Auckland Writers Festival 2017: Two Days From A Fangirl

Books Editor Sarah Jane Barnett spends two days at the Auckland Writers Festival 2017 to give you rolling coverage.

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The Auckland Writers Festival is here with the best local and international writers of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, poets, scientists, economists, journalists and public intellectuals. Books Editor Sarah Jane Barnett spends two days at the festival to give you rolling coverage, blurred selfies with famous people in the background, and fangirl Tweets.

Friday 19 May, 2017 
A Personal Take: Dudding & Laing
O Canada: Ivan Coyote and Rupi Kaur
Known and Strange Things: Teju Cole
Women and Power

Saturday 20 May, 2017 
The Art of the Essay
From the Other Side

A Personal Take: Dudding & Laing
Friday 19 May, 10:00am – 11:00am

For the first session of the day Sarah Laing and Adam Dudding speak with Geoff Walker about writing memoir. Laing’s 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards longlisted graphic memoir Mansfield and Me plots her literary journey alongside that of Katherine Mansfield, and Adam Dudding’s My Father’s Island, which last week won the Best First Book Award for General Non-Fiction, circumnavigates his father, the late great literary editor Robin Dudding. 

The session opens with some awkwardness: half the audience move because the podium is in the way; a cell phone rings. Dudding looks impossibly calm, and Laing curious and engaged. Then the conversation flows – the first question goes to Laing: ‘Why Mansfield?’ When Laing talks about Mansfield she’s animated, and her admiration for Mansfield's writing, guts and inner life is clear. Laing states that when she's felt ‘doubtful as a writer’ she would turn to Mansfield; she wants to be that sort of ‘glamorous’ writer. Laing acknowledges that ‘being a writer’ is more complex than glamour, though. She recounts the way Mansfield wrote about her insecurities in her diaries, and there’s a real vulnerability when Laing speaks about her own struggle to become a writer.

When the questions turn to Dudding, he admits to knocking out a structure for the book in order to send a proposal to a publisher, but in the end it was close to what he used. He then admits – to a laugh – that before starting the book he Googled ‘books about fathers’ and read a ‘dozen of them.’ Dudding’s resulting story was of growing up in a large shambolic house, and an attempt to make sense of the decline of his father Robin Dudding. He states that his research often showed he was wrong about what he assumed to be fact, but that was interesting in itself. To more laughter he recalls a ‘long complicated email chain’ where his sisters argued about how high the shelves were in their house. The subtext: to write memoir is to grapple with the uncertainties of memory.   

A tidy narrative is an untruth in itself.

Walker suggests that to write memoir is to decide what to leave out, and both Laing and Dudding agree. Dudding states that he probably wanted to write a book about himself, but had to wrap two hundred pages about his father around it. Walker asked if there was a ‘danger that you go to far?’ for Dudding when writing about his father. Dudding acknowledges this, but also that ‘horrible things are really interesting’ and states he had no interest in writing a bland biography of his father.

When asked about bravery in writing memoir, Dudding turns to Laing and comments that her book shows her having sex and taking drugs, and that ‘Sarah was much braver than me.’ Laing responds that ‘as a memoirist you have to be the hardest on yourself,’ and that through revealing your own flaws it gives you an allowance to reveal the flaws of others. In terms of research both were rigorous when dealing with historical figures and their own memories. Laing states that ‘in families everybody’s memories are very particular,’ and Walker asks how she deals with conflicting versions of the truth. Laing omits information, especially because comics require brevity, but tries to give ‘moments of truth’ and a ‘tidy narrative.’ She pauses a moment and then reflects that a tidy narrative is an untruth in itself, which seems to get to the heart of the complexity of writing memoir.

O Canada: Ivan Coyote and Rupi Kaur
Friday 19 May, 11:30am – 12:30pm

O Canada is one of many free events at the festival. In this session Canadian writers Ivan Coyote and Rupi Kaur explore the characteristics of their homeland and its literature in conversation with David Bigio. Coyote was one of the highlights of the WORD Christchurch (and one of my highlights of 2016), so I was glad to see them return to New Zealand. Kaur is a writer and illustrator based on Toronto, whose poetry achieved viral status on social media, especially Instagram

Bigio opens by asking both writers to talk about where they come from in Canada. Coyote’s family came to the Yukon area near Alaska in 1949, and they spoke about their family working on the Alaskan highway where the conditions – no running water or streetlights – were difficult. Kaur goes on to talk about her father immigrating to Canada as a political refugee from Punjab, India in 1992. Kaur speaks matter-of-factly about how the men who immigrated in groups would live together in cramped apartments. Kaur recalls her mother telling the story of, when arriving in American from India, she couldn’t recognise her husband, that it was ‘like meeting a stranger for the first time.’ Kaur says this was the only man she knew – that she’d never known the ‘jolly’ one. Bigio asks Coyote if they knew they’d have to leave the Yukon landscape to pursue their career, and Coyote states, ‘there was no possibilities for secondary education,’ so if you wanted a university degree you had to go ‘outside.’

The true test of a country’s diversity is how it respects its most marginalised communities.

Bigio asks about the national struggle to define what it is to be Canadian, and recalls the 70s idea of the ‘Canadian mosaic’ where the multiple peoples of Canada are seen as making a beautiful and varied pattern. Kaur says the mosaic is a ‘nostalgic’ idea, and that it denies the diversity she sees in her local area. Coyote states they didn’t get on a plane until they were twelve, and didn’t consider the rest of Canada as being attached to where they live; the hugeness of the land, and the diverse ways of living in that land meant that a broad Canadian identity wasn’t something they’d considered as a child. Coyote points out, to applause, that ‘Canada is built on stolen indigenous land’ and states that the ‘the true test of a country’s diversity is how it respects its most marginalised communities,’ with the implication that the Canadian government doesn’t do enough.

The conversation continues along political lines. Coyote speaks about the fight for homosexual and trans rights in Canada, and in particular the sticking point of ‘washrooms.’ With encouragement from Bigio, a somewhat reluctant Coyote takes Justin Trudeau to task about not more actively supporting basic human rights for trans people. Kaur says, ‘We don’t want to be negative [about Canada], but it’s so important to see both the positive and the negative.’ Coyote responds, ‘It’s about not giving into despair… At least we don’t have an orang-utan at the helm.’ They go on to describe the Trump influenced trans-phobia seeping across the border, especially into schools. On whether Kaur and Coyote feel positive about the future, Coyote states with humour and grace: ‘I grew up trans in a Catholic family in the 70s. Just to exist I’ve always been a glass half full person.’

‘So who holds the country together?’ ... ‘Maple syrup.’ 

While Bigio attempts to get both Coyote and Kaur to make summarising statements about Canada, both resist to generalise. ‘So who holds the country together?’ asks Bigio. ‘Maple syrup,’ Coyote replies, to laughter. The session is quiet and serious, and while Bigio is an engaging and interested chair, he doesn’t ask either writer about their writing or how they explore their Canadian identity in their work, or to read their work. This obviously frustrated some attendees - a few left halfway through. Others it didn't seem to bother – the questions at the end show Canadians flocked to and loved this session.

Known and Strange Things: Teju Cole
Friday 19 May, 1:00pm – 2:00pm 

Praised as a ‘sublime’ writer by The Guardian, the Nigerian-American writer, art historian, and photographer Teju Cole has wide-ranging pre-occupations. His novel Open City explores spatial relations, immigrant experience and Manhattan bird life. His essay collection Known and Strange Things, takes in subjects from Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf and V.S. Naipaul to Barack Obama, Boko Harum and Instagram. In this sold-out session, Cole talked with writer Kevin Rabalais.

There was a feeling of reverence in the theatre before Cole came on stage. When I opened my laptop to take notes the woman next to me tutted, ‘That could be distracting.’ I quickly turned down the brightness. Then Cole appeared and all eyes turned.

Any great city is a kind of burial ground for people largely forgotten. 

Cole opened by reading from his new collection of essays ‘Red Shift’ which originally appeared in the New Yorker. The essay is about Cole’s favourite film Red by Krzysztof Kieślowski, which he’s seen more than a dozen times. The conversation then returns to his novel, Open City, and Rabalais asks him about the term, ‘invisible truths.’ Cole responds that he means the historical forces, the lives of others, and the ‘subterranean river of pain’ that influences a city. He says he wrote Open City as a post-9/11 novel, not as a response to the event, but as a way to ask how we deal with historical memory. ‘Any great city is a kind of burial ground for people largely forgotten,’ Cole says, which brings him back to dispossession.

Cole then reads a series of seven tweets from Known and Strange Things that criticise Obama’s drone policies. Each tweet takes the first line from a famous novel, and, along with his own words, kills off a famous character using a drone strike:

‘They’re funny,’ Cole states to acknowledge the uncomfortable titters of laughter during his reading, and explains that the humour helps people enter the uncomfortable space.

To conclude, Cole says it’s a pleasure to be back in New Zealand, where he visited five years ago. ‘There’s something about engaging with other people’s terrain on their terrain,’ he says to the enraptured audience.

Women and Power
Friday 19 May, 5:30pm – 6:30pm

In this session writer, comedian and social commentator Michele A’CourtNew York Times bestselling writer and 'bad feminist' Roxane Gay, and preacher, writer and retreat facilitator, Mpho Tutu van Furth, suggest courses of required action for women in power. 

