Friday, February 12, 2010

Meet the Authors 2: Emily Gravett, Sarfraz Manzoor, Ian McEwan, Mike Reid, and Wayuu authors

The afternoon session of the British Council Meet the Authors event on Friday 29 January, featured the following:

Emily Gravett
14:00-14:40 Emily Gravett, author and children’s illustrator whose works include Wolves, Orange Pear Apple Bear, Monkey and Me and The Odd Egg. Gravett is the winner of various prizes, including the Kate Greenaway Medal, the Nestlé Children’s Book Prize Bronze Award and the Booktrust Early Years Best Emerging Illustrator Award.

I arrived late for the afternoon sessions, which was too bad because I missed most of children's author and illustrator Emily Gravett's presentation. I had a chance to look at her books and they are creative and charming. Gravett's advice to a young people who like to draw and might be interested in a career as an illustrator: Draw every day. If there is something that you particularly like to draw, draw it in many different positions, from many different angles, so that you will develop a wide "drawing vocabulary."

Sarfraz Manzoor
15:00-15:40 Sarfraz Manzoor, British writer, journalist, documentary maker, and broadcaster. Manzoor writes regularly for The Guardian, presents documentaries on BBC Radio 4, and appears as a cultural commentator on programmes such as Newsnight Review and Saturday Review. His first book, Greetings from Bury Park was published to great acclaim in the summer of 2007.

Manzoor started his presentation by showing a little pocket notebook on which he had scribbled a few lines, and he confessed that during lunch this is what he had jotted down to talk about. I thought that confessing one's lack of preparation for a conference was an inauspicious way to begin, and not one likely to impress the audience. Some people are good speakers who can wing it… he, however, was not.

Manzoor's book Greetings from Bury Park is both a tribute to his father, who was absent for most of his life, and to Bruce Springsteen. It deals with growing up England as a man of Pakistani descent, and the experience of having a foot in each culture. The concept of living in a country where you are a foreigner is an experience with which Colombian families are familiar. If he had taken the time to put together a presentation that would be meaningful for the public at the conference, I am sure that he could have found some common ground for an interesting discussion.

He got his start as a writer by proposing articles to magazines and being pushy in emails, after all, as he noted, when you are an unknown you have nothing to lose. Maybe he felt that as a writer who is mostly unknown in Colombia, he had nothing to lose at this conference. His lack of preparation for his presentation made me wonder why he bothered turning up to speak at all.

Ian McEwan
16:00-16:40 Ian McEwan (sponsored by BBVA) is one of Britain’s best known contemporary writers, whose works have earned him numerous awards, including the Whitbread Novel Award, The Man Booker Prize, the WH Smith Literary Award, National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award, Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction, and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel. His most recent works include Enduring Love (1997), Amsterdam (1998), Atonement (2001) (which has also been converted into an Oscar-winning film starring Kiera Knightly and James McAvoy), Saturday (2005), On Chesil Beach (2007) and For You: A Libretto (2008).


Although Ian McEwan, had humble beginnings (his father was a soldier and his mother was a chambermaid who left school at 14), his family revered education. The result of this was that at age 11 he was sent away to boarding school in England (his family being posted in Libya at that time, 1959). He talks about keeping a journal and how he regrets that his late adolescent self, embarrassed by the ramblings of his earlier self, decided to toss out all of the old journals. He regrets their disappearance because he realizes that these journals were the voice of his younger self, which he wishes he could recover. He advises would-be writers to keep a journal and in it record, "the ordinary details of daily life," because in retrospect these details are what make up life, told from the original perspective.

At university he began to try his hand a short stories. He strongly recommends the short story as a good medium for the aspiring writer, "because if it doesn't work out, you've only wasted two weeks of your life," (as opposed to five years). His early stories were dark and he says that they shocked his friends.

In response to the question about the experience of working on the script for Atonement, he notes that when you write a book you are the author of the vision, but in a film it is the director who take responsibility and credit for the vision. A breakdown in point of view led to McEwan being " sacked" as the screenwriter for Atonement. He did not appear to be unhappy with the film version of Atonement, although he noted that the ending of book is very different from the film version. Although the film is quite faithful to the original, at some points you need to have read the book in order to understand the subtleties of the exchanges between the characters. It is precisely this ability to be able to get inside the characters' heads that McEwan highlights as one of the advantages of novels.

His novella On Chesil Beach is currently being adapted for film. Although much of the story is told through flashbacks, it is the inner dialogue that reveals how each of the characters feels, simultaneously caring for the other while feeling disappointed and betrayed. It is a lovely, tightly written, high-strung little book, in which an instant of not being able to comprehend someone you truly care about changes the course of two lives in a way that is both completely perfectly mundane and at the same time tragic.

He a similar device in Amsterdam: characters misunderstand and take action as the result of these misunderstandings. In this case the best intentions lead to horrific outcomes. The book is dark and yet wonderfully funny.

The way that the young Briony misunderstands or misinterprets what she has witnessed is the key element in Atonement. Based on her (mis)understanding, actions ensue that are played through to their logical conclusion and cannot be undone.

Based on these three books, Amsterdam, Atonement, and On Chesil Beach, I asked Ian McEwan about this recurring theme in his books, of how a misunderstanding between two people can become a pivotal moment that leads to devastating consequences.

