By Jason C S Cheung
To be very honest, I hadn’t done my due diligence and read The Luminaries before I entered the centre culturel franco-manitobain. After some reasearch, I was fascinated to learn that the novel is set in 19th century New Zealand. It's a mystery and a historical period piece: one of my favourite types! Eleanor Catton was a true inspiration this evening as she read, then shared her insights and reflections on her book. She illuminated us on an epic journey across the ocean to 1860s New Zealand (the setting of the novel is the gold rush on the west coast of New Zealand, a wild frontier).
She has won the Man Booker Prize and the Governor General Award for her bestselling novel.
An Ambience Set By Giving
The evening began with greetings from many honoured guests. The most memorable moment was from elders Clarence and Barbara Nepinak’s blessing of the event, which reminded us that we were on treaty land, and welcomed us to a sacred place of respect and sharing. They offered our guest a gift that carried significant meaning, as it was prepared by members of the Nepinak's community. Giving, Catton later told us, is an act bigger than ourselves, and one that defies the laws of nature. Much like reading a novel and experiencing the gift bestowed by the writer upon us, we are welcomed and enriched by the characters’ experiences as if they were that of our own. This theme inevitably ties in with the economy of worth versus value, which was central to some of the ideologies in her characters’ development.
Graceful Style, Grateful Audience
In her dialogue with festival director Charlene Diehl, the discussions of plot structure and archetypes really intrigued me. I was impressed with her analysis of archetypes versus stereotypes. From what I learned, an archetype is a mould: “a basis for the infinite to be filled,” whereas a stereotype is a reduction of a person to a series of traits. This is where it gets very interesting: by incorporating the elements of the twelve zodiacs, each character is generated through a set of pre-existing characteristics. Catton went on to describe the Freudian relationship between some of the planets, which was very complicated (beyond my meager understanding), but nevertheless breathtaking.
As the Planets and Signs Dictate
The way Catton described the interconnectedness and the interdependence of the stars and planets in motion truly mesmerized the audience. Personification of archetypes in celestial objects is nothing new, but to learn that she used them to shape her characters was definitely a breath of fresh air. The meticulous inner workings of miracles weaved into the magical network of her characters was truly astounding. I felt transformed by the intricacies of her storytelling, and her elegant presence.
Fortune telling as a Career?
I would like to ask Eleanor a personal question:
I am one of your archetypes of the constellation characters in the novel: Chinese, male, and a Virgo. Would you be kind enough to give a personal chart reading? In sharing your story and personal journey in the development of this astounding work (which I will surely read), it is rare to find a great novelist, but it is rarer still to find an author with such eloquence in language and a graceful presence that is still a bit mysterious to me.
Thank you for travelling to the other side of the ocean to visit us.
Well, better get started on the long journey of 832 pages. Good for reading on the plane!
Please join us for more wonderful events at the 18th Winnipeg International Writers’ Festival, and happy reading!
Jason C.S. Cheung