This heated and packed session opens with a round of applause as the authors walk on stage. ‘I’m humbled,’ says chair Susie Ferguson, and she introduces each writer the room breaks into continuous applause. People whoop. ‘Let’s get started with Trump,’ says Ferguson, to a laugh. Tutu van Furth makes the distinction between politicians who are primarily focused on public service, versus business people who are focused on ‘self service.’ Gay, who is eloquent and straight-speaking, states Trump is ‘an absolute disaster,’ and the resulting ‘line of succession is a shit-show from beginning to end.’ While she’s looking for a laugh, her point is serious: there’s real fear about the loss of gay rights and women’s reproductive rights.

I’m done with answering questions about how we rebrand feminism. I don’t give a damn.

‘Why is the prospect of a woman with power so daunting?’ asks Ferguson. Tutu van Furth rephrases the question: ‘Maybe it’s a moment for a flip…What’s the lesson that we can draw out of this and move forward?’ She encourages the audience to avoid sitting in misery for the Trump presidency and instead to build collaborations for change. Gay talks about the women’s march and states that women of colour have ‘been marching for years.’ Ferguson asks, ‘Are we still stuck with the notion that a woman with power is a bitch?’ A’Court notes how New Zealand Labour MP Jacinda Ardern has her work diminished because she’s seen as 'too feminine,' whereas, on the flipside, Helen Clarke was considered 'too masculine.’ A'Court's point: we need to challenge the limited idea of how women in the public arena should be.

The conversation moves to standing your ground in the face of adversity. Gay talks about turning down a book deal because the publishing company had also given a deal to a white supremacist - this is a moment that made her feel powerful. Tutu van Furth talks about learning from parents that you ‘live as you believe.’ Ferguson questions whether this can be difficult if your family relies on you financially. Tutu van Furth, who speaks with a measured authority, replies, ‘When you stand up you are seldom standing alone.'

When you stand up you are seldom standing alone.

A’Court describes using social media to engage trolls, and suggests that people aren’t always as entrenched as they appear in a public space, once they’ve moved to a private space. In response Gay says, ‘What happens in the public space matters.’ She goes on to talk about how we need to discuss reproductive freedom, subsidised childcare, class, sexuality, gender identity, and – to echo one of Tutu van Furth’s previous comments – to meet women where they are and ‘create feminist work that is beyond the white Western cannon.’ The crowd loves her, and she holds the audience with her intellect and humour. She finishes, ‘I’m done with answering questions about how we rebrand feminism. I don’t give a damn.’

A funny conversation follows about Gay’s 2014 essay collection, Bad Feminist, and what it means to be a bad feminist. Gay admits she loves watching The Bachelor and while she knows ‘in her soul it's trash’ it’s ‘so good.’ Her point, and one to which the rest of the panel nod their heads, is that women deserve a voice in the feminist conversation even if their behaviours don’t neatly ore perfectly align with the term ‘feminist.’ In essence, let’s refuse perfection and accept human complexity. 

The Art of the Essay: Teju Cole, Roxane Gay, and Ashleigh Young
Saturday 20 May, 10.30am - 11.30am

‘Boy are we excited about this,’ says chair Simon Wilson as the writers walk on stage. He’s right. People have been queuing for the last 30 minutes, the line snaking through the Aotea Centre. ‘Hi everyone,’ says Cole. He's wearing a dapper blue jacket with a red pocket handkerchief. ‘It’s wonderful to piggyback on all of Roxanne’s fans,’ he says to a laugh. It's a few days into the festival and the writers are obviously tired, but the atmosphere is warm and intimate.

Wilson asks of Young, ‘Why essays?’ rather than her other form, poetry. She responds that she starts from ‘a flash of deep confusion and bewilderment’ and the essay is an attempt to write out of that (when describing her process Young references Annie Dillard’s essay ‘Living Like Weasels’). Wilson asks if she’s a reliable narrator in her essays, and Young, after considering this for a moment, responds, ‘Is anyone?’ For a writer recenlty pushed into the limelight, Young comes across as calm and clear. She continues: ‘I can only write from deep within my own experience.’ 

I can only write from deep within my own experience.

Wilson turns to Gay, ‘You’re a truth teller – is that how you see yourself?’ ‘No’ she says, to laughter. Instead Gay explains that she’s invested in the idea of ‘multiple truths’ and the ‘lives that don’t get the time and attention they deserve.’ When she writes, Gay explains, she starts with a question. ‘When I start writing I have the answer, but by the time I’ve finished I’ve split the answer,’ Cole responses. He explains that writing opens up ‘vast new fields of questioning,’ and his aim is for ‘productive discomfort.’ The session continues this way, with the writers being invigorated by each other as much as (the excellent) Wilson's questions.

Cole reads an essay from Known and Strange Things that was sparked by CNN’s comparison of Ebola to Isis. ‘A good plague is CNN’s second favourite thing,’ he quips. ‘Why don’t you write more comedy,’ Wilson asks after the laughter and applause dies down.

