Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, 2009, the opening
The opening session of the Auckland Writers Festival saw a packed audience at the Aotea Centre look up expectantly at a beautifully lit, if rather drab, set of armchairs , and their accompanying wan palms, waiting for the appearance of the opening authors.
After the obligatory speeches, including a rather good opening from Chris Findlayson the NZ Minster of the Arts, the first famous five walked a little self consciously onto the stage.
David Malouf , the elder statesman with his hardback copy of of Ransom elegantly on view. Then came the stunning Orange Prize-winning Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, with her short story collection , Thing Around Your Neck. Then, Tash Aw, the Brideshead thin, and as we learned beautifully spoken, author of his second novel Map of the Invisible World, Monica Ali striding 0n stage almost matriarchal in her confidence, hardly surprising given the success of Brick Lane, et al, and her new novel The Kitchen firmly in view. Finally, came Christos Tsiolkas, whose Australian novel The Slap has apparently been causing a bit of a fuss since its publication.
Standing to the side smiling in welcome like a benign moustached Mr Pickwick's grandson stood NZ broadcaster, and chair for the evening, Mark Sainsbury.The batting order
Christos Tsiolkas opening the batting with a reading from The Slap, a weaving domestic tale of multiple family impacts consequent to a lost temper and a hit child at a suburban barbecue. It was a great reading - and definitely set a tone - that good writing can grip immediately, taking you into the hot eucalyptus heat of a suburban Melbourne garden in a heartbeat.
The other instant atmospheric piece came from Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her story, set inside a north American campus apartment of a young Nigerian woman, jumped three layers of complexity in as many minutes. It began with a young Nigerian woman opening the door to her unannounced Nigerian neighbour who wants them to pray together on the day of a horrific plane crash "back home".
With clipped centred phrases setting content - woman - strange man - urban US apartment, it moves almost effortlessly into a steam of images which invoke and binds them to a shared identity and place. And there it is - how language holds as well as liberates - creates obligations as well as promises. Opens doors and then produces the lock.
David Malouf's effortless reading of his imagined replay of the old man Priam going for the body of his dead son at the siege of Troy intrigued me, although I suspect I needed the book, a chair and a reading lamp for the right focus.
The same applies to Tash Aw - but with a different location - perhaps beginn9ng with a long slow read to one of the coffee tables on London's spreading South Bank, the better to c0-locate and so absorb the play of Europe and Malaysian voices.
Speaking of voices, Monica Ali's command of the many sounds of multi cultural London has always been one of her great strengths. If the reading she gave from her new novel, The Kitchen, is anything to go by, then she has once again found a great structure to explore her talent for combining the intimate with the political.
Also on view was her lovely combination of curiosity, confidence and questioning that I associate with the best of London - that whatever else it might be, it is a city which, if you can find your place to stand, will always find room for you and what it is you are trying to say.
A bit like literary festivals!