Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cartagena Hay Festival 2011: Anecdotes from the Hay Festival

Jugo de Níspero
After the Buenavista Social Club concert on Thursday night, the exit from the Plaza de la Aduana led us out to the Muelle de los Pegasus, lined with all-night stands selling caldos and ceviches and jugos tropicales. Let's go for juice I said to Sally. She didn't want any but I had a jugo de níspero, a tropical fruit that looks like a small brown potato outside, and that has a sweet, grainy orangey, beige, pinkish pulp that tastes like dates. You never see these fruits in Bogota. This is my favourite juice.

Labyrinth City
The old city of Cartagena is a fortress town. The streets are designed to mislead invaders. Works on me too. If I haven’t memorized the exact route I need to follow, I am hopelessly lost. Years ago I visited a school here in the old city. Every time I go back I always look for it, but I haven't found it again.

Embassy Cocktail Invitation
Sally had not received her invitation, so on Wednesday evening we decided to wander over to the Sofitel Santa Clara, which is where the authors and dignitaries were being lodged. It was also just down the street from the house where we were staying. As walked in the door, the first person we met was British Council head Bob Ness. Sally reminded him about the invitation that had not arrived. Bob didn't have any on him but he said that we could pick on up from any of several British Council officials who were there. On Friday Sally got the invitation and we RSVP'd.

Pescetti I
Friday night. I was seated in the first level box seats at the side of the theatre and saw children's musician and author Luis Pescetti, whose work I adore, in the orchestra seats in front of my line of vision during the Philip Glass concert. Upon leaving the theatre I saw him standing around, apparently waiting for some people. Photo op! I went up to him and introduced myself, told him that I love his music, which I discovered through my children, and posed for a picture with him, taken by Sally. He asked if I was going to his children's concert, one of the festivalito events, the following day. I had seen the concert listed but hadn't been able to buy tickets online. I said I'd see about looking into tickets in the morning. It was a brief pleasant exchange. I may have been a bit overly effusive; I was still operating under the influence of the Philip Glass concert.

Cruise Ships
Saturday. The arrival of the cruise ships has breathed new life into the city's economy. On Saturday at least two cruise ships must have docked because suddenly the city was inundated with mobs of American and German tourists, following their barely coherent English-speaking guides, or on bicycle tours that blocked the traffic as 50 bicycles went by. No thank you. Never, never, never! I am glad that people who would otherwise never visit Colombia get to see the beauty of Cartagena, and maybe someday some of these people will come back to visit the city and the country properly. But I doubt it.

Pescetti II
On Saturday Sally and I got tickets to the concert and went. It was a wonderful mix of his wildly humorous children's songs and games. Sally and I were off to the side in the third row. Being close to the stage he saw us and we exchanged a nodded greeting.

Embassy Cocktail
Saturday night. Held at the Palacio de la Inquisición, same venue as last year. There weren't nearly as many people invited as last year. It was easier to get drinks and hors d'oeuvres. But no buffet. The crowd was strictly A list: the authors, the officials, others who have inside contacts (us). I was speaking to a couple of journalists (BBC, Manchester Guardian). Of they asked what I do. Being used to no one having any idea about foreign press agencies, I am always surprised that international journalists know exactly who I'm with. In particular the BBC woman said the Caversham unit was somewhat miffed that we had scooped the monitoring of Latin America media. Yes, that's my job precisely! We talked about our jobs and how they evolve. She recommended that I should consider working with international media as well as media analysis in my upcoming incarnation. I think she's right.

Chatted with the British ambassador's wife (again). We had met the ambassador and his wife at a pastry shop on Friday. They had just come back from touring the flood relief projects that the UK Government is funding. Chatted with Peter from the City Paper (Bogota) and his very charming wife.

I was looking at the exhibit of Enrique Grau sculptures in a side room when Gary Shtenygart came in. He had been bubbly and affable while being interviewed during his conference earlier, but he appeared to be fleeing from the party. We chatted a bit, about Colombian art and sculpture. Nice guy. During his interview he was very quick; one on one, he's quiet.

