A packed and diverse crowd assembled to hear Xue Yiwei discuss his writing with local filmmaker Dan Salmon in A Foreigner Abroad. Salmon started by observing that Yiwei’s bio reads like the plot of a novel: alternately lionised, ignored and censured in his home country of China and his adopted country of Canada.
But the softly spoken Yiwei defies categorisation the same way his novels do. He spoke about the assumptions when the narrator of his latest work, Dr Bethune’s Children, is, like Yiwei himself, an expat Chinese man living in Vancouver. Is this a thinly disguised bio? Yiwei revealed with a smile that his own mother became upset at the description of the protagonist’s mother in the book. “But she relaxed when I told her that in fact I was Yang Yang, who committed suicide aged 30.” In fact, the relationship between an author and his characters is not straightforward: “I think maybe everyone is me. Even my women characters are reflections of my world.”
It is inevitable, but also wearying, that whenever we have visiting Chinese writers they are asked about Chinese politics, especially censorship. (Writers from other countries just get asked about their writing). Yiwei responded with grace when the question was put to him. “It’s not a straightforward process. You have to worry about it, for example, when works are translated. You might be allowed certain things if your editor is on good terms with the censor.” He said that sometimes it can be subtle - for example, a change from ‘motherland’ to ‘home country’ because of the underlying meaning that ‘mother country’ might be perceived to have in certain cultures.
Asked of his take on writing in a social media space, he said that he is a traditionalist at heart. “ I believe in words and details - I use literary words to change the world.” Speaking to other writers of their role, he urged them not to be afraid: “ You are a writer, you have a right to protest.”
In Writing the Suffrage Past, four NZ writers were asked to respond to documents in the archives of Auckland Museum, asking the question of the women’s right’s movement, ‘Are we there yet?” The answer, from the ethnic and age diverse panel of Linda Olsson, Tusiata Avia, Alice Canton and Emma Espiner, was a sobering ‘No.’ In what for me was the hardest hitting session of the festival, the four writers melded historical photos with intimate personal biography to explain why.
Linda Olsson chose a photograph in which a woman holds a sign, “I can’t believe I am STILL protesting this shit.” She crossed back to her homeland of Sweden and her past, recalling her girlhood and imagined a conversation between her and her great-grandmother. She melded this with her thoughts on the #metoo movement: “Economic control is power. Sexual abuse is almost always about power.” What began as a powerful personal essay has now become the seed of a new novel.
Emma Espiner chose a collage of different covers of “Broadsheet’, a NZ feminist periodical published from 1972 to 1997. She recalled growing up in Lower Hutt in the 1990s embarrassed by her lesbian feminist mother, and how she craved buying Women’s Weekly rather than the Broadsheets her mother brought home. “I desperately wanted to be normal.” She highlighted a cover in which a young woman poses with the headline,” Maybe she’s pretty, but would you elect her as PM?” “The answer in 2018 is yes!” Her mother enrolled her in self-defence and assertiveness classes instead of sports, figuring they would come in more useful. It turns out her mother was right. Many years later, Espiner walked out of a role in corporate recruiting and became a medical student. She recalled her amazement when, in 2018, a population health lecturer addressing a majority female medical class expressed his opinion that the feminisation of the medical workforce devalued it. Espiner, by then fully accepting of her mother’s ideas about equality, gave him the feedback he needed.
Alice Canton chose a picture of an unnamed Maori woman, dressed as a domestic servant. She observed that the images of NZ women suffragettes mostly portray white, middle class and educated women. Women of colour, of working class, non-conforming gender roles or uneducated background had little opportunity to contribute their voices – and this is a situation that continues today. She urged us to consider which voices were over or underrepresented in the dialogue and to try to shift the balance. “Even though they fought for equality, the idea that every woman is an equal beneficiary of the women’s rights movement is wrong. In 2018, with my ‘Chinese-sounding last name’ I can’t even get a job interview…. all women should be able to speak on their own terms. There are more stories that exist than the ones you’ve heard.”
