Hazel McHaffie

Hay Festival

In it together

In a week where the fallibility of the UK government has reached a new low, I’ve been revelling in the human face of celebrity.

What a fabulous opportunity! I’ve been at the virtual Hay Book Festival – one of the most famous literary events in the world. Outside the dreaded virus might be lurking, political storm clouds may be gathering, but I was squirrelled away in my study, with no one to irritate me or distract me, before me a parade of authors and orators and experts, speaking from their own homes, to an international audience of hundreds.

And not unnaturally, frequent mentions of Covid-19, the very thing that has made it impossible to hold the real event in its normal location in Wales. Indeed, many of the events were specifically about the virus.

Regurgitating the science or philosophy would send you to sleep, but what struck me was that, against the background of their natural habitats, the speakers seemed more real, more authentic; they shared intimacies about their families, their lives, which somehow brought them closer to us.

So, for example, best-selling novelist, Maggie O’Farrell, was talking about her latest book, Hamnet, a fictionalised story woven around the life and death and memory of William Shakespeare‘s son of that name, who died probably/possibly of the Black Death (the most deadly epidemic in recorded human history), aged just 11. Obviously parallels with our situation today, and Maggie confessed she related very much to Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. She had needed to wait until her own son passed the age of 11, before completing the scenes of Anne sitting at Hamnet’s bedside, watching him die, laying him out for burial, mourning him for the rest of her life. Knowing that at any moment Maggie’s own children might erupt into the room, gave her responses both piquancy and urgency. And I loved the picture of her hiding in the Wendy House in the garden for a couple of hours to get some work done during lockdown.

Former Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, with yards of qualifications and distinctions, gave the special John Maddox lecture about anti microbial resistance. It could have been way above the heads of most people, but she came across as warm and understanding, with a lovely sense of humour. She shared her palatial study with us, but took all the pretentiousness out of it by showing how her husband had hacked off more of her hair than she’d requested. And her slogan: ‘work together and wash your hands’ – had a ring of truth and realism that the official messages from the Downing Street podiums often lack.

A message from this pandemic which came across clearly was: work together towards a kinder fairer world. I came away with a sense of a shared strategy, a world-wide community, that no mere political aide flouting the rules could dent.

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Honour killing

If you are of a sensitive disposition and a member of the female persuasion you might choose to look away NOW – you can come in again at the asterisk below.

Ahah! Did you think I was going to talk about the BBC documentary on assisted suicide? Sir Terry Pratchett investigating the experience of the Dignitas option in Switzerland? Yes, I know it’s my kind of subject, but it seems to be being done to death (sorry!) elsewhere, so I’m not. Besides I feel too disturbed about what I saw to write about it at the moment.

No, today I’m turning my beady eye onto a different controversy. Women: their status,  their potential, and how they’re treated.

I didn’t go to the Hay Festival this year, but I did follow reports of it. So I heard about VS Naipaul (winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature)  insulting women big time. None of them, past or present,  could possibly be as great as he is, he declared. Full stop. (He even singled out Jane Austen as way beneath him. Jane Austen!!)

Of course, as you probably know, his history is littered with offended people. Why, his own philosophy includes: ‘If a writer doesn’t generate hostility, he is dead’.

But this time his boasting about his own achievements and his relegation of all women writers as doomed to inferiority by their ‘sentimental’ attitudes and ‘narrow view of life’, hit the raw nerves of way over half the population.  He even compounded his sweeping assertion with this partial explanation: ‘And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too‘. Hello?!!

OK, you might say, what would you expect from someone whose private life is a study in misogyny and discrimination? Well, I for one would prefer to see great talent and acclaim generating humility and gratitude and deference to the success of others. Not arrogance, unwholesome pride and cruelty. End of rant.

*(Those females of a sensitive disposition may re-enter the fray here.)

So I turned with relief to a story of the suppression of women which sets a context of triumph over evil and the power of love.

A Thousand Splendid Suns‘For almost three decades now, the Afghan refugee crisis has been one of the most severe around the globe. War, hunger, anarchy, and oppression forced millions of people to abandon their homes and flee Afghanistan to settle in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. At the height of the exodus, as many as eight million Afghans were living abroad as refugees.’ So says Khaled Hosseini in the afterword to his novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and became US goodwill envoy to the UN Refugee Agency, so he speaks with both knowledge and sincerity. That authenticity shines through the story of the illegitimate Mariam, the ill-fated childhood sweethearts Laila and Tariq, the troubled children, Aziza and Zalmai. As does the author’s empathy and humanity.

But it’s the quiet depiction of abject poverty, of domestic brutality and female suppression, of sacrificial marriage between young teenagers and much older men, that makes this book the moving and sensitive tale it is. We in the UK read of honour killing with horror in our hearts, but Hosseini conveys quite masterfully the essence of a culture that permits such acts. We see how it happens that wives submit to constant abuse, husbands lock their wives out of sight, fathers kill or reject their daughters, and laws condone such discrimination.

Hosseini’s understated prose is eloquent in its simplicity.

Laila marvels that ‘… every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet … people find a way to survive, to go on.’

Mariam’s mother warns her from infancy: ‘Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.’

One of the judges in the trial of Mariam years later says, ‘God has made us differently, you women and us men. Our brains are different. You are not able to think like we can. Western doctors and their science have proved this. This is why we require only one male witness and two female ones.’

Naipaul would fit right in here, wouldn’t he?

As the cover says: ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns is an unforgettable portrait of a wounded country and a deeply moving story of family and friendship. It is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story of an unforgiving time, an unlikely bond and an indestructible love.’ Indeed it is.

And all the reader’s sympathies are with the downtrodden women. I salute Hosseini as a true master-storyteller.  As for self-acclaimed Naipaul, well, his ranting and posturing say much more about him than about women.

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