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May 24, 2015 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Auckland Writers Festival

In terms of a linear narrative I can only offer you this: on Saturday, I had acquired enough of a quiet accord with David Mitchell (either “Not that David Mitchell!” or “Yes, that David Mitchell!” depending on how you prefer to spend your free time) that he offered me a “sup” nod of recognition when we passed each other, post-Murakami. The next day, we had clearly developed enough of an affinity for him to feel comfortable offering me personal advice. He put it delicately and kindly: “You smoke!? You bloody idiot. The tobacco industry are laughing while you pay them money to kill you. Hear that ‘ha ha ha’? That’s the tobacco industry scoffing. ‘This rube is paying us money to kill him,’ they’re saying. Listen!” I can only assume that tomorrow, we will have reached a level of intimacy that will put me on the Christmas card list.

I feel like any attempt to chronologise the events of the Auckland Writers Festival, or to tidily amputate the events into sections to be analysed in atomised parts, would do my whirlwind of an experience a great injustice. Suffice to say no-one asked any academic or narratological questions. This being a writer’s festival, invoking “The Death of the Author” publically would have been akin to asking an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for tips on single-malts. Each time the floor was opened to the audience it was relinquished with a tacit understanding: “whatever you do, don’t mention post-structuralism”.

Despite this absence, the festival proved illuminating and invigorating as attendees were offered different—sometimes antithetical—approaches towards writing, and were told of the strenuous negotiations, revisions, experiments and research that were required to complete a novel (this even before finding a willing publisher). Those who attended more than one event could be forgiven for leaving the festival a little confused:

David Mitchell—“I hate it when people say ‘my character made me do this’, or ‘I just followed my character’.”

Haruki Murakami—“Originally, Colourless Tsuruku was a short story… and then his girlfriend told him to track down his old friends, and I wanted to know what happened. So I wrote the novel.”

Emily St. John Mendel—“With my second novel, I started off with just a seed of an idea, really—one day, a husband leaves his wife on their honeymoon… and I thought, ‘why’? And in answering that, fleshing the details out, I wrote a novel.”

At one stage, I queued behind poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, waiting for coffee. She ordered a piccolo. As someone learning the art of espresso, it marked the first time she made me shed a tear that weekend. The second was during a recitation of her poem “Premonitions”, an elegiac ode-cum-love-letter to the poet’s late mother. She enunciated “there you were / a glass of lemony wine in each hand / walking towards me always… / How you talked! And how / I listened”. I turned to my companion and saw that both of our eyes were wet.

That entire session was brilliant, with John Campbell excelling as an interlocutor. Initial worries about Campbell’s nervous freneticism clashing with Duffy’s calm, stately, vaguely disapproving demeanour were quickly abated. Something that can only be described as a rapport emerged between the two, Campbell’s enthusiasm the perfect foil to Duffy’s deadpan restraint, though Campbell did tone himself down and make some perceptive queries. When Carol Ann Duffy tells you you’ve asked “a very good question”, you’ve asked a very good question. Not even he could outshine the lady of the hour, however, holding her audience in a rapturous spell, eliciting the biggest laugh of the festival in Mrs. Tiresias, about the long-suffering wife of an Oracle new to the ins-and-outs of a vagina.

This quality of moderation did not persist throughout the festival. Poor David Mitchell drew two short straws, with moderators making the easy but ruinous mistake of talking too much and not allowing the author time to breath or even reflect—forget pauses, the moderators interrupted during sentences. In his second event the poor beleaguered moderator—a stand-in, I believe—even received heckles. Other problems arose when the chairs were too star-struck, too effusive. Metro editor Simon Wilson giddily compared Zia Haider Rahman—author of the astounding In The Light of What We Know—to, amongst others, “Dickens”, “Waugh”, “Fitzgerald”, “Naipaul”, “Kafka”, “Le Carre”, “Ludlum”(???)—invoking everything except for Austerlitz, which the novel most clearly structurally resembles and a quote from which appears in In The Light‘s epigraph. I would have been perfectly happy to have the novel discussed on its own uncompromising terms, of course, but the Austerlitz angle would have been a fruitful line of enquiry, especially because of the core difference between the two novels: while Austerlitz focalises the past through the present, In The Light of What We Know focalises the present through the past.

Festival drawcard Murakami appeared on the stage in a “keep calm and read Murakami” t-shirt, embellished with a cat, which tells you all you need to know—it’s impossible to tell exactly how much he’s taking the piss. His answers to the questions put to him were delightfully, fittingly cryptic and (if you took the time to parse his metaphors) informative, though he couldn’t resist a couple of Nabokovian jabs (“what do the cats mean? A cat is just a cat”). However, I especially liked him when he answered his questions earnestly. Why do certain motifs—cats, music—recur in his novels? “I was an only child, I lived with my parents and my cat only… my parents didn’t understand me at all. My cat was my only friend in the house. I love my my books, I love my music—I love my cat.” His assertion that he writes “to become somebody else, to know somebody else” was poignant and powerful. “I am not a twenty-year old lesbian, I know nothing about being a twenty-year old lesbian, but when I write I see through [their eyes].”

When asked about returning to Tokyo after the twin crises of the Earthquake and Sarin Gas attacks, Murakami elucidated upon a change that occurred in his fiction that I’d detected but couldn’t quite define: “I did not return for my country. I returned for my people.” While writing Underground, a series of interviews surrounding the Sarin Gas attacks that is amongst his best, most empathetic works and his only non-fiction book available in English (yet he tantalisingly dangled the prospect of a book on jazz being translated), he had an epiphany: “I realised that these people… they were my people.” This contextualises the shift in his work. The novels up to and including The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles broached urban ennui, alienation and atomisation and, well, loneliness and the difficulty of interpersonal connection. His later works are more warm and humanistic. Having this piece of the puzzle slotted into place before my very taringas was special.

If I might pay the favour forward, I have good news for Murakami acolytes with less than $80 worth of library fines. Many believe that Murakami’s first two novels—Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973—are unavailable in English. For those people, I offer an early Christmas present. They were both published in 1987, albeit in small runs, with Hear The Wing Sing getting a slightly larger re-printing as part of a series of accessible novels encouraging Japanese speakers with upper-intermediate level English to hone their skills. In the Victoria University Library lies the proof for completists such as myself.

One misconception—that Murakami himself corrected during the talk—was that he abandoned Japan after the response to Norwegian Wood. While technically true, this oft-repeated claim disingenuously omits Murakami’s life-long love/hate relationship with his home country and belies the fact that Norwegian Wood was written in the context of a trial separation. That novel, as well as Dance Dance Dance (a sequel of sorts to Hear The Wind Sing, Pinball, 1973 and A Wild Sheep Chase, termed “the Rat trilogy” by devotees), was conceived of and written during a tenure in Italy. It may not, however, be entirely coincidental that those two novels are the ones Murakami “had the most fun writing”.

Finally, the talk made me remember why I fell in love with Murakami’s works in the first place. When discussing romantic relationships, Murakami corrected himself for using heteronormative pronouns after inadvertently alluding to a relationship between a hypothetical she and hypothetical he. “He or she,” he said, almost imperceptibly, and I remembered that Kafka on the Shore was the first novel I read that passed the Russo test, wherein a Queer character—in this case an FTM trans man—is not “solely or predominantly defined by their gender identity” and who is significant to the plot. There’s something special about encountering art from someone who is not only a great artist, but whom you suspect is a good person, regardless of the “basements underneath the basements” that they journey to for their art.

The morning after the Murakami Talk, Emily St. John Mendel offered refreshingly practical and clear advice to those wishing to write a novel. “Re-write each chapter out a second time,” she advised, “and you’ll notice the clumsy sentences or bits that don’t work… I usually take about two and a half years to finish a novel, with some decompression time and coming back to it… Remember that each character is human, has their own motivations that, to them, are self-justified.”

Other events offered something less like literary advice than spiritual guidance. Tim Winton doesn’t look like the shaman that you’d see atop the mount, adorned as he is with long hair and that archetypical rugged Australian visage and body shape, but nevertheless sounded practically holy when he claimed “I think that optimism, hope, hope is something we learn… but it’s also something we need.” Less surprising was Ben Okri’s mysticism: “I truly believe we have more senses than the ones we use.”

The British-Nigerian novelist spoke with gravitas and endless compassion, choosing his words carefully. In terms of comparisons, imagine Mr. Eko on Lost as an author in lieu of a priest. Though all the events I saw were pretty accessible, his was the most unpretentious. It was also the only one possibly sponsored by Coca-Cola—a bottle of the stuff was, unfathomably, on the table the entire time, with chair Paula Morris occasionally bringing it into conversation: “I could really use some of that Coke!” she gushed at one stage. The bottle mysteriously made its way, unopened, to Okri’s signing table. Follow the money.