Tusiata Avia chose a photograph taken in Christchurch in 1978. In it, a group of women hold a picture of a woman found naked having died from a botched self-abortion with a coat hanger. This was an image that Avia remembers seeing as an 11-year-old in a Broadsheet magazine, and when she was given access to the archives she went searching to see if it was as powerful as she remembered. She then revealed the secrets in her family: before this age, her great aunty had, out of pity, provided her mother with a dangerous backstreet abortion. The great aunt was later jailed for seven years when an abortion on another woman went wrong.
In Out of Empire, writers – New Zealanders historian Michael Belgrave and novelist Alexandra Tidsdale, plus Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo and Kenyan polymath Ngugi wa Thiong'o – read from their own work. Through what was a varied hour, the four writers explored the experience of living in a British colony through the eyes of their characters or real historical figures. Ngugi, the last to read, entranced the audience with his sparkling personality. “There is no way we can be colonised by empire without being impacted by language,” he declared with a wide smile, and then proceeded to read an extract describing how he was imprisoned for daring to write a play in his mother tongue of Gikuyu. The imprisonment backfired as it prompted him to write his first novel in Gikuyu on prison-issue toilet paper. His theological argument with the priest sent to extract his confession (he gave us an entertaining blow by blow account) led to another work, the autobiographical Wrestling with the Devil.
In Sad Girls, social media sensation and poet Lang Leav was interviewed by fellow poet (and sensation) Courtney Sina Meredith. I have to admit that I was not aware of Leav’s work before this Festival, but it was evident from the room packed with young women of colour hanging on to her every word that she had a huge following. In what was more a conversation than an interview, with the two often warmly interrupting or talking over each other, Leav spoke about her Vietnamese refugee background. “My mother was pregnant with me while running from the Khmer Rouge – she was literally dodging bullets in the jungle.” She revealed that it’s her ambition to eventually write her mother’s story – but in response to those who critique her for not writing more about her cultural background, she said simply, “I have many books ahead of me. You can’t judge a writer on what things they’ve done so far. It’s a continuum.”
She’d become disillusioned with the constant struggle to make money through creative means (as well as writing, she worked in fashion and illustration) but after posting some of her love poetry on Tumblr, she went viral...
Leav spoke of her ‘breakthrough’ as writer occuring only a few months after she wrote her work Swansong – ‘a breakup letter to my creative self.” She’d become disillusioned with the constant struggle to make money through creative means (as well as writing, she worked in fashion and illustration) but after posting some of her love poetry on Tumblr, she went viral and became one of the first of the wave of young contemporary poets widely read by her peers.
Of the fears that writers often have about sharing their work online, she advised, “Be bold. Put your work out there so it can find an audience. Yes someone’s going to rip it off, that always happens but don’t be precious, you can write more and the first pieces are not the best anyway.”
My final session was The Big Ideas of Neal Stephenson. Stephenson’s ideas have carried him past the literary realm and into real-world applications, with roles such as Chief Futurist with augmented reality company Magic Leap.
His interviewer was David Larsen, and they perfectly matched each other in terms of laconic wit. Larsen spent the whole time trying to raise a smile from the deadpan Stephenson, and while he got a few twitches, I don’t think he actually succeeded. Laughter, however, rolled through the audience at regular intervals, right from the first discussion which was about the lethality of chairs
The most fascinating conversation was about how science fiction writers impact on real-world tech. “There are a lot of ideas in sci-fi books which get people’s brains going,” Stephenson said. “I think writers provide a coherent vision that engineers can go for.” But what comes first? Don’t writers in turn get ideas from reading the latest research breakthoughs? This was a question not fully answered in the session that I tackled with a friend in the foyer afterwards.
When it comes to stealing ideas, Stephenson revealed that he is not above getting revenge. Larsen read an extract from one of his latest novels in which he alludes to ‘an image stolen from Google Earth, which was in turn stolen from an old sci-fi novel.’ It turns out that he’s trolling Google Earth with this paragraph, because the ‘old sci-fi novel’ in question is his own, Snowcrash. It is apparently common knowledge in the Silicon Valley that Snowcrash was influential in tech design.
One more day to go of the Auckland Writers Festival 2018. Do join me for Sunday's updates.
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Auckland Writers Festival, highlights from Renee Liang, Friday 18 May