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.”

The Last Warner Woman 1

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.

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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.

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/

Let Joy Be Unconfined

Let joy be unconfined. Be still my beating heart. Two famous published lesbians from far parts are coming to a venue ten minutes walk from our place in Paekakariki. My partner, Prue Hyman, has bought our tickets.

Terry Castle and Alison Bechdel are coming to Wellington for Writers’ Week, part of the International Festival of the Arts in February/March 2014. To whoever thought to schedule them a session in our village 40 minutes up the coast, thank you. Thank you.

Terry Castle

Terry Castle

 

Terry Castle is an academic literary critic, whose most recent book, The Professor, is a collection of memoir-type essays. The longest piece, which gives the book its name, is about a relationship she had as a post-graduate student with a professor. I’ll say more about this book early next year, as it’s the choice for our book group which will meet at the end of December, and we don’t talk in public, as it were, about the chosen book before the meeting.

Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel is famous among lesbians for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, that ran in the feminist magazine Off Our Backs (oob) from Washington, USA, for many years and later in a collection of ten or more books. More recently, she has become widely known for her memoirs in graphic form, Fun Home: A family tragicomic and Who Is My Mother? concerning her relationship with her father and her mother respectively. There’s a five minute clip on youtube showing how she draws a page in one of her books. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cumLU3UpcGY Wow!

Through the nineteen eighties, when I was working at Broadsheet, we would pounce on each copy of oob as it arrived and pass it around at the Dykes to Watch Out For page. Then we’d get down to reading the excellent political articles in the issue. The comic strip was fun and poignant and reflected a certain kind of lesbian feminist culture back to us. There wasn’t a lot else around at the time that had us laughing and arguing with and recognising ourselves the way Dykes to Watch Out For did.

Alison Bechdel and Terry Castle in Paekakariki will be An Event. I will, no doubt, write about it.

The ProfessorAre You My Mother?