AWF18: Wrestling with the Devil – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

AWF18: Wrestling with the Devil – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Occasionally at festivals like this, you get moments of where you feel utterly honoured by someone’s presence. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is one such person. While his name was not one I was familiar with before the AWF announcements, a little reading up in advance of his session quickly had me bowled over. And then, despite his 80 years, he proceeded to bowl me over once again at his main AWF session.

thiongo
Ngũgĩ was in conversation with Kubé Jones-Neill, who, perhaps deducing that many in the audience had not yet read extensive amounts of Ngũgĩ’s work, noted that the aim for the session would be to introduce his wider body of work to the audience, and provide a context for his writing to date.

Kubé began with a line of questioning around the transitional era in which Ngũgĩ grew up, mentioning that he was born into colonial Kenya, but by the time he graduated from university, ‘it was an independent Kenya.’

As he would prove charmingly adept at doing to over the next hour, Ngũgĩ took the reins of the conversation and drove things in rather a different direction. Eventually, we would get back to his formative years, but first of all there were important stories to be shared about his relationship with New Zealand.

He first visited Aotearoa in 1984, when he was invited to give the Robb Lectures at the University of Auckland – lectures that would ultimately lead to the publication of Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, one of his best known non-fiction works. These language-oriented lectures coincided with Māori Language Week, which was perhaps part of what spurred a conversation he had with a Māori woman after one of the lectures.

‘She said, “you are not talking about Kenya – you are talking about us – the Māori people”.’ – an anecdote that spoke to the power and parallels of the post-colonial experience across the world.

This conenction with UoA led to Ngũgĩ’s being awarded with an honorary doctorate in 2005. ‘So technically,’ he said with a grin, ‘I’m an old student! I’m back home.’

Having meandered a ways from Kubé’s question, Ngũgĩ was suddenly perhaps conscious of this fact, as before he headed on another tangent, he turned to her and asked ‘can I say this?’

Permission happily granted, he shared a tale about how he came to love mussels, courtesy of a trip to Waiheke on a previous Kiwi voyage. ‘In the Kenyan highlands, they are very suspicious of things that come from the sea. To her dying day, my mother would not eat fish – even if she was starving.’

So he was very suspicious of shellfish, mussels among them. But when in Auckland, Selina Tusitala Marsh invited him on a trip over to Waiheke, and while they walked on the beach together, Selina collected ‘some things’. They returned to her house, and her mother cooked ‘something’. When the food was laid out, it was – to Kenyan highlander Ngũgĩ’s horror – mussels. But unable to refuse food cooked by his friend’s mother, he ate it – ‘and from that day on, we became converts. Wherever we go, we ask for mussels.’

Courtesy of this revelation – and other soft spots for our shores, Ngũgĩ said firmly: ‘New Zealand is always on my mind.’

Appetite’s for cheerfully enchanting stories having been whetted by the mussel story, Ngũgĩ finally turned back to his earlier years. ‘As a novelist, you’re always drawing on the resources of your own life.’

He was born on the eve of the Second World War to a family with one father and four mothers – his own biological mother his father’s three other wives. It was his mother that really had the biggest impact on his life. ‘She couldn’t read or write, but her dream of education was realised [through me].’ She was the one who pushed him into school, to achieve great things. And even though she couldn’t read his work and keep tabs on his progress that way, Ngũgĩ said ‘She had a way of asking probing questions until she had an idea of knowing how I was doing.’

She put in his head ‘the idea of the best’, he said­, though he also said that ‘she was more interested in whether or not I put in enough effort.’

In an ongoing effort to provide as much valuable context for the audience as possible, he described the segregated nature of his school – Alliance High School – and an African History 101 type brief overview of settler versus non-settler colonies. While inside the school gates he took lessons and expanded his horizons, the outside world was a place of war and fights for liberation.

‘School became a kind of refuge for me. You could close your eyes and not hear the sound of war.’ When he went home to his village after his first term, he returned to a place that had been razed to the ground. ‘Desolation,’ he described it. ‘I’m getting teary when I think about it now.’

And university came next – specifically, Makarere University. ‘For me, it was a remarkable period in my life, those four years between ’59 and ’64 – when I graduated. I came out with an honours degree, two novels, eight short stories, newspaper articles and so on.’

Kubé asked him what he had been writing about, to which Ngũgĩ responded: ‘I was trying to understand myself in history.’

After a little tale about how his first novel was written for a competition – and therefore ‘for money!’ rather than love of the craft. Discussion wove around his journalistic pursuits, his scholarship to the University of Leeds – which was a real eye-opener for Ngũgĩ, introducing him to different types of thinkers like Marx and writers like Conrad, all of which had their respective influences on him.

Every fragment of his history that was shared seemed to have some kind of evocative fish out of water moment – like when he was invited to New York for PEN’s international conference, and he found himself trying out different poses for how a writer ‘should’ sit.

But the next core focus of the discussion was of his shift in his approach to writing and language and to the surrounding colonial environment.

He was instrumental in the ‘abolition of the English department’ at Nairobi University – really a shift in naming and focuses to beyond the traditional Britain-focused literary tradition, moving from Department of English to Department of Literature. ‘We were accused of abolishing Shakespeare – but no, Shakespeare would still be there, alongside other writings.’

‘That was the beginning of my fracas with the postcolonial government in Kenya.’

Petals of Blood, published in 1977 was the last novel Ngũgĩ wrote in English – marking a shift to prioritising his native tongue of Gikuyu. Devil on the Cross was written in a maximum security prison in 1978, where he was detained without charge for a year after his involvement in the setting up of African theatre in the area.

The conversation continued for a little while longer, reestablishing his connections to and fondness for New Zealand. Prior to his final reading, he kept getting caught on tangent after tangent, contextualisation after contextualisation – and ultimately, everything was the richer for it. This was a man of incredible history and reputation, and we were more than happy for him to drive the session on his own terms.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Wrestling with the Devil
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9781784702243

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Book Review: False River, by Paula Morris

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_false_riverThis is a very sophisticated collection of short stories, which sit comfortably together. While many have been previously published in magazines, or read on radio, bringing them together allows the reader to appreciate the true depth of Morris’s writing. The title story, False River was a finalist in the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in the UK, and Morris is no stranger to awards for her writing.

I am not a regular reader of short stories as once I have sorted out characters and setting, I prefer to settle in for a long read. But this collection allowed me to enter each world quickly and with minimal fuss as I became engrossed by the stories. It was a revelation.

Morris knows her settings. Be it New Orleans, Mexico or Latvia, we are quickly immersed in a familiar world where small details add depth. Some stories deal with relationships such as the delightful story Isn’t It. Here we have the Auckland housing crisis meeting family mourning. The meeting of these two worlds is beautifully portrayed.

A well-chosen black and white photo follows some stories. I like the inclusion of visual art within the written text as it adds another layer for the reader. However, I was a little disappointed at the cover of the collection. The dark blue, understated cover did not live up to the quality of the stories and artwork within the  book. Even the endpapers were more creative.

I really enjoyed this collection: it seems, after a thirty-year standoff with short stories, Paula Morris has lured me back. I would pick the book up to read one story, and then sneak another too. Of course, this meant I was running late!

This is the perfect summer read. A sleep, a swim or even a small wine could follow each story.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

False River
by Paula Morris
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9780143771630

 

 

Book Review: Love As A Stranger, by Owen Marshall

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_love_as_a_strangerI have never read Owen Marshall before. I don’t know why, as he is certainly well-known in New Zealand writing circles, well-reviewed and favoured by many. His speciality is short stories, featuring acute observation of behaviour and motivations.

The central premise behind Love as a Stranger is the quote “When love is not madness, it is not love”, penned by seventeenth-century Spanish poet and writer Pedro Calderon de la Barca. Our culture is saturated with love stories gone wrong – usually involving young lovers. We think of the madness, craziness and recklessness of new love as being the domain of the young – think Romeo and Juliet. Very rarely do we hear of wild, crazy, obsessional love applying to older people, people who maybe past their physical prime, people facing difficult questions related to ageing. This is exactly what Owen Marshall tackles in this novel.

