Students reviews: Auckland Readers and Writers Festival 2012
Kathy Lette (credit Nicky Johnstone)
By Sarah Ferguson
“That man gives me a wide on.” Thank you Kathy Lette, we’ve all been searching for a woman’s way of describing that sensual desire we get in our jaws when we meet a man like George Clooney. You don’t get a nickname like ‘the mistress of quip’ for no reason, with one-liners such as, “my small intestine talks to me more than my husband,” and the “the skin sags upward in LA.”
The evening began at 6:30PM in the Limelight Room of the Aotea Centre. The event was called Girls’ Night Out: Tastings and Tiaras with Kathy Lette: how appropriate. As women sipped on three different flavours of Waiheke Island’s Cable Bay wines and sampled complementary canapés, Lette made her way around the room in an electric pink dress suit, gracing each guest with her charmingly quick wit. “Aren’t we lucky,” you could hear some of the women say. Hardly anybody managed to drag their husbands along. You could count the men in the room - there were three.
Around 7:30PM we were shown down to the ASB theatre where Lette and Chair Nicky Pellegrino sat on stage talking like two women over cocktails while managing to engage the audience as if we were just another woman at the table. Lette had the theatre roaring with laughter the entire time.
When asked about being a writer she spoke of how great it really is: “You can work in your PJs, drink heavily on the job, and you can have multiple affairs and call it research.” She even joked about the latest dig at Kiwi women for being “the most promiscuous in the world,” and told the female audience, “never turn down an adventure, be as promiscuous as you like!”
When asked about her new book The Boy Who Fell to Earth, which is about a single mother and her autistic son, she admitted ‘yes’ it is much more poignant than her other work. Rightly so, as it’s a topic very close to her heart since her own son was born with Asperger Syndrome. She told the audience she didn’t mean to write it and it just started pouring out of the end of her pen. “He loves the book,” she says of her son.
As the night began to wind up the inevitable question of ‘what’s next for Kathy Lette’ was asked, to which she replied, “well I’m having The Menopause. You grow a beard,” and then joked about perhaps writing a menopause novel. The crowd applauded loudly and Lette left us with, “Thanks for coming, see you at the bar!”
By Samantha Peckham-Togiatama
“This is not a movie about oratory. It is about love” - Tusi Tamasese, writer/director.
Through the skinny hour Sima Urale, herself an acclaimed filmmaker, reminded us of the obvious; that super-Samoan filmmaker Tusi was not keen on being an orator himself. Yet, anyone who was there would agree that while he quietly explained that the bones of the script were created as a student at Victoria University, it was clear that the flesh and spirit of The Orator came from the director himself - his sense of Samoan language and culture. It came out of natural skill for storytelling. His own pride in Samoa and its traditions, in the crew’s tenacity, he did not fail to voice.
Tamasese transmuted warmth and honesty showing how a few but well-placed words makes a stage just as entertaining than any conjured up on screen. When asked why he wanted the ‘Saili’ we see as a challenge to our sense of the ideal hero and the Matai system because he was short, reserved, and ill-supported, Tamasese responded, “I took away everything (about the ideal Matai) his physique, his courage and left him only with love – and he had only that to use to regain everything he’d lost.”
The Orator is a highly acclaimed film, winner of two Venice Film Festivals in 2011; Nominated by Asia Pacific Screen Awards for Best Performance by an actor; that the film made official selection 2011 for the Brisbane International Film Festival and that it is New Zealand’s choice for Oscar contender and this was a special meeting presented in association with Script to Screen. Tamasese’s nervous, cute, short responses made us feel like as if he was honoured to have us there. Strange and so endearing, and immensely welcoming. Of course, he being Samoan, and if you know any, he would leave a few hints to remind us why he was boss and why it was his direction, his writing that made this movie come alive to people the world over.
Sima described herself as ‘bully’ and Tusi as ‘humility’ but of course this was all about approach to filmmaking in Samoa. An audience member asked about gender issues in that sense. Urale answered first explaining that she just ‘bowls in there’ and tells people what to do and “…they do it because I was brought up in a more liberal family…and… what about you Tusi? Did you have any problems as a male making a movie in Samoa?”