Pescetti III
Back on the party floor. Luis Pescetti was with a couple of people at a table by themselves, so I stopped by to say hello. I tried a few conversational gambits but he was not inclined to engage me in lengthy conversation. So I cheerily wished him well for the rest of the festival and backed off. This was starting to feel awkward. He must have been starting to think that I was stalking him, Oops, sorry! The party was over by 11:00. There were other, more exciting parties happening elsewhere (apparently the Havana Club was the happening place), but Sally and I headed back to the house. The straps on my high heel sandals were digging into my feet. I would have needed far more alcohol to go out dancing so as not to feel my feet.

Pescetti IV
Sunday. I had brought tickets for the Luis Pescetti conference well ahead of time. I arrived just before the conference was about to begin, but seeing as I was by myself I wasn't worried about finding a single seat. I headed up to the front of the hall and a woman in the second row, who I recognize from several conferences and the cocktail party, called to me and said that she was saving this seat beside her for (renowned Colombian author) William Ospina, but he hadn't arrived and the conference was about to begin. She offered me the seat which I gratefully accepted, with her on one side…and my ex-husband José Miguel on the other side. I introduced the woman to my ex-husband. She could not believe the coincidence. I am not longer surprised. This is the kind of thing that always happens to me.

I am sure that Luis Pescetti saw me there in the second row. Not to mention the fact that José Miguel has the world's loudest laugh and draws attention to himself. While introducing his song about the baby in the womb, Luis pointedly mentioned that he and his wife are expecting a child soon. Now I am sure that he thinks I am stalking him. Oh God, I had planned on being discreet.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Cartagena Hay Festival 2011: Germaine Greer and Luis Pescetti: Tough and Tender

Sunday, 30 January

Coming Full Circle
Germaine Greer

When I was about 11 and starting to read voraciously, anything I could get my hands on, I remember being fascinated by the cover of Germaine Greer's book The Female Eunuch, and I asked my mother what it was about. I don't remember what kind of answer I got, but shortly thereafter it went missing from the bookshelf, along with Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. Maybe not appropriate reading material for an 11-year-old, but considering the sort of stuff I had free reign to peruse a few years later while babysitting, maybe I should have been allowed to read those earlier works as a counterbalance!

Germaine Greer has pretty much come full circle from her original radical feminist stance.

She began her presentation with the observation that after publishing The Female Eunuch in 1970 she realized that she didn't know about other kinds of women, only about the kind of woman she was supposed to be. She refers to her own family in Australia as being "small and claustrophobic," with her father controlling the television remote and the dinner table conversation.

A New World View
In an attempt to seek a broader world view, she went to India, even though she was afraid of its "poverty, filth, and degradation." What she found, however, was life, love, and vitality. Greer talked about what she calls the "Great Story of Love in India": since marriages are arranged, the husband must woo his wife within the marriage. Greer paints a picture of gentle, caring husbands, and vigilant mothers-in-law who welcome the new daughter-in-law into the family, watching over her and protecting her. She notes that the birthrate out of wedlock is very low in India, and not only because of very young arranged marriages, but because Indian sexual practices include a lot of activity that is considered very satisfying sex, but that does not result in conception.

Questioning the Notion of Family Planning
Referring back to the early 1970s, Greer commented on how at that time the world was obsessed with the population explosion. While she acknowledges that over-population is a legitimate concern in a world with limited resources, she says that measures to control birth rates are only valid so long as these do not infringe on human rights. Her reasoning is that for the poor, their children are their wealth, because they help their families by working. The idea that it is wrong for a child to labor is a middle-class, Western value, and the middle-class upholds this concept because it has certain economic expectations for its children: their own bedroom, a university education, a professional career, in short, a higher standard of living. She explains her logic: if you don't purport to want these things, then the notion of limiting the number of children that you have does not make sense; and for outsiders to come in and tell people that they should limit the number of children on their family is the imposition of an external value that is not relevant to them. Pursuant to this logic, Greer maintains that to offer a person who is living in absolute poverty an economic incentive to undergo sterilization is tantamount to coercion by force, because the person would have no choice.

In the Sudan
She talked about visiting Sudan to do research for a TV series about how families are built. In her first encounters with the Sudanese woman, they completely shut down. "We don't want to talk about female circumcision," they said. Greer wasn't there to discuss that issue, but the women were wary because this had been their experience in dealing with Western women. And besides, they said, it really wasn't much of a problem for sex, although it could sometimes complicate births. Greer shared a revelation with these women: "In occidental cultures," she said, "women mutilate themselves for men: they have their breasts enlarged." The Sudanese women were horrified; these Western women allow men to play with their breasts? "But breasts are for babies; how disgusting!" She notes that in countries like Sudan, families tend to be strong when government is weak.

She talked about the 1974 UN World Population Conference held in Bucharest, noting that no women's organizations were invited. She talked about the inappropriateness of the notion that all women should use the same kind of birth control. She questioned "Why is it that white people are interested in brown people's children?" She declared that the developing world is using up precious resources and not the underdeveloped world. It was a potpourri of issues mixed together, without much rhyme or reason, and not distinguishing between past and present.

Anti-child/Child-friendly Cultures
She argued that Britain is an anti-child society, replete with sexual predators, corporal punishment, dangerous "anti-child eye-level furniture," upholding the notion that children should be seen and not heard, and where people put off getting pregnant because having children is seen as "the end of the good times." As such she gives approval to what she perceives as more child-welcoming cultures, that sit on the mud floors of their huts, with no furniture on which to bang their little heads before being sent out to work so that the family will not go to bed hungry.

On Abortion
She discussed abortion as the consequence of "a situation in which a woman failed to control, or was unable to control," the situation that led to conception. Under the current legislation, abortion is a privilege that the state grants. She doesn't mince words: abortion is a decision about whose life will be sacrificed. She notes that the term "pro-abortion" is a misnomer because no woman ever hopes to have an abortion. That only the woman in question knows if she can cope with having a child and parenthood, and that this capacity, and the individual circumstances from woman to woman, vary enormously. As such, she says that it is hugely ironic that the pro-life sector has not been more active in terms of making it possible for women who find themselves facing unexpected pregnancies to have children, when their partners, their families, and society do not support them. In that sense both sides should be working together: to ensure that women have the support to carry a pregnancy to term and raise a child if they choose, or else, if the circumstances are not conducive, to make the decision to safely terminate the pregnancy. "Countries in which there are unwanted children indicate that women are not in control of their sexuality."

On Latin Women
Greer congratulates proud Latina women for their fame of being "difficult." "You should be difficult," she exults, "Women should value themselves and not give themselves up cheaply; that is degrading." Latin women, she considers, while they can be manipulative, actually do very well in terms of managing their own sexuality.

Germaine Greer made some valid points about the need for cultural sensitivity and adapting to context. Every person, every culture, has something that we can learn.

I also suspect that she was playing devil's advocate to a certain extent, because it is hard to believe that Germaine Greer truly embraces the values of cultures in which women have no property rights or social status; fathers own their daughters' virginity which is cut and sewn shut before being sold to the man who will own it; having more children than you can afford to care for is perfectly valid so long as you eschew the pretension to achieve a higher standard of living; sexual predators do exist and when women do not have a voice and they lack a man to speak for them and protect them they are especially vulnerable; and child abuse and domestic abuse are rampant when a culture considers these practices acceptable.

My overall conclusion: Having a family to protect and nurture you is good; having enshrined rights is better. Germaine Greer may have come full circle but she remains, as ever, an agent provocateur.

Childhood Revisited
Luis Pescetti, interviewed by Daniel Samper

Pescetti and interviewer Daniel Samper had obviously prepared the interview in advance: in response to Samper's questions, Pescetti would inevitably say: "Well, I just so happen to have a song about that!"

Luis Pescetti's gift is that he looks at the world through the child's eyes, acknowledges it, celebrates it, and presents it back to children and adults with humor and affection.

He is a consummate observer: watching what goes on in children's lives, their reactions to the world, and their interactions with the adult world. That is the key to his humor: the disparity between what one is supposed to experience/feel and what one really feels, which is why "Voy a tener un hermanito" (I'm going to have a little brother) is a funeral dirge. Hoorah.

He recognizes the emotion blackmail of the parental bond: "Mamá, no quiero que hoy vayas al trabajo." (Mama, I don't want you to go to work today).

The monosyllabic "Bien-Nada" attempt at dialogue with a recalcitrant teenager, who is not intentionally being difficult.

He vindicates the joy of Harry Potter, and so what if critic Harold Bloom doesn't give his blessing.

He talks about the child as an immigrant, traveling toward the world of adulthood, and wanting to be accepted in that world, but at the same time resisting this world, because the young person misses the world of childhood; but there is no going back there.

But Pescetti's songs do let us go back and revisit that world, with the children, as the child, if only for a few minutes.

Luis Pescetti is expecting a baby, and this dreamy, echoey song about the world of the baby in womb is one of his loveliest and most tender.

Canción del bebé que le cuenta a su mama
Copy the link to your browser to hear the song:

El mun… mun… mun… mun… mundo es como un eco …co …co …co …co
en la pan… pan… pan.. pan.. panza
de mamá …má …má …má …má.
Burbujas traen reflejos
de la voz
de mi papá.

Soy un pez vivo en tus aguas,
soy un pato en el cielo,
un elefante en la sabana,
un león.

Soy la copia de su cara,
soy la huella de tus pies,
soy la mezcla de abuelos
que me ven.

Los ruidos flotan lejos,
y rebotan
en coral.

Y duendes y princesas
todo se oye
en claridad.

Soy un barco que sueña,
soy un poco de tu leña,
soy un cuento que aprendiste
en tu niñez.

Soy un pez, soy un pato,
soy un poco un garabato,
un abrazo de tu imaginación
Tengo dedos, tengo cara,
tengo plumas
y escamas.
Veo luces y ventanas,
un desierto,
y caravanas.

Tengo tiempo, tengo un rato
tengo humo en el zapato,
tengo que estirarme un poco
y dormir.

Soy dibujo en tu hoja canson,
soy futuro en vaso puro,
sin un nombre,
y voy a ser un hombre. (o, cantar: mujer)
Me estoy preparando para jugar
me estoy preparando para salir
me estoy preparando para correr
por ahí.

Parental dialogue with an adolescent: Bien-Nada
Copy the link to your borwser to hear the song:

Hola, mi amor, contame tu día: BIEN
Decime qué hiciste, qué hubo de especial. NADA
¿Cómo te fue en matemáticas? BIEN
¿Atendiste el teléfono? ¿Alguna novedad? NADA.

Apagá la tele y decime en qué andás. BIEN
¿Qué arreglaste con los chicos para el fin de semana? NADA
¿Qué les pareció el trabajo que llevaste? BIEN
¿Qué hicieron en tu cuarto encerrados por tres horas? NADA.

Hace mucho no charlamos, ¿Qué tal fue la excursión? BIEN.
¿Qué pasó que hablabas tanto y no soltabas el teléfono? NADA.
¿Qué tal la fiesta? ¿Bailaste o te aburriste? BIEN.
Bajá la música y contame… y contame qué pasó. NADA.

Basta de chatear y decime cómo estás. BIEN.
¿Qué pasa que hay alguien que llama a cada rato? NADA.
¿Cómo te llevás con tus amigos? BIEN.
¿En qué gastaste el dinero que te dimos? NADA

Sí Ahá Bueno Órale Listo Sí Ahá Mm… Ya entendí ok bueno ahá

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cartagena Hay Festival 2011: Owen Sheers, Luis Pescetti, and Gary Shteyngart with David Aaronovitch

Saturday 29 January 2011

Close to Home
Owen Sheers, interviewed by Gaby Woods

Owen Sheers's book Resistance, published in 2007, has just been made into a film. Better known as a poet, Sheers was making an encore appearance at the Hay Festival in Cartagena.

Staying true to the advice offered to every author, Sheers has written a story about a landscape that he knows well, a secluded valley in the Welsh countryside. The story is an alternative reality account of how a successful German invasion of English might have unfolded.

The inspiration for the story came from a real life valley neighbor who confirmed that he had been recruited for the "Auxiliary Units" that would have constituted an underground civilian resistance force in case of a German invasion and occupation.

The story is told in the voice of Sarah, a 26-year-old sheep farmer's wife, who wakes up one morning and finds that her husband is gone. The husbands of all the women in the valley are missing. The understanding that their men have been involved in some sort of secret war effort comes as a shock, as well as the realization that they must now fend for themselves and manage their farms and families on their own.

Historically, the winter of 1947 was especially harsh. Sheers laughingly admits that he transposed the records about survival during that winter into the year 1944, to fit the purposes of his story. The women and the German soldiers are trapped in the isolated valley, and this inability to escape is what forces the story to its logical, emotional, and thematic climax. Personal resistance is about what we are willing to sacrifice, and how through this sacrifice we are ultimately true to ourselves.

The resistance is that of the civil forces, ideological resistance, and resistance of the heart. Sarah has steeled herself to "do the right thing," but she wins the sympathy of the readers, who want her to do "the wrong thing." The ending of the book is left deliberately ambiguous, although Sheers himself says that he has no doubts about how it ends.

Sheers worked closely with screenwriter Alan Gupta to develop the script for the film, a process he likens to a marriage, which he described as a "prolonged period of mutual gentle criticism." Whereas many authors express deep dissatisfaction with the film adaptations of his book, Sheers is pragmatic. His book is safe from change, he notes; the film is an opportunity to change and experiment. He has not yet seen the final product, but he expresses the hope that it will retain the voice of the novel. The process of working on the screenplay may him rethink the elements that make up the heart of the novel. He stresses that these are the things that must be retained; other things can change.
Sheers acknowledges that novel writing and screenwriting are disciplines that require dedicating blocks of time. Poetry, his primary vocation, can be written in smaller snatches, he says.

In response to a question about dealing with writer's block, he defends these false starts as a necessary part of the process, likening them to a rocket launch in which you have to jettison the burnt out earlier stages in order to get to the place where you need to be.

His is currently working on a hugely ambitious project: a three-day and night performance of the Passion Play cycle to be performed with the National Theatre of Wales in Port Talbot in April 2011.

As a poet, not surprisingly Sheers's writing is beautiful and evocative. By popular request, Sheers recited "Not Yet My Mother" a poem he had presented at a previous festival:

Yesterday I found a photo
of you at seventeen,
holding a horse and smiling,
not yet my mother.
The tight riding hat hid your hair,
and your legs were still the long shins of a boy's.
You held the horse by the halter,
your hand a fist under its huge jaw.
The blown trees were still in the background
and the sky was grained by the old film stock,
but what caught me was your face,
which was mine.
And I thought, just for a second, that you were me.
But then I saw the woman's jacket,
nipped at the waist, the ballooned jodhpurs,
and of course the date, scratched in the corner.
All of which told me again,
that this was you at seventeen, holding a horse
and smiling, not yet my mother,
although I was clearly already your child.

I am reading Resistance now, and loving it.

Luis Pescetti in Concert: A Rollicking Good Time

I had seen the concert by Argentine children's singer and author Luis Pescetti listed, but had not been able to buy tickets online. On Saturday morning Sally went by the box office and was able to get tickets.

The performance was classic Pescetti: songs that are a mix of playfulness, tenderness, parental love and exasperation, and mildly gross childish humor, interspersed with games to keep the audience from getting restless.

Some of the highlights included:
A blues song: "Momma, I don't want you to go to work today"
A song inspired by the sight of a child in a Spiderman costume, complete with Batman gloves, garbage bag cape, and El Zorro sword, asleep on his mother's shoulder.
A hearty response to Harold Bloom who panned Harry Potter as not being literature: "I read Harry Potter, and I liked it! Thanks goodness Harold Bloom is not responsible for designing a reading curriculum."
A dreamy, echoey song of an unborn baby's experience in the womb. I loved this piece, which is new in Pescetti's repertoire.
A song about a parent attempting dialogue with an adolescent, entitled "Good; Nothing" "How was the party? Good. What did you do? Nothing? Etc.
One about nose-picking, more inspired than it sounds.
A participative song in which the audience members were asked to raise their hands if they have ever said, or been told….: Sit up straight, tidy your room, don't chew with your mouth open, cut it out or I'll swat you, put on a sweater, don't put a plastic bag on your head, say thank you…" Well, you get the idea.