Sarah is in her late fifties. She and Robert have been married for many years, mostly successfully, sometimes not, but to their credit seem to have stuck together, lived a good married life, and are now planning on growing old together. However things aren’t so rosy at the moment, with Robert having chemotherapy treatment for a cancer. They have moved from Hamilton to Auckland for the duration of the treatment, living in an inner-city apartment. They don’t know many people in Auckland, so their daily lives revolve around Robert’s treatment programme, and his need for rest. Sarah is quite literally at a loose end, which gives her plenty of time for long walks, contemplation, and drinking coffee in the many city cafes. She is observed by Hartley, early sixties, recently widowed and understandably lonely, slightly disoriented and also at a bit of loose end.

One day while walking through the Symonds St cemetery, Sarah stops at a grave for a 17-year-old girl, murdered by a spurned lover way back in 1886, when Hartley, a random stranger also walking through the cemetery, happens to join her. So begins a friendship that very quickly becomes a love affair. This is a first for Sarah, and for awhile she fully embraces the excitement, the anticipation, the attention, the flattery, the subterfuge. Until she senses that things are tipping over slightly from a good fun time into something a little more obsessive and disquieting. She has to make the decision between her husband, Robert or her new lover, Hartley. Naturally there are consequences, none of them good, of whatever decision she makes.

My plot summary gives the impression that this is Sarah’s story, but it is actually more the story of Hartley, with Sarah and the love affair being the catalyst for the madness of love that develops. The tone throughout the book is slightly menacing and sinister. You know, really, from page two and the words on the headstone in the cemetery that something is going to go badly wrong somewhere: it is really just a case of wondering at which point things are going to come undone.

Owen Marshall keeps the reader in an increasingly tightly-wound grip, precisely paced with really well drawn and complex characters. This has been greatly aided by the ominous illustrations at the beginning of each chapter – a long dark grey shadow of a suited man randomly placed onto a lighter grey background. It is a love story, but not really as we know it, and I am not sure if young(er) people would get as much out of this novel as those who are a similar age as the protagonists. It is about mature love, and love in the hearts of people who have different pressures on them than young lovers do. Sarah, for example has to consider not only her seriously ill husband, but the effects of her actions on her own children and grandchildren, and the ‘family’ unit she and Robert have made over the years. Things that would not enter the consciousness of childless, mortgage-free, financially independent young(er) things! But in an ageing population that is living longer, with marriages and relationships facing different pressures from those faced one generation back, there is quite a lot of reality here.

This really is a very good story, well-written, with suspense and interest maintained throughout, with above all very believable characters. They could quite literally be your next door neighbours, or your work colleagues. It is the three main characters who really make the story, as they face questions and issues, having to make decisions that many of us could now be facing or may possibly face in the future.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Love As a Stranger
by Owen Marshall
Published by Vintage (PRHNZ)
ISBN 9781775538578

Book Review: The Party Line, by Sue Orr

cv_the_party_lineAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

Set in a rural farming town in the 1970’s, under which an ugly truth smoulders, Sue Orr’s first novel, The Party Line, traces the arrival of new sharemilkers into the town of Fenward, and the disruption one particular family causes to that town’s culture of silent complicity to ugly acts.

The novel revolves around young Nickie Walker, the almost-teenage daughter of farmers, who strikes up a friendship with glamorous, charismatic Gabrielle Baxter, the daughter of a newly widowed sharemilker who has just moved to town. Gabrielle’s presence is immediately magnetic and disruptive, and it is under Gabrielle’s influence that Nickie begins to question the status quo of the town she’s grown up in. Moreover, when both girls witness something they wish they hadn’t, it is Gabrielle who is willing to do something about it, rather than to ‘toe the party line’.

Orr paints a portrait of this small farming town that is totally believable, with its Calf Club Days, its oppressively hot summers, and its clenched-fist, suspicious resistance to difference or change. There’s also a mob-mentality-like refusal to act when action is needed, and in some ways Orr’s delineation of this reflects that quintessentially Kiwi saying “She’ll be right”. In this context, saying “She’ll be right” just means ignoring a problem until it goes away, and Orr’s novel shows all too clearly how troubling such an attitude can be.

Despite the overall intense believability of the rest of the characters, I had some difficulty believing in Gabrielle, the catalyst for so much of the action in this novel. To me, her charisma and allure were not enough for me to understand her character fully, and as such, her character remained an enigma, or, if anything, a performance (multiple times she seems to pretend to cry—which confounds both the characters in the book, and confounded me!) On occasion I wondered if she was a kind of ‘manic pixie dream girl’ – a charming bundle of slightly odd characteristics embodied in a character, but not a real person. In the end, I decided that she wasn’t—she has a background, and some kind of inner life—but our access to that inner life seems always to be obstructed. The slipperiness of her character strangely dimmed my enjoyment of the book.

In contrast, I found the subtle transformation of Nickie’s mother Joy to be extremely compelling. Seen at first as something of a harridan by her daughter, Joy Walker eventually becomes a much deeper, nuanced character, who has herself become aware of the strain of nastiness that runs through the town. It is this kind of gentle, sure-footed development of characters in this novel that I found most absorbing, and, along with Orr’s well-shaped prose, is, I believe, what makes this novel such high quality reading. An assured debut novel.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

The Party Line
by Sue Orr
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9781775537557

Dunedin Festival Foreword: Witi Ihimaera explores ‘Where is New Zealand literature going?’

Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2015 DWRF image

The 2015 Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival opened officially tonight with the Festival Foreword. The audience were treated to a haka powhiri from the combined Kings and Queens High Schools kapa haka group, before the chairperson of the Festival, Alexandra Bligh, opened proceedings. After an opening mihi from Professor John Broughton and an introduction from NZ Book Council chairperson Peter Biggs, special guest Witi Ihimaera delivered the NZ Book Council address, on the topic “Where is New Zealand literature going?”

 Witi Ihimaera speaks at the Dunedin Writers festival. Photo by Gregor Richardon, copyright ODT

Witi Ihimaera speaks at the Dunedin Writers festival. Photo copyright Gregor Richardson, from the Otago Daily Times 

In a wide-ranging, entertaining and provocative speech (which I hope was recorded or transcribed, as it deserves repeat listening), Ihimaera’s address circulated around questions of nationalism and the current state of affairs in writing and among the younger generation. He pointed out the two forces that have apparently defined New Zealand literature – the nationalistic urge, or the aspiration to write the nation, and the individualist urge, with an author fighting to keep his or her own sense of self, citing Katherine Mansfield, “New Zealand’s first literary exile”, as an example of this (and tracing a direct line from her to Eleanor Catton). The same two forces work on readers as well: as Ihimaera put it, “we want our writers to stay New Zealanders but are still dazzled when divinity is conferred from elsewhere”.

After Ihimaera asked the audience to discuss amongst ourselves what qualifies as New Zealand literature (a little interactive trick he used to charming effect throughout his address), Ihimaera considered where New Zealand literature was now – or rather, “where it’s wallowing”. Though in his eyes the nationalist literature of previous generations gave New Zealand literature “great bones”, the nationalist imperative “lost its mojo” somewhere along the way, and New Zealand writers now are writing without that imperative on their minds at all. He mentioned Anthony McCarten (screenwriter for the film The Theory of Everything), who talked about being in “the post definition period” i.e. that we no longer need to define who we are. Ihimaera seemed on the whole to disagree with this assertion, pushing for a renewed focus on New Zealand and our lives here on the Pacific Rim. Though Ihimaera acknowledged the very significant successes of Nalini Singh, Paul Cleave, Neil Cross and Nicky Pellegrino, he also asked, “is a paranormal novel New Zealand literature?”