“No.” …and silence…
The audience ‘cracked up’ and you just knew that every face there, and most were not Pacific Islanders, totally understood that in this case “brevity is (indeed) the soul of wit.” A good part of the introduction was about how Tamasese asked permission of every Matai whose land, time or people he needed to make The Orator. Consider too that we laughed when he explained early on in the session, that the New Zealand crew entered Samoa on the heel of a departing American Survivor reality show shot in Samoa, and they needed to explain the economics of how they didn’t come with thousands of American dollars per hour for one shot, and that nearly all actors weren’t trained actors; and that Sima began with telling us how some other interviewer worried about how little Tusi spoke.
This hour of the festival truly felt like we had just popped in to meet the director of a film that makes history – first Samoan language film in mainstream and acclaimed internationally. I bought the film on DVD, hugged him, he accepted my pathetic plea for him to sign the cover, “To Sam, you’re the best.” I didn’t ask for the rest…but he wrote…in Samoan…”Alofa tele atu: From Tusi Tamasese.” I found out that it means, “Lots of Love towards you…” and that is precisely what The Orator is – a delivery of love towards you….Malo!
Vinaka Tusi Tamasese. Me nomuni na kalougata taki ni kalou. God’s blessings be with you!!
Student reveiwers from the Department of English have been out and about at the 2012 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Read their posts on some of the main festival sessions below.
By Zoe Meager
I really went to An Hour with Charlotte Wood to hear about Animal People (2011), which is the only book of Wood’s I’ve read and which I adored. Conveniently for me, it’s a stand-alone sequel to The Children (2007). Stephanie Johnson talked to Wood about both novels, as well as her more recent book of food writing, Love and Hunger (2012).
In Animal People, Wood said she wanted to explore an ordinary day and the novel follows its protagonist, Stephen, for just 24 hours. It’s a deceptively simple novel; it’s a quick read and the narrative is straightforward. It’s Wood’s closely observed detail of Stephen’s world that leaves images resonating with you long after you’ve closed the book. The novel is about 'animal people' in the most common parlance, as in, ‘I’m a real animal person’, but in addition to populating the novel with witty accounts of animals, Wood uses animals as metaphor, and weaves them into descriptions of characters, including a grittily animalistic junkie.
Interpersonal tension simmers throughout the novel and leads to the climax, all aided by Stephen's painful disjunction from those around him; crucially, he’s desperately allergic to animals, though he works in a zoo. Interestingly, Wood revealed during the session that Animal People is perhaps her most autobiographical work; she is herself allergic to animals and, as a meat eater who describes her relationship to factory-raised meat as increasingly uneasy, the novel clearly reflects her personal musings about animals and meat. Stephen goes from telling an animal welfare advocate he works in the zoo, to pondering the similarities of his own body and the slabs of meat in the butcher’s window. Thankfully, all this is captured with subtlety and wit, and culminates in a rich fictional landscape.
For more about Wood, check out her blog, How to shuck an oyster.
Roddy Doyle, A.D. Miller, Charlotte Wood and Emily Perkins discuss the 'lost' men in storytelling.
By Allan Drew
When one enters a session called “Men Adrift” there is always the fear that there will be an uncomfortable discussion about, well, men, and their problems and, maybe worst of all, their masculinity. Mercifully, Roddy Doyle, A.D. Miller and Charlotte Wood sidestepped such landmines in their discussion with Emily Perkins, and remained on the more fertile ground of literary fiction. The authors’ readings were nicely integrated with the session, seeming to flow naturally from the discussion, and included a pleasantly varied mix of styles. Roddy Doyle’s said that his collection, Bullfighting, deals with men at life’s crossroads, when relationships start to crumble, when children are no longer children, and, in his own words, made him wonder whether “a bad relationship is better than no relationship.” Wood’s novel, Animal People, tries to bring to life the modern “elusive man”—not elusive in the ethereal sense of being hard to define, but in the literal sense of a man who just never seems to turn up. In short, that man we all know. Wood said that she wanted to discover “what makes a successful man” and chose to attack the question by writing about a man who is the exact opposite. For a moment towards the end, the discussion did run the risk of treading into the murky territory of masculine identity; however, Miller threw us a lifeline by saying that women have the thin end of the societal wedge, and he has no time for “men who whinge”. People applauded, and everyone moved on. In fact, in his discussion of his own novel, Miller stated that his protagonist, Nick, was a “lonely drifting twenty-first century individual”, a character summary that might serve many protagonists, and one that would, in a pinch, do well enough for male and female characters alike.
