Edinburgh Book Festival: The Last Weekend

Akala and Yan Lianke bring down the curtain on Edinburgh's festival season with two exceptional events at the Book Festival

Feature by The Skinny | 30 Aug 2018

The Edinburgh International Book Festival has taken over Charlotte Square across August, with appearances from everyone from master storyteller Philip Pullman to important voices from the world over, as well as those considering the issues of the day. As the Edinburgh Festivals wound down, we returned for two final, brilliant events.

Akala: The Ruins of Empire
MOBO-winning hip hop artist, poet, political commentator – now Akala can add bestselling author to his endless list of achievements. In Natives, he connects his own experiences through childhood and as an adult to the social, political and historical context that has led to where we are in regards to race in the UK today.

He first realised the complexity of race and class when a white boy at school made a racist comment; he went home to tell his mum what the white boy said and then realised "You're white!" She's always just been his mum. "I'm German," she clarified, as he recalls with a laugh. Akala was brought up embracing his black heritage; his mum gave him and his siblings a strong black identity, which helped them navigate the structures and issues they would face. Had he grown up in Jamaica, he notes, it would have been different. He would have high privilege through being mixed race; in the UK the same children are racialised as black. He was first searched at 12 years old.

Akala speaks with an astute understanding of class and race, and cuts straight through rhetoric that appears to have concern for the public at its heart, but is really just thinly-veiled racism. Each question he punctuates with several concrete examples across the country's history that support his points. Black people have their perceived place in society, he notes, and it cannot be deviated from. "Black boys are not allowed to be victims," he says, recalling someone he knows who was stabbed 10 times. "The black underclass is used as a weapon. Blackness is a class signifier," he continues. That's why there are so many cases of famous black people being stopped and searched – people expect them to come from a very narrow section of society.

Akala speaks to the nation at large, the issues of knife crime and crime rates in general. When 20% of prisons are private facilities, their motivations start to look sinister. In conversation with Heather Parry, the duo get to the core of Britain's rotting heart, the structures of oppression, and where people of colour and of a working class background are being failed. Akala warns not to rest on our laurels, that restriction of freedoms can happen here; it's an incredible, powerful and vital hour. [Heather McDaid]

Yan Lianke: A Master of Chinese Literature
On the last evening of the festival, a hush has fallen over Charlotte Square. Accