I attended a couple of events at Words Weekend at the Sage Gateshead this weekend. This is the first of a series of Words Weekends planned throughout England during 2019-20; upcoming events will be held in Salford, Bury St Edmunds, London, and somewhere else unspecified in the north-west! The festival organisers have aimed to make the festival diverse and accessible; all the events are BSL-interpreted, for example, and 40% are free. As usual, the Sage have also been holding pop-up events in their foyer alongside the scheduled festival programme (purely accidentally, I caught a bit of classical music, a choir, a talk on positive body image, and Curtis Brown literary agency talking about pitching novels).
For me, the flagship event of this festival was David Olusoga in conversation with Bernardine Evaristo; I loved her novel Girl, Woman, Other, which won the Booker Prize earlier this year. Evaristo didn’t disappoint. She spoke about wanting to tell a wider cross-section of the stories of black British women, though accepting that her twelve protagonists could never really be representative – initially, she said, she had imagined a thousand women speaking in a more poetic form. She remembered the impact that Peter Fryer’s Staying Power (1984) had on her as a young woman, and how this is reflected in a number of her protagonists, who demonstrate that black people have been in Britain long before the Windrush – ninety-three year old Hattie, for example, has spent her life on a farm in northern England. She also cited Ntozake Shange’s for coloured girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuff (1976) as a key influence on the novel’s prose-poetry style, which, she reflected, has been surprisingly accessible, especially for dyslexic readers.
The event was too crowded to get a photo of either Evaristo or Olusoga!
The only note that rang a little uncomfortably for me was when Evaristo asserted that it’s difficult for young writers to write older characters, as they lack the interest and experience, whereas older writers can more easily write younger characters. I don’t agree with this in the slightest; while fiction is dominated by younger protagonists, this is a different issue, especially given that most fiction is not written by people under thirty. Interestingly, I noted in my review of Evaristo’s novel that she doesn’t seem to extend the same depth of sympathy to her youngest protagonists as to the protagonists who are in their early thirties or older, and this may be the kind of stereotype she’s running up against. As I see it, reinhabiting an age that you have thoroughly left behind may be even more difficult than imagining an age you have yet to experience, as you inevitably have to put aside your own particular ideas about what that age is like; Evaristo, for example, spoke about how she felt very angry as a young woman and found it hard to use humour in her art, but this obviously isn’t the case for all young people.
The question-and-answer session was, unusually, almost more interesting than the discussion. A woman who’d been at the same drama school as Evaristo popped up and asked her about being angry; she said that, despite being older, she was still angry, whereas Evaristo seemed to have attained a state of calm. In response to this, Evaristo spoke very interestingly about how she believes that you can’t write fiction from a position of anger. She also fielded a mansplaining question about the origins of the Booker Prize gracefully. The best exchange, for me, was when an older man asked her about writing older characters and she started her answer by saying ‘As I’m now sixty…’ He interrupted to say ‘You don’t look it, hinny!’ to which she fired back ‘Well, black don’t crack!’
I also went to see a talk by Dr Jon Copley called ‘Ask An Ocean Explorer’ where he discussed his research on deep-sea environments, especially on hydrothermal vents in the Cayman Trench. This built on the talk by Dr Diva Amon I heard at the British Science Festival, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Copley noted that, below a thousand metres, water is totally beyond the reach of sunshine, so this part of the sea is ‘beyond the blue’. More than half the world is covered by water that is deeper than this. He challenged the common idea, however, that we know more about the Moon or Mars than the very deep ocean, arguing that, while we have more detailed maps of the Moon and Mars because we can scan them with radar, which doesn’t penetrate water, we have access to far more biological and geological samples from the deep. He also did a quick dash through the history of ocean exploration, refreshingly highlighting the work of female pioneer Marie Tharp, who wasn’t allowed to go to sea on research vessels until she was in her late forties, but through interpreting the data they gathered, still managed to discover the rift valley along the floor of the Atlantic Ocean that proved theories of plate tectonics and continental drift in 1952. Copley thinks this was as significant a moment for the earth sciences as the discovery of DNA was for the biological sciences.
I’ve also been doing some unrelated (and eclectic!) reading of my own this weekend. I finished Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse, which was – not what I expected it to be. I picked up this novel because I loved Wilson’s short story in A People’s Future of the United States, ‘A History of Barbed Wire’, which imagines a reservation built by the Cherokee Nation with a wall to keep refugees out. However, Robopocalypse doesn’t have much to say about the human condition; it’s basically a thriller about killer robots taking over the world. Wilson has no time for irritating questions about whether robots are sentient or what responsibilities humans bear towards them; he just wants to write lots of set-pieces about humans combating increasingly ingenious and disturbing technology. I actually enjoyed this a lot – Wilson has a doctorate in robotics, which stops it getting too silly – but don’t expect it to be thought-provoking.
Finally, I read the first half of Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing, which was one of the books I highlighted in my 2019 reading plans post. This novel, narrated by a ten-year-old boy, Gavin, starts after the death of his toddler sister; while they both contracted meningitis, only he recovered. His family are Taiwanese immigrants to Alaska, and I’d hoped that this would both raise interesting questions about culture and allow readers to explore a different kind of setting. Unfortunately, I found this quite bland. I usually get on well with slow, character-led fiction, but Lin’s writing isn’t strong enough to carry this plotless novel; it’s unobtrusive, but never striking. Frustratingly, almost every other person in this novel, from the grieving mother to the older sister right down to the baby brother, seemed like they’d have been a more interesting mouthpiece than Gavin, and the vestiges of tension surrounding the father being sued for not properly installing a septic tank don’t tighten quickly enough. The Unpassing perhaps suffered from me reading it alongside Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, which has a superficially similar set-up – family falling apart after the death of a child, narrated by a sibling who doesn’t quite understand – but is stratospherically better. Ultimately, I didn’t feel compelled to continue with it.