Dame Stella Rimington
(photo courtesy Jamie Hughes)
Dame Stella Rimington, Stephen Stratford, Jenny Pattrick and Sam Elworthy discuss literary prizes.
By Allan Drew
Any budding writer could be forgiven for leaving this session feeling both cynically superior and temporarily disheartened. The first feeling might have arisen from the fact that, indeed, it is as we all thought, the distribution of literary prizes has arbitrary elements to it. Dame Stella Rimington, a judge for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, did admit that “there is an element of chance” in the process for selecting the shortlisted books and the winning entry. Perhaps more shocking, however, might have been the revelation that prizes have a commercial (yes, a commercial!) component, and that the publicity stimulated by controversy over the selections might in fact be beneficial for sales. This is all well and good when dealing with the Man Booker Prize, but the New Zealand perspective, provided by journalist and blogger Stephen Stratford, was where it became potentially disheartening. He said that there was essentially no effect of winning the NZ Post Book Award on book sales, and that the level of interest that exists in Booker Prize books is not even close to being matched in the New Zealand scene. This could be due to either the small market size in New Zealand, or according to Stratford, the possibility that New Zealand authors “just aren’t that flash”—at least compared to the global literary community. It is possible, however, that a budding writer might choose not to be disheartened by such comments, and even, perhaps, see Stratford’s words as a challenge.
By Jim Welch
American author Jeffrey Eugenides describes how he came to write his latest novel, The Marriage Plot, with an amusing and apt analogy. If the writing of a novel is like a long-term relationship, then this one started as an illicit flirtation while he was still writing his previous book, Middlesex, which at the time was going through a rocky phase. Eugenides eventually stuck with Middlesex and jettisoned most of the side project, but one character, Madeleine, seemed to have potential. One thing led to another, and she became one of the three main characters at the centre of The Marriage Plot.
In an entertaining conversation with Kate De Goldi, Eugenides explained that his ideas often started with a character and it wasn’t until near the end of writing a manuscript that he would know the final shape of the plot. “The hardest thing to do as a writer,” he said, “is to create character.”
Still, what would a novel - and especially one that is titled for a classic novelistic narrative arc - be without a strong plot? As Eugenides remarked, great novels almost always tell very recognisable stories, foundational narratives that we often first encounter as fairy tales. The Marriage Plo t is the result of his imagining how the nineteenth century novel’s fairy tale of courtship and marriage could be updated for the twenty-first century, something that he examines within the novel even while his novel itself is attempting that very feat.
Like his novels, in person Eugenides is both erudite and playful. There is much to appreciate in the craft of his work - as De Goldi pointed out, The Marriage Plot rewards repeat readings - but Eugenides is also happy for readers to bring their own ideas when interpreting his fiction. Just don’t ask him if his bandana-wearing character Leonard is based on David Foster Wallace. He’s not.
An hour of spoken word with seven international artists.
By Angie King
“Know your roots, speak your truth, sing your song.” – Daren Kamali.
According to the MC Grace Taylor, part of the South Auckland Poets Collective, spoken word is becoming a movement that allows young people to express their realities and also to make literature more accessible. “Poetry is just as much about you guys as it is about us,” she told the audience. This selection of fantastic local and international slam poets had an enthusiastic audience with claps and calls loud enough to fill the large Fisher & Paykel Auditorium of the Owen G Glenn building.
