The fiftieth anniversary of the famous Writers' Conference during the 1962 Edinburgh International Festival was celebrated with various events at this year's Book Festival. I chose, however, to go only to a number of events which particularly interested me. Online podcasts of the 50th anniversary events are in any case readily available.
Noo Saro-Wiwa was interviewed by Drew Campbell, and highlighted as 'The Scottish PEN "Free the Word" Event'. She lived in Britain for a long time, and is the daughter of Nigerian political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was judicially murdered by the Abacha military dictatorship. Her reading was about her return visit to a now democratic Nigeria, which is recorded in Looking for Transwonderland. It is no conventional travelogue, but a clear-eyed, very well-informed, and often very funny, look at Nigeria from her enlightening perspective of dual citizenship. The title refers to an amusement park in Lagos which is nearly falling apart, yet also testifies to a yearning from Nigerians to make their country a better place, and their irrepressible optimism about not only the possibility, but the necessity to do so.
Janine di Giovanni and Ed Vulliamy, chaired by Bidisha with tact and sensitivity as both are not only veteran war-zone journalists, but also strong personalities, gave their personal accounts of the war following the break-up of Yugoslavia which devastated Bosnia twenty years ago now. It was, as the Book Festival programme all too accurately described it, 'the worst carnage to blight Europe since the Third Reich'. It demonstrated once again how bestial human beings can be to each other, even when, or perhaps especially when, close neighbours. Di Giovanni and Vulliamy also rightly blamed the failure of nerve of the western powers in being so slow to intervene, as well as the forces of extreme Serb and Croat nationalism. A more temperate account of this event is to be found in Morelle Smith's excellent blog.
David Bellos, who translated the novels of Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare, among others, gave a gripping talk on the art of translation. He argued that attempting 'faithful' translations of any text is a futile exercise. It is in the nature of language that we always 'translate' to each other, even when we speak the 'same' language. All communication involves using language in various contexts, and it is these contexts which create meaning, not isolated words.
Two literary heavyweights, Joyce Carol Oates and Carol Ann Duffy, read and discussed their work to sell-out audiences in the capacious tent of the RBS Theatre. Duffy read from The Bees, and also impersonated the likes of Mrs. Noah, with accompaniment from the 'merry flautist' John Sampson. A surprise bonus was her inviting Roger McGough from the audience to read a couple of poems. Oates was introduced by Jackie McGlone with a light, unobtrusive touch, highlighting informality. She read from her new novel Mudwoman and gave something of a brilliant masterclass in how she structured her novel, which explores the psychology of dreams and the pain of bereavement.
John Lanchester, chaired by Alan Taylor, read from his novel Capital, and discussed the consequences of financial meltdown in terms of the gentrification of a London street originally populated by a thriving, or at least reasonably cohesive, working-class community. His satirical bite was complemented by banter from Taylor about class in Edinburgh.
A more benign view of Edinburgh was given by Ron Butlin. Chaired by Gavin Wallace, he read from the poems he wrote as Edinburgh Makar in The Magicians of Edinburgh. 'David Hume Takes a Last Walk on Arthur's Seat' was especially moving. Paul Durcan gave a bravura performance in a morning session at the Spiegeltent. His poems were full of dark humour, but he read them with perky defiance and a strong sense of irony for a solid three quarters of an hour. It's a pity though that the audience was not invited to ask questions, thus making it a rather short session. Bashabi Fraser read from Ragas and Reels, poems about Scots-Asians, with photographs by Herman Rodrigues, who gave a brief talk, peppered with anecdotal jokes, about his enthusiasm for photography. She also talked about Under the Banyan Tree, a sumptuously illustrated book about Scots who made a great contribution to the Raj and are still fondly remembered in India.
The 'transwonderland' of economic chicanery all over the globe, with attendant crass exploitation, drug and sex trafficking, plus violence with 'extreme prejudice' was discussed, with many a vivid story, by the writer and journalist Lydia Cacho. A woman of steely courage, she mentioned how a drug-lord in Mexico, her homeland, offered to be her 'protector'. Bumping into her in a restaurant, he asked her to drop a napkin, thereby not compromising herself, if she wanted a kingpin who threatened her to be 'taken care of '. She went back to friends at her table and hissed 'Don't you dare drop a napkin!'.