This year, an array of award-winning writers - from an equally varied range of genres - will land in Auckland to share stories both personal and political, picking over the micro and macro of our world. But what if they could turn back time and give their younger selves a book that might have made life just a little easier? Or fun. Or understandable.
I came to Kazuo Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills late, reading it for the first time just a few years ago. There's a moment towards the end when a stealthy shift in point of view jolts you into reassessing the whole disturbing narrative. It terrified me - so much so I declared between sobs that I couldn't sleep with it next to the bed and I had to ask my husband to hide it under a cushion in the spare room. I'd give the novel to my 16-year-old self to read so she could learn about subtlety, suggestion and restraint and stop writing awful poetry ("Step outside yourself and see the turmoil of your mind"). Plus, it would get that histrionic and embarrassing little display out of the way at a slightly more acceptable age.
It would have helped me a great deal if I'd done more reading in general on the history of science. That covers a lot of ground but two books worth mentioning are Julian Barbour's The Discovery of Dynamics and Richard Westfall's Never at Rest: a Biography of Isaac Newton. When science is taught in an academic setting, teachers tend to start by giving the results - the laws and equations - without telling the story behind how those results were discovered. This can make it more difficult to learn and truly understand those principles. What's frequently missing is the narrative: what problems the scientist was grappling with, where were the gaps in the existing science and how they worked their way round to a better understanding of reality. Science history can make science easier to learn and understand by telling those stories.
Anything would be an improvement on the only three books my younger farmboy self in the 1950s grew up with. They were the Bible, of course, an encyclopaedia and a medical book that had alarming anatomical drawings and a totally inept chapter on sex. Today? Hey, I'd give that same boy a library rather than one book. It would be something he could carry on his horse while shepherding or balance while working in the cowshed, light as and it would allow him access to what Maori call Te Ao Matihiko, the digital realm. Yes, I'm talking of an iPad, the best "book" ever. I'd give him instructions on what to seek among the treasures of the library. First, a te reo Maori course taken in a virtual classroom so that when he grows up he will have access to both Maori and English inventories of knowledge. I'd link him up with Siri so she can guide him towards the indigenous as well as European networks of mathematics, science, economics, arts and culture. I'd want him to take a course on justice systems and ethics so that he can help his generation get on equally with each other and join to save the planet.
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And if he was really serious about writing, I'd suggest he go back to the source, his own myths and the myths of others. As far as non-Maori (and non-Western European) myth is concerned, my pick would have to be one of two narrative poems either The Epic of Gilgamesh or Homer's Iliad. Gilgamesh dates from 2100 BC and is written on 12 tablets. My younger self's generation has probably never heard of Gilgamesh, with its great story of the king of Uruk and his marvellous adventures. But it is the Father of All Epics that all others have borrowed from (think Lord of the Rings) and has such shapeshifting characters and ambivalent heroics - not to mention variant sexuality and gender - that you/he/she/trans will find that you were authenticated like, way back. As for The Iliad, if you're into the cinematic Marvel Universe - you know, Taika's Thor Ragnarok, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, Iron Man, The Hulk and, yay, Black Panther - welcome to the original Greek Universe of Gods, mortals and monsters. Written in the 8th Century BC but describing events some four centuries earlier, Iliad covers only a few weeks during the Trojan War. However, like the Marvel Universe, the saga expands to cover the entire 10-year siege and the terrific ebb and flow of battle and of cause and consequences. And the characters: Agamemnon, Achilles and his companion Patroclus, Helen, Diomedes (often described as the most insane, over-the-top ass-kicker of the War), wow. In other words, I would want my younger farmboy self to grow up with a great whakapapa, with sublime stories and hugely rich worlds having within them philosophical reflections on why the human race is worth saving. Hopefully he will have healthier relationships with others and his environment - and be much better at sex. Then I would want him to start tapping away on the keyboard that comes with the iPad and start sharing his humanity with other millennials for, to be truthful, they are the only generation that matters.