Later in his address, Ihimaera also talked about the preponderance of young writers coming out of creative writing courses, the effect of which seems to “melt” the writing into homogeneous prose that “blunted” New Zealand’s edge. “Where are the anarchic books?” he asked. This was a theme he returned to several times, saying that he “missed the sense of risk” in today’s literature. In the later Q&A session, Ihimaera also said that, though today’s writing was beautiful, it was “so pared back” that it doesn’t allow for “elbows jutting out” – while also acknowledging that “today we don’t go for that kind of imperfection”. Having said that, Ihimaera also pointed to a generation gap between himself and these younger writers, asking “What New Zealand do we see? What New Zealand do the mokopuna see? Is it the same?” Ihimaera was questioned about these two main themes by an audience member who pointed out that the nationalistic urge is a collective one, while young people today are increasingly individualized and internationalised in outlook. Ihimaera responded by accepting he might not be right, but noting that there seemed to be a “dysfunction in the whakapapa”; he noted the intense interest surrounding Gallipoli, especially among young people, which indicated that the interest in history and research was there, and yet, no novels appeared about Gallipoli itself. He further asked the audience, “What is Pakeha culture? What are you sharing with your mokopuna?”

Nevertheless, Ihimaera didn’t seem to be bereft of hope for the future. He talked (withsome fascination and excitement) of his mixed-race grandchildren, wondering what stories their genealogy might throw up, and acknowledged the importance of getting the younger generation reading. And finally, when a nineteen-year-old writer asked Ihimaera what he would say to any other young writers out there, he advised her very warmly to “believe in yourself, and don’t hear other voices” – that is, other voices except your own – and to try to get yourself into the most natural (artistic) position possible to enable your voice to come out fully and naturally. He also asserted that the aim of artistic endeavour is “to achieve excellence” and to “go for longevity, and go for broke”.cv_Maori_boy

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Witi’s latest book is the first part of his biography:

Maori Boy
Published by Vintage (Random House NZ)
ISBN 9781869797263

Book Review: The Legend of Winstone Blackhat, by Tanya Moir

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Tanya Moir’s third novel, The Legend of Winstone Blackhat, cv_the_legend_of_winstone_blackhatskillfully weaves together the story of a young social outcast with the wide open spaces of a John Wayne-style Western to create a novel that is lyrical and deeply felt. The novel follows Winstone Haskett, a twelve-year-old runaway living rough in Central Otago. As the novel unfolds, taking us slowly but inorexably towards the event that caused him to run away, we also see into Winstone’s active imagination, where he dreams himself into the cowboy Westerns he loves so much.

The contrast between the Westerns in his head and the real-life nightmares around him couldn’t be more striking. Winstone’s father is a violent drunk, his brother is headed in the same direction, and his little sister, silent Marlene, is a passive, frightened victim. As a reader, it was often a relief to escape from the aggression and bullying of Winstone’s reality into his made-up Westerns, where men do the right thing and there’s still honour among thieves. His imaginary Westerns cleverly evoke the tropes of a classic Western film:

The sky was a hell of a thing. […] It was universal. Paramount. […] Cooper and the Kid rode up into it, all the way from the line of the river below, crawling up the edge of the sky into the eye of judgement. It took most of the day. Time lapsed. The sun shifted.

At the same time, though, Winstone’s Westerns echo real-life occurrences and bring out further thematic resonances, enriching your experience of the novel.

As the novel’s narrative threads intertwine, the character of Winstone comes into focus. He’s totally believable as a young urchin, bullied by kids at school, repeatedly taken advantage of, and forced to be quick-thinking and resourceful in order to survive. Moir’s style is never to judge him for his actions, so her authorial voice often takes a backseat, choosing to merely present Winstone in precise, clear detail to draw us into Winstone’s point of view. We grow to understand Winstone so well that by the time we reach the climax of the novel, that climax is utterly tragic, and also totally inevitable. The ending Moir gives you is the only one that she could have written.

So much of this novel’s story is contained in the long, loping sentences Moir uses to describe the Central Otago landscape. Moir’s descriptions are another refuge (for Winstone and the reader) from real life, wonderfully setting up both place and tone:

Below him the line of [the gully’s] lip was a slow blue wave seeping back through the grass and in its wake the slope glinted keen and fresh and gold and further back and above and behind and all around the reef of the Rough Ridge Range spread under the sky with the brown grass mounting the rocks like a furious tide and the sun that shone on the range was not tame but a thing to tread around carefully, a stalking thing fierce and yellow and thin that might, if it chose, rip out your throat and pick your bones.

Perhaps the overall tone of the novel is reflected in that description: on the one hand, threatening and menacing; on the other hand, warm, idyllic, “keen and fresh and gold”.