Performances were diverse in subject and style but all were powerful. Local poets Sali, Zane Scarborough, Grace Taylor and Daren Kamali were matched with Greek-Australian Luka Lesson and American-Puerto Rican Lemon Andersen. Winner of the 2012 University of Auckland’s Poetry Slam, Logan, also began the session with an energetic rap-style performance of two poems. Many performers explored their family heritage or political concerns.
The session was well run, with the varying tempos and intensities of each performer being refreshing. Sali’s intense, breathy performance on blood diamonds and the ‘N’ word was followed by Zane Scarborough who in a relaxed, colloquial style described his high-school years and his relationship with his wife, mixing comic and serious moments with an intimate feel. Zane’s mentor and MC Grace Taylor used expressive gesturing to build her poem on being afakasi to a crescendo of empowerment. Grace was followed by her partner Daren Kamali, who filled the stage with his presence and performed incantatory bilingual poems in English and Fijian.
Luka Lesson had a natural, tailored style that he used to give his poems a life beyond the words. He commented on the need to support local slams, to keep the movement alive. Luka was followed by Lemon Andersen, in a couple of comic and powerful performances, using his whole presence to act out his poems.
In the short Q&A afterwards Lemon asked his fellow performers what poetry & spoken word meant to them. Sali’s response sums up the appeal of spoken word. She said that she did spoken word to “discover who I am and where I’m from”. Spoken word is an outlet that we can use to tell our stories.
By Angie King
“A deep courtesy.” – Ian Wedde.
This was an amazing session, with stellar performances and anecdotes touching on what Hone Tuwhare meant to the speakers, to poetry and to New Zealand. A great choice as well to have this session free to the public. The room was almost full. MC Witi Ihimaera did a great job warming up the session, beginning with a reading of Tuwhare’s poem Rain, and a quick biography of Tuwhare’s life. He described Hone Tuwhare as the first Maori poet to have a collection published, who became “our poet, the people’s poet”, and later an iconic New Zealand artist.
The structure of the session meant each poet touched on their own connection to Tuwhare, read one of his and their own poems, and then introduced the following speaker. This was an efficient and cohesive approach to what could have been fragmentary.
A picture of Hone Tuwhare was gradually built as a man and a poet. Gregory O’Brien spoke about his long connection with Tuwhare and painter Ralph Hotere, and how he felt they both shared an understanding of mythical blackness. He spoke of Tuwhare as a man with a great vernacular voice who suggested the King James Bible to O’Brien to improve his writing. Jacq Carter spoke about coming to love a poem of Tuwhare’s by gradual acquaintance with it. Albert Wendt spoke of going with his fellow Tuwhare enthusiast, the Samoan Minister of Works, to the timber mill where Tuwhare was working in 1970, and of the mill owners scrambling to produce Tuwhare in his overalls. He also related how Tuwhare had been instrumental in getting his own first three books published. This was followed by a moving reading of Tuwhare’s Hemi, an address to his lost friend James K. Baxter. Poet Laureate Ian Wedde described Tuwhare as “always laughing – not always simple laughter”, and a poet who had three great themes – food, sex and comradeship. Ian was followed by Anne Kennedy who spoke of the poem Rain as the most iconic poem of all New Zealand writing. The final speaker was Tuwhare’s son Rob, who shared his memory of his father as working on his typewriter, surrounded by screwed up balls of paper. Rob then sang Tuwhare’s poem Friend to his guitar, in a crackly beautiful voice that had at least several speakers in tears.
A surprise was a video of Tuwhare reading the poem No Ordinary Sun. When Witi ended by asking the audience to join them in singing Hone’s waiata You are my sunshine, there was an incredible sense of warmth, as though Hone himself was in the room.
By Angie King
“Many of my alleged ideas have been refuted.” – Karl Popper, as quoted by Brian Boyd.
This popular session paired genial and thoughtful Iain Sharp with Brian Boyd, who emerged as a nice guy as well as a true scholar with many interests. Sharp took a broadly intellectual biographical approach, moving from Boyd’s early contact with Vladimir Nabokov and Karl Popper through to an infatuation with poetry as a college student.
Boyd arrived in New Zealand at five-years-old with his parents who at one time ran a bookstore and partial lending library in Palmerston North. Here Boyd first came across Nabokov and Popper. He also had elocution lessons as a child and learnt many pieces of poetry by heart. His interests as a college student soon centred on Nabokov and this formed the beginning of an academic career in literature, particularly his works on Nabokov’s novels. His current project of a biography of Karl Popper was originally planned back in the 1990s but was put aside when his interests in language, storytelling and evolution developed into his two books on storytelling and lyric poetry.
The session gave a great deal of information about Boyd personally but only enough about his work to tantalise. Boyd offered his basic thoughts on the evolutionary adaptation of the arts as a cognitive play with pattern, so that skills in interpreting the information from sight (images), sound (music), movement (dance), and socialising (stories) are improved for real survival situations. He responded to an audience member’s question about the adaptive value of fictional stories by mentioning the same training function, as well as secondary effects like social cohesion and sharing group values.
Boyd also offered his view of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which the Bard started writing when he was already a successful playwright and narrative poet. Boyd said that Shakespeare was trying to push lyric as far as it could go, using supersaturated patterns of people, action, feeling, and intention, but not allowing them to converge as they do with narrative. While this was an interesting session, it ended just as discussion on Boyd’s latest work was getting underway.
By Angie King
“If cleanliness were next to godliness, I am not.” – Tim Heath
Poetry Idol offers a different experience from the usual festival session. Sponsored by the Festival for the past few years, it has become a highlight of the slam poetry scene in Auckland. This year a sudden venue change meant the event got going slightly later than planned, but the crowd was lively and wildly supportive of the slammers.
MC was Penny Ashton, a colourful performer in her own right, who set the tone with her hilariously suggestive love poem with many New Zealand place names inserted. Competitors had already auditioned and been weeded from 22 to 10, a mix of new and seasoned performers. The judges, international slammers Lemon Andersen and Luka Lesson, and local Ruth Spencer, had the task of winnowing these 10 performers down to two, where the audience voted for the Festival Champion of 2012.
The 10 performers all showed a quality of both poem and performance that was breathtaking. Slam poetry or spoken word techniques were discussed as part of the judges’ feedback and provided a fascinating glimpse into the art. Speed, breath, silence, shyness, and pronunciation were discussed with technical relish. All performers, Marina, Halanasi, Matthew Hardy, Michelle Bolton, Kashka, Zane Scarborough, Jahra, Tim Heath, Maddy King, and Sasha Renee, brought an honesty and emotional commitment to their work, whether comic or serious. The more polished performances of Marina, Kashka, Zane, Jahra and Tim brought them to the second round, and Jahra and Zane fought it out in the final. Zane offered his almost gentle, intimate and colloquial approach, and Jahra had a passionate militarism that was very dramatic. Ultimately Zane Scarborough, part of South Auckland Poets Collective, and a competitor in last year’s Poetry Idol, won by a substantial majority of votes.
By Angie King
“Past Present Future” – Daren Kamali & Grace Taylor
The open mike is a rite of passage for many writers – one that may not end. With the inclusion of featured poets in the schedule, there were plenty of expected and unexpected pleasures at this session, and the entertaining Penny Ashton kept things paced well.
