Being around the bookish crowds at the Embassy Cinema in Wellington is certainly one of the best ways to spend a weekend. A happy early morning crowd on a Sunday queuing up for book signings, many stocking up on an author’s whole back catalogue and having their photos taken with them, is enough to warm the heart of the hardiest bibliophile. Here are some of the highlights:
There was a great range of talks from international speakers and writers closer to home. An evening session run by The Listener with Jung Chang was an engrossing hour in the company of one of the most successful non-fiction writers in the world. The Chinese writer, best known for her memoir Wild Swans, gave great accounts of her childhood in the Red Guard, the tribulations of arriving in Britain as one of the first Chinese students in Britain after Mao’s death, and the ten years her and her husband spent researching their biography of Mao.
The research of Mao, that involved Imelda Marcos flirting with Chang’s husband, translating sources from Chinese and Russian and archival sources from around the world, was shared with the audience in perfectly formed anecdotes. Chang’s gentle humour and expert knowledge of her subject areas made the talk have the momentum and structure of a writer at the top of their game. Chang’s new book on the Empress Dowager Cixi, who unofficially ruled China from 1861 to her death in 1908, was introduced in the lecture through a sketch of the Dowager’s life – her political intrigues range from falling in love with a eunuch, and banning foot binding, to poisoning her own nephew – that demonstrated Chang’s great eye for a story and the careful historical research it took to understand Cixi as an instrumental part in modernising China.
A morning talk by a speaker with an economic interest in China was that of Italian economist and terrorism expert, Loretta Napoleoni. Napoleoni’s work on the Italian terrorist group, The Red Brigade – her own childhood friend was revealed to be a part of the network without her knowledge – led her to study the funding of terrorist networks. Napoleoni gave colourful accounts of her interviews with Red Brigade members that had little time for ideology but were extremely proud of how they financed the group: some even with their day jobs.
Napoleoni’s latest work, Maonomics: why Chinese communists make better capitalists than we do, shifted the discussion from surreal encounters with terrorists to Napoleoni’s rather provocative praise of the Chinese economy. The government control of the markets in China, that would never allow a crash like credit crunch, and their vast accumulated wealth were two key parts of Napoleoni’s argument. Along with the practical gains of China’s economy, Napoleoni goes further to argue that Marxist theory doesn’t prohibit wealth, but the accumulation of it by a small number of oligarchs. By reconciling profit with communism, Napoleoni confronts a lot of historical misconceptions. Napoleoni certainly knows how to handle the heat that comes from proposing radical ideas, and bats off criticism. Acknowledging her European background makes her praise of China harder to swallow, as does the fact that her book made it onto the Chinese Communist Party’s reading list. Napoleoni’s observation that New Zealand’s trade agreement with China makes Kiwis vulnerable to China taking advantage of the low population and rich resources of land and water certainly ruffled the audience.
After the growing dread of some sort of Chinese invasion, some light relief from legendary literary scholar Terry Castle was definitely welcome. The Stanford University professor chatted about, and gave a reading from, her autobiographical essay collection The Professor: A Sentimental Education. The collection covers her sexual misadventures and crush on a female professor during her undergraduate days. Castle explains her personal manner of writing, often alienating her in academic circles, is because ‘everyone loves gossip’. Highlights of the talk included Castle referring to 70’s feminism as a ‘Witches’ Covent’ that made her want to hang out with guys at a hardware store and her impassioned assertion that students of English should ‘believe in genius’. Castle also gave the audience an insight into literary gossip with her tale of speculating about Jane Austen’s close relationship with her sister that led to her being accused of calling Austen a lesbian by British newspapers. Her parting shot: ‘nobody ever brings up the incest’.
CHANGING TIMES: NEW ZEALAND SINCE 1945
Popular historians Jennifer Carlyon and Diana Morrow discussed Changing Times: New Zealand since 1945, which looks at the social changes in New Zealand since 1945. Factors such as immigration, economics and television were all themes that were discussed; their book certainly sounds packed of anecdotes about different areas from topics such as hippy communes to the importance of cinemas in small towns. The work offers a great opportunity for New Zealanders to take stock of the changes in their country and the factors that have influenced them.
Wellington Arts festival thrived due to the strength of talent, performers and artists as well as authors that came to the little city. As a newcomer to New Zealand, it was a pleasure to see such a bookish crowd.