In Melbourne

[For most of the past week I was in Melbourne, visiting an old and dear friend, Margot Roth, who will be ninety-three this year.

I am, with the help of a few others, working towards gathering a “Selected Writings of Margot Roth” for publication. Though she has recently given up the role of (volunteer) editor of the Mannington University of the Third Age (U3A) newsletter, Margot continues to contribute a column to the New Zealand Women’s Studies Assn newsletter, ranging across many subjects, including roles and media portrayals of women.

Five of us, (three of whom, including Margot) had worked at the Southern Cross newspaper something like sixty years ago, met for lunch at a bistro staffed by first-year hospitality students at a technical institute. I had kangaroo. It was good.

The picture of Margot that appeared in Broadsheet with The Gripes of Roth

The picture of Margot that appeared in Broadsheet with The Gripes of Roth

I’m currently reading through the columns, called “The Gripes of Roth”, that Margot contributed to Broadsheet, New Zealand’s feminist magazine, from 1987 until its demise in 1997. Here’s just one sentence, from May 1990 in a column about, among other things, using children in television advertising: “It’s good … to be reminded by cute tots that even nappies are now designed to accommodate gender differences, just like the grown-ups’ pay rates and job opportunities.” Sharp observations expressed with wit are a hallmark of Margot’s writing.

It’s an accidental irony that I’m currently reading & Sons by David Gilbert, about a fictional author, AN Dyer, his three sons, his just-deceased best friend and the best friends’ son. I keep thinking of The Great Gatsby as I read because the sort of narrator is the friends’ son, barely part of the action apart from commenting on it. I’ll say more about the book when I’ve finished it.

And-Sons

A personal point of note about & Sons is that it is the first book I have borrowed from the public library as an ebook. I got into a muddle with downloading the app and figuring out how to work the system, but having pushed my way through that, the book appeared on my iPad and every time I go to read it there’s a note telling me when it will be “returned” – that is, will vanish from my device. Is that spooky, or what?

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Making Words

First off today, Happy Birthday Prue.

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In the coming week I am going to Melbourne to see an old friend. In preparation, as I’ll be travelling on a bus for a couple of hours each day, I have for the first time downloaded some library ebooks onto my iPad. I’ve also got a couple of purchased ebooks on Kobo that I haven’t read yet, and I’m taking a printed book – We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. With the latest print copies of the London Review of Books and The New Yorker also in my bag,  I’m not worried about running out of things to read.

In the past week I went to the exhibitions “Throne of Emperors” and “Shi Lu, A revolution in paint” at Te Papa, from China. I recommend them both. Among other pleasures I noticed particularly some Chinese printing history and how Shi Lu used language characters in a number of his paintings.

A Chinese revolving typecase/

A Chinese revolving typecase

In “Throne of Emperors” is a cabinet displaying artefacts of printing. Printing pages from carved woodblocks had been going on for centuries in China when in about the year 1040 (by the western calendar) a man called Bi Sheng carved individual characters onto small, identical square pieces of clay, which were hardened by slow baking. These characters could be re-used to make up different pages and the world’s first ever movable type had been invented. Because each Chinese character stands for a syllable, not a single sound as in our alphabet, organising the pieces was a challenge. The solution was a beautiful one, a revolving typecase, as shown in the picture. Bi Sheng’s invention predated the Gutenberg Press, the first movable type printer in the west, by four hundred years.

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Language characters are part of a lot of Chinese painting, and calligraphy is a high art form in itself. There’s a mesmeric video in the Shi Lu exhibit, showing only the brush and part of his hand as he creates characters, perfectly aligned and even-sized, freehand. I saw a woman doing this in Beijing a few years ago, using water on hot concrete paving, so the characters evaporated as she painted them. I have no more idea of the meaning of this now than I did then. I watched for ages. In a number of the Shi Lu paintings  calligraphy and the wordless image make a beautiful composition. (There’s a lot more to fascinate in Shi Lu’s paintings, as he lived through cataclysmic political and social change in China.)

The woman painting on the pavement with water.

The woman in Beijing painting calligraphy characters on the pavement with water.

