A Zest for Life: Petina Gappah at #AWF16


‘Thanks for coming out, especially on a Sunday when you should really be in church. You’re all going to hell.’

pp_petina_zappahPetina Gappah exudes warmth, intelligence, fun and an almost childlike enthusiasm for learning and striving to achieve. I have to start at the finish by saying that my most anticipated book is now her forthcoming tale about Scottish explorer David Livingstone who died in Zambia, trying to discover the source of the Nile. Gappah is telling the story of the men and women who carried his body for 9 months (dried and smoked … “like biltong”) across Africa, towards the coast. I can’t wait for the book and I know I’m not alone – the entire (packed) room collectively hummed “mmmmmmm!”.

Bianca Zander was a formal chair – reading studiously from her notes. They were excellent questions but the conversation did feel a little stiff, particularly with such a joyous and funny guest to talk to. However, an aside.

cv_the_book_of_memoryGappah read from The Book of Memory, the story of an albino woman prisoner. The reading revealed that humour we’d seen in her from the outset, and the gift of rich dialogue and voice. For Gappah, her protagonist was always going to be albino because she set out to discuss race without talking about it – she is someone white without the privilege of being white, she is black without the identity of a black person. But over the years she took to write the novel, “all of that got lost, and in the end, Albinism was a way of showing that the family had a reason to think that there was a curse at play”.

Like many writers, Gappah suffered from anxiety of anticipation of the kind of criticism that says that a writer can only write from experience. “But I remembered that writing is an act of imagination and once I remembered that I was able to write this very interesting character”. The prison in which the character is stuck is an imagined space, but based on the largest high security prison in Zimbabwe that also contains within it the largest women’s prison. The place is, therefore, a very strange mix of offences (women are imprisoned for abortion, for example). Gappah had the opportunity to visit the prison but if she did, the government would have made her sign an agreement that would mean she could never write it. So she chose the version living in her imagination and formed from other pieces of information she gathered.

Being a high-flying trade lawyer in Geneva did come in handy, however, as the novel evolves as narrative of evidence to be used in a case of appeal. “I restrained what legal language I gave the character though – I didn’t want it to be a lawyerly book”. “And my secret passion is to be a historian anyway”, she laughs.

Petina Gappah is one of those extraordinarily talented people who you can’t envy – she is so generous and open that to be envious would feel like you were moving farther away from a person who you should really try to aspire to be more like. Writing time is early morning, before work, with the evening dedicated to revising the morning’s word count. Petina can survive on 5 – 6 hours sleep (she notes, not as good as Margaret Thatcher who got by on 4 hours – “I think that’s why she was so grumpy”) and she admires the Graeme Greene method of writing 500 words a day, meaning you can achieve a novel in three months – “and he meant exactly 500 words – he’d stop mid-sentence!”

cv_an_elegy_for_easterlyGappah discovered reading in 1980 (she was born in 1971) when her family moved to a place in Rhodesia where there were three libraries (her early schooling was extremely basic – “we had nothing”). She read all of the books in the children’s section, and thinks she read about 500 of Enid Blyton’s novels “but not Noddy, that was just a bridge too far”. Thomas Hardy is a particular influence and the kind of writer she wished she had spent more time aspiring to be before she published An Elegy for Easterly.

The kind of writer that Petina Gappah is not, is one that can write episodes of violence and physical destruction. “For me, I want to leave that to the readers imagination. I have respect for the writers, like Marlon James, who can go to that place, but I just can’t do it”. When she was young she read a book called Let’s go to play at Adam’s, which ‘I just can’t get out of my head and I wish I had never read it’. It is the story of a group of kids who kidnap the babysitter and do atrocious things to them. There are two things Petina will never read aloud and that is a death scene and a birth scene – both difficult to write, and almost impossible for her to revisit.

Alongside her avid reading was always avid writing. Since the age of 11, Gappah has been starting (not often finishing) stories. When she was first published, age 37, she was overcome with imposter syndrome, and with the (to her) unexpected  success of her book of short stories An Elegy for Easterly (“meant to be just a little thing that came out before The Book of Memory which was the one that people were really excited about”) came an anxiety that she was going to be truly found out when her novel finally came.”But I would rather have my neuroses than be one of those writers who thinks everything they do is the shit!” I really love this woman.

