Tag Archives: Auckland Writer’s Festival

The Immortal Way

On the final day of the Auckland Writer’s Festival Meg came with me to two talks.  The first was Jean Christophe Rufin (above), doctor and co-founder of Medicins Sans Frontiers who spoke about his experiences on El Camino de Santiago. Hundreds of thousands of people walk old pilgrimage trails from a range of starting points that all end at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.  For many it is still a pilgrimage, an opportunity to honour a loved one who has died, celebrate overcoming a life-threatening disease, or simply to allow an opportunity to reflect on life.

El Camino de Santiago

Dr. Rufin used it as a transition from his appointment as French Ambassador to Senegal to resettling into normal life.  He was a charming speaker; self-effacing and thoughtful with a touch of humour when sharing his experiences.  Life as an ambassador had been busy with many social events and he was used to being looked after by staff who catered to his every need.  Once home he had to organise his own entertainment as well as meals, clothing and even driving his own car.  The austerity and physical challenges of El Camino appealed as a way of facilitating a return to life away from the embassy.

He didn’t consider himself a pilgrim when he started.  Very quickly he realised that life on the walk revolved around two points:  your feet and la mochila (your backpack).  Blisters, callouses, aches and pains determined how far you could walk on any given day.  He couldn’t stress enough how all consuming the care of your feet absorbs you at the beginning of the walk.

La mochila for him became symbolic of the weight of his fears. As the journey progressed decisions were made on a regular basis about what was most important to still carry.  For some, having plenty of wet weather gear reflected their fear of being wet.  For others, water (thirst), books (boredom), journals (remembering) and other items reflected their priorities and these changed as time passed.  It became a way of quickly getting to know others on the track by what they carried and how large or small their bag was.

What resonated with Meg and me was the time the walk allowed you to learn about yourself. Our lives are so busy that we seldom have the luxury of quiet time to reflect on where we are and how we feel about our lives.  The art of mindfulness is popular at the moment. Concentrating on what we are doing without distraction is important but for many today those moments can only be measured in minutes, perhaps an hour if you’re lucky.  El Camino allows a different opportunity of mindfulness by stepping away from all that is familiar in our lives; routines, people, places and things. But the time frame for this is in days, weeks and months, not minutes.

It is a journey that is intensely personal and Dr. Rufin explained that he felt in the end that he had become a pilgrim, it was impossible not to.  There are connections with others along the way but in the end it is about you.  He shared a sweet story about seeing the end of the trail in the distance.  There was a big Spaniard almost 100 metres ahead of him, and while they were aware of each other throughout the day, they walked a matching pace so their distance apart remained constant. The Spaniard stopped just before the line marking the end of the walk, waited for him, and together they held hands and jumped across together.  It was an intimate moment of shared joy, an acknowledgement of an experience that was similar but unique to each.

Not many people can afford the time and expense of walking for two months.  But we can try to push opportunities for mindfulness into hours and days rather than minutes.  I wish Dr. Rufin had had more time to talk about his transition into ‘normal’ life.  Often the greatest challenge is moving forward with insights we gain from reflective time.

It may be cliche but his story was apt:  it’s about the journey, not the destination.

rufinwalking

 

Inside/Outside

HWong

Helene Wong is a writer, actor, director and film critic who was born in New Zealand from Chinese immigrant parents.  Her recent book, “Being Chinese:  A New Zealander’s Story” made her a natural choice to present the Michael King Memorial Lecture at the Auckland Writer’s Festival.  She discussed the dichotomy of being both part of this place but also set apart.

New Zealand is considered a multi-cultural society whose core identity is a bi-cultural mix of Maori and Pakeha (British, Irish and Scottish colonial ancestry).  Our location in the South Pacific accounts for the large numbers of Pacific Island, Indian, Indonesian, SE Asian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrant populations. Colonial ties also explain the large numbers of immigrants from the United Kingdom (UK) and South Africa,

The core of Helene Wong’s talk focused on how we look on the outside as opposed to who we are on the inside.  As a Chinese woman she has dealt regularly with other people’s stereotypes.  She played a funny but cringe-worthy film clip on the experiences of three actresses applying for t.v. roles.  Each was from a different Asian country but all were seen simply as “Asian” and expected to either know martial arts or to react unemotionally (‘Asian’?!) in stressful situations.

Helene’s parents set aside their Chinese heritage in order to ensure their children grew up identifying as Kiwis.  They succeeded in their goal but only to a certain point.  There was no getting around the fact that they still looked Chinese on the outside even if they felt like Kiwis on the inside.  It was only as an adult that she began to reconnect with her Chinese heritage.   She shared a moving story of visiting her father’s birthplace in China where she was told, “This is your home,” by villagers.

