Jersey Festival of Words, Days Three and Four: Changing the Conversation

Day three of the festival begins with me chairing two events. The first is Cathy Rentzenbrink who I interview at Jersey Hospice. It’s an amazing setting, a £5 million facility on a hill overlooking the sea. The event goes well; if you haven’t seen Cathy speak about her books and her experiences, I highly recommend it. She speaks so eloquently, full of heart and compassion and makes time for everyone who comes to share their experiences with her too. She’s also very funny and that feels important considering the subject matter.

The second event is a panel on fake news and social media curation with Felicia Yap, author of the dystopian thriller Yesterday; Miranda Doyle, author of the memoir A Book of Untruths, and Peter Mourant, Picture Editor of the Jersey Evening Post. We discuss their work’s relation to the truth, Twitter and Donald Trump. I recommend both books, very different but both very interesting.

The last four events I watch, over the remainder of Saturday and into Sunday, all have something in common: they’re about books that are beginning to change the conversation. Whether that conversation is about women and sexuality, trans women, Muslim women or the stigma around mental health, each contributes to the shift that’s beginning to take place around these topics (colour me an optimist).

First up is Rhyannon Styles, author of the The New Girl, a memoir about her transition. The interview gets off to a poor start when the interviewer uses Rhyannon’s dead name twice in the introduction. She corrects him from off-stage.

Rhyannon has lots of interesting things to say about her experiences and there’s plenty for us to hear about the way trans gender people are treated. She talks about recognising something of herself in Madonna in the Beautiful Stranger video. Art college was ‘the breath of fresh air I needed’ and where she first met people with similar interests – music, film, artists. At the time she identified as a gay male, ‘I let the role of a gay male dictate my sexuality’. She describes the nightclub Heaven as ‘monumental’ for her. It was a safe place to express herself and she began dressing and performing as female. In 2011, she saw the TV programme My Transsexual Summer which she describes as ‘the key to the door’.

‘You don’t transition on a whim,’ says Rhyannon, describing it as a long, hard, arduous process. The psychologist she saw was sexist, asking her whether she wore dresses and heels when she attended her appointment in jeans and a sweater. There was an 18-month waiting list at the gender clinic so Rhyannon bought hormones online and began taking them.

She discusses the other elements of her transition: the changes to her body; the laser hair removal treatment she describes as ‘eighteen session of torture’; the speech therapy, and the clothing experiments. ‘Some of my outfits are still mental…I was like the kid in the sweetshop.’

Early in the interview, Rhyannon’s asked what’s acceptable in terms of language. She explains that trans is an umbrella term. The best way to approach the issue would be to say, ‘Hi, Rhyannon, how would you like me to describe you? What’s your preferred pronoun?’

This desire to learn seems at odds with other parts of the interview, however. The story about the parents who removed their son from a school because of a transgender child in his class is raised. The interviewer mentions The Daily Mail to which Rhyannon replies, ‘The Daily Mail is hysterical’. On the subject of uniform rules and clothes for school she says, ‘Clothes are all made from the same fabric, they’re just cut in different ways’. The interviewer pushes her asking if she can understand the parents’ perspective. I don’t see why Rhyannon, or any other trans person, should be expected to understand the point of view of someone who’s transphobic.

Towards the end of the interview, the conversation turns back to Rhyannon’s body. At the end of the book, she discusses gender reassignment surgery. She says she thinks it’s an acceptable topic of discussion for the interview as she’s included in her book, however, some trans people think it’s unacceptable and it reduces them to their genitalia. Unfortunately, the interviewer states that it was the one thing he wanted to know and bemoans the fact he had to wait until the end of the book to discover the answer. Rhyannon turns the discussion back to her experience and thoughts. She says the NHS offered her surgery but it made her wonder whether the decision was about her or whether it was about what society expects her to look like. ‘My womanhood was for me to define; I don’t think having a vaginoplasty makes me a woman.’ She says she fell for an idea of completeness and that it’s not about the physical, it’s about the mental. Something for many of us to think about.

Daisy Buchanan talks to Cathy Rentzenbrink about her latest book, How to Be a Grown Up. It’s aimed at 20-somethings, although I’m pretty certain I could still do with some help at 39.

Daisy describes her 20s as ‘difficult’ consisting of crap boyfriends, dreadful jobs and hangovers. At 27, she went freelance and met someone lovely and now at 29, she feels that some things have fallen into place. She’s still poor at managing money though, she reveals. She’s fantasised about there being an adult auditor and says she wanted to write a book you could pull off the shelf at 3am and feel that you could find some help and support.

She talks about the jobs she had before she went freelance. At 22, she was a Mortgage PR, ‘It wasn’t for me’. She says there are parallels between jobs and relationships in the sense that you decided you’d quite like to be a particular type of person so you force yourself into things. She says ‘Be yourself’ is crap advice; ‘You don’t know, when you’re 22, who you are.’

The discussion turns to social media, of which Daisy says she’s a big fan. It’s where she met her husband and is an easy way of continuing friendships. However, she says it used to be a mix between a house party, a bar and a coffee morning and you could wander away. You can’t do that as much anymore. She comments that it’s difficult to have boundaries on social media, it creates a false sense of intimacy.

Cathy asks about sex and masturbation as it’s a topic Daisy’s written on regularly as well as there being a section in the book on it. Daisy says she has a fear and fascination of it. She was raised as a Catholic which meant that going to hell was a greater fear than getting pregnant but getting pregnant meant there’d be evidence of your sins. ‘We demonise women wanting to have agency over their own bodies.’

Daisy’s mother wrote to her school so she wasn’t allowed to take part in sex ed. Her writing about sex openly is Daisy’s way of covering what she wishes she’d know. She says we’re so quick to demonise porn that we’re not learning from it and how it can lead to expectations and male entitlement. They’ve grown up in a world that says this is okay. She says there needs to be a sexual revolution around pleasure, comfort and desire and there needs to be a language for women to express this.

Sunday begins with Ayisha Malik, author of Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged and The Other Half of Happiness. She talks about conceiving Sofia Khan as a Muslim version of Bridget Jones. She was Muslim dating at the time and had stories which her friends convinced her to write. ‘I never read about Muslim characters who aren’t oppressed,’ she says, ‘I just wanted her to be a normal human being’.

She uses humour because, she says, any situation that arises to do with racism, if you meet it with humour, it reduces it and the person doing it. It’s also an antidote to identity politics. On the reaction to the books, she comments, ‘I’ve not had a fatwa out against me, which is great.’

Khan talks about not wanting to be confined to writing one kind of book. She states her inspirations as Jane Austen, Nora Ephron, Anne Enright and Ruth Ozeki. The novel she’s working on at the moment is about a man trying to fulfil his mum’s dying wish by building a mosque in a West Dorset village. She links the idea to recent bombings saying, ‘When the perpetrator claims to share your faith that has a profound effect on you. Why should I always have to defend my beliefs?’ She says being a Muslim woman has made her ‘grittier’ and describes Muslim women as ‘Unashamed of our multiple identities. We’re multifaceted’.

She says she was honoured to be asked to ghost write Nadia Hussein’s novels (the second has recently been completed), although it ‘might be because I’m the only hijabi Muslim in publishing right now’. She describes the process as ‘a very different kind of writing. It’s quite prescriptive; the ideas are very much hers. I take myself completely out of it. I think that’s part and parcel of the process’. She agreed to do it because the publishers were transparent that it was Malik doing the writing.

The final event of the festival is one designed to help our mental health. Rachel Kelly is a former reporter for The Times and the author of Walking on Sunshine. She begins the event by asking us to stand if we or a member of our family has ever experienced a form of mental illness. If there’s anyone left seated, I can’t see them. She then asks us to remain standing if we’ve felt we could speak openly about it. Around 50% of the audience sits down. Kelly says she hopes she can contribute to changing that stigma.

Kelly tells her story: in 1997, she was working at The Times and had two small children. One night she couldn’t sleep. Her heartrate speeded up, she felt sick. She gripped the bed because she felt as though she was falling. She started to think that if she couldn’t get to sleep, she wouldn’t be able to go to work. If she couldn’t go to work, she wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage which would result in her losing the house and then her children. She was ruminating and catastrophising. She didn’t sleep for a further two nights. On the third night, she assumed she was having a heart attack and went to A&E. At the hospital she saw a psychiatrist who told Kelly her fight or flight response had become chronic.

She tells us that mental illness happens in a context and you can alter that context. (I think that’s too simplistic a response which doesn’t take structural factors into account.) However, Kelly didn’t change anything in her life except for taking the medication she was prescribed for a period of time.

In 2007, she became ill for a second time. This lasted for two years. This time around she became aware there was a pattern emerging and that if a form of mental illness occurs once it’s more likely to occur again. She changed her lifestyle.

The rest of the event consists of Kelly giving us some ideas as to how we can help ourselves. She begins with a breathing exercise during which we close our eyes and she talks to us about focusing on our breathing and our bodies. The reason for this is that we can only breathe in the present; it helps slow the sensation of time down. If you’re physically relaxed, your mentally relaxed, she says.

Kelly goes on to tell us some jokes about cheese – for example, Which kind of cheese do you use to disguise a small horse? Mascarpone – because laughter is good for us. She also recommends exercise and happy foods, which she says are oily fish, dark green leafy vegetables and dark chocolate. She tells us she’s providing us with a toolkit and knows that not all of her suggestions will work for everyone.

The final two things she mentions are the ones that appeal to me the most: first, we have to do an active listening exercise in which we tell someone we’ve never met before three things we’re grateful for and then they do the same. The idea is that we focus on the good things in our lives but, to be honest, I’m more interested in the other person’s story and we have a good chat about our lives. It’s a nice reminder that I like meeting new people and finding out about them. The second is about the idea of Flow as documented by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I haven’t thought about this in years (there was a point when it was trendy to discuss it in relation to teaching and learning) even though I know I love it when I’m in a state of flow reading a book or playing music. Kelly says that she learns poems off by heart and proves it by performing Love by George Herbert for us. I think about how much time I spend on social media and vow to book myself some long promised piano lessons when I get home.

Then it’s all over bar the long journey home for me. Jersey Festival of Words 2017 was bigger and more interesting than ever. I’m already looking forward to 2018.

Hanya Yanagihara in Conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink at Foyles

It’s a warm Wednesday evening in central London when Hanya Yanagihara and Cathy Rentzenbrink take the stage in Foyles’ flagship shop on Charing Cross Road. They’re here to discuss Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life, recently longlisted for The Man Booker Prize.

The event begins with Yanagihara reading from the fourth section of the novel, ‘The Axiom of Equality’. Before she starts to read, Yanagihara comments on the number of people in the room. ‘I feel like Donald Trump,’ she says, ‘Which would make you all Donald Trump supporters.’

Following the reading, Rentzenbrink conducts a straw poll to see how many of the audience have already read the novel. The poll will determine whether the event needs to be spoiler free or not. As over half of the audience have read the book, they decide to proceed with a full discussion. As a result, THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS. You have been warned!

Photograph by Nina Pottell

Photograph by Nina Pottell

Rentzenbrink begins by asking Yanagihara about the inspiration for the novel. Yanagihara says that the first section of the book is a fairly typical post-college, New York novel based on the idea that everyone at that stage, living in New York, thinks they’re interesting! But then the book changes. She compares it to boiling a lobster. The change happens at the point the lobster realises he’s fucked but then it’s too late. She says the first turn happens at the end of part one and she hopes by that point the reader has realised they’re not reading the type of book they thought they were.

Yanagihara says she wanted to write a novel that if it were ombre cloth would run from a shade of light blue to dark indigo. She tells us that Jude was pretty fully formed when she began writing. She wanted to write a character who can’t get better or change or survive his own life. It’s very American to think that life is something to win, she says. Jude is oppressed by hope.

What about the lack of women in the novel? Yanagihara states that she wanted to marry fairytale with a contemporary naturalistic novel. She wanted it to lack parents, to be timeless. She wanted Jude’s redemption to be hollow.

Why male friendship? Rentzenbrink says she doesn’t think it’s been written about this way in literature before. Yanagihara says that she thinks men are allowed to have a more limited emotional toolkit: shame, fear and vulnerability are not there. They’re not encouraged to express these emotions. She says society asks men to change as they grow up and relates an anecdote about two male friends of hers who would wrestle with each other. She says they were wrestling the inexpressible: their love for each other.

Rentzenbrink asks about the reader and how much thought Yanagihara gave to them when she was writing. She mentions Jude and wonders how much a reader can take. Yanagihara says you can never guess accurately what the reader can take but they can tell if you’re withholding. She says readers want to be taken somewhere they haven’t been before. She mentions her two editors – it was edited in the USA and the UK simultaneously – and said they talked to each other which was like having annoying parents! She said they had very different reactions to what they thought were the problem areas in the book: her UK editor thought Jude and Willem’s relationship was a problem, while the US editor thought the length of the novel and the violence were the biggest issues. Yanagihara says that if you believe strongly in something and can answer why it’s in the book, you shouldn’t have to change it.

She goes on to talk about the structure of the book which was the trickiest part to get right. Initially it was two novellas and a coda. The first novella looked at Jude as a success and the second at Jude with a marginal life, the characters from the first novella becoming his counsellors. The coda was his childhood. She wanted to explore different reactions to damage.

Retzenbrink asks about New York City as a setting. The book’s about the sorts of characters and kinds of people who come to NYC, says Yanagihara. There’s a shared sense of collective ambition and whilst that ambition takes wildly different forms, these people are united by being on the run and running to something.