A consequence of her success is her labeling as a ‘Zimbabwean writer’ or the ‘voice of Zimbabwe’. A problematic categorising that we see in many writers of colour – the anthropologisation of their talents. Gappah in no way wants to be seen as a spokesperson for Zimbabwe or for Africa – of course that would be impossible. Perhaps even more frustrating is that the labeling defines the kinds of conversations about her work. She praised Zander for asking her questions about craft and background and research. Gappah is so obviously a talented writer – it feels ludicrous that the urge to pin her down to anthropological contexts is so often the urge that wins out.

We learn toward the end of the hour that Gappah has left her job: “I handed in my resignation soon after the staff party last December – the wine just wasn’t up to standard”. “I want to do what the white students do – I want to take a gap year”. Gappah put her brothers and sisters through university when her father was unable to, so she is now looking forward to time for herself.

In answer to an audience question – “What would you have wanted adults to have done for your 11-year-old self to encourage you as a writer”, she explained that nobody knew what being a writer meant when she was a child, for there were no black women writers from Zimbabwe until 1988. The best gift, she said, “is to encourage them to play with their writing. Encourage them to keep a journal. With my son we write a story about our holiday and then bury it in the garden to dig up the next year and remember. This is the gift we can give our children – the gift of play and record and remembering”.

Reviewed by Claire Mabey

An Elegy for Easterly, published by Faber & Faber, ISBN 9780571246946
The Book of Memory, published by Faber & Faber, ISBN 9780571249626

Jeanette Winterson: Gap of Time at #AWF16


jeanette_wintersonHouse lights are down and Cyndi Lauper’s Time after Time is playing. For a small moment I let myself wonder if Jeanette Winterson is going to do an interpretive dance. A guy with an iPad is two rows in front of me and if he is planning on filming the entire thing on that it’s really going to aggravate me. The crowd starts to froth away as the song runs right through. But as it comes to the end, there’s a hush … and Jeanette Winterson walks on stage. Uproar, applause. Rock star.

The voice of an actor begins, reciting Shakespeare. Jeanette is standing on stage, listening. ‘Nothing. Nothing is the key word in that piece – A Winter’s Tale is a post-Freudian play 300 years before Freud, because the motivation for the action is a damaged past and a superstitious mind. Why? What was Shakespeare trying to tell us?’ Finally, she speaks!

cv_the_gap_of_timeThe Gap of Time is Jeanette’s (I’m feeling over-familiar, I’ll just call her Jeanette) “cover” of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. It’s one of his late plays and, as Jeanette tells us, offers us forgiveness in a way unprecedented for Shakespeare, with three generations of women appearing on stage together at the end, alive.

‘In the atom smasher of the writer’s mind, autobiography and imagination collide’. The hour is full of quotes like this – clarity and enthusiasm trip off her tongue in a session format full of theatre, choreography and texture.

At the centre of A Winter’s Tale is an abandoned child – and for Jeanette this central figure of a castaway lingered in the back of her mind, ready for reworking into a story of her own abandonment and subsequent self-discovery. But, ‘a story has to work,’ so the fun of recontextualisation starts with making King Leontes a Banker (giving him ‘the power to devastate lives’), Bohemia becomes New Orleans, and the structure is inverted so that the discovery of the abandoned baby begins the story.

‘Remember that in Shakespeare’s time, London was a new city and half of the population were under 20’. The theatre was a place to pack the most into a precarious lifespan, it was for everyone and it was entertainment as much as it was an expression for the ‘dreaming part – the unsaid things that are inside’.

Jeanette then sets out to entertain us with a reading from the novel with sound effect, dramatic pause and a musical interlude. It’s a dark and stormy night, there’s guns, cars, grief and a baby is discovered. The two most striking images for me were a description of forgiveness ‘like a tiger –we know that it exists but it’s only rarely seen up close and wild’ and ‘Grief is living with someone who is no longer there’.

My only criticism of the session is that I wanted more discussion and analysis from Jeanette – the reading revealed her relationship with theatre and with the offering up of storytelling as an act between actor and audience. At the conclusion, the applause was fervent and generous. But question time offered up more of the real gold – note the answers are more or less what she said, but not exact quotes!

Question: How did you have the courage to re-write Shakespeare, and how did you do it?

Shakespeare was an entrepreneur who loved language. Finding the language to fit the meaning and the feeling is what it’s about – that’s the job and the fun of being a writer. ‘It’s a lie detector test’ – the act of finding the language challenges you – you’re being forced to tell the truth. Shakespeare’s big vocabulary is a clue – it’s an expansion of thought, unlike the ‘karate chop syntax of the daily news’ or the fatuous feeling of a soap opera, Shakespeare was constantly working to express the complexity of daily life. You need language to deal with the huge volcano inside yourself – you need it to be free. Shakespeare is like going back to place of invitation – it’s a gift and you should accept it.

The time is ticking, too fast. Next question: Does the book contain the revelation of where Perdita is from?

‘You mean you want a spoiler?!’ Did your mother never finish stories, are you in a panic? Don’t worry, I understand – my mother used to read me Jane Eyre and in her version, Jane Eyre ran off and got married and did missionary work. . . But yes, the book ties it all up and only veers of slightly at the end. ‘That’s why we have end pages in a book – the blank pages is where the story goes.’

Two minutes to go … next Question: The baby is talked of as a blessing but do you need to have regret to have forgiveness?

Babies are always a blessing. The next generation shapes the future and if only we can continue the species long enough we might one day get it right. The Tempest came after the The Winter’s Tale and finally Shakespeare produced a father deserving of his daughter – Prospero allows his daughter to go forward.

Argh. Time is so up. Final question: How do you feel about hearing the different voices reading your book in the audio version?

I love it – it comes to life as a collaboration and a community.  Shakespeare worked in collaborative world – with actors and audiences there was always room for revision and invention. That’s what the pleasure is – the voices and the power of the language. And even when we come across a production that isn’t very good and we need to leave at half time – the text is always there. There’s no need for regret or disappointment because there will always be another production coming along – the best thing to do is immerse yourself in it.  Literature is the thing that doesn’t fracture under intense pressure. When you’re broken you lose your words, your ability to express the feeling and the thinking. Going to the theatre, reading, is like taking ‘homeopathic dilutions’ of language that affect you later – it is inside you and that is all we have in the end.

Time is utterly up. ‘But I want to leave you with this. Language and Love.’

Standing ovation. Nobody wants to leave. ‘You’re very kind but you have to leave’, she says. OK Jeanette, anything you say, but come back soon please!

Reviewed by Claire Mabey

The Gap of Time, published by Hogarth, ISBN 9781781090305
Oranges are not the Only Fruit, published by Vintage, ISBN 9780099598183
Many Many More…






The State of America, with Janna Levin, Thomas Mallon and Gloria Steinem at #AWF16


The ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre was packed out to hear cosmologist Janna Levin, writer Thomas Mallon and feminist icon Gloria Steinem discuss the state of the United States of America, ably chaired by Guyon Espiner.

US FlagTrump-bashing was the order of the day and Mallon wasted no time getting stuck in. “I’m less interested in explaining Trump than in vanquishing him … he is dangerous, grotesque … If this means the end of the Republican party, so be it … He believes in nothing.” This played well with the crowd, who, drawn by their horrified fascination with the current US presidential nomination race, had come in their hundreds to receive an explanation from US intellectuals who presumably had some kind of insight into what the hell is going on.

Insight was duly delivered with varying degrees of helpfulness. Levin admitted right away that she couldn’t explain Trump’s popularity at all. “I have very little insight to the human psyche, I do math … I live in a bubble of academics, and we don’t realise what others are thinking … We didn’t take [Trump] seriously soon enough – and by ‘we’ I mean sane people.” I think this is an important point: there is a danger in surrounding yourself only with people who agree with you, and developing the delusion that you must therefore be in a national majority. Although she was playing it for laughs, I think Levin’s last comment is very telling: there a danger too in characterising your own point of view as ‘sane’, thus demonising the views of your opponents.

