There is something about the opening moment of the Edinburgh book festival that is magical – I take a deep breath and pause to watch authors and audiences come pouring in through the gates, stopping to enjoy the musical entertainment before heading into their first event.
This is the moment when the organising team put all the agonies and frustrations, tears and laughter and a year of hard work behind us and step out into another 17-day rollercoaster journey through the ideas that are shaping this strange new era. And then, suddenly, I’m torn out of my reverie as a colleague taps me on the shoulder to remind me that in five minutes I have to go on stage and introduce the 2008 Man Booker prizewinner Aravind Adiga.
Scotland set free
It was 1984 when the phrase “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” was published on the front cover of an Alasdair Gray novel. Even though Gray didn’t coin the phrase, it’s often attributed to him and used as a rallying cry by supporters of Scottish independence. Writers and artists have been prominent in the discussions around Scotland’s constitutional question, but some are arguing that the independence movement is splintering.
There is, however, another undercurrent. Andrew O’Hagan is one writer who has argued that the UK government’s response to Brexit – and what he sees as Theresa May’s cavalier disregard for the devolved nations – has effectively shattered the Union in any case. For O’Hagan, the time has come to imagine a Scotland tethered by neither unionism nor nationalism – with a new definition of what it means to be a country in the 21st century. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Nicola Sturgeon herself admits that she wishes her party didn’t have the word “national” in its name.
Live and learn
Sturgeon’s comments – made at a discussion with Turkish novelist Elif Shafak and young Scottish publisher Heather McDaid – dominate the media headlines, and I get frustrated that there’s less attention given to our programme for children and young people, imaginatively created by Janet Smyth. Authors like Julia Donaldson and Kristina Stephenson are perennial festival favourites, but it was very special to see a theatre packed with young women hanging on the every word of Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, and to welcome several authors writing about gender and identity, including Juno Dawson and CN Lester.
There has been much talk in Edinburgh this year about moving or extending the summer festivals to accommodate Scottish school holidays, but the book festival always embraces the start of the new term. Our schools programme welcomes more than 13,000 primary and high school pupils from across Scotland and the north of England. Many of them have never visited a book festival or met an author before.
Literature and loss
This year I was especially looking forward to seeing Israeli author David Grossman, the winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. As the chair of the prize jury, I had the joy of reading his latest novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, four times and discussing it in great detail with my fellow judges. Abrasive, unexpected and eventually heartbreaking, it is a masterclass in characterisation and structure, and it beat off some exceptionally strong competition to win the prize.
Anyone who has read Grossman’s previous books will not be surprised to hear that in the flesh he is a man who is quietly assured, but at the same time living with a sense of loss – the death of his son, Uri, came in August 2006. While Uri was carrying out his military service, the Israeli army went to war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and he was killed when the tank he was driving was hit by a rocket. He and two other crew members had been trying to rescue soldiers from another tank.
In the years that have followed the tragedy, Grossman has channelled his grief into some of the most powerful and unforgettable fiction of the 21st century to date. Thanks to his translator (and co-winner of the Man Booker International prize) Jessica Cohen, we can read them all in English, too. A Horse Walks into a Bar is quite unlike any other Grossman book except in one important respect: it’s another masterpiece.
One of the most emotional moments of the festival this year was the arrival of the Iranian illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi. Each year a handful of international authors fail to secure a visa to visit the festival: it’s a problem that looks set to increase in this new era of travel bans and closed borders.
Even before the Brexit vote, an increasing number of authors were failing to pass the necessary tests and checks, but the denial of a visa to Abdollahi – the co-creator of a beguiling children’s book about happiness – was a case I couldn’t let go. As it was the third consecutive year we’d had an Iranian children’s author refused entry, my colleague Janet Smyth and I joined forces with Delaram Ghanimifard, Abdollahi’s publisher at Tiny Owl, and embarked on a campaign to get the decision overturned.
To our delight, the Bookseller ran a big story and the Guardian soon picked it up, prompting a wave of concern from the wider public. Then politicians started getting involved: the Scottish government made discreet noises behind the scenes in London, and Edinburgh MP Deidre Brock went public. A few days later I had a positive response from the UK’s ambassador in Iran, and within hours the visa decision was overturned. We’d had success this time, though many other festivals have not been so fortunate. I hope Abdollahi’s case stands as an inspiration for others: a demonstration that non-violent public protest can change a government’s behaviour.
Nick Barley is director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs until 28 August: edbookfest.co.uk
This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia