Onwards & Upwards: Edinburgh Book Festival preview

As the Edinburgh International Book Festival returns for 2021 in a new location with a new hybrid set-up, we dive into the highlights of their programme, which looks to celebrate the ideas and stories for a changing world

Feature by Heather McDaid | 10 Aug 2021
  • Douglas Stuart

Aptly focusing on ideas and stories for a changing world for 2021, the Edinburgh International Book Festival sees many alterations for this new iteration. First, its location, moving from Charlotte Square to a new home at Edinburgh College of Art; second, it’s reshaping accessibility by offering a fully hybrid experience, with all events able to be attended in-person and virtually, the latter pay what you can. Its heart is in Edinburgh, but it’s open to the world.

After a year that has simultaneously kept people apart and brought many closer than ever, the festival is hosting a string of brilliant events in this new experimental year. Graeme Armstrong, Jenni Fagan and Caleb Femi join forces (14 Aug, 1pm) to discuss what home and community mean in a post-pandemic world. Femi also joins novelist Tice Cin to discuss his incredible debut collection Poor (15 Aug, 2.30pm) and ‘the art of the people’ – poetry.

The Skinny is sponsoring Torrey Peters’ event as she discusses Detransition, Baby with Extra Teeth co-founder Heather Parry (14 Aug, 5.30pm). A tale of motherhood, relationships and chosen family, the book circles Reese, a trans woman in her 30s; Ames, her former lover who has detransitioned; and the unplanned pregnancy of Ames’ cis girlfriend, Katrina. A brilliant novel on the complexities of flawed people wrestling with concepts of family in a flawed world.

The inaugural winner of the Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing, Nina Mingya Powles will appear alongside Julian Aguon (15 Aug, 2.15pm), who witnessed first-hand the impact of globalisation and colonialism on the island of Guam; they will discuss Small Bodies of Water and The Properties of Perpetual Lights respectively and the intersections of the personal and political.

On debuts, Caleb Azumah Nelson will discuss Open Water (16 Aug, 1pm), where he explores culture, masculinity, art and identity in a tale of falling in and out of love, vulnerability, and being seen – of feelings that words cannot articulate. An entrancing and lyrical book, it aches to read, and will – it's safe to say – be one to watch.

Another is Shola von Reinhold (17 Aug, 2.30pm), whose novel LOTE – following Mathilda, who does not see herself represented in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, and her subsequent discovery of the ‘forgotten’ Black Scottish poet Hermia Drumm – won the Republic of Consciousness Prize. They will join Jamie Crewe who has created a new short film based on the novel, where the duo will discuss the exquisite world from the pages.

Salena Godden’s debut novel Mrs Death Misses Death (17 Aug, 4pm) reimagines death not as a faceless grim reaper, but as a shapeshifting, working class Black woman. Exhausted, she wants to unload her stories and write her memoirs. Death is all around at present, but in Godden’s hands it is both darkly funny and deeply moving in one sweep.

Elsewhere, Harry Josephine Giles describes Deep Wheel Orcadia – the first full-length novel written in Orcadian dialect in over half a century – as ‘a gay space communist fantasy written in a small language and about the small peace of small things’. Ely Percy’s Duck Feet sits firmly in Renfrew, following the coming-of-age tale of Kirsty Campbell, and the duo will discuss their brilliant novels and put the joy of writing in their dialect under the microscope (18 Aug, 4pm).

Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House navigates the complexities of abuse in queer relationships, and her own experience of the highs of love and desire to the torment, both overt and insidious. Archiving, she says, is political, and about power: who gets to shape the narrative of histories. One not to miss (18 Aug, 7pm).

Raven Leilani’s Luster has stolen the show for many readers this year, a sharp tale on contemporary life, and she joins Patricia Lockwood, whose genre-defying No One Is Talking About This was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize (19 Aug, 7.15pm), while Tice Cin showcases Keeping the House (25 Aug, 1pm), which follows Damla, a Turkish-Cypriot girl growing up in North London, and the lives of three generations of women in the aftermath of Cyprus’ conflict.

While Unbound has been shelved for the time being, we’ll always have time for a Post-Apocalyptic Cabaret (28 Aug, 8.30pm). Curated by Hysteria’s Mae Diansangu and Hanna Louise, they will host an electrifying mix of performers from song, spoken word and drag, for an unmissable Manifesto for a New World Order. The Good Grief! Salon is where grief comes glittered, gritty, and gutsy, according to Michael Pedersen (29 Aug, 8.30pm). After the past year, the evening will feature a brilliant line-up of writers and musicians to celebrate the love in the things we’ve lost or are missing. A light in the dark.

And, if we’re talking books and Scotland, Shuggie Bain would always be there. Douglas Stuart will be *flying over* from New York to talk to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, about the novel that changed his life and won him the Booker Prize (30 Aug, 8.30pm). Based on his own upbringing in a family facing addiction, he recounts his own coming of age in Glasgow and beyond.

The world is changing, and here’s just a handful of events to lead you on the way.

Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh College of Art and online, 14-30 Aug
View the full programme at edbookfest.co.uk