I found Steinem’s view much more insightful. She spoke of how Trump is “a backlash candidate”; a backlash, that is, against the advances of civil rights, feminism, environmentalism etc over the past few decades. Trump supporters “feel displaced by a lack of hierarchy … they have been raised to believe their identity depends on racial hierarchy”. Mallon added that “people will vote for Trump even though they fear his presidency because he gives them a chance to insult those they feel aggrieved by [such as Muslims and people of colour, but also professional politicians and the media]”.

Steinem gave an interesting historical perspective, saying that the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s drove the racist Democrats into the Republican party, which has become more extreme. She hopes that Trump may cause the old centrist Republicans to reemerge.

Steinem is optimistic: “I’m a hopeaholic”. Speaking about the upcoming Presidential race, she says Clinton can be elected “but it’s gonna be hell … Trump is ruthless … I live for the day an atheist is President! A single, gay atheist … the only thing better would be a pagan.” She said that “hope is a form of planning”, and noted that within our lifetimes the USA will no longer be a majority white country – “This is crucial source of backlash but also of hope because change is inevitable.”

Moving on from Trump, Espiner invited the panellists to explain America’s allergy to public healthcare and gun control: two other issues on which we as New Zealanders feel comfortably superior to the USA. Steinem says you have to follow the money – the reason these things are so hard to change is because they’re protected by wealthy and powerful vested interests. Only in the ballot box are we all equal: “It’s up to us as the social justice movement to combat money with people power.”

I was struck all of a sudden by the oddness of the event: to have invited three Americans to the stage to explain their country to us, because we think they’re screwing up. And all three of the guests took our fascination with their society to be completely natural: America is so globally all-encompassing that of course we would feel involved. Would there have been such a large turnout for a panel discussion on the state of China, or Germany, or India? I wondered too under what circumstances there would be a session at a literary festival in another country to dissect what’s wrong with Aotearoa (and who would they invite to do the explaining?).

In considering this event, I was reminded of Helene Wong’s warning in her magnificent Michael King Memorial Lecture earlier today: beware the ultra-nationalism growing overseas because it could happen here as well. Maybe we shouldn’t feel so superior to the US after all.

The State of America, reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Thomas Mallon‘s solo event, Power Tales, is at 3.00pm  on Saturday, 14 May
Janna Levin
‘s solo event, Gravitational Sensations, is at 4.30pm on Sunday, 15 May


Hearts of Darkness: Herman Koch at #AWF16


cth-herman-koch-jpg-20140612Well, Herman Koch was a revelation. One would think that the author of the dark and satirical, macabre, slightly evil novels The Dinner and Summer House With Swimming Pool would look like the appalling characters in his books, with a menacing air about him. But no! He was delightful, light hearted, funny, self-effacing, insightful and very interesting.

Herman Koch was already a successful author in his native language, Dutch, before the publication of the English translation of The Dinner in 2012, now translated into 40 languages. The most interesting thing about Mr Koch was that at one stage, while working hard at becoming a writer, he was also an actor of sorts, part of a comedy revue team that bore a passing resemblance to Monty Python, which certainly explains the black comedy of his writings.

We also learned from Mr. Koch that foreign language books may be translated into English by an approved/official translator, but the version sold to the American reading public is usually quite different from that translated by the translator – words changed, sections deleted. So…word to the wise – read translations published by non-American publishers – they could be more authentic.

cv_the_dinnerAnd all of this was before Mr Koch talked about the aforementioned two novels and his new book. Chair, Stephanie Johnson began by asking him about Paul, one of the two brothers in The Dinner who meet with their wives at a local restaurant to talk about the behavior of their sons. I never picked it up when reading the book, but apparently the character of Paul has Aspergers, as does the teenage son. Mr Koch came to write the story thanks to knowing a family where the father and son were diagnosed as Aspergers, and the father had the audacity to suggest that Mr Koch should also get tested. Very funny.