In Melbourne I will go, as I always do, to the State Library, a beautiful building, and walk around the mezzanine that houses an exhibit showing the history of printing in the west, starting with a Gutenberg bible. I will have my writing and reading notebook with me, for sure, where I write thoughts and ideas in ballpoint pen or pencil.

Next time I take the dog to the beach, I’ll write some words in the sand with a stick.

Listening to the Writers: a selection from my Writers’ Week jottings

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Terry Castle writes reviews out of appreciation of another author’s work. And has fun with their enthusiasms and failings. “Essays are the great form of writing, since the eighteenth century. Essay is my form.” Reading fiction and memoir helps us learn to “read” other people and ourselves, to survive in society. “I believe in geniuses. Never mind their lives.” Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth is “masterful”. (I’ve started reading it.)

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Alison Bechdel wanted to “archive a generation’ with the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. She likes it that her first graphic memoir, Fun Home, exists to be taught in colleges – that it exists to be banned in one, as it has been recently, is also good in that banning it reinforces its existence. Her drawing style has been influenced by the internet, where she can find an image of “anything” and draw it accurately. There is something cathartic for her in having actual documents, such as old passports and letters, they meet her desire for something actual, a chunk of “truth.”

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Kei Miller is Jamaican. He lives and teaches in Edinburgh. I loved his session. He writes essays, poems, novels, everything except plays. “I have the urge to say a lot and every form doesn’t suit everything you want to say.” And, “Essays are for when I get angry about things.” He’s interested in maps, what they show and what is not seen – reality is multiple and contradictory. I’ve bought his novel, The Last Warning Woman and am looking forward to reading it.

New Zealand poet, novelist, journal editor and screenwriter Anne Kennedy, grew up in Irish New Zealand, which she suggests is different from English New Zealand. Ideas, “rumble along for years until they make the page.” She sees making art as testing boundaries and departing from the known. One of the concerns she recognises in her writing is what she called “the agony of plenty,” – people’s concerns, miseries, anomie, when they have enough in material terms. Her novel, “The Last Days of the National Costume,” is on my reading list.

Elizabeth Gilbert describes the protagonist of her The Signature of All Things, Alma Whittaker as, “neither rescued nor ruined,” but “resilient.” She is, however susceptible to disappointment. EG is no fan of “the fetishising of suffering as a precondition for art.” Perfection is seldom if ever achieved, she says, and “done is better than good.”

The Pacific Journeys (I wrote about the book here) session involved eight people, which could have been a disaster, or at least a disappointment, but it worked well. The two editors, Lloyd Jones and Julianne Schultz chatted for a bit about commissioning the pieces and the desirability of more literary crossover between New Zealand and Australia, where Pacific Journeys was published by Griffith Press. Then six contributors each had four minutes to talk about the piece they had in the book. I especially liked what Ashleigh Young said, referring to her essay about hikikomori, young Japanese people who shut themselves in their room, apart from all of the world except the internet. She talked about social anxiety and an impulse to turn inwards, what isolation might give to a person.

I think of Writers’ week as my biennial five days of total immersion in a world of writers. Some years I find an author of whom I have never before heard whose work becomes a source of ongoing delight. It was how I found Jenny Diski. This year I have hopes of Kei Miller in that regard.

Testament of Youth

And now, Testament of Youth.

Extra! extra! world-famous lesbians in Paekakariki

The organisers of Writers Week (part of the International Arts Festival in Wellington) knew what they were doing when they organised for these two writers to have a joint session in the Paekakariki Hall. It sold out fast. I wrote about it here.

Prue and her dog, Zack, with the guests of honour on our deck.

Prue and her dog, Zack, with the guests of honour on our deck.

My partner Prue Hyman and I live five minutes walk from the venue and ended up (thanks to the efforts of Kay Jones) hosting a potluck for Alison B and her partner, Holly, Terry C and fifty-odd other women afterwards. In the session they both talked about their use of their own life in their writing – it was such fun listening in on their conversation with each other about how they create the stuff we love to read, then Prue walked them along the beach from the hall. Sylvia had baked a cake, photos of which have already appeared on Alison’ Facebook page and blog. They were overheard on our deck speculating about which view was the better, the one they were looking at or Big Sur.

Alison and Terry cut the cake Sylvia made.

