AWF18: Festival Gala Night – True Stories Told Live: Under Cover

AWF18 Festival Gala Night- True Stories Told Live: Under Cover 

The authors in this session were Susie Boyt (England), Lisa Dwan (Ireland); Gigi Fenster (South Africa/NZ); Alex Ross (US); Damon Salesa (Samoa/NZ); Tom Scott (NZ); Shashi Tharoor (India); and Jenny Zhang (US). Each of them have sessions later on in the Auckland Writers Festival programme. 

Tara Black illustrates, and Briar Lawry gives us her take on the session. 

AWF18 0 Gala 1

AWF18 1 Gala 2

Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black


Briar Lawry words 

The ‘True Stories Told Live’-themed Gala Night is by now a core part of the Auckland Writers Festival to look forward to each time May rolls around. This year’s theme, Under Cover, made for some riveting listening that would prove, as Festival Director Anne O’Brien said in summary: ‘some of them make you laugh, all of them make you think’.

But that’s putting the cart before the horse. In front of a packed ASB Theatre, O’Brien gave a world of welcome, and acknowledged the contribution of both the ‘generous and highly discerning funding partners’ and the support of individual patrons. She shared a few stories, the ‘profound moments’ provided by the festival so far – often relating to the great lengths taken by many of the festival guests to get here, to our far flung corner of the world.

She made one particularly significant comment: ‘We cannot change the privilege that we are born with – but we can change what we do with the privilege.’ This felt particularly relevant, given the predominantly Pākehā make up of the audience, especially when contrasted against the relative diversity of the writers of the night’s line-up. With the likes of Chinese-American writer Jenny Zhang, Indian writer and politician Shashi Tharoor and Samoan Kiwi Damon Salesa on stage, the stories being told frequently uncovered experiences unknown to the audience at large. (To be clear, I count myself among that ‘audience at large’ – while I am perhaps on the younger side of those in attendance, I am still a Pākehā woman.)

Things kicked off with someone a little closer to home and attendee demographic, with Tom Scott regaling the crowd with the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s summitting of Everest. He leaped between the hilarious, the meaningful, and the charmingly lewd. From Hillary’s blokiness to Norgay’s prayers of forgiveness as they continued the climb up this sacred peak, it was a rollicking start to the storytelling.

Jenny Zhang was next up, with an easy-going speaking style and a tale of life as a ‘latchkey kid’ and new arrival to New York City as a primary-school-aged child. ‘The curious case of the abandoned underwear’, she described it, going into the detail of an incident of a pair of knickers tripped over in the classroom. This small moment was skillfully connected back to Zhang’s arrival from Shanghai a couple of years earlier, with beautiful moments of remembering laid out for us to enjoy – looking up at the sky while crossing the Williamsburg Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn and thinking oh my god, the moon has followed me here – I’m so special.

Her story wove into days of being shut away at home for her lonesome safety, while creating elaborate potential futures, on which she mused ‘I was so delusional. I was so happy in my delusions.’

Taking ‘under cover’ to mean assuming a persona or acting, critic and author Alex Ross assured us that acting is ‘something for which I have no talent whatsoever’. But, as he pointed out, there was ‘the sense of assuming an identity before coming out’.

Ross led us through the story of his return to his secondary school to speak to the Gay/Straight Alliance club – something that he, a closeted child of the 80s could never have dreamed of existing at his ‘conservative, Episcopalian, all-boys’ school. His era was one when ‘the word gay wasn’t as common as the word fag’, he said, so to have this opportunity to be invited with open arms – to a talk in the school chapel, no less – was something else.

Susie Boyt had a more practised delivery than those who came before – each word feeling a little more rehearsed, but not at the detriment to her story. She spoke of the oddities of life as a writer and the gaps betwen writing, reckoning that ‘the life you’re living when you’re not writing becomes so far-fetched’. She also made the quite fair point that the phrase ‘you’ve made your bed, now lie in it’ is ‘actually quite comforting when taken literally. How’s that for under cover(s)?