McEwan answered that he feels that coincidence or the random element is realistic because much of what happens in life is the result of mere chance or circumstance.

His answer did not respond to my intention, and it was ironic that he would fail to catch the meaning of a question about misunderstandings. I found his answer frustratingly off base. Replaying the exchange later in my head, I wondered if he had deliberately misunderstood as an illustration of how this takes place all the time. Perhaps he is more subtle than I gave him credit for at the moment.

In response to another question he added that the process of creating realism can entail diverging accounts of the same situation told from different perspectives. Human memory is fallible, and human desires can give rise to manipulations in interpretation.

Mike Reid
17:00-17:40 Mike Reid joined The Economist in 1990 as Mexico and Central America Correspondent and in 1994 changed to cover consumer industries. In 1996 he moved to Sao Paulo to be the Bureau Chief and in 1999 returned to London as Americas Editor. Prior to this, he was based in Lima, Peru working for The Economist, The Guardian and the BBC. His book Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America's Soul was published by Yale University Press in November 2007. Mike has been interviewed on the BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4 'PM', among others.

In Forgotten Continent, Michael Reid argues that rather than failing the test, Latin America’s efforts to build fairer and more prosperous societies make it one of the world’s most vigorous laboratories for capitalist democracy. In many countries—including Brazil, Chile and Mexico—democratic leaders are laying the foundations for faster economic growth and more inclusive politics, as well as tackling deep-rooted problems of poverty, inequality, and social injustice.

Drawing on his many years of reporting from inside Latin America’s cities, presidential palaces, and shantytowns, Michael provides a vivid, immediate, and informed account of a dynamic continent and its growing importance as a competitor in the global economy.

Reid's presentation at the afternoon session was a condensed version of his much more extensive analysis in The Forgotten Continent. Reid sees enormous potential in Latin America. The continent has faced the considerable challenges in trying to build democracies against a backdrop of social inequality. Despite the inherent difficulties, Reid feels that more progress has been made than is generally acknowledged by the outside world. It was interesting to hear this journalist's view on Colombia.

He highlights that the Colombian State has been under attack by illegal groups, and he emphasizes the need to build strong institutions. He is in favor of a free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States because increased investment in the legal economy would contribute to improving living conditions and human rights in Colombia. He considers that the United States should be involved in the war against drugs because of its drug use. Despite this justification, he feels that it was a big mistake for Colombia not to have informed its neighbors that it was planning on allowing US troops to use its military bases. The outcome of that failure in disclosure was that Colombia was weakened by losing friends and allies in the region. Overall he thinks that Alvaro Uribe has done a good job as president, although he feels that Uribe has fallen short in three areas: 1) healthcare, 2) transportation infrastructure, 3) and rectifying the "violent land reform" (by which the guerrillas and paramilitaries took over lands). He is opposed to seeing Uribe reelected for a third term in office, and he feels that it is time that other issues took precedence over security. In the regional context, Reid warns that it is a bad idea to appear as a strongman or a dictator. Along the same line, he feels that expropriation and nationalization are bad ideas for countries because governments are not good business managers.

I had a very nice chat with Mike's wife Emma at the embassy party on Saturday night. She has worked extensively with human rights and women's issues in Peru. Unlike Simon Schama, Emma was not drunk.

Wayuu Writers

Following the Meet the Authors sessions, I attended the conference on Wayuu writers, held at the Santo Domingo Monastery. The conference featured author Vicenta Siosi Pino, lawyer and author Estercilia Simancas and poet José Angel Guerra, facilitated by Wilder Guerra.

The authors talked about the influence of the Wayuu oral storytelling traditions in their writing, the Wayuu cosmo-vision, and the recurrence of symbolic elements such as the river, which is central in its importance for Wayuu survival in the dry lands of La Guajira.

Vicenta Siosi Pino and Estercilia Simancas have written about the culture clash between Colombian mainstream culture and the Wayuu traditions. Siosi has written about the experience of a Wayuu boy going to school in the city of Riohacha and how he is teased by his schoolmates until he finds a way to outsmart them.

In the story Manifiesto No Saber Firmer (I State That I Do Not Know How To Sign My Name) Simancas has written about the government's decision to register and issue identity cards to the Wayuu people, and the encounter between government officials and the Wayuu people. In the story Registrar's Office officials who does not understand Wayuu pronunciation transcribes Rafael as Raspahierro (Iron scraper), and assigns everyone 31 December as their birthday (as it is already a day for celebration) because they do not keep birth records in the same way. Photographing people for their ID cards is also a problem because the Wayuu feels that when their image is seen, it gets "worn out" or exhausts their essential self.

Siosi and Simancas also discussed the story of the Araña tejedora (The Weaving Spider) which addresses the rite of passage for young Wayuu women, in which they are shut in and isolated from the community for two to five months, receiving preparation and training from odler women in the community so that they will be marriageable.

José Angel Guerra talked about Wayuu poetry and the difficulty of translating Wayuu poetry into Spanish. The poetry is very brief, Haiku-style, and it hinges on doubles meanings and plays on words in the Wayuu language.

All of the authors agree that the fact that they are Wayuu is always present in their perspective and their writing.

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