WORD Christchurch: Mortification

WORD Christchurch: Mortification

After a hectic day getting riled up about Brexit and then learning to Vogue the FAFSWAG way, I settled down with relief for some good old-fashioned storytelling.

WORD Christchurch director Rachael King took to the stage first to introduce the Mortification session, inspired by an anthology of the same name edited by Robin Robertson in which writers tell stories of their public shame. She was joined in person by Robertson, Paula Morris, Steve Braunias, Megan Dunn, and Jarrod Gilbert; and in spirit by Irvine Welsh.

After a brief word from Robertson we were treated to a video from Welsh, who told a truly horrifying story of having shat himself in public and then trying to clean himself up in a filthy public loo. The tale also involved being laughed at by a bunch of drunk Glaswegians while standing naked from the waist down trying to wash himself in the sink. So gross – yet so funny. He really set the tone.

Morris was up next. ‘I have no public befoulings’ she said, to my relief, but instead told a story of ‘a thousand small humiliations’, often involving miniskirts. ‘I have the legs of a Polynesian seafarer and they need to be on display’ – but various wardrobe malfunctions have meant ‘once again feeling the breeze where the breeze should not be felt’. Her story of being perched awkwardly on a posh chair at an opera concert ‘vagina on velvet’ was particularly well told – and most women will be able to relate to the mortification of an unexpected period just when you’ve chosen to wear white trousers.

Braunias’ story was beautifully composed, with apparently unrelated details all coming together at the end. He first said he’d spied Helen Clark here at WORD, ‘storming along like a southerly in slacks’, before reminiscing about his life as a young man in Wellington – ‘the city felt like a jagged edge’ – refusing to go on his OE because NZ was too strange and baffling to leave. I can’t do justice to the story without relating it in full – hopefully there will be a second volume of Mortification and you’ll be able to read it for yourself. Suffice to say that I will never see the back of Helen Clark’s head the same way again.

Dunn took us in a completely different direction with a tale of trying to be a mermaid – including repeated use of the term ‘mermazing’ which I now wish to work into my everyday conversations. As part of her research for her forthcoming book, she took a mermaiding class in Florida, where ‘the heat sat on my skin like processed cheese’. She was told to undulate not just her body but also her head and neck: ‘I felt really dumb’. But she gave it a try – ‘middle age is gamely keeping going’ – despite a ‘deep sense of ugliness that’s hard to shake’. Dunn concluded that her happy place is in a bookshop, not the water, where mermaids are safely sealed within the pages of books ‘where they bloody should be’.

Our final storyteller was Gilbert, who told the story of trying to win a bet to run a marathon in three and a half hours. This involved him striding to the centre of the stage to act out a particularly mortifying episode from his training whereby he had to take an emergency dump in public on the side of the Sumner causeway, ‘possibly the most exposed piece of geography on earth’. He called the marathon ‘cruel and despicable insanity’ – but he did win the bet when he finished with a time of 3 hours 28 minutes. ‘It’s very difficult for me to describe just how little satisfaction that gave me.’

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Auckland Writers Festival, Friday 16 May

Al-Khalili, Jim (c) Furnace LtdMy first event today, A Question of Civilisations, was a panel discussion between Iraq-born scientist Jim Al Khalili (left), Egyptian writer and campaigner Yasmine El Rashidi and Iranian-born scholar of religions Reza Aslan, chaired by Radio New Zealand’s Susie Ferguson. The discussion was wide-ranging, from the West’s perception of the East to the ‘youth bulge’ in the populations of Middle Eastern countries; and from the history of Arabic achievement in the sciences to the way media narrative shapes our views of other cultures. I found it utterly fascinating and was very sorry when the session ended.