Damon Salesa’s story of his preteen pilgrimage with his father to Manuʻa in American Samoa hit the balance of humour and gut punches, as he spoke about the experience of being in the direct line of the devastating Cyclone Tusi in 1987. The candid Kiwi kid matter-of-fact humour – ‘when you grow up in Glen Innes, and you hear American Samoa, all you hear is America’, with a touch of his Pasifika roots ‘I had a very Samoan problem – my jandal got caught’.

Salesa’s poignant reference to a woman from the village covering him and his young cousins with a shower curtain as limited protection from the elements brought home the ‘under cover’ intentions of the night – while his description of flying the US flag upside down to indicate distress brought a dose of haunting reality to his piece.

South African-born and now Aotearoa-based lawyer and writer Gigi Fenster had the audience in stitches as she waxed lyrical about her daughters’ tattoo planning – and how low her bar could or should be for tolerance of these specific ways of taking ownership of newly adult bodies. She was unafraid to poke fun at herself: ‘when it comes to bellybutton and tongue piercings, I am a bougie snob’, and played up the under cover aspect in her contemplating her own double life of lawyer-ing and writing.

Lisa Dwan was a bright and delightful presence on stage as she explained her curious instances of the universe knocking her and Alec Baldwin (and his wife, Hilaria) together. ‘No one knows’, she intoned at the start of her story, ‘what fecking path life is going to put you on’. Certainly the lightest and fluffiest in tone of the stories being shared, Dwan’s inherent performative talent meant it didn’t feel that it was out of place – just a shift from what had come before.

The final guest to take to the stage was Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and writer. His story was, he said from the outset, not a personal story, but one with a personal connection. It was certainly the heaviest of the stories, in his describing of the ways in which First World War-era India was made hollow promises by the British. The specific instance referred to was the horrific Amritsar massacre, where over 1000 were gunned down due to being in a gathering of Indians together – while all they were there to do was celebrate Baisakhi, a Sikh spring festival.

While he gave the atrocities their due emotional resonance, he did manage to add pops of levity before getting to the really awful stuff – the comment ‘The sun never set on the British Empire, because even God couldn’t trust the English in the dark’ elicited laughter from the audience – and it wasn’t until he told the full story that it became clear just how true that comment was in connection with this tragic event.

As is always the way with these gala nights, it was the perfect way to kick off the festival proper. The emotional ups and downs are a certain precursor of the events to come – and it provided a chance to catch a glimpse of some writers perhaps previously unknown.

Reviewed by Tara Black in pictures, and Briar Lawry in words.

Each person named above is linked to their bios, which will in turn take you to the sessions at which you can catch these eminent writers. 

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

 

Email digest: Wednesday 14 August 2013

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Book reviews
Book Review: Pat Hanly, by Gregory O’Brien & Gil Hanly

Book Review: The Intentions Book, by Gigi Fenster

Events

True Stories Told Live – the XX Factor is in Auckland, tonight.

David Larsen is talking with Eleanor Catton at Takapuna Library, this Friday evening.

Authors dancing? No no… Books and bubbles for Kaikoura

Jo Seager launches A Bit of What You Fancy, at high tea events in October…

Book News
While the Australian National Bookshop Day is over, it is no reason to stop celebrating them. 

Which book would you pick for ‘Book Club in a Box!’ ‘The White Princess’ or ‘The River of No Return.’ Win here

Find Waldo a Shop Local success in US

Wendell Berry wins the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award   His #poetry

Kobo Glo E-Reader — A Bookseller’s Review

Frankfurt Book Fair is nearly here again – here is a preview from Publishing Perspectives

Awards News
Two new reviews of #nzpba books – The Intentions Book, and Pat Hanly

There are only 4 MORE DAYS to vote for your  #nzpba People’s Choice and be in to win $1000 in Book Tokens

From around the internet
Ever wondered what Shaun Tan drew as a child? Listen to the curator talk about his exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery

Because we know there are a lot of English majors excelling at bookselling


Happy Birthday to bestselling author Danielle Steel! What’s your favourite Danielle Steel novel?


Thug Notes takes on Hamlet…priceless

How to find reviewers for your self-published book…

What a great idea! How Cooking Can Encourage Your Child to Read