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The Joy of Writing and Reading Festivals

I have just returned from the four day Auckland Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, and a wonderful festival it was. International authors seem to enjoy coming to New Zealand, and often appear first in the Auckland festival and then in the Sydney festival. The Auckland festival had 32,000 attendees this year, quite a remarkable accolade for good books and wonderful writers in our largest city of just 1.5 million. The other main cities in NZ have their own annual Writers’ and Readers’ Festivals, also well attended. All the sessions (from a choice of interviews, talks and panel discussions with more than 25 international writers and many NZ writers) were good to fantastic. The Festival began for me with lunch with Fatima Bhutto (along with 80 others!). I also went to her “An Hour With…” interview. A reluctant member of the Pakistani dynastic family, Fatima is only in her late twenties, and is already an impressive (and very beautiful) woman. The grand-daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, assassinated before she was born, the daughter of Murtaza Bhutto, assassinated when she was 14, and the niece of Benazir Bhutto, assassinated when she was 25, Fatima is a journalist with a mission; to expose the corrupt practices of the Pakistani Government and the family she comes from. Her belief that her aunt, Benazir Bhutto, was responsible for her beloved father’s murder surely places this brave woman in a dangerous position as she continues to live in Pakistan. I had read her latest book Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter's Memoir before the Festival. The chapters where she told her family’s personal story were the most interesting, with the photographs of the various members of the family at different points of their lives adding intimacy. Although the political intrigue that took up much of this hefty book was informative (although presumably biased), I found it difficult to keep tabs on all the unfamiliar names and events, given my ignorance of the complex political history of Pakistan. Nevertheless, the book was thought-provoking and it gave me at least some superficial understanding of the complexity of a country that is so often in the news. It also made me very thankful that I live in New Zealand!

Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Palestinian doctor whose 3 daughters and a niece were killed in their home in January, 2009 during the Israeli incursion into Gaza, spoke of his mission to honour his daughters and make the world a safer place for other women and girls. His book I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey, is his impassioned plea for peace, and his powerful words at the Festival had the large audience moved to tears.

Other non-fiction writers I heard but whose books I have yet to read included Carolyn Burke, whose new biography No Regrets: A Biography of Edith Piaf. by Carolyn Burkeincludes a large amount of material not previously available to biographers, Naomi Oreskes, a renowned American historian of science, who talked about her book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warmingand her theories of how a small group of influential scientists went about clouding the public understanding of issues like global warming to further their own ideological agenda, and Barbara Strauch, the Health and Medicine Editor of the New York Times talking about her new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind. Barbara Strauch. This session was well attended by all the baby-boomers in the audience, many of whom left with a new determination to begin a physical exercise program in earnest as a means of extending the use-by date of their brain! The irrepressible and politically incorrect A.A. Gill, the Scottish restaurant critic and travel writer, attracted the largest audience ever to attend a session at any Auckland Festival and had the audience in “stitches” although there were a few who found him arrogant, rude and disgusting! Laughing is a great therapy, and most Kiwis are happy to leave their politically correct tendencies outside the door when the insults are aimed at posh restaurants and the posh people who eat in them.

Among the novelists I heard and whose novels I have yet to read were Americans Tea Orbreht, the incredibly young Yugoslavian-born writer whose first novel The Tiger's Wife: A Novel, has been widely acclaimed, and David Vann, a very amusing and enthusiastic speaker, although some of his subject matter – his father’s suicide -- was anything but amusing. From the UK and Ireland came David Mitchell, who spoke with enthralling wisdom and humility about his writing process. His latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novelwas long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and won Best Book in the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. My favourite was Claire Keegan, the Irish short story writer, whose interview session and workshop were both wonderful. She is a master of the quiet dark short story and her way of explaining her process is very thought provoking and different from any other workshop or book on writing I have experienced. “Fiction is a temporal art, an incision in time,” she explained. “Don’t be afraid to leave things quietly in the paragraph; trust the reader,” when warning against hitting the reader over the head with things that will later become important. “In the first draft simply write what happens. Don’t explain, summarize, analyse, be clever, or make statements or anecdotes.” She enthralled the large audience with her long reading from her latest book, FOSTER, which she described as “a longish short story” but I have yet to read this. However I did buy (and have her sign!) her first short story collection, Antarctica. Her writing is just like her workshop; unsentimental, uncluttered, direct, real and unexpected.
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