This is a novel that will linger with you for a long time.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

The Legend of Winstone Blackhat
by Tanya Moir
Published by Vintage (Random House NZ)
ISBN 9781775537755

Sylvie Simmons – Mr Cohen Revealed at #AWRF

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, 17 May, 5.30pm

Sylvie Simmons – click image for source

Both host Noelle McCarthy and writer Sylvie Simmons looked every inch rock’n’roll for this session, both head to foot clad in black velvet/lace/denim. One of the world’s leading rock journalists, Simmons is the author of a recent biography of Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man  during the writing of which she had access to both the man himself and his archives. (She has also written biographies of Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young.)

She charmed the audience from the first minute with her honesty, wit and ability to tell a tale well. Clearly this was a session filled with music-nerds and Leonard Cohen-devotees hoping for juicy details and original anecdotes from biographer Simmon’s close proximity with the enigmatic musician, and she delivered both in abundance.

cv_i'm_your_manNoelle spoke of how Simmon’s strength as a biographer was the way she cultivated a sense of intimacy between the reader and the subject: “She allows you to meet the artist and to be party to their whole life: their creative process, their family, their public and private faces.” Simmonds described Leonard Cohen as “wise, droll and cool”, a man who was enjoying “a tsunami of love and affection at the end of his life.” Earlier in his career, his home country Canada and the USA were slow to see his genius and he was bigger in (according to Simmond’s) “the darker countries: the UK and Scandanavia.”

Early on, Cohen had a very conflicted relationship to his career. He suffered depression and always questioned his own motives for wanting fame. He said that taking his music on tour in the early days he felt like “a parrot and a pimp” but now he enjoys performing and touring and enjoys the irony of having “full-employment” in his seventies. He said of returning to touring after his long absence: “It was like returning to a beach years after your last visit to see if a sandcastle you’d built was still there.”

Sylvie Simmonds said she was shocked to discover the Cohen still enjoys drugs, including LSD and speed. When she commented on his use of speed, Cohen said “You should hear how slow I am when I’m not on speed.” She described the process of writing a biography of a living subject as being like “writing a murder mystery without a corpse” and enjoys the deep research involved. She said the the haunting quality of Leonard Cohen’s music was due to it being a mixture of ‘the sacred, the profane and the humane” and that Cohen (primarily a poet) saw his songs as “a mixture of prayer”.

This session was thick with wonderful details about Leonard Cohen, real gems, delightful morsels for the Cohen fan. My favourite morsels were:

  • Cohen likes McDonald’s ‘Fillet’o’Fish’ burgers, but prefers to get it to take-away so he can eat it at home with a glass of wine
  • As a young person, he was told by his family and his family Rabbi that he couldn’t sing
  • As a teenager he learned hypnosis and mesmerism, some of the skills of which have been useful in his performance career
  • Leonard was given slightly special treatment when he joined the Zen monastery on Mount Baldy: he had his own toilet, and was allowed to have a coffee and a cigarette each morning at 3am before joining the other monks for meditation
  • When meditating, he said he always had to work through his ‘Top 40’ sexual memories before he could settle his mind to meditation

There was much more besides, but perhaps the best way to get the low-down on Leonard Cohen is to read Simmons wonderful biography. At the end of the session, an audience member asked Simmons about how she became a rock journalist, she said it was all that she ever wanted to do because of her passion for both music and writing, but “because I appeared not to have a penis, I had to leave the UK for the USA where in Los Angeles I had a shot at it.”

Noelle McCarthy did a great job of hosting the session with energy and intelligent questions and Sylvie Simmons finished the session with a live ukelele version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ showing that not only is she a phenomenal writer, but she can sing with a beautiful high voice which sounded like early (pre-heroin) Marianne Faithful.

Here she is singing the same song at a different event:

Leaving the session with a new version of a classic Cohen song resounding around my head was the perfect way to exit this juicy, funny and riveting session.

Written by Helen Lehndorf.

Thank you to Auckland Writers & Readers Festival for providing Helen’s ticket to this event.

 I’m Your Man
by Sylvie Simmons
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9780099549321