Some of the most interesting events at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival have been those which occupy the territory which swirls around both “fiction” and “truth” – fiction writers writing non-fiction, or writing imaginatively about stories based on real events, or speculating about what the shape of the future.
Meanwhile, the festival’s hybrid model, with both live and online audiences, presents both opportunities and questions. It’s good that authors can appear without travelling, good that a wider audience can watch from home anywhere around the world. But how much can a book festival change and still retain the things we love about it?
For the moment, however, it has been a pleasure to watch guests from around the world, such as Doireann Ni Ghriofa, beamed in from Cork in Ireland, who was named this week by Edinburgh University as the winner of the prestigious James Tait Black Prize for biography for A Ghost in the Throat. She described how, as the exhausted mother of four children under six, she found herself returning again and again to the words of Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, the 18th-century Irish woman who wrote the Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire, a lament regarded as one of the finest pieces of literature of its time.
Juggling nappies and feeds, she began to investigate Eibhlin Dubh’s story: she left her noble family to elope with the man she loved, only for him to be killed in an ambush, a victim of the barbaric penal laws of the time. She chanted the poem over his body, and it was preserved by women in the oral keening tradition until it was eventually written down.
Ni Griofa is a poet, in Irish and English, and her first prose book draws together elements of poetry, translation, memoir and biography. She said she was recovering a woman’s story from the gaps of history, knowing it will always be incomplete, but learning to listen to the silences. And she said: “All writing is political, particularly writing that tries not to be political; sometimes the most important things are the things we are choosing not to say.”
This is the theme of Things I Have Withheld, the new book of essays by Jamaican poet and novelist Kei Miller. The author of The Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion and The Last Warner Woman speaks here with a more personal voice, reflecting, in particular, on things he has held back from saying. Speaking out about race, he said, makes people defensive. Then they stop listening. Hence his decision to write an essay called ‘Letters to James Baldwin’, addressing his themes to the iconic black writer and allowing his readers to “overhear”.
Black writing, he implied, has many withholdings, but there are other silences too. There are the things which are withheld from people of colour, such as respect and dignity. And there the silences of those who choose not to speak out even when they witness an “other” being wronged.
The untold story of the other, the immigrant, is very much at the heart of Letters to Camondo, a new book by ceramicist and writer Edmund de Waal (author of The Hare With Amber Eyes). Invited, just before lockdown, to make an exhibition for the idiosyncratic Musee Nissim de Camondo in Paris, he then found himself alone in his studio reflecting on the story of the house and the family who built it.
Moise de Camondo, from a wealthy Jewish family from Constantinople, settled in Paris in the 19th century and assimilated smoothly into the cultural milieu of the city. He built and furnished his beautiful mansion on the Rue de Monceau in memory of his son, who was killed in the First World War, and it was gifted to France in 1936, after his death. Then history intervenes: Jewish families gradually lost their rights, and the house because a base for looting Nazis. The remaining members of the Camondo family died in Auschwitz.
Exploring the story of what is “still a living house for a lost family”, De Waal addresses the difficult theme of the antisemitism of Vichy France, which turned on those it had previously welcomed as friends, and reflects on the present moment, on those who arrive in European countries today seeking to become citizens: the “others” who have become our neighbours.
Another true story of family, history and trauma is the inspiration for the new novel by David Grossman, the Israeli writer who won the International Booker Prize in 2017. In conversation with Elif Shafak, he described how the seeds of More Than I Love My Life were sown when he took a phone call one day from an older woman, taking him to task for an essay he had written. In the course of their conversation, she began to tell the astonishing story of her experiences at the hands of the Tito regime in Yugoslavia and the consequences for her family.
He spoke of the power of stories, but also how they can be constricting. If we tell and retell only one version of our story – as individuals and as countries – we risk becoming prisoners of it. Only by being prepared to tell ourselves new stories, and by letting the stories of others open up to us, can we grow as writers and as human beings.
There are two kinds of writers, said novelist and journalist Rachel Kushner: those who are naturally introspective and those who, even when writing about the deep things of themselves, are reflecting on the public, the political. Her new book of essays, The Hard Crowd, offers insights into the outward-looking themes which inspired her novels The Flamethrowers and The Mars Room, as well as telling some of the stories of her own remarkable life.
In ‘Girl on a Motorcyle’ we find her in the adrenalin-fuelled world of illegal road races, hitting 142mph on a bend somewhere on the Baha peninsula. We also see her growing up in San Francisco, working in bars in the Tenderloin district and witnessing first hand the lingering fallout from the 1960s in the city’s lost souls. Echoing Ni Griofa, she said that, while the novel is not necessarily a container for political ideas, she is wary of any novel that claims to be apolitical.
What happens when a multi--award-winning novelist decides to take on artificial intelligence in a work of non-fiction? The answer is Twelve Bytes, the new collection of essays by Jeanette Winterson. Given that Elon Musk’s company is already developing neural implants designed to help paralysed people communicate using their thoughts, she points out that a symbiotic relationship with technology is no longer a matter for science fiction.
An optimist would describe the possibilities for improvement: we could become better human beings, with a fresh outlook, less dependent on fallible physical bodies. A pessimist might point out the human capacity for messing things up, and wonder if a super-intelligent race of digital beings would simply dismiss us altogether. Winterson has some sympathy with both views.
In a fascinating event, she managed to address not only the speculative possibilities for the future but to lay out the history of technology, particularly the significant role played by women. Her aim, she says, is to open up the subject for the “curious reader” and surely she has. Curiosity is, perhaps, the prerequisite for book festivals, both for attending and enjoying them, and for considering what they will look like in the future.