Seventeen-year old me - enthralled by books yet frustrated by the lack of writers and/or characters that more closely reflected my socio-cultural reality - would have adored Jenny Zhang's Sour Heart. The collection centres on Chinese girlhood, otherness and unbelonging in a way that undoes the staid, stuffy conventions of the traditional Asian immigrant family narrative. Sour Heart is a bawdy, neon shock to the system, destabilising and transgressive in the most urgent and contemporary of ways. Zhang's stories are feral and obscene, idiosyncratically digressive and unabashedly disgusting and scatological, narrated by acid-tongued, wisecracking Chinese American girls. Tenderness and violence, sex and innocence sit side by side, and paragraphs are often rambling and pages-long, reflecting an artful messiness that captures the breathlessness and exasperation of feeling constantly on the cusp between cultures and between childhood and adulthood. My favourite story in the collection is called The Evolution of My Brother and is a master class in combining humour with heart-breaking, fully convincing detail - just the kind of work a younger writer in Singapore would find inspiring and invigorating, a reminder that there is no one way to tell a story, nor is there, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it, "only a single story about another person or country". Zhang's collection with all its multifarious, profane glories affirms this. It poses the questions: why can't we undo the cliches and cultural expectations imposed on us? Why can't we be messy?
The truth is, when I was a kid, I didn't read much. I grew up in California and was too busy racing motorcycles, skiing, surfing, chasing girls and listening to Neil Young to bother with books. I liked Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson but I thought books were about other people's lives or, at least, lives that were very much unlike mine. That's why if I could send one book back to my younger self, it would be William Finnegan's Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Finnegan's great memoir about his lifelong obsession with surfing might have helped me understand that writing is not something that's done by a different sub-species of human orthat some lives are more suited to literature than others. Finnegan finds all the mystery and profundity of nature in a wave and demonstrates that the search for meaning in our lives does not depend on choosing the right or wrong path but in paying attention to the path we're on. As a teenager, this is the kind of wisdom I might have appreciated. If nothing else, Finnegan's book might have helped me understand that, as I floated in the kelp beds near Santa Cruz waiting to catch the perfect wave, I was not a lost boy alone on a surfboard but a curious kid with a world to explore and story of his own to tell.
Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart is like the finest poetry: a companion for life. Each time you return to it, a new level of meaning is revealed. "When you have made good friends with yourself, your situation will be more friendly too," a teacher said to the young author when she was beginning to "wake up". When I first read this wondrous book, I was 24 but hadn't begun to wake up. You can't force anything on your younger self - they reject it outright. Who are you to patronise me?, they say. Some of it did reach me ("Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation and that which is indestructible be found in us") because I was well-versed in French existentialism, Nihilism, Surrealism, Dadaism. I'd read Camus, Conrad and Dostoyevsky; cerebral and driven, the ego-mind was my armour. My situation never felt friendly and I struggled to grasp Chodron's idea of causing no harm, giving up hope, groundlessness, inhaling others' suffering and compassion. Compassion? We are not taught kindness. A deficit of (self) compassion is perhaps the single source of all our troubles. Four reads and 20 years later, I see that things fall apart ceaselessly; I grasp the metaphor of life as a boat that you board cheerfully in the full knowledge that it's going to sink. That there really is a love that will not die; Chodron is my tonic for this toxic age.
In our house, no book lying around was out of bounds. So I grew up reading lots of 19th century morality tales calculated to break a child's spirit, interspersed with the nightmare-inducing works - Leon Uris's Exodus and Mila 18 - my mother devoured in a doomed attempt to understand my father. One book that would have been useful in that regard wasn't created yet. Dad might have banned it anyway because it's a comic, a genre which had to be hidden in the wardrobe. American cartoonist Art Spiegelman's parents were, like my father, Polish Holocaust survivors. Perfect material for comic strips, clearly. In an early strip about the 1968 suicide of his mother, Spiegelman draws Artie, his tormented younger self, in concentration camp uniform. The audacity. That strip became part of an even riskier enterprise: Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel in which Jews are drawn as mice, Nazis as cats and Poles as pigs. Among many impossible things, it's a defiant dance with the unimaginable. It's also the story of getting the story, via the tender, fraught relationship between Artie and Vladek, the sort of father who, Spiegelman writes, "bleeds history". If I'd been able to read it earlier I might have asked more questions and taken warning that the memories and reminders of the past a parent may need to throw away in order to survive can be precisely what their child will later want to hold close. (The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman.)
The Auckland Writers Festival, various venues, May 15-20, writersfestival.co.nz