What about the absence of time in the book? Initially every chapter was in present tense, she says, but that was too artificial. She hates readers having to fill in how characters react to big events. Mentioning 9/11 or even that a character is wearing a Prada suit is lazy shorthand, it also dates quickly and the references are never quite right. She says she wanted the reader to have no tethers. The reader is surrendering to the emotional lives of the characters with nothing to ground them. She wanted the reader to feel like they were on one of those wobbly balls.

Yanagihara goes on to talk about social media. She’s not on it, apart from Instagram and she doesn’t read reviews. She says she thinks Twitter’s a great boon for fiction writers now there’s no central cultural authority. She’s too fragile and insecure to read her reviews. She says if you only believe the good ones, you’re a douchebag and if you only believe the bad you become a walking mess.

The discussion turns to the difference between the UK and US covers. The latter is a photograph by Peter Hujar (a contemporary of Robert Mapplethorpe) called Orgasmic Man. It dares you to look then dares you not to look, says Yanagihara. You don’t know whether the expression on his face is pleasure or pain. Yanagihara tells us that she fought with the US publisher for months over using the photograph for the cover: ‘It’s so obvious he’s coming,’ she says was the comment from the US publisher.

Rentzenbrink says that the book is gruelling to read, what was it like to write? Yanagihara says that when you’re in the groove you have to stay in it so there were long jags of writing, several hours each day. She found it physically hard, working on it at night. She had one reader whom she burdened with questions while she wrote in a sprint. ‘I think it was a singular writing experience.’

The final question from Retzenbrink is whether there’s any redemption for Jude in a parallel universe. ‘I don’t even know what redemption would look like here,’ says Yanagihara. ‘His life concludes in the only way it could possibly conclude.’

With that, the discussion opens up to questions from the audience.

Did she think about the moral responsibility of considering anew the horrors of child abuse?

She didn’t think about it at all. She didn’t think of the book as cathartic or as a book with a moral. She’s interested in sexual abuse because of the impact on someone’s life. She describes it as the ‘ultimate abuse of power of the most vulnerable in our society’.

Why is the end of the novel narrated by Harold?

Jude is meant to be a reliable and trustworthy narrator but Harold stands in for the reader and provides another perspective. He’s a Greek Chorus appearing after traumatic moments in Jude’s life, providing a pause. She says she knew what the last line was going to be and wrote towards it.

How long was she living with the characters before she began writing?

Five years but she didn’t realise that until she sat down to write.

Which questions was she pondering whilst writing?

She was thinking about friendship, what it can do for us and what we can expect from it and about love, how it can never save or redeem you. Is there a moment when life becomes unbearable? Do we owe it to the people we love to help them find a way out of it?

How do you feel about redemption?

She doesn’t believe in it but thinks that as humans in society we have to pursue it.

Photograph by Nina Pottell

Photograph by Nina Pottell

How do you get into the minds of your male characters?

She says it helps if your characters aren’t meant to stand in for anything larger, including men in general. How do you write something other than you and do it convincingly? You don’t make them stand in for or represent a group. They just need to be compelling, distinctive, interesting characters.

Was A Little Life the first title?

Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days was the alternative title. She says she wanted to show that all of our lives are equally meaningful and meaningless at the same time. She says the title has proved difficult to translate into some languages.

Would she consider writing any extra scenes for A Little Life?

There are things she wishes she’d done to make the book a little longer, particularly with Jude and Willem’s relationship, which she describes as defying what a relationship is allowed to be. It’s a more lineal relationship – it borrows from love and friendship but takes a third path.

Why did she decide to give all of the characters a level of privilege that meant they’re all successful? Does it allow her to go to dark places with them?

She made them successful because groups like this are a phenomenon in New York City. Also Jude’s life is easier with money to cope with his disabilities and constant care. Money prevents people from seeing Jude clearly, he’s reduced to being successful.

Which books move you/do you enjoy/appreciate?

 The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro is the best book this year. Ishiguro has a single theme – the oppression of memory – but does it differently in each book.

Hilary Mantel had a complete change of style mid-career with The Giant O’Brien and she’d love to know how she pulled that off.

John Banville writes beautiful prose. She tells us she hid from meeting him in Dublin when he came to her event there.

Rentzenbrink ends the evening by asking Yanagihara if there’s anything next. She’s interested in ships and books set on ships because they’re a microcosm of people thrown together. She’s interested in the change the shipping trade brought to Asia in the 1840s but knows that this will take a lot of research so she might write something else in between.

With that, Yanagihara takes her place behind the signing desk as the queue to meet her stretches the length of the room.