Alison and Terry cut the cake Sylvia made.

It was a great evening with Alison and Terry engaging in many conversations, enjoying the food, and generally being charming and sociable.

I think I may be telling Alison what Mo could be doing if an animated tv series happens.

I think I may be telling Alison what Mo could be doing if an animated tv series happens.

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There’ll be more about Writers’ Week in my Sunday post.

Pacific Highways

This collection, co-edited by Julianne Schultz & Lloyd Jones, is published by Griffith University, Australia, as Issue 43 of its Griffith Review. It’s a revelation to me. My membership of The NZ Book Council got me sent a free copy – great move, NZBC – and a review on the radio by Tilly Lloyd of my favourite independent bookstore, Unity Books in Wellington, got me reading it. Fortuitous consanguinities!

Pacific Highway

The essays, memoir pieces, poems, reportage, fiction and photographs in Pacific Highways do something for me that is hard to put into words. I was born in New Zealand and though I have travelled a bit I have never lived anywhere else. This is my place and in this book I recognise it in a way I haven’t since reading Janet Frame five decades ago. Situating New Zealand in the Pacific as it does is part of it. Complicating relationships between city and country as well as among peoples from all over the world who have landed here, is another part. Overall, perhaps it is the way so many of the writers write as New Zealanders and as, if I may dare use the phrase, citizens of the world. I’ll use two examples to clarify.

Open City

Steve Braunias writes about walking across Auckland to the airport. “I just wanted to make my way to the border, on foot, and take in the view on the way.” What he saw, who he spoke to, gave him images and ideas that he shares with the reader, in a pot pouri of peoples from all over who, just now, are here. Observations. What was there, on the day. I was reminded of Teju Cole’s novel Open City, where the protagonist walks around New York.

Ian Wedde, in his essay about the tangi of artist Ralph Hotere, queries the stereotype that “cultural complexity” exists only cities, while he creates a rich portrait of the painter, the man. I feel as though I know Hotere, though he never knew me, through following his painting over the years and the public aspects of his life. Wedde puts him in a place, an iwi, ancestry, where he lived, where he had been, in and out of New Zealand, “Between here and there,” is the subtitle of this piece, and I think of Open City again. Each of the forty-five contributors adds something to the richness of the collection and I have so enjoyed reading them all.

Black Phoenix [1984-88] a major installation now in the collection of Te Papa Tongarewa (The National Museum of NZ) Photo from Wikipedia.

Black Phoenix [1984-88] by Ralph Hotere, a major installation now in the collection of Te Papa Tongarewa (The National Museum of NZ) Photo from Wikipedia.

This book is about the only country I can call “my place” and shows its peculiarities and particularity AND how it is linked, in its past and it’s present, to “over there.” That’s what I like so much about it.

There’s all kinds of supplementary material at the Griffith Review website griffithreview.com, including a free Pacific Highways Volume 2, downloadable to any ereader.

Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of all Things. And Walt Witman

First up, I never read Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller Eat, Pray, Love. She’s coming to Writers’ Week in Wellington, and her latest book, The Signature of All Things was in my birthday pile (yay!), so I’ve read that. I enjoyed it immensely, though it sagged a bit in the middle.

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The protagonist, Alma Whittaker, is born into a wealthy family in Philadelphia, in 1800, not beautiful but clever. She becomes a botanist, then a student of mosses. The events and emotional traumas of her life, along with her study of mosses, lead her to an obsession with the connectedness (and brutality) of life. By the end of the book I was thinking that all the characters that impact on Alma have been invented by the author to demonstrate or illustrate that idea. (This is not a criticism.) I won’t say more about it as I’d have to give away too much of the plot. Suffice to say that I liked Alma a lot and most of the other characters, except for the man she married, Ambrose Pike, who I thoroughly disliked, which I suspect was not the author’s intention.

It is a coincidence that I read this book at the same time as I am exploring Walt Whitman’s long poem, Leaves of Grass, (as I wrote in my blog entry on 9 February). As I was reading The Signature of All Things, I kept think of the Whitman poem. There’s an exuberance and passion in Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing about the natural world in places that echoes Whitman, and some lists as Alma walks around Amsterdam that are very Whitmanesque. And Ambrose Pike embodies some of the more mystical and self-referential aspects of Whitman as he presents himself in the poems, though without the latter’s absorption in his physicality. (In fact, Ambrose Pike denies his body, especially in an erotic sense, in distinct contrast to Whitman.)