Sally and I had the good fortune to be seated near a little girl, about 5, who was completely enraptured by the experience of being at a live concert with Luis Pescetti. She was obviously familiar with his music, and she responded to every song, every comment, every game as if he were speaking to her directly, and she answered back every time. She was completely given over and engaged in an intimate dialogue with Luis, as if they were they only ones present. She was great.

Sally was very impressed with Pescetti's music and said she would look into acquiring some of his albums for her school.

All in all it was a rollicking good time.

Gary Shteyngart, interviewed by David Aaronovitch
Between Capitalism and Communism: Illusions of a Happy World

Gary Shteyngart almost didn't make it to the Hay Festival because of bad weather in New York. The third participant in the conference, German writer Inge Schulze, did not make it. This was a surprise to Shteyngart and Aaronovitch, who gave their conference with occasional requests for comments from the third empty chair, particularly when they were stumped for what to say. In fact they started the conference asking each other who had come up with this topic, concluding that it must have been Schulze.

Aaronovitch, whose parents were members of the British Communist Party, grew up in a world that was communist within the confines of his home, and capitalist outside. Shteyngart spent his early childhood in Russia. He recounts that as a child he was raised to adore Lenin. He wrote his first novel at age five: a story about Lenin conquering Finland with the help of a magic goose, although through some twist of fate Lenin winds up eating the goose at the end.

He moved with his parents from Leningrad to New York in 1979, a transition that he describes as being like moving to a different planet. He says that his father, a mechanical engineer, wanted to emigrate from Russia to live somewhere where he could experience a fuller sense of his Jewish identity. His mother, a professional pianist, wanted a better standard of living. In the United States he swapped his adoration of Lenin for Reagan. At Hebrew school in NYC, he found that being Russian was not considered cool, to the point that he started to pretend he was German, which was more socially acceptable. He reconciled himself with his Russian roots at a college of socialist bent in Ohio (where he ended up not because of the academic program, but because he had followed a girlfriend). At college he was urged by his adviser to write a thesis about the Soviet Union regrouping and crushing the United States.

Shteyngart considers that although the United States is considered to have a lack of economic fairness and an income gulf, that gulf basically exists between the hyper-rich and the rest of society. Otherwise the discrepancy between the moderately rich, the middle class, and the poor is not that large. He comments on the squeeze of the middle class and the phenomenon of outsourcing, joking that he'll have his next novel written in India to save on costs. He says that no system ever worked satisfactorily in Russia, not feudalism, communism, or capitalism.

He notes the irony that his parents were happy with the lifestyle in the United States but dissatisfied with the culture, and they banned the icons of US pop culture from their home: the television, comic books, etc. He also observes that the education system was excellent in Russia, whereas despite its wealth, public education in the US can be pretty shaky.

Shteyngart feels that fewer people are reading nowadays, but many more are writing. (To which Aaronovitch countered that more books than ever are being sold in the UK.) Shteyngart persisted in his point that the US ethos is one of self-expression: reading requires surrendering yourself to someone else's text, whereas writing is the act of placing your mark upon the world. The modern day and age, he says, is the writers' world.

In a token attempt to address the conference topic that they were assigned, Shteyngart and Aaronovitch comment that communism aimed for perfectibility with the aim of building a better world. Whereas capitalism maintains that the freedom to choose will eventually lead to the right choices. Both warn against putting too much faith into any one person or one system. Overall they feel that government policy should maximize potential and capacity, and that the role of government is not to guarantee happiness.
They note that as countries develop, the individual country's needs are often not compatible with considerations of global sustainability. They don't pretend to provide any solution to this problem, but it is nonetheless a valid observation

Overall this was lively conference. These two can banter like nobody's business.

Gary Shteyngart's dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story narrates two doomed romances: one between a man and a woman, and one between a writer and his country. It is apparently of the darkly funny genre. On my to-read list.