The other brother in The Dinner, Serge, was based on a local politician in looks and charisma, with a supposed good moral heart. His morals are of course, called into question, with the crime committed by the teenage son. On a lighter note, the Americans are making a movie of The Dinner, with none other than Richard Gere in the part of Serge. That should guarantee a good box office taking.

summer_house_with_swimming_poolIn talking about Summer House with Swimming Pool, Mr Koch also told us how his own doctor reacted to the character of Dr Schlosser, who is repulsed by bodies, sickness, and his patients. Apparently most general practitioners see lots of themselves in Dr Schlosser which is a little disconcerting for us as patients, and brought about some hysterical laughter. He said this book is black comedy, bleaker but with more black humour than The Dinner. He had more fun writing it, poking fun not only at the medical profession but also actors and Dutch holiday-makers.

Mr Koch read most engagingly from the first chapter of his new novel Dear Mr M, due for translated publication in August. It has the same trademark black humour, more misogynistic characters, and it is a thriller, of sorts. Should be a winner!

Mr Koch is a most happy man. He makes a living as a writer not only in his own country, but in a multitude of others. He enjoys seeing his books on display in airport bookshops around the world, knowing they are being read and enjoyed, and that the human condition is much the same anywhere in the world, in all societies and communities.

Hearts of Darkness: Herman Koch was attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray

Herman Koch will also appear at the free event Excavation, alongside Lynn Jenner, Julie Thomas and Cilla McQueen, at 4.30pm today, Saturday 14 May.

The Dinner, published by Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922147561
Summer House with Swimming Pool, published by Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922147561


The Odd Woman and the City: Vivian Gornick at #AWF16


‘That was the best thing, ever. It is so good to be reminded why we go to these things’ said my companion amid the fiercely appreciative clapping at the end of Vivian Gornick’s hour talking with Jolisa Gracewood.

vivian-gornick-body-image-1432301445Feminist, memoirist, journalist, novelist, walker, and owner of wonderful cheekbones, Vivian Gornick (picture above by Mitchell Bach) was captivating, strong and reassuring – rather sweetly assisting Gracewood at one point when she became (charmingly) overwhelmed by the possibilities of their discussion (‘my brain is going in five different directions right now!’).

cv_the_odd_woman_and_the_cityThe hour revolved around Gornick’s latest memoir The Odd Woman and the City, described as ‘part paen and part elegy’. Fifty per cent of New York’s households are single occupancy, and the majority of those households are occupied by women, we learned. Oh to be a woman and to live alone, in a city like New York. Listening to Vivian Gornick is like listening to your best inner feminist self, winning the argument over the worst. Gornick says that the feminist revolution is the ‘longest revolution in history’ and ‘every fifty years we are called something different – ‘new’, ‘free’, ‘liberated’, backhanded descriptions…’

Gracewood asked who is ‘the odd’ woman – good question. For Gornick, her ‘odd woman’ was inspired by George Gissing’s 1890s book called The Odd Woman, in which, Gornick says, she saw herself in Gissing’s descriptions of the early feminist movement. You become the odd woman, she says, when you recognise that you can’t not long for equality.

The other primary characters in Gornick’s book are best friend Leonard and the city of New York. Leonard is the fictionalised version of a very real friend of Gornick’s – a gay man also searching for equality. In their friendship, said Gornick, she sees the paradigm for modern life. The question of writing your life came up several times across the session. In the case of Leonard, Gornick said she knew that the real Leonard was pretty OK with how he was represented because he asked her “can I audition for the role of Leonard?”Alongside this friendship is Gornick’s relationship with the city, which she describes as constantly presenting episodes of theatre (in big cities that is, and no, Auckland does not count – we’re more like California here), always reinventing itself but always remaining the same – ‘It’s the crowds, the blissful anonymity of the people at eye level that are the same. (I don’t look up or I’d wanna kill myself – the buildings look like they’re warring with each other)’.

One of the more moving parts of the hour was when Gornick described the way her relationship with New York shifted after 9/11. She described the loss of nostalgia ‘stunning beyond stunning’ – she was feeling as though she was walking through a devastated landscape. And the only way she found to understand her devastation was to read European novels by women who had experienced war (namely Natalia Ginsberg and Elizabeth Bowen). These stories soothed her because they were ‘looking past the history, beyond the bleakness to tell it like it really was, without sentimentality or nostalgia’. And that is clearly what Gornick prides herself on in her own writing – the ability to tell the hard truths.

cv_fierce_attachmentsGracewood brought the discussion to Fierce Attachments, Gornick’s first memoir about her relationship with her mother and with the woman who lived next door. Both women were widowed but one became a professional mourner and the other ‘the whore of Babylon’ – and Gornick ‘was embroiled between them’. This in-between-ness seems to have defined Gornick for a large part of her life – the struggle to justify herself to herself. Her epiphany came, she said, in her 30s, when she realised that ‘the princess was always after the pea, not the prince’ and the feminist movement came upon her.