Wilson asks Gay if she’s part of the grand project of interrogating the ways that people are ‘fucked up?’ Gay gives a slight smile and suggests that’s always the project. Young nods and agrees. She states that the essay is a generous form because it lets her be ‘hesitant, uncertain and to contradict herself.’ ‘There needs to be some kind of boldness to say, this experience is worth talking about,’ says Cole. ‘You have to have the audacity to believe the way in which you narrate the world matters,’ responds Gay.

You have to have the audacity to believe the way in which you narrate the world matters.

Wilson asks Young to read her essay ‘Witches’ from Can You Tolerate This? The essay has a killer last line and Wilson asks about the importance of last lines. ‘I often revise last lines over and over and make them invariably worse and go back to the one in the first place,’ Young says to laughter. Gay says she doesn’t know the ending when she starts the essay, but when she gets to the end, ‘I know it…I want to leave the reader breathless.’ She looks for a moment that is ‘dazzling without being ostentatious.’ ‘That’s a fine line,’ Wilson comments to a laugh. Gay then reads from her essay ‘Typical First Year Professor’ from her collection, Bad Feminist. The essay is so wonderfully generous and funny that I can feel the audience planning to buy her book. I definitely will.

The conversation continues about the way blogs have democratised writing, Twitter, rules, cruelty and politics. At one point Cole takes over and starts to ask Gay and Young questions. The session end light starts flashing, but the panelists ask for more time. I stopped taking notes at this point - I was so caught up in their conversation. There are sessions at writers festivals that are pure alchemy, and this was one of them. 

I did note one last thing. ‘Form is a conduit for presence,’ says Cole. He points out that the panel itself is a type of form, ‘A thread’ suggests Young, and that different forms create things of different value. In terms of depth and heart, this was the most valuable session of the festival; dazzling without being ostentatious.

From the Other Side
Saturday 20 May, 12.00pm - 1.00pm

The full-house in the Heartland tent is very attentive when the writers come on stage. All apart from me. After two days of events I’m starting to get vague, and a soporific rain drums on the tent roof. The session features Shanghai-based American writer Rob Schmitz leading a conversation with ethnic Chinese journalist and author Lenora Chu (who was born and raised in America), and Taiwan-born novelist Janie Chang. It’s a wide ranging conversation about Chinese identity, immigration, and the feeling of in-between-ness that comes from living between two cultures.

Schmitz opens the session by amusingly telling the audience he is deeply in love with one of the panellists (Chu is his wife). I think that's how the chairs for Roxane Gay must be feeling, too. The conversation quickly goes deep, and even in my fugue state I can tell the writers are speaking with eloquence and depth. Chang talks about moving from Taiwan to Canada as a child. She speaks candidly about her family trying to incorporate Western influences, and recalls, when friends came over, having to hide the slippers that Chinese families traditionally keep by the door. She jokes, ‘What my father wanted from me was a very well behaved form of schizophrenia.’ She notes that people often ask her if she feels more Canadian or Chinese, but she doesn’t understand why claiming allegiance to one means you have to be less of the other. Chang suggests a third identity where people can inhabit both worlds.

What my father wanted from me was a very well behaved form of schizophrenia.

Schmitz asks the same question of Chu – how do you regard your own culture? She speaks of her feelings of ‘shame and embarrassment’ in trying to fit into the outside world, and that the ‘inside world,’ that of her family life, meant she ended up living ‘two lives.’ This ended for Chu when she went to college and brought the two worlds together, but says it took a long period of adjustment.

Schmitz, an author in his own right, talks about his own book and how he explored the immigrants coming into Shanghai who cannot – because of their different dialects – understand each other. He asks Chu, ‘How does your otherness influence your writing?’ She talks about how, after moving to China, their son experienced discrimination because of the way Chu misunderstood the culturally based expectations of the Chinese education system. She says, of growing up in the school system in the US, ‘As an outsider I automatically had a point of comparison,’ which came out in her writing. Schmitz points out that because Chu is ethnically Chinese, the people in China expected her to understand their customs in a way they didn't of him.

Schmitz brings up the fact that twenty precent of Auckland’s population is soon expected to be of Asian descent. Chang says that in Vancouver it’s thirty percent, and this leads the panel to talk about stereotypes of Chinese immigrants – that they are rich and ‘driving up real estate’ prices. Schmitz says his own research found that most Chinese immigrants to the US were middle-class and were moving because they wanted their children to have a well-rounded education.

Both Chu and Chang talk about the expectations their parents had for them – to study, get good grades, and to learn a musical instrument. Chang says, ‘I was only a girl’ and that the most important expectation was for her to get married and have children. Chang says, though, as her family started to assimilate Western values they went through many changes (one example was her father ending up doing the dishes!). She asks the audience to remember that while they may find it difficult to assimilate immigrants into their community, that immigrants themselves are also going through painful changes.