New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week 2006
I first read Helen Garner in the 1980s. Her novel Monkey Grip, a spare, sad tale of Melbourne junkies had an effect on me I can’t quite explain – perhaps it was the liberating feel of the way the main character, a woman, lived her life which seemed to me then to enact the reality of what feminism might bring about. Although Garner, a guest at this year’s New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week (14-19 March), wrote a couple more works of fiction, her present concentration is on that developing genre, creative non-fiction. In 1995 she wrote The First Stone, uncompromisingly subtitled Some Questions about Sex and Power, an account of a sexual harassment case at Melbourne University which seemed to her to raise uncomfortable questions about the political effects of the women’s movement a generation on. More recently, Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) deals with a Canberra murder. The girlfriend of Joe Cinque talked widely about her decision to kill her boyfriend, and invited people to a dinner party on the night she did it. In both books, Garner pioneers a kind of journalism or reportage where she, as reporter, is an integral part of the narrative – she tells us about her personal life, and the process of putting together the account, the doubts and disappointments, as she tries to understand character and motivation, but also the precarious nature of what we can know and how we can know it.
Lyndall Gordon is also interested in researching other lives, and entering into the consciousness of others. But while Garner sits in the kitchen and watches Joe Cinque’s parents try to cope with their pain and frustration, Gordon is in the archive and the research library, operating through the more orthodox role of the literary biographer. I am not sure that her results are markedly different in the depth and respect for complexity that she finds in her subjects – Virginia Woolf, Henry James, T S Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and most recently Mary Wollstonecraft. Gordon has an amazing ability to construct a portrait of intense psychological realism without resorting to the weaselly “probably”, “may have” or “surely would have” that are the refuge of the over-imaginative and under-researched biography. Her portrait of Brontë, in particular, explained for me for the first time that writer’s odd, injured, touchy character.
Both these authors deal with the relationship between the writerly imagination and the world. Garner and Gordon are in a sense abstracted from their subjects. Even Garner knows that she is an observer of those she writes about. The Bosnian novelist and short story writer Aleksandar Hemon does not have the luxury of removal. Born in Sarajevo in 1964, he was on a trip to the US in 1992 when the situation in what was rapidly becoming ex-Yugoslavia deteriorated. He thus writes from the experience of war and the imagining of war, and of the dislocation of inadvertent rootlessness. His 2002 novel is called Nowhere Man, a title which conveys both the limbo of the traveller and also of the Beatles’ song played by the band Blind Joseph Pronek and the Dead Souls which Hemon’s fictional alter ego Pronek forms in Tito’s Yugosalvia. Hemon’s short story collection The Question of Bruno recollects childhood holidays, conjures up imaginary and historical figures from the world of espionage, describes everyday life in wartime Sarajevo, imagines the last minutes of the Emperor Franz Ferdinand as his car drives through Sarajevo, and details with minute realism the existence of a new immigrant to the US. “A Coin” begins: “Suppose there is a Point A and a Point B and that, if you want to get from Point A to Point B you have to pass through an open space clearly visible to a skilful sniper.”
All these writers in some sense work with the intersection of experience and language – what the writer does with what has happened to themselves and to others, alive or dead. At times, perhaps always, we are conscious of the limits of language, the way it must work as forms and genres are reshaped to convey what we mean. Garner’s meld of fiction and journalism, Gordon’s thoughtful dissection of the creative life, Hemon’s shifting innovative narratives all push existing forms to this end. But perhaps the most innovative of the writers coming to W&R Week is not in the strict sense a writer at all but an artist – a graphic or comic artist. Joe Sacco, born in Malta now living in the US, draws/ writes comics. But his subject matter is far from Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, profound though those figures may be in popular culture. Palestine, the Bosnian War, the Iraq War are his subject matter, and his role is more that of war reporter than artist or creative writer. As with Garner, Sacco observes but lets us see him observing. He realises – and makes us realise – that the fact that he is observing changes what happens. A short work written for the Guardian, “Trauma on Loan” (which can be seen at The Guardian, tells of the arrest, imprisonment and torture of a group of Baghdad businessmen. But it also shows them in Washington being interviewed, photographed and made to relive the experience by a rapacious and insensitive media, including a small, nerdy, apologetic Sacco. The work Sacco is perhaps most famous for is Palestine, an account of the situation in the Occupied Territories during the first intifada of 1991-2. It will be interesting to see how that account compares to the more orthodox reporting of veteran journalist Robert Fisk, also a W&R Week guest.