Gornick’s mind comes up with striking images – on her discovery of the power of applying her mind to writing she said ‘an image had taken shape in my mind and the sentences were trying to fill that space’ … ‘a rectangle opened up inside my body, clearing space, with myself in the middle wanting to clarify and be clarified’. With that discovery she found joy, safety, peace and understanding. ‘And then I got divorced’.

Question time was hampered by a lack of roving microphone but the best of the lot was: ‘Is Hilary Clinton a feminist?’ Her answer: ‘NO!’ ‘She’s a politician through and through’. Gornick said that Bernie Sanders is important as a provocateur and that Trump is truly dangerous – the hope is that Clinton will get it but only because she’s not Trump.

Gracewood finished the session off with a final question, about Gornick’s idea of the twin persona involved in the writing of a memoir. A vital concept in non-fiction is that you have to pull from yourself the person telling the story and that your narrator contains the tone, the structure. You have to be both sides of the question in non-fiction – you have to find your own part in the conflict so that you have a narrative.

Gornick’s double selves have served her well. And the self on stage today was truly inspiring. What a woman.

Reviewed by Claire Mabey

Vivian Gornick will also appear in the free event Tell It Slant, Saturday 14 May 2016, alongside Steven Toussaint, Stephen Braunias, Chris Price and Joan Fleming

The Odd Woman and the City, published by Nero, ISBN 9781863958141
Fierce Attachments, published by Daunt Books, ISBN 9781907970658

Book Review: The Other Mrs Walker, by Mary Paulson-Ellis


Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_other_mrs_walkerOn a cold, dark, Christmas night, in the depths of a Scottish winter, an old lady dies alone, surrounded by her meagre treasures in a rundown small flat. Two weeks later, a woman in the midst of her own life crisis arrives to try and find a name and a family for the lost old lady – and in doing so, finds her own.

Margaret Penny is forty seven, broke, unemployed, and friendless. Reeling from a relationship break-up, she abandons her depressing life in London to return home to her mother’s flat in dark, cold, Edinburgh. With no plans and no prospects, Margaret accepts the offer of a lowly temp job at the Office for Lost People where she is set the task of finding the next-of-kin of a recently deceased elderly woman. The investigation into lonely old Mrs Walker’s sad life leads Margaret to revelations about her own.

This is not a happy tale. Life in Edinburgh is damp, dark, and freezing. This is not Alexander McCall Smith’s quirky handsome Edinburgh. The city is “grey skies, grey buildings, grey pavements all encased in ice. And the people too.” The people of Edinburgh are cold, hardened, and constantly in each other’s business. Margaret is forced to move in with her reclusive mother and, after thirty years of having lived apart, their relationship is strained, to say the least.

“Home. It wasn’t where Margaret’s heart was. But at least it was somewhere to run.” There are long-held grudges and secrets on both sides. Neither woman is in a particularly happy place in her life. “It would be typical to come home for her mid-life crisis, only to discover that her mother’s end-of-life crisis was well under way.”

The story alternates between Margaret’s present-day investigations into the old Mrs Walker, and flashbacks into both Margaret and Mrs Walker’s pasts. The glimpses of life in London during the Blitz are fascinating. From mental asylums to backstreet abortionists, the book takes the reader into rather gritty and depressing places, inhabited by some rather tragic, miserable, and thoroughly unlikeable characters.

This is a bleak but riveting read about families and secrets. It is not at all an uplifting tale but it is one that will have you reflecting on its characters for some time afterwards. An ambitious and layered story from a new Scottish author.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Other Mrs Walker
by Mary Paulson-Ellis
Published by Mantle
ISBN 9781447293910