Sunday, September 12, 2010


A bookworm shares her experience of the world’s largest writers and readers’ event.

THEY CALL Scotland’s capital the Festival City because it has a dozen big, internationally well-known festivals every year. There are seven in August alone, covering everything from the arts and music to politics and spirituality.

Amidst this plethora is the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and I had the privilege of attending a few events there recently.

Held from August 14 to 30, Edinburgh’s book fest is said to be the biggest literary event in the world; this year, according to festival director Nick Barley, four Nobel laureates, four Booker winners and 40 new writers made appearances and 200,000 visitors trooped in.

With the book festival held concurrently with the bigger Fringe Festival as well as the International Festival, the streets of Edinburgh were packed with locals and tourists enjoying the almost mind-boggling variety of events, all taking place in excellent—and unusually—sunny weather.

Bookish-minded visitors like this writer headed for the Charlotte Square Gardens where everything book-related could be found: author appearances and discussions, book signings, free 10-minute author readings, and two huge bookstores, one dedicated to literature for adults and the other for works for children of all ages.

It was heartening to see how festival organisers made the effort to cater to children with the extensive RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) Children’s Programme involving writers from Australia, Eastern Europe and the United States.

The annual programme offers activities geared towards all ages, from toddler to teen, as well as events for parents and carers—there are, literally, hundreds of events under this programme, many of them free, too.

Newspapers reported that the festival’s opening weekend attracted a record 17,000 people, perhaps partly due to the opening keynote event featuring the controversial Philip Pullman. The author, whose novels deal symbolically with the Christian faith, debated his latest polarising book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, with the former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries.

Other interesting writers in the programme included two of this year’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted authors, Andrea Levy (The Long Song) and Emma Donoghue (Room); 2005 T.S. Eliot Prize-winner and Britain’s poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy; 2005 Man Booker Prize-winner John Banville; 2009 Man Booker International Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Joyce Carol Oates; and 2005 Orange Prize-winner Lionel Shriver.

One of the most interesting and thought-provoking events I attended was an appearance by A.S. Byatt who read from and discussed her latest novel, The Children’s Book, a Man Booker Prize-shortlisted title in 2009.

To see Byatt—anointed in 2008 as one of the “50 greatest British writers since 1945” by The Times—in person was not only most thrilling for her readers but also an eye-opener for those who have not read her work, as they were introduced to her sharp wit and profound insights. She provided new perspectives on a host of subjects by sharing thoughts like how she felt that Hans Christian Andersen was a sadist (she never got over reading The Little Mermaid!), that she identifies with the persecution of children in novels such as Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre and that she feels the Orange Prize is sexist (it’s for writings by women).

Byatt also won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (with a cash prize of £10,000 or RM48,500) for The Children’s Book and made another appearance at the prize-giving ceremony to read from it.

In other events, Kei Miller and Nadifa Mohamed, originally from Jamaica and Somalia respectively, talked about their books on people who leave their home countries to start anew in Britain. The audience was treated to a discussion of Mohamed’s novel based on her father’s travels as a sailor as well as the most enriching experience of listening to Miller’s rhythmic and melodious reading of his novel.

Anthony Cartwright and Max Schaeffer discussed British extremism in their novels and the idea of the nation and the “national”, and that being overly cautious about multiculturalism can reach ridiculous proportions.

D.B.C. Pierre read from his new novel, Lights Out in Wonderland, and said that he had spent time with a suicidal friend to research it. This Australia-born, Britain-based author (whose real name is Peter Finlay) won the Man Booker and Whitbread Best First Novel prizes in 2003 for his controversial satirical novel about school shootings, Vernon God Little. Pierre proved to be as funny and articulate in person as he is in writing, eliciting laughter from his audience even while discussing serious issues such as the world’s current arrogance (a result of a lack of large-scale wars, he said) and that we are all in a state of limbo and headed for a period of dramatic and unpredictable change.

Obviously, it is impossible to cover every type of book and subject matter at one festival, but the Edinburgh International Book Festival seems to come close to doing just that. From graphic novels to political books and children’s literature, this all-encompassing event is designed not only to nurture adult readers and writers ranging from prize-winners to newcomers, but also young readers and budding writers; even curious passers-by were treated to a buffet of literary and cultural experiences.

Fortunately, the cheerful weather only turned dreary and wet on my last morning there. As I braved the rain with a flimsy umbrella while picking my way around puddles and over slippery wet grass to attend a free, 10-minute reading in the Writers’ Retreat area, I was expecting to see a near-empty tent. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see that people had bothered to trudge through the miserable weather and take up almost all the seats.

The organisers really had done a good job in keeping the crowds coming. Apart from the huge number and variety of events, there were thoughtful touches throughout, such as facilities for visitors with disabilities and a good selection of cafes (even an ice-cream tricycle offering locally made Di Rollo ice cream) and free spaces that invited the tired bookworm to just sit, relax and take in the atmosphere.

Of course, this book fair has 21 years of experience under its belt, so perhaps it is not so astonishing that it was so well planned and executed; even with a new director (Barley took over this year) at the helm, events were admirably orderly and efficient.

It was very encouraging to see so much interest and support for the festival despite all the other festivals that were going on at the same time. One thing is for sure: this festival will satisfy the most avid readers and lovers of literature and books, whatever their palate.

Reproduced from the Sunday Star of September 12, 2010


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