Altered States


If possible I love starting the Auckland Writer’s Festival off with attendance at the NZ Listener Gala Night.  Eight authors get seven minutes each to ad lib a chosen topic.  In addition to being entertaining, it’s an efficient way to gain exposure to new authors.

Carmen Aguirre, actress and former revolutionary under Pinochet, was the first speaker and set the bar high.  She recounted an engaging story about performing in a play (The Suicide) in which her main goal was to impress a cute waiter she’d given a ticket to to come home with her.  An unexpected new character joined the play on opening night and we didn’t find out until the end that he was the ghost of a past player who had committed suicide on stage.  Her lively presence,  unpredictable humour and expert timing had us all believing in the supernatural.

Peter Garret, former Midnight Oil front man and politician, interpreted the theme as stages in his life.  His transition from a wayward vagabond singing about the wrongs of the world to an influential politician who had to learn discipline and compromise to achieve change was thought-provoking.  With the US Presidential race gathering pace, it was a timely reminder about the difference between those who can talk and those who can do.

Tusiata Avia, Samoan poet, had us enchanted.  She arrived on stage holding her high heels, claiming when she was by herself she could be a short as she liked.  Our culture, gender and past can result in people all experiencing the same event in very different ways.  As an epileptic she experiences what is called ‘jamais vu’, when experiences should be familiar but are unfamiliar.  People and objects have auras that allow her a point of connection and writing is her method of channeling those encounters.  She concluded, “I’m still looking for my ending.”

Vivian Gornick, NY woman of letters, had us alternatively laughing and groaning as she shared her first marriage to a sociopath.  She was willfully blind to recognising who he truly was through her sexual infatuation with him.  Her story touched a nerve and connected with many in the audience who have also been besotted to the point of blindness in young relationships.

Herman Koch, author of The Dinner, shared his inspiration from writing resulted from telling lies as a child about his school days.  His parents were so thrilled he was sharing information that his lies became more and more intricate to the point of absurdity.  At fifteen years of age he confessed his years of lying to a psychologist who advised him to think about whether he wanted to return to address the issue.  A week later he rang the psychologist’s office only to discover he’d died the day after Herman had made his confession.  He knew at that moment that being a writer was his future profession.  He brought the house down.

It was hard to imagine the final speaker being able to offer more but she did, and then some.  Jeanette Winterson is a marvel.  As an orphan adopted by an evangelical family, her childhood was rich pickings for writing.  Her step-mother would write passages from the bible and leave them scattered around the house, along with a range of weaponry she collected as veiled threats of consequences for not obeying the rules.  She was not allowed to read anything but the Bible because as her step-mother stated, “The trouble with a book is you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.”

She learned about hypocrisy when she was sent to the library to check out murder mysteries for her step-mother so that no-one would know she was reading fiction.  For herself, Jeanette began checking out classics in alphabetical order from a shelf and then began to purchase her own copies in secret.  She hid them under her mattress and over time her bed grew higher and higher.  Finally, her step-mother could ignore them no longer and threw the books one-by-one out the bedroom window, covered them in kerosene and lit them on fire.

As horrendous as that story is, it provided a moment of clarity for Jeanette in which she knew writing was her future.  Her parting words were powerful, “Whatever is outside can be taken away: not what’s inside.”




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