Alma herself has some Whitman-like qualities – she finds ways to enjoy her body in a world that thwarts her in this regard, but then she is a woman and not beautiful by the standards of her day. Alma also shares with Whitman a passion for engaging with the world and for knowing the world in the fullest possible way.

It may be fanciful to link Elizabeth Gilbert to Whitman, but it makes sense to me. And the exuberance is something I enjoyed in reading each of them.

More light and sound than books

Some daylight remaining.

Some daylight remaining.

The Wellington International Festival has started. The opening event, free, outside in Civic Square, was crowded and loud. Community and school choir singers sang, children and adult drummers drummed, lights played on buildings and into the sky. Performances happened in several areas, including a high balcony on one of the buildings. I enjoyed being in the crowd and was pleased to be tall. This what I scribbled on the back of a London Review of Books I was reading on the train taking me home.

The kid is in the middle.

The kid in the middle

There was a kid
in the middle
drumming up a storm
playing to the crowd
along with big men
and some women
hitting all kinds of things
rhythmically. Hard.
The kid was having
the best time.

There’ll be more posts on the festival in the next three weeks including, of course, Writers’ Week.

An explanation for  non-Wellingtonians: the ball in the sky is a sculpture by Neil Dawson, one of my all-time favourite works of art. And the pyramid and palm shapes are also sculptural works, along and around a pedestrian bridge over a four-lane road. Wellington’s Civic Square is a place of beauty.

And then it got dark.

And then it got dark.

The Literature of Lesbianism. Terry Castle, editor.

The Literature of Lesbianism is a big subject, deserving of a big book, and Terry Castle has made one. The subtitle explains: “A historical anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall.” As she’s coming to Writers’ Week in Wellington next month, Terry Castle is among the group of authors I’m swotting up on. This big book – 1110 pages, if you include the index – was published in 2003, and I have a copy to explore only because a friend lent it to me.

Terry Castle’s introductory essay is great. She’s concerned with the idea of lesbianism and how it has been represented by writers, male and female, over the centuries; lesbianism as “something to talk about”.

I love how she writes. I got a bit tired of Terry-Castle-the-snark in The Professor (while devouring the book) so enjoyed the more or less snark-free writing here. “This woman has read everything!” I cried out more than once, with some envy. She writes beautifully nuanced paragraphs on the “paradox [of] the way in which would-be banishers of the lesbian idea have often ended up facilitating its entry into cultural consciousness by making it more ‘talkable’.”

To my delight, Terry Castle derives from the cross-dressing women in Shakespeare, who invariably end up with a man, the “central thing” that “the possibility of divergence is is broached.” She has this way of taking a word, like “broached,” and using it in a slightly unusual way, which for me makes her writing lively and surprising. I can’t wait to hear her speak.

The extracts gathered together, the introductory notes to each section, and the (long) lists of further reading for each author selected, reinforce my admiration for the extent of Terry Castle’s reading. I fancy myself as voracious and expansive in my reading habit, but she leaves me barely off the starting blocks.

A longer, and much more interesting, version of Terry Castle’s interview with Guy Somerset in the recent Listener is here: http://www.listener.co.nz/culture/books/terry-castle-interview-the-extended-version/

Walt Whitman, women, himself, and the world

I’m doing this free, online, short course on Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass, led by Professor Elisa New of Harvard University. (https://courses.edx.org/courses/HarvardX/AI12.2x/2013)

 Walt Whitman (1819-1892), age 37, frontispiece to Leaves of grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1855, steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), age 37, frontispiece to Leaves of grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1855, steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.

Leaves of Grass, for those not familiar with it, is a long poem, or collection of poems, that Whitman worked on over many decades during the second half of the nineteenth century. It’s an exuberant epic of a growing America, its body of people, the body of the writer and the places, urban and rural, that all inhabit.

