Metro's picks from the Auckland Writers Festival 2017

by John Sinclair / 10 May, 2017
Illustration by Sarah Laing

For six days in May, the Auckland Writers Festival lays on its annual literary feast. Here's Metro’s picks of the programme. Read on for more about two of the biggest names on the guest list.

Every year the Auckland Writers Festival serves up a dégustation fit for the palate of any literary Mr Creosote. So many ways to overstuff oneself with words, to gag on a surfeit of stories, and to max out the credit cards laying in a stock of new books for the winter. And the fine thing is, no matter how much you consume, there’s no risk of exploding in public. A feast with no calories! So, Messieurs and Mesdames, whether you fancy yourself as gourmet, gourmand or glutton, curate your own menu or try out the following recommendations:

Because straight white men have lost the capacity for either truth or good humour, try Ivan Coyote, the droll androgynous Canadian raconteur; or Chris Kraus, one-time New Zealand resident whose I Love Dick deconstructs the ribald comedy we always suspected lurked behind French post-modernist thought; or Paul Beatty, writer of the funniest ever Booker winner set in the mythical republic of Dickens; or Mpho Tutu Van Furth, South Africa’s (and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s) favourite daughter-turned-lesbian martyr for uncomfortable truths and rainbow reconciliations yet to be.

Because everyone loves a polymath, take in Teju Cole, Nigerian-born New Yorker, art-critic, flâneur and novelist (Open City); and marvel at A.N. Wilson, atheist biographer of many of history’s most prominent theists (Jesus, St Paul, Dante, Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis), and a few others besides (Hitler, Iris Murdoch).

Because the world that recently seemed flat now has a few bumps, quiz Thomas Friedman, columnist for “fake-news” outlet the New York Times, on whether he still believes in flat and why, despite 2016, he still advocates optimism; or theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss on why, in response to Donald Trump’s election, he moved the Doomsday Clock a mere 30 seconds closer to global annihilation; or science writer James Gleick on why we must give up our wild hopes of escaping this mess through time travel.

Because fiction takes you places that Expedia could never imagine, let alone mark down, travel with George Saunders to a cacophonous afterlife in search of Abraham Lincoln; with Anne Enright to those corners of the family garden where the bodies lie, not quite as scary as we’d feared, awaiting their last rites; or with Amie Kaufman, co-creator of the indescribable, and surely unfilmable, Illuminae, which has nevertheless been optioned by Brad Pitt.

Cheer on heresy-trial survivor Sir Lloyd Geering as he nears his 100th birthday, having outlived his po-faced detractors.

Because where would a nation be without its smart young things, go hear Rhodes Scholar, prison abolitionist and zeitgeist buster Max Harris (whose father once sent me to the Manchurian city of Harbin to learn proper Mandarin pronunciation); or Hera Lindsay Bird of the yellow anorak, who has turned sex jokes into poetry and is now working on a children’s detective novel one might hesitate to read to one’s children; or Te Kuiti-born essayist and memoirist Ashleigh Young, just to be reminded why Yale University endowed her with US$165,000.

Because only a true national treasure can be simultaneously éminence grise and enfant terrible, go cheer on heresy-trial survivor Professor Sir Lloyd Geering as he nears his 100th birthday, having outlived all of his po-faced detractors from 1967; or Bill Manhire, exponent of Southlandish irony and accoucheur to the productive and often-painful labours of multiple generations of New Zealand writers; and Dame Fiona Kidman, champion of the intelligent outsider, for which she has been made an insider, entitulated Chevalier of both the French Legion of Honour and the Order of Arts and Letters and Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

Because a chymical marriage produces marvels, imagine what’s for dinner in the household of husband-and-wife high-wire duo John Lanchester — son of nun (see his memoir Family Romance), creator of the truly unpleasant bon viveur Tarquin Winot (The Debt to Pleasure) and scourge of contemporary pluto-philia (Capital and How to Speak Money) — and Miranda Carter, historian of Europe’s war-mongering monarch-cousins Wilhelm, George and Nicholas and author of a delicious trilogy of thrillers about death, empire and food.

Because China is the real story and the US merely a sideshow, read The Boat Rocker, the latest unsettling fable of modern China by novelist Ha Jin (native of Harbin, Manchuria); or take in the street-level journalism of Rob Schmitz, who searched for someone (anyone!) in his Shanghai neighbourhood who is truly living the Chinese dream.

And because you’ve always wondered what’s worn under the kilt of tartan noir, spend an hour with Detective Inspector John Rebus (retired) of the Lothian and Borders Police, as channelled through his amanuensis, Ian Rankin, and quiz him about Scottish nationalism, his status as the grandson of a Polish immigrant, and what he learned about human frailty from his stage hypnotist father.

 

 

A cautionary tale

Susan Faludi reflects on the strange story of her father’s life and what it says about the threat of nationalism.

By Anthony Byrt

In 1976, the facade of the Faludis’ typical suburban life, already cracked, finally shattered. Estranged from his wife and kids and under a restraining order, Steve Faludi broke into the family home and stabbed the man his wife was dating. The lover survived; the family unit did not. Steve — who was born István Friedman in 1927, a Hungarian Jew who narrowly escaped the Holocaust — had squeezed his all-American identity as father and protector in a fist so tight it blew up in his face.

For more than a quarter of a century, Steve’s daughter, Susan Faludi, barely heard from him, until she received an email from Budapest in 2004, with photographs attached. Faludi opened the images to find her septuagenarian dad, now known as “Stefánie”, in the joyous aftermath of gender reassignment surgery. And Stefánie wanted her daughter — the author, feminist commentator and famous journalist — to tell her story.

“This book is all about identities, and this was my chosen identity,” Faludi says. “I approached our getting to know each other again as a reporter, because that’s where I felt comfortable. There was a certain security in having a notebook and playing the role of the enquiring journalist. I wasn’t sure if it would become a book… and I had deep concerns about publishing it while my father was alive. Because, why write it if you’re not going to be honest? But I also didn’t want to hurt my father.”

Faludi opens In the Darkroom with epigraphs from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” and Anne Sexton’s “Red Riding Hood”. Stefánie, it emerges, is both the swan and the wolf: innocent, late-blooming outsider on the one hand, master manipulator on the other. “My father was so fixated on Hans Christian Andersen,” Faludi explains, “and I think really identified with him as an outlier who felt marginalised, who felt rejected by his family... Andersen was also very sympathetic to Jews and I think had some identification with being spat out of a Christian society, even though he wasn’t Jewish himself.”

Faludi casts her parent, throughout the story of her life, as a kind of shapeshifting Zelig: overprivileged, nanny-reared toddler in cosmopolitan Budapest; daring young member of the anti-fascist underground; party-boy film-maker in postwar Brazil; one of New York’s go-to photographic retouchers in Mad Men-era New York; abusive stalker; and finally, rebirthed woman. And after all those years and reinventions, still someone who tries to control her daughter: when Faludi first visits Budapest, she is forced to stay inside, like Rapunzel, scrolling through endless images of “Stefi” Photoshopped into fictional outfits and scenarios.

For the entire book, István/Steve/Stefánie’s story lurks precariously between truth and fable. It also, almost unbelievably, landed smack in the middle of Faludi’s own critical arc. For years before their reunion, she was one of America’s major writers on gender. Her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women is a classic feminist text. And 1999’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man examined the ways contemporary culture constructs and controls notions of masculinity. Stefánie, Faludi says, “kind of drove a Trojan Horse into my professional and political domain. I felt like I couldn’t move forward on gender issues and write honestly about them without admitting to my personal experience.”

For more than a quarter of a century, Faludi had barely heard from her father, Steve, until she received an email with photographs attached. She opened the images to find her suptuagenarian dad, now known as “Stefánie”, in the joyous aftermath of gender reassignment surgery.  

Her book isn’t, Faludi emphasises, meant to be “a verdict on the trans experience, or [a way] to hold my father up as a poster-child for the trans community”. Far more important is how she turns Stefánie’s life into a parable about the creeping threat of nationalism. The deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungary’s Jews (including the wider Friedman family) in World War II, and the country’s own complicity in it, is a defining aspect of the book, as is the contemporary rise of the Hungarian far right.

“It speaks to the Janus-faced nature of identity,” Faludi says, “that it can be liberating, a path for self-discovery, as it is in civil rights or feminism or LGBT rights. Or it can be terribly destructive and xenophobic when it becomes a substitute for self-awareness, a way to concoct a fanciful identity that makes you feel better by deciding all your problems are created by an Other that you can demonise and expel.”

Stefánie died in 2015. Faludi published In the Darkroom in the middle of 2016, while she watched “with my jaw on the floor as the Trump campaign seemed to be channelling the Hungarian right-wing government, down to the building of the wall”. Hungary’s ruling Fidesz Party had, against all European Union principles, built fences to block refugees from entering the country. And in 2014, during the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust, the Hungarian government “didn’t want to talk about Jews as victims of the Holocaust, but that Hungary itself was persecuted. And then along comes Trump on Holocaust Remembrance Day and just talks vaguely about ‘the victims’. There are so many echoes here.”