But I digress: Okri’s event was provocative. He quickly shirked the magical realist label his output is often given, making it clear that, to him, “magic” is woven, compenetrated, into the fabric of the “real”; the real itself being utterly subjective. “Reality,” he said, “seems to conform to our perception of it.” Whether it be the coincidence of being placed in the same hotel room number throughout a month-long trip (“one day I said ‘enough of this’ and asked for another room… I saw the number, and guess what the numbers added up to?”) or “bumping into an old friend in a strange city” or seeing a ghost (“have you seen a ghost?” “oh yes. I have”), to Okri these events are not happenstance or even synchronicity: they’re magical. His books, then, are meant to be conducive to “meditation and deep thought” and “read slowly… I want you to read my books slowly.”

Although Orki spoke in quotes I’m certain he’s used before, I was swept up enough in the authority and magic to sigh along with crowd. “Sometimes,” he said, “we are greater than ourselves when we write.” I believe him.

Not all the events were formal. One of my favourites was the event for Tangata Whenua, a book released last year that charts Māori history from its origins to the contemporary day. The event took the tone of a korero, the ambience of the room the event was allocated perfect to an intimate and respectful communion. The sound of skateboards rattling and loud excited shouts from outside seeped into the space. Some of the audience were distracted, but writer and historian Aroha Harris was chuffed—“this is their land too”, after all. It only added to the informality of the event. The book was seven years in the making: how did the writers first meet? “We should’ve met in the pub!” quipped Atholl Anderson. Convener Ngarimu Blair was pleasantly candid: “you two, and the late Judith Binney, have written a really accessible book eh… just when I feel like I’m about to fall asleep and drop it on my face there’s something there that hooks my interest”, to peals of commiseratory audience laughter. “Even my son, he’ll come up behind me and say ‘what’s that papa? Mea e tupu?’.” We learn that this is why there is a focus on Māori art and photography in the book. “We wanted the book to work on more than one level,” Harris explains. “Science, archaeology, sociology, art… you name it!”

When Harris went on to say that New Zealand history isn’t taught enough in the curriculum—“most of our year 13s know more about the Tudors than the Treaty”—the room—composed, as far as I could tell, mostly of middle-late aged Pakeha—murmured in agreement, with a couple of “hear hear”s. More serious was an anecdote Harris told about the problems of focus on profit: “my tuahine, sister, runs our whanau’s farm up north… eeling. And it’s not considered economically productive by the Government. It has nothing to do with that! She has enough to pay the electricity bill! She’s happy.” “She has enough to pay the electricity bill?” asked Blair. “Doing better than my whanau then!” Cue sober laughter.

Though the book does not directly address this incompatibility between taonga and capitalist machinations—“we didn’t want it to be that kind of book”—it provides enough of a background for everyone (“especially Pakeha,” noted Blair) to understand the fundamentals of tikanga Māori. “This is a book every New Zealander should own,” Blair claimed, to murmurs of assent.

This raises a difficult question: with so many stories and novels and essays out there, how do you create a hierarchy of importance? On what criterion do we judge importance, unique to our individual experience and context? As New Zealanders, are we obliged—should we feel obliged—to read Frame before Woolf, Tuwhare before Tennyson? Indeed, if the Writers Festival did anything it suggested the wealth of narratives out there, waiting to be encountered, mined, digested. One of the motifs of the festival, too, was the claim that important stories exist outside the context of the novel or the book or the treatise. “I think stories are all around us,” said Rahman at one point. “We need journalists because there are so many fucking great stories out there that need to be told or can be told… if you know where to look,” claimed John Freeman. David Mitchell imparted this advice to me, privately, when I complained about feeling derivative (hope I’m not betraying ur trust Dave xoxo): “At your age you should be emulating writers you like. Keep doing it. Be a flapper of literature; have torrid affairs with all sorts of different novels. Read voraciously. Finding your own style will come later.”

I think Okri put it best, and most formidably. “I came to New Zealand wanting to hear the ‘myths’ (air quote supplied by the reverent tone in which he uses the word). I wanted to hear your myths, the stories of your land, and so I asked. They responded: ‘how much time do you have?’.”


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