A surprise, when I began reading in preparation for the beginning of the course, was the way he specifically includes women, as in, “And I will show of male and female that either is but the equal of the other.” This seems remarkable to me from a book that was first published in 1855. One other example:

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man.
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,

Although it goes on to refer to “the mother of men” women in these two lines are neither subsumed nor lesser.

The title page of the second-hand copy of Leaves of Grass I bought.

The title page of the second-hand copy of Leaves of Grass I bought.

Another surprise is the vehement enthusiasm he has for the physical world, the present and the future, humanity and his own body. (Wikepedia says, somewhat coyly, that “there is disagreement among biographers as to whether Whitman had actual sexual experiences with men.”) This is a poet who throws himself at and into the world and revels in his own body in ways that seem home-erotic to me.

In the fifty-second and final part of the poem “Song of Myself” is the line, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the the roofs of the world.” And nobody will, or does, stop and tame him, not in the lines of the poems, anyway.

I have not before come across a poet anything like Walt Whitman. I may have more to say about him.

Holiday With Books

There was beach and catching up with old friends and good food and lovely places as well as the books.

The first of many scenic picnic spots, with Prue, dappled.

The first of many scenic picnic spots, with Prue, dappled.

The birthday pile

The birthday pile – presents from Prue, along with a fifteen-session ticket to Writers’ Week.

The books part began with the birthday pile. And there was one more book for the birthday morning the day after we arrived in Auckland.  A and F were as welcoming as ever and there was catching up over Indian takeaways and wine. I mentioned to them that I was about to do an online course about Walt Whitman and A found a copy of Leaves of Grass that had been given to her mother by the mother’s grandfather and had annotations. Lovely. A also gave me the booklet Howl by Alan Ginsberg that has a poem about Whitman in it that includes the wonderful line, “who killed the pork chops?  and talked about teaching Whitman early in her university career.

At dinner with my son and his girl-friend, he pressed upon me his copy of  Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, which looks into extremes of religious beliefs in he United States. He has had an important influence on my reading, getting  me started on science writers like Jarred Diamond.

When were further north, at Martin’s Bay, another A asked if I could explain to her why she likes some poets and not others. I’ve thought of a better answer since we left that goes something like this. There’s what the poem is about and there’s the words the poet has used. If either the content or the language strike a chord with me I like the poem. And if both what is said and how it is said come together to express something that really resonates with me I fall in love with the poem. Hardly profound, but I’m pleased that A set me off to thinking about it.

Prue with A (hidden) at Martin's Bay

Prue with A (hidden) at Martin’s Bay

On the way back to Auckland we stopped off to see E and B. There was a copy of The Luminaries sitting on a sofa, so of course, among all the other conversation we talked about that. Back at A and F’s The Luminaries came up again and they resolved to buy and read it.

At dinner, prepared by A and F for six of us, J said that at the suggestion of a friend she was re-reading Three Women by Marge Piercy and moved by writing about caring for someone who had has a stroke, as she and her sister do their very best for and with their mother who has been severely incapacitated by a stroke. H talked about researching family history and delving into The Coming of the Pakeha to Auckland Province. We went to a party with A and F, and E, who I know only slightly, said how she had got some of my novels from the library and they had been a welcome and pleasant distraction from some difficulties over the summer. I liked hearing that. And later, an email from C, visiting from the UK, to whom I had given a copy of where the heArt is, saying how she had enjoyed it and making some thoughtful comments.

I finished The Flamethrowers, which I referred to last week, and ended up liking it more by the end. Author Rachel Kushner is coming to Writers’ Week in Wellington soon and I shall go and hear her. The other book I’ve read this holiday, also from the birthday pile, is Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Harold sets out to post a letter and ends up walking the length of England to see the dying woman to whom the letter is addressed. This story could so easily have been mawkish, and it isn’t, it’s about regret and guilt and how what we do, or don’t do, determines what we think of ourselves and hence how we behave. It’s a lovely story, well told.

One of many Coromandel panoramas.

One of many Coromandel panoramas.

On Prue’s mind is on a contract she has recently signed to undertake another left-wing-feminist-economics book for a NZ publisher’s Ebook series.  She and I are both resolving to do serious writing from April, when other commitments and The Wellington International Arts Festival are over. On the drive home we each talked at length about our writing projects and the kilometres flew by.