Edinburgh Book Festival: Around the World

As the Edinburgh Book Festival enters its final week, we hear from writers and creators from around the world, alongside some of Scotland's greats

Feature by The Skinny | 24 Aug 2018
  • The Last Poets

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is renowned for bringing together voices and creators from across the world to Charlotte Square Gardens, and 2018 is no different. From Scottish stars to empowering and important voices from around the globe, the final full week of this year's festival had plenty of brilliant events to dive into. Here are a few:

Chelsea Clinton: Women Who Make History
Chelsea Clinton, author of She Persisted and She Persisted Around the World, believes that “we need more stories centred on women, told by women.” So that’s what she does.

Persistance is a hugely important part of life, for us to be the people we most want to be. It’s a trait she’s seen first hand through her mother Hillary Clinton, who she says continues to work tirelessly for the causes that inspire her, even following her Presidential defeat.

In showcasing stories from activist Leymah Gbowee to environmentalist Wangari Maathai, JK Rowling to Malala Yousafzai, she wants to show children that it’s possible to persist: if these women can overcome these huge hurdles in their lives, you can too. Her grandma used to tell her that it’s not what happens to you in your life that defines you, it’s what you do – and books like this are her way of reaching children and opening their eyes to the possibilities of life, even in the face of adversity. [Heather McDaid]

Ali Smith with Nicola Sturgeon: Local, Seasonal, Organic
Watching Scotland’s finest living writer in conversation with Scotland’s First Minister is the chance to watch two titans of their fields effectively fangirl over one another by their own admission. Rather than skim the surface of Ali Smith’s career, the mutual admiration allows them to delve deeply.

Smith doesn’t do a huge number of events: “I’m really uneasy about the voice of the writer getting in the way of the thing. Your voice is not the point.” Her work is complex, at times it can be challenging, but to her there are no wrong answers readers can take. To question is to have engaged with the work.

Her words are lyrics, each worthy of being quoted. The novel is a hopeful form, dialogue is the source of life, fiction and lies are the opposite – Smith talks about the minutiae of her work and career but somehow manages to speak to the state of the world at large all the while.

“Stories can change people’s lives,” she muses. Muriel Spark was one who did that for her, and Ali Smith is one who does that for so many in the audience and beyond. An exceptional, thought-provoking event from one of the greats.

The Last Poets: The Godfathers of Hip Hop
The godfathers of hip hop are back in Edinburgh for the second year in a row but this time with their first album of spoken word poetry in twenty years. They’re introduced by way of a reading from Christine Otten, the author of The Last Poets, the novel based on their lives, before being given the floor. They deliver a mix of early pieces as well as tracks from the new album, Understand What Black Is, with the help of a simple backing drum rhythm provided by Baba Donn Babatunde. It’s a simple set-up but an effective one.

The Last Poets are well aware of their reputation – there are plenty of references to the many samples of their work throughout (looking at your Party and Bullshit, Biggie) – but they’re also pleasantly surprised by their reputation in Europe. They receive three separate standing ovations – possibly a first for the Book Festival – as they realise they have time for another poem. "Love is all we need to rise above the flames” is their last line before heading off stage. It might have been fifty years since the Last Poets were founded on the streets of Harlem but no one’s pretending their words aren’t just as potent and relevant in 2018. [Katie Goh]

Edwin Morgan Poetry Award: Scotland's Finest Young Poets
Scotland’s first modern Makar made a huge impact in his lifetime, but Edwin Morgan has also paid it forward to future generations following his passing in 2010. Every second year, the Award gives £20,000 to a young Scottish poet, with the top five all receiving a monetary prize for their shortlisting.

The event is a chance to hear from judges Janice Galloway and John Glenday, while hearing five exceptional young poets in their own words. Tom Docherty, Nadine Aisha Jassat, Daisy Lafarge, Peter Ratter and Roseanne Watt are all distinctive in their poetry, each welcoming attendees into their own personal worlds. Roseanne Watt scooped the top prize amongst a hugely strong shortlist. Scotland need not worry about the future of poetry; these five show that it is in very capable hands.

Nayrouz Qarmout, Hsiao-Hung Pai and Djamila Ribeiro: Our Voices Will be Heard
How did you get here? A simple question, but with the UK becoming more unwelcoming by the day, it holds a certain power. Each has their own tale of coming to the UK with varying difficulty: visas they formerly came to here on no longer exist, they feel like the government is looking for any excuse to throw them out, and for Nayrouz Qarmout, it’s her journey that brought everyone here.

The Home Office refused her twice before she was granted her visa for Edinburgh Book Festival, too late for her event. This new event spotlights the importance of that journey. The festival has given her the opportunity to share her experiences and life with people, she says. The Gaza strip is under siege and to leave you need a good reason to be allowed to cross the border – they didn’t feel the festival was a good reason, but in the end she succeeded after an arduous and drawn out journey; it’s the first time she’s left her country since 1994.

Her explanation of the intricacies of her visa is lightened by her humour, but ultimately startling: some of the reasoning for her rejections she found offensive, such as being single, and it underlines the flaws in the ever-tightening visa systems. It was a difficult journey, but in the end she made it, and her story, and that of Palestine, has a platform unlike ever before.

Many wouldn’t put themselves through these hardships to attend a festival and share their story, but for her it was worth it. Her story could have remained untold – a commonality across all three. Hsiao-Hung Pai is a journalist, and in the 2000s went undercover to work in factories. She consistently received threats from those controlling the workers; as a freelancer she had to deal with this with little to no support, but to her it always remains important to tell the stories otherwise untold.

For Djamila Ribeiro, silencing in Brazil has turned particularly violent. Her friend Marielle Franco was a Brazilian feminist, politician and activist – she was brutally assassinated with four bullets in the head. "As black women we are never safe," she says. They have never found her killer, but Djamila notes that if she had been a white man, this would be a different case. The culture doesn't represent the diversity as a country – she’s looking to counter this with an anthology of black Brazilian voices, giving them a platform they’re denied elsewhere. “Invisibility is a form of violence.”

Days ago, the Said al-Mishal Centre – which brought theatre, dance and music to residents of Gaza – was destroyed in an Israeli air strike. It was a home of culture for poor people, says Nayrouz, where people could access art for free. “There’s a systematic process to crush culture in Gaza,” she explains. “All [those who stay there] want to do is live.” She’s very wary of the plans for the area, and the destruction of resources for those whose lives rely on such access.

Their stories are different, but the undertone is united: they battle for people’s voices to be heard, they speak up for what is right in the face of a world that is failing others. An exceptional and inspiring event, but all too short. Their stories are important, and it was a privilege for those in attendance to hear them firsthand. Hopefully their voices only grow louder from herein.


Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 takes place until 27 Aug at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh