The Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014: books, politics, and books on politics

Kia Ora!

I’ve been a little quiet over summer, but’s not for lack of interesting experiences, so hopefully I’ll catch you up one day. For now though, it’s the present day, and an event I’ve been looking forward to attending for some years before I came to Scotland – the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the largest event of its kind in the world.

Edinburgh Book Fest in Charlotte Square

Central Edinburgh is so full of events and activities through a combination of all the various August festivals that you feel someone somewhere must have a ‘Full’ sign in red neon that they’re about to put up. 10 minutes walk down the Royal Mile will see you encounter anything from mimes on stilts to a woman proclaiming she’s a zombie to Chewbacca having a chat with William Wallace, and it will definitely encourage feelings towards your fellow humans you thought you were way too nice a person to experience. The Book Festival is somewhat removed from the general insanity, based in the New Town’s Charlotte Square, though still full of punters of all shapes and sizes. I decided to take the first off-peak train from Glasgow on Monday morning and make a day of it. I chose Monday because it was the day with the most to offer directly related to my PhD topic of Scottish literature’s role in the independence debate.

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Like so many events and conferences I’ve been to since arriving in Scotland, the independence referendum was both an overt and implied topic of many events at the Writers’ Festival. This did not make my task to select which things to go and see an easy one. While the events are reasonably accessible at around NZD$16 each, this mounts up quickly when you’re in my financial position. My first choice though, was probably the easiest of the day.

James Robertson

Robertson, author of And the Land Lay Still and The Professor of Truth, is a deservedly popular author in Scotland, and the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre was sold out for his talk, chaired by Alan Massie. Robertson read from his recent novel, The Professor of Truth, before discussing this novel and his epic story of Scotland since 1950, And the Land Lay Still, a book I’ve been recommending to all of my friends who want to understand the background to this referendum in more depth. The bulk of the session however, was given over to questions from Massie and the audience on Scottish independence, with varying degrees of connection to his work. Not for the last time in Edinburgh this week, I was astounded by the way in which writers, actors and artists are being treated much like politicians in Scotland today. People are asking them for answers and opinions, packing out halls and theatres to get their opinion, to try and help them make sense of this decision and this moment.

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Audience members asked Robertson about whether a Yes vote would really prevent the refurbishing of the Trident nuclear weapons system, the future of Police Scotland, if an independent Scotland can reduce inequality, and what the future might hold for the SNP following independence. These were the questions put to the novelist at a Book Festival. If I ever needed proof that here and now in Scotland, literature and politics are tightly woven together, my week in Edinburgh furnished me with plenty of it.

Since reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, I make a habit of noticing the gender split of audience questions in these situations. It turns out I’m not the only one because after seven men and one woman had been called upon, a Glaswegian woman in the row behind me called out, “Can we have a lady!?” All the better for me as I had had my hand up a while. Taking advantage of the situation, I basically posed the central question of my thesis:

“What do you believe the influence of literature is or should be in the question of Scottish independence?”

“That’s a hard one! Not that great I suspect, Questions of culture have barely figured. But it seems we wouldn’t be having a referendum if Scotland wasn’t already a nation and that can’t happen without culture and literature… It’s not a head vs. heart thing, it’s a head and heart thing… Twentieth century Scottish literature has been shaped to a great extent by these questions. Perhaps following Yes we’ll move into a calmer or different sort of literature.”

What a brilliant answer from a great writer. Not to mention helpful! If you are feeling lost and confused about how we got here in Scotland, or are just interested in the debate but sick of wading through bias or badly researched newspaper articles, I highly recommend And the Land Lay Still. A good read which manages to convey some complex historical shifts in these islands I used to think I knew something about.

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Commonwealth of Words: Rana Dasgupta and Witi Ihimaera, chaired by Stuart Kelly

Sitting in the sun waiting in line for this event, chatting to another couple of people also wearing pounamu, I felt mounting excitement that I was going to meet one of New Zealand’s best-known and loved writers. Witi Ihimaera has been a constant presence in my life since adolescence, when his short story collection, Pounamu, Pounamu, gave me a glimpse into what that awful, strange, wonderful time of puberty was like for my male counterparts, and showed me it was ok to feel the way you do at that stage. The film Whale Rider came out when I was ages with Kahutia Te Rangi/ Paikea, the adolescent protagonist. Both film and book gave me a desperately needed insight into Maori culture, language, history and experience, something I’m ashamed to say I had been lacking up until that point. As a budding feminist, I loved Paikea and Nanny Flowers’ example, their stories of their tipuna, Muriwai, and their different ways of defying the old guard of patriarchy. For the first time I began to feel proud of, not excluded from, the indigenous culture of Aotearoa, the only land I had ever called home. Ihimaera, and others at that time, began to show me my place within it, both because and in spite of my first generation status. Later, at university,Bulibasha was shocking and beautiful. The highlight of the post-colonial literature course. On Monday afternoon in Edinburgh, I knew I wasn’t the only one there who felt like this about his remarkable oeuvre.

Professor Witi Ihimaera Trowenna Sea

He had been double-billed with Rana Dasgupta, an Indian writer I had never heard of, but my respect for him certainly burgeoned during that hour. These two writers were clearly very different in background and style, and their pairing should really have been placed under the heading ‘miscellaneous colonial’ or something. Unfortunately it is no uncommon thing to see the New Zealander grouped with ‘colonial other’ and asked inappropriate questions aimed at forcing false comparisons. I have been on the receiving end of this more than once since coming here. Rana and Witi both dealt with these occasions very well, but there were times when there was palpable discomfort among the audience when they were asked to “compare pain with pain” as Witi so eloquently put it.

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Witi was there in the context of White Lies, a novella he wrote which has been dramatised. On the train home that night I couldn’t put it down, and finished it before coming in to Shettleston Station. I’ll have to wait to be home in October before I can see the film, but I’m very much looking forward to that:

The Yurt

The Yurt is not an event at the Writers’ Festival. It’s where the authors, chairs, speakers and their guests can go to chill out between engagements, get some nourishment and do a bit of networking. It’s designed in a sort of Middle Eastern/Central Asian style, with embroidered cushions and rugs, draped alongside tartan blankets on couches in a network of canvass tents. There’s even a fire!

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Very fortunately for me (though even more so for him), one of my good friends and fellow Scottish Literature postgrads, Stewart Alexander Sanderson, is a gifted poet. Stewart was short-listed for the inaugural Edwin Morgan Poetry Award, an amazing achievement which meant he was an official author on the programme. I went along to the awards ceremony a few nights ago for moral support and received a Guest Pass to the Yurt where we all enjoyed a celebratory whisky. The Pass was good for the rest of the festival, so when I returned on Monday for the bulk of my time there, I was able to enjoy free meals, snacks, hot drinks and Jura whisky on tap.

Edwin Morgan Poetry Awards

The best thing about the Yurt though, is the crazy variety of people you get to meet and chat to. People from all over the world in all kinds of work relating to literature. Writers of course, but also publishers, reviewers, librarians, even children’s’ ambassadors! There are more for careers in heaven and earth related to literature than ever dreamt of in my philosophy before I stepped into the Yurt!

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So that was some of the highlights of my first ever Edinburgh Book Festival. Like everything else at the moment it can’t help but be touched by indyref, but that’s my day job, and what a privilege that is! See you next year, when, with any luck, I’ll have my own author’s pass to the Yurt :p

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