Helene helped organise the ‘Banana’ Conference with other Chinese New Zealanders who were interested in reconnecting with their cultural heritage.  It was their humorous way of identifying the sense of being yellow on the outside and white on the inside.

She also discussed the rising levels of xenophobia not only in New Zealand but globally.  It is not a new phenomena.  Historically, large movements of immigrants have resulted from the need for cheap labour, wars, famine or simply to maintain stable population numbers as a balance to emigration.  While most people enjoy cultural diversity, there can be a fear of cultural invasion, otherwise referred to as ‘inv-Asian’.

cartoon

The session resonated with me on many levels.  I immigrated to Zealand almost 22 years ago.  I look Pakeha but as soon as I speak my accent gives me away as American.  My friends and colleagues tend to overlook or downplay this fact.  I’ve lost track of the number of conversations about the US or Americans that have been halted mid-sentence with the comment, “But we don’t mean you, you’re not really American.”

It is a challenge facing millions of people today.  As an immigrant, how do you retain those parts of your past that reflect your values today?  Each year, my family hosts a Thanksgiving party that has grown in excess of 100 family members and friends.  They have fully embraced this holiday that values the universal theme of giving thanks for all that we have in our lives.  I cook American recipes handed down by family members, and at Christmas I am renowned for my over the top tree and lights that are a little out of place in what is now a summer holiday.

I attend Waitangi and Anzac Day services, have learned to cook scones and pavlova, and understand and support our national rugby and cricket teams.  Every year we dress up for an afternoon tea to celebrate the Queen’s birthday.  Cucumber sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and other treats are washed down with cups of tea on the good china.   That is not a typical Kiwi tradition, but it is ours.

If it was a question of getting used to new foods, clothing and celebrations it would be simple. However, today immigration poses huge challenges.   How do you tackle the differences in values and morals of immigrant groups that might view women’s rights, sexual orientation or protecting the environment in significantly different ways to the culture where they settle?  This is of particular concern in practicing democracies where citizens elect their politicians.  It is sensible to question what impact voters with different values could have on government decision-making and legislation.

Helene Wong finished by challenging the audience to speak up rather than remain silent when witnessing the hate speech of xenophobia.   Kiwis are traditionally non-confrontational but she questioned, “Is this who we are?  Who we want to be?”  She pointed out the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. as symptomatic of the frustration and fear that can result from unchallenged bigotry. When there is no more room for discussion or differences of opinion democracy falters.

"We hate everyone!!!"
“We hate everyone!!!”

 

Altered States

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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.”

 

 

Auckland Writer’s Festival 2016

 

Each year I treat myself to the Auckland Writer’s Festival.  It’s a week-long event, but most of the activity is centred around Friday, Saturday and Sunday sessions.  This year’s theme was “Read the World” and focused on questions of identity, perception and migration (voluntary and involuntary) from a range of New Zealand and global authors. Carmen Aguirre, Vivian Gornick, Herman Koch, Jeanette Winterson, Helene Wong, Giovanni Tiso, David Fisher, Janet Wilson, Julian Baggini, Hirini Kaa, Jean-Christophe Rufin, and Janna Levin were just a few of the stimulating speakers at sessions I attended.

Perhaps the greatest highlight was seeing Gloria Steinem.  At 82 years of age, she has been an icon for me and others for decades and she shared several stories from her life as an activist.  One included her attendance at the March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr.  He had finished his planned speech and was about to leave the stage when one of the women organisers shouted out to him, “Tell them about your dream!”  His ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was not only impromptu in its delivery, but in its construction.  She also spoke at length about Native American activists she’s worked with and admires.

I was touched most by her responses to audience questions.  One young woman (22 years old) explained how difficult it was to find others who identified as feminists.  First, Gloria recommended that she see beyond labels to the substance of what people stand for.  As much as she is comfortable calling herself a feminist she said that what was most important was that people recognised barriers to people achieving their potential.  Equalist, womanist, human rights activist, she said it doesn’t matter how they label themselves or if they refuse to do so as long as they’re taking action.  Then she asked if 10 people would be willing to stay after the session to meet up with the young woman and dozens of hands shot up.  She left with a smile on her face and plans to share a wine with new-found friends.

Another young woman who was only 14 years old said she already feels overwhelmed by the issues facing young people today.  Gloria gently suggested she find one issue at her school that needed addressing, something simple that everyone knew was a problem. Then, create a group who will work towards making a change.  She reminded her that no one person is the answer to any problem.  Circles of support remind us that it takes a team to bring about change and to support each other through the challenges.  I thought in both instances her suggestions were very empowering to those young women.

I left feeling thankful for my own circles of support.  I am surrounded by friends and family near and far with shared histories.  There have been plenty of laughs and tears in my life that make up a rich tapestry of stories.  Those stories and the people in them define who I am.  They are my past, present and will be an integral part of my future.

More to come…

http://www.writersfestival.co.nz/