Featured poets Siobhan Harvey, Scott Hamilton, Gregory O’Brien, Aleksandra Lane, Daren Kamali, Anne Kennedy, and Paula Green all delivered amazing and very different poems, most from their recent publications. Scott Hamilton read sections from a film-in-progress based on his poem Great South Road. Siobhan Harvey’s trance-like and smoothly enunciated reading suited her superb Waiata Tangi : For Cris & Cru, while Aleksandra Lane read her smart, entertaining and uncomfortable poem The Economist. Gregory O’Brien read several pieces, including Romantic Voyage, about catching – and missing – the buses, with his usual charming and relaxed presence. Daren Kamali, performance poet, recited from his recent book, and performed several pieces including a tender collaboration with his partner Grace Taylor (herself a noted performance poet) about the creation of their lives together, while their young son played around their feet. Anne Kennedy read her witty revisioning of the Three Little Pigs, with tremendous dialogue from the big bad wolf in particular. Paula Green read several pieces from the anthology she has recently edited, including Joanna Margaret Paul’s At Your Visit, and Bill Manhire’s soothing A Lullaby, ending the session with Albert Wendt’s My mother dances. Paula had a slow, sure voice that clung to each poem’s rhythms faithfully and rendered these writers’ work beautifully.
Of the open mikers, notable performers were David Eggleton, who delivered several energetic, caustic poems and had the audience laughing, John Adams, who read from his recent publication Briefcase, expat slam poet Lauren Dunningham and musician and poet Grace Pageant. Musician William Green performed pieces parodying Barry Crump and Denis Glover, while tri-lingual Linda performed in Norwegian, Italian and English. Medical student Olive delivered two striking pieces about dissection and empathising with patients, in both cases finding that moment of silence after the last line where the poem sinks into the audience’s heart like a stone.
While finishing on a slight down-beat, as open mike readers and audience members were in short supply by 1pm, the session was still a great opportunity to hear good New Zealand poetry and a diverse mix of enthusiastic and beginning writers. May the open mike continue to be part of the Festival tradition.
By Margie Thomson
Snowdrops – corpses hidden under the fierce snow of a Russian winter, only to bloom once the thaw sets in. “A beautiful name for a horrible thing,” as author A. D. Miller told his audience.
Snowdrops is also the name of his first novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Described by session chair Stephen Stratford as a “moral thriller”, Miller pointed out that despite the incipient threat of violence, or at any rate of a darkly corrupt society, “it’s not a book that has violence in it… It’s a ‘how’ book rather than a ‘what’ book. How this seemingly ordinary 30-something Englishman, neither hero nor villain, comes to be involved in some very bad things. A drama about moral decline.”
Despite being a 30-something Englishman who lived for four years in Moscow as a journalist for the Economist magazine, Miller’s novel is not autobiographical.
Nevertheless, his narrator, Nick, is a recognisable “type” in that he has reached a certain stage of life and is very much questioning the value of his achievements so far. This is particularly heightened in an ex-pat environment, where people are unrooted and somehow uncommitted. “He’s an extreme example of anomie and disappointment.”
A large part of what made Snowdrops a standout novel was its depiction of Russian society in the mid-noughties – unfettered corruption and bribery being de reigeur in every aspect of life – birth, business, sex, death and everything in between.
Says Miller: “We can make a case that the system of government has been pretty consistent through all systems, from Czarist, to Central Committee to the present situation. The same pathologies have persisted. Russia has always been a country in which power matters more than the law.”
Miller made the point that others have made about Russia – essentially that we in the comfortable, safe countries perhaps shouldn’t judge too harshly. “We in civilised democracies are not called upon to be brave in quite the same way as the Russian people,” he said, adding: “The casual waste and cruelty of the country can really get to you.”
Lawrence Krauss and Lloyd Geering discuss the existence of God.
By Margie Thomson
What would we do without Lloyd Geering? He has dignified us with his heresy and his discursive thinking about the definition and place of God in the modern world, eschewing the traditional idea of an omniscient being, while honouring the place of the idea of God in human history. He’s 94 now, and is a kind of poster boy for the aged – he’s spry and a whole lot sharper than just about anyone. This event was the perfect showcase for his razor mind. His fellow speaker, or adversary, was the American physicist Lawrence Krauss - opinionated, cynical, a cut and dried disbeliever in God and a vociferous opponent of religion in all its forms.
Interestingly, the two found much to agree on – event chair Shakespearean scholar Tom Bishop announced that he hoped they would find common ground so that this epic debate – God or no God, essentially – could have a chance to make some advance. Crucially, neither Geering nor Kraus believes in a monotheistic God - yet the debate was knife-edge for much of the time as they sparred and challenged and point-scored over the value of religion’s contribution to history.