I ask if things are as bad in the States, particularly for women, as they seem from the outside. “Yes, it’s worse,” she says, with a gallows laugh. “One of [Trump’s] very first acts was to reinstate the global gag rule on abortion. He has handed over the entire candy store to the evangelical right. He equates equal pay with socialism, and he’s now going to roll back every social welfare programme that women depend on.”

It’s horrifying, but she does see a small silver lining, exemplified by public events like the Women’s March and the Women’s Strike. She also says “thousands of local groups of women have formed, who are working their butts off to put the screws to their representatives both at a national and local level, and to raise hell. In my lifetime, I’ve not seen such a campaign.”

This is where the greatness of Faludi’s book lies. Rather than simply reporting what she sees in front of her, she uses Stefánie’s story as a prompt to put her ear to the ground. And what she hears are the vibrations of misogyny and anti-Semitism, the rumbles of black boots marching, bombs falling, and cattle cars clacking across rail sleepers. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s best stories, In the Darkroom is, in Faludi’s words, “a cautionary tale”. It intuits coming discriminations, and perhaps even horrors. But it is also a perfect, beautiful, empathetic work of art: honouring not just Stefánie, but everyone who fights for the right to choose their own path.

 

 

Beware the shadows.

The charming Irish storyteller and Man Booker laureate outwits her readers every time.

By Sue Orr

In Anne Enright’s 2008 short story “Pale Hands I Loved, Beside the Shalimar”, the narrator suffers a migraine while having sex with a man she barely knows. “There is something unbelievable about a migraine,” the character says. “You lie there and you can’t believe it. You lie there, rigid with unbelief, like an atheist in hell.”

Enright’s six novels and three story collections are lauded for moments like this one — bleak yet funny portrayals of personal and family dysfunction. Vulnerable, sexual characters populate her tales. In them we recognise ourselves and those close to us. For this, I love Enright’s books.

But the shadow of pathos is never far away; it lurks just off the edge of the page. Enright encourages us to keep turning those pages, to reach for the pathos. Then she sidesteps, leaves us stumbling across her landscapes of human fallibility. In the guise of traditional Irish raconteuse, she outwits us every time.

For this, I love Enright’s books so much more.

Enright’s particular brand of pathos is ethereal, similar, perhaps, to the aura that occurs just before the onset of that migraine pain. Vision blurs, colours scream and shimmer, objects and people slip into peripheral shadow. Turn your head to look straight on: they’re gone. But Enright’s auras deliver not pain: rather, a wondrous sense of discombobulation. When I searched that opening story, once more, for the name of the narrator, I could not find it. The final lines of the story are stunning: “But you never say my name. Sometimes I think you don’t actually know it — that no one does. Except maybe him. I listen out for it, you know?”

Anne Enright will take the stage and we will fall in love with her all over again, just as we did nine years ago.

I recall listening to Enright being interviewed on radio, when she visited New Zealand for the 2008 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. She was talking about the short-story form; the interview stayed with me because at that time, I was preparing my own first collection of stories for publication. “For a short story, something must shift for the character,” she told the interviewer (or words to that effect). “Something must change.”

I reread her stories and puzzled over what she had said. As far as I could see, little changed in her stories. There was rarely a great turn for the better (or for the worse, for that matter) for her characters. It took repeated readings before I understood that change did occur. For the most part, her characters changed in that they came to the realisation that there was very little in their lives that could, or would, change.

There’s a beautiful irony that in both the Man Booker prize-winning The Gathering and her most recent book, The Green Road, families come together, only to reaffirm their intractable differences. In The Gathering, Veronica, the narrator, has come home to share the news of a sibling death with her mother. She says this, of her mother: “If only she would become visible, I think. Then I could catch her and impress upon her the truth of the situation, the gravity of what she has done. But she remains hazy, unhittable, too much loved.” Once more, Enright’s shifty shadows are more present than her breathing, living people.

Anne Enright will take the stage at the Auckland Writers Festival and we will fall in love with her all over again, just as we did nine years ago. We will be charmed by that lilt, by that warm humour, by her willingness to be the Irish storyteller for us for a glorious hour. Some of us might try to remember to keep a wary eye on the shadows in the wings; we will, without doubt, forget.  

 

 Auckland Writers Festival, May 16-21, writersfestival.co.nz 

 

 

 

 

This is published in the May - June 2017 issue of Metro.


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