Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 21, 2020

Auckland Writers Festival Writers Winter Series, featuring Helon Habila, Philippa Swan & Freya Daly Sadgrove

This morning I listened to Episode 8 of the Auckland Writers Festival Winter Series, hosted by Paula Morris and featuring Freya Daly Sadgrove, Philippa Swan and Helon Habila.

Philippa Swan is the author of a couple of books, the most recent being The Night of All Souls, which is a reimagining of the life and afterlife of Edith Wharton.   The book has been described as a ‘Tardis of a Novel’, stories within stories, with Edith as the main character.  Philippa loves The House of Mirth, and suggests it’s the best Wharton to start with.  But although she had read many other Whartons as well, she had never really thought much about Edith as a person… not until she read Hermione Lee’s  biography which made her realise what an amazing woman Wharton was.

Teddy Wharton, the husband of Edith’s unhappy marriage, is in the novel, and so are other ghosts, which reflects Edith’s fondness for ghost stories. The Night of All Souls is not just an historical novel, because it includes elements of modern life, which include a novella that Edith finds.  It’s based on letters which she left behind after her death, and since she is a private person, she has to find out which secrets that she doesn’t want revealed are in that novella … and she can only find that out from the other people who are in the room with her.  A most intriguing premise, eh?

Paula Morris asked about the role of convention, which was so strong in Wharton’s era, but is not so much now.  But the notion of dirty secrets certainly is still with us.  Edith Wharton, from our perspective, seems a very controlled sort of person, but there was chaos in her life.  Notwithstanding, she was very productive, with forty novels to her credit, writing every morning in a wild sort of panic, often about very gritty things.  In the afternoon she went out to live her elegant social life, alternating between the two worlds, and the parts of her contradictory self.   She was a brave war correspondent too, which is not how we usually think of her.

(I have, of course, reserved this book from the library).

Freya Daly Sadgrove is a Wellington poet, and the author of her first collection Head Girl.  My first thought was that the poems were about prefects at school, and yes it is, but it’s dedicated to her enemies.  She dissects the experience of a young woman not afraid to be profane… and Paula issued a warning that this segment of the program might not be suitable for children…

Paula related this book to Philippa’s by asking if Head Girl represented a kind of dance between public and private worlds.  It sounded as if this was a question that really disconcerted Sadgrove, who said that it represented a different time in her life.  She talked about being honest and so forth, but she had kept some things private.   Apparently the style of the poems reflects her theatre experience so there are lots of gags.  Paula asked about the difference between theatre which is about assuming an identity and a persona, thus inhabiting a character, whereas poetry is about revealing the inner.  Maybe it was nerves, and I’m guessing that doing the session remotely makes that harder, but some of this young woman’s incoherent responses were painful to listen to.  It was chastening to hear that she had suffered depression and that her therapist had been at her book launch.  The reading also came with a warning that there were references to suicide.

It was wonderful to see a literary hero like Helon Habila on screen and I hope his work will become better known in our part of the world.  Travellers (2019) is his most recent book, but I know him as the award-winning author of the searing Waiting for an Angel (2001).  Since then he has also published Measuring Time (2007) and Oil on Water (2010).  He moved from Nigeria to take up a fellowship in the UK, had a further fellowship in Berlin, and is now an academic in America.

Paula Morris began by referring to a Guardian review by Edward Doxc, which begins like this:

Helon Habila’s fourth novel has it all – intelligence, tragedy, poetry, love, intimacy, compassion and a serious, soulful, arms-wide engagement with one of the most acute human concerns of our age: the refugee crisis. This is the answer to the question of what contemporary fiction can do, and the reason I laugh whenever people say (as a character declares ironically in Travellers) that the novel is dead.

Travellers is about the experience of the African diaspora, and the refugee crisis in Europe.  It is set in Berlin and features a privileged academic, who has more in common with the refugees than he first thought.  This unnamed main character’s odyssey is like Habila’s own experience… he was in Berlin on a fellowship when a refugee boat capsized with a loss of 300 lives, and he was invited to write about this tragedy.  This was the catalyst for him to realise that the academic bubble in which he lived and worked made real life seem remote, and this experience forms the trajectory of the novel.

Paula asked about homeland, that is, can outsiders ever really be at home in Europe, even in a multicultural city like Berlin?  That is the question Habila was trying to answer in the novel… the place the refugees thought was their home was lost, so that ‘bursts’ the idea of home in the first place.  ‘Home’ turns out to have conditionality.  It becomes a place that could be anywhere, but it has impermanence.  He feels that himself.  He is not sure that he has a ‘home’ in America but it’s a place to try to make one with his family.

Stolperstein (Wikipedia)

Paula raised the presence of the bronze plaques in the Berlin pavements.  Habila’s character stumbles on one of these and falls to the ground and sees what they are. They are called Stolperstein, (stumbling stones) and engraved with names, they are laid in many places in Europe to commemorate the last known freely chosen place of residency of victims of Nazi persecution: Jews, Romani, homosexuals, members of the Resisters and others.  Habila says that these names in the pavement illustrate the illusion of having a home – the Jews among these people had had homes in Germany, and they had been in Europe for hundreds of years and yet in one day they became outsiders, and were taken away.

Paula referenced Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (on my TBR) and asked if Berlin was important to Habila’s creative life?  He agreed that it was: Berlin is a wonderful city for creative people, with its museums and rich cultural life.  During this fellowship he abandoned one novel to write another, so it was an important year for him creatively.  Ironically, he had not wanted to go there, because his idea of Germany was fashioned by way Germans were portrayed in WW2 film and literature.  Nigeria had been colonised by the British, so that’s the perspective he experienced as he grew up.  Being in Berlin taught him a great deal, though there is always that shadow of migrants coming from Africa on the streets…

Bringing all three writers together, Paula asked about the current Black Lives Matter protests and whether it was possible for a writer to be oblivious to significant moments in history. Habila says that it is essential to support the movement, because to be silent is to be complicit in racism.  Freya agrees that you can’t be silent, but she is not confident that as a Pakeha writer she can contribute.  She recognises that her poetry has been self-centred and she says that now she is ready to put that kind of writing behind her and is interested in looking outward.   But you also have to know when to shut up, and she thinks that this is a time for listening.  Philippa talked about how BLM has coincided with the pandemic, which has meant that in one way we are more connected than ever, and yet we are so isolated.  She finds she can’t write at all at the moment.

My thanks to the organisers of this series, and congratulations to Paula Morris for chairing each session so well.

Image credit: By Francisco Peralta Torrejón – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


  1. […] have been scheduled to start tomorrow.  But Helon Habila’s Travellers, which I heard about via the Auckland Writers Festival came in at the library, and I’ve squeezed it in between one book and […]


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