Geering insisted on placing God – the concept – at the very centre of the western cultural tradition, and even at the heart of the development of scientific thinking, as the concept of a unified creation gradually evolved into a sense of the cosmos. “I think we wouldn’t have a scientific world today if it hadn’t been for the word God in our past,” he said.
Krauss disagreed strongly, insisting that if the great thinkers such as Newton had not been so pre-occupied with theological matters, they would have got a whole more science done.
We may be becoming a godless society, but our interest in these matters is enduring and passionate. The NZI room was full and the audience was enthusiastic and engaged.
By Margie Thomson
Initially billed with US journalist Michael Hastings, Nicky Hager instead shared the stage only with event chair Steve Hoadley from The University of Auckland after Hastings pulled out at the last minute. Hager and Hoadley were an unlikely pairing, and it treated the audience to differences of opinion about New Zealand’s participation in America’s War on Terror, and on the doings of both the New Zealand military and the United States intelligence agencies in Afghanistan.
Hager is well-known as a political researcher. What is less often commented on is his talent as a writer – his books are not only minutely researched and shockingly revealing about things our political and military leaders would rather keep hidden, but they are vividly written, and compelling to read.
His latest book, Other People’s Wars, was a work in progress for many years, and was even set aside at one point while Hager worked on his book about Don Brash and the National Party, The Hollow Men. He almost set it aside altogether, but then one morning he awoke to an epiphany – that there was nothing more important that he could write about, and that therefore he had to write it.
Astonishingly, he found an enormous number of people from all levels who were keen to talk to him about their knowledge of New Zealand’s involvement in Afghanistan. Members of the SAS, who had been based there, were especially helpful. He describes them as “brainy, thoughtful people… motivated by moral concern”. He found and was given “tens, hundreds, thousands of intelligence reports related to Afghanistan” and he “nearly drowned in these amazing resources”.
His research was an attempt to answer what he describes as a “blank space” – that is, there was scarcely any coverage in New Zealand of our involvement in the War on Terror. Secrecy was considered necessary for security, and as a result, no-one knew a single thing about what was happening. “I took that as imperative motivation that I should write about what was going on.”
By Margie Thomson
It was a festival highlight – Irish author Sebastian Barry filling the ASB auditorium with his beautiful singing voice, as he sang the longing-filled American hymn – Livin’ on Canaan’s side, Egypt behind - before treating us to a reading of a certain crucial scene from his latest novel On Canaan’s Side. It was a reading that was surely the most impassioned, vigorous and possibly sonorous of any author’s reading in this festival or any other.
It was a clustering of moments that in themselves justified this whole idea of putting authors on stage, in front of their readers. Words lift off their mere pages – in this case, quite literally, as they rose and rose, right to the top and furthest corners of the ASB chamber.
Barry is both playwright and novelist, and his work largely revolves around the early twentieth century history of his country. He’s famous both for his lyrical, poetic writing, and for giving a voice to the flotsam and jetsam of the larger events of history - the collateral damage, the ordinary people shaped by forces beyond their control.
Many of his characters, especially in his novels, are drawn from his own immediate family, some of whom he remembers from childhood. He spoke of capturing their “birdsong”, their particular voice that can then somehow, through “strange magic” come to make up a book.
In the case of Lilly Bere, the narrator of On Canaan’s Side who is forced to flee Ireland for America, he says: “I met her once as a little boy when she came back on her one visit to Ireland. She was in her 60s with a lovely American dress, so much nicer than Irish dresses, and her hair done right. She was the happiest woman I ever saw. Vivid. Although she was standing still, she seemed to be dancing.”
Despite such a single vivid memory, the Lilly of the novel was “entirely made up. All I had was the fact she had to leave and her standing there on the pavement. They were the two sticks I had to rub together.”
And indeed the Lilly who narrates the novel is, despite her tragic story, a charmer. And so, absolutely, was her creator.
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