of jet leg “(just like taking drugs, only without the fun part”), he launched into a rollicking yarn about a devilish cat. This cat, a giant, pit-bull-like tom (who I thought must have been like Greebo from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld), “kidnapped my wife” by trapping her in a bathroom. It then emigrated to Illinois with its owners, where it took on not only the neighbourhood cats but also a coyote! Welsh made us laugh and I was sorry to see him leave the stage.
Next up was Kiwi columnist and novelist Sarah-Kate Lynch (right) , spicing things up in a black tutu. She spoke feelingly about the terror being asked to go scriptless, and the way her seven minutes on stage had taken up hundreds of hours of worrying. Lynch promised to tell us the story of buying pyjamas for her dead father, but instead ended up talking about an anxiety dream she had had before the festival, in which she was delivering her seven-minute talk to us naked, and (in the dream) needed to bend down and pick up her lucky pen. I hope she is able to enjoy the feeling of relief that it’s now all over.
After Lynch we had a complete change of pace with Egyptian writer Yasmine El Rashidi, who somehow managed to come across as very private and shy while also being an excellent public speaker, creating a sense of intimacy in the huge Aotea Centre theatre. She spoke movingly about her absent father, who went away on business for a fortnight and was still gone twelve years later. Rashidi said her friends call her “slippery”, and told the story of slipping out of a writers’ retreat after being aggressively love-bombed by an ultra-successful bright young thing.
The final writer to grace the stage was the inimitable Alexander McCall-Smith, author of one of my favourite series, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He began with the grandiloquent claim to be the only writer present telling the truth, and proceeded to spin a tall tale about a trip Montalcino. He claimed that, in the absence of hire cars available, he instead hired a bulldozer in which to pootle about the Tuscan countryside: “the advantage of which is that you can remove the bits you don’t like”. I think it was the way he collapsed into laughter at this point which was my first clue that his claim to truth was itself a lie. His wonderful good humour was infectious and got the whole audience chuckling.
After Hirschfeld had summed up the writers’ performances, a short memoriam film was shown to mark the passing of many authors over the past twelve months. Then all writers returned to the stage and we were invited to meet them at the book signing table afterwards. One thing’s for certain: the festival’s off to a rollicking great start!
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
- Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival: Alexander McCall-Smith
- Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival: Huw Lewis-Jones