Aslan characterised the cultural shift taking place amongst Middle Eastern young people as the casting off of ascribed identities, the rejection of both colonialism and counter-colonialism and the creation instead of an identity that does not rely on foreign definitions. Rashidi, who had spoken so intimately at the gala night the evening before, talked about how Egyptian women are choosing to wear the veil increasingly as a sign of cultural identity rather than religious affiliation, and how the sense of inferiority that she remembers feeling compared to Westerners when she was a child is gradually draining away. I was particularly struck by the way Khalili (who is currently the president of the British Humanist Association) spoke of the opening up of the world (in terms of increased connectivity through technology) as hopefully leading to a “moral homogeneity”; a global civilisation in which we can all agree what is right and what is wrong. What an extraordinary dream.

Welsh, Irvine  bw c Rankin 2Next up was Scottish author Irvine Welsh (left) in conversation with Noelle McCarthy. In common with the previous session, it was chaired by a Radio New Zealand presenter, giving me that strange sensation you only get when a familiar voice turns out to have a (completely unfamiliar) body. Also in common were themes of media and narrative, and the ways in which news media ascribes story arcs and three-act structures to real life, which is of course messy, fragmented and illogical.

Welsh, who I’d also seen at the gala night the previous evening, slipped very smoothly into interview mode: since the success of Trainspotting a decade ago, he has obviously become a professional novelist and a regular on thegatecrash festival circuit. His accent – unlike that of many of his famous characters – was easy to understand, and he and McCarthy had an excellent rapport. He came out with some great quotes:  “As a Scot, it’s my birthright to look silly without any clothes on”; “I love the way we’re constantly undermined by our physical selves”; “learning to de-role might have saved my first marriage”; “sometimes characters gatecrash their way into a novel”.

Writer-Alexander-McCall-S-001And lucky me: I got to spend An Evening with Alexander McCall Smith! (also with an unnervingly embodied familiar RNZ voice, Jim Mora.) From the moment he appeared, Smith (left) had the packed-out theatre audience in the palm of his hand. He was friendly, charming, completely at ease; seemingly genuinely pleased to be with us and enjoying spinning us yarns. He was welcomed onto the stage by a bassoon player, in honour of Smith’s role as progenitor of the Really Terrible Orchestra http://thereallyterribleorchestra.com/wordpress/ in Edinburgh. (He joked that they only get conductors who are on community service.)

The good news, if you’re a fan of Smith’s books, is that there are a hell of a lot of them and they keep coming, at the astounding rate of four or five novels each year. He told us he writes a thousand words a day and that he’s due to finish off

 Mma Precious Ramotswe

Mma Precious Ramotswe

the latest Ladies’ No 1 Detective Agency manuscript by the end of the week (huzzah for more Mma Ramotswe!). He calls this “serial novelism” and notes that it is invariably fatal. And, as if this didn’t keep him busy enough, he’s also a publisher, running a small press that publishes his “friends’ mothers’ books – most mothers do write books”. He invited the audience to send him their mothers’ manuscripts.

As with A Question of Civilisations earlier today, conversation turned to Western perceptions of other cultures, in this case African culture in the Botswana of the Ladies’ No 1 Detective Agency. Because Smith’s books are generally happy, he is often accused of wearing rose-tinted spectacles, of being patronising; of being fundamentally unable, as a white man, to write in the voice of a black woman. His response? Although there are undoubtedly bad things in the world, “I believe in denial, it’s really really good”. Unlike Welsh, Smith chooses to focus on kindness and forgiveness rather than cruelty and degradation, and it’s obviously working – the theatre was full not just of people who’d come to hear him talk, but of devoted fans.

Today has been a mixture of two of the things I love most about writers festivals: seeing writers whose works I have enjoyed, and hearing very different, separate discussions which seem to connect to each other in unexpected ways. Looking forward to tomorrow!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage


New Zealand Listener Gala Opening Night: True Stories Told Live – Truth and Lies

True Stories Told Live: Truth and LiesAWF_2014_Get-The-Full-Story

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.

pp_inua_ellamsFirst 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), homes_amwho, 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.

Irvine WelshBritish 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 pp_sarah-kate-lynchsmltutu. 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.

bulldozerThe 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