Perhaps the biggest purely literary name coming is that of Michael Cunningham whose novel The Hours, made into a film starring Nicole Kidman’s nose, deals with three parallel stories – Virginia Woolf during the writing of Mrs Dalloway, a present-day woman in New York whose life mimics in some senses that of Woolf’s protagonist, and a California housewife in the 1950s who is reading Mrs D. Cunningham’s latest work, Specimen Days, shows both his skill with novel form and his ability to push and test its limits. Again there are three stories, all set in New York, all with characters with the same or similar names, all in some sense connected with the poetry of Walt Whitman. The time span takes us through the industrial hell’s kitchen of the 19th century city, the post-9/11 anxieties and paranoias of the present, and into a future where the city has become a tourist theme park amidst a desolate apocalyptic landscape of environmental and social breakdown.
The week is well supplied with novelists. The American novelist Louise Erdrich has long had a following here for her haunted poetic unsettling works set in the landscape and communities of North Dakota. Nuruddin Farah is a Somalian now living in Cape Town who, like Hemon, writes from a context of civil war and social breakdown. The Spanish José Carlos Somoza represents crime fiction, a widely read genre too little regarded by mainstream criticism. Michelle de Kretser is a Sri Lankan writer now living in Australia whose most recent work, The Hamilton Case, is also in some sense a crime novel. This may reflect an interest in genre writing – her first work, The Rose Grower, is a historical novel set during the French Revolution.
Poetry is always a popular and effective feature of the public and performance side of W&R Week. This year the two poets, the UK’s Simon Armitage and the American former poet-laureate Robert Hass, make a nice contrast. Hass comes from North California and is a precise poet of place, a passionate environmentalist:
Walking, I recite the hard
explosive names of birds:
egret, killdeer, bittern, tern.
Dull in the wind and early morning light
the striped shadows of the cattails
twitch like nerves.
Simon Armitage’s work is more urban, eclectic, hybrid:
Oh motorway, motorway, where have you bin, oh motorway where are you stopping? I’ve bin down to London to pick up the King to take him up north to go shopping.
Oh bring him to us
for a Pontefract cake
and we’ll light up the sky with a rocket
No, I’m taking him home
with the killings he made
with some fluff that he found in his pocket.
I love the uncertain chemistry of the panel discussions during W&R Week. I look forward to Greg O’Brien talking to Joe Sacco and New Zealand’s graphic novelist Dylan Horrocks, creator of Hicksville. Michael Cunningham and Lyndall Gordon talking to Harry Ricketts is a brilliantly conceived combination. And as part of a full and diverse compliment of local writers, Janet Frame, always a tentative presence at W&R Week, is this year celebrated in a panel comprising poet Bill Manhire, academic Jan Cronin and Frame’s niece Pamela Gordon, who discuss Frame’s poetry collection The Goose Bath, to be launched during the week.
Organising that uncertain commodity, human beings, is always a difficult task. Inevitably there have been some adjustments to the programme. Jan Morris cancelled through ill health, and, sadly, the children’s author Jan Mark has died. Shaun Tan the Australian children’s author and Suketu Mehta whose book on Bombay, Maximum City which nicely parallels Morris’s city-biographies, has become a bestseller, have been late additions to the programme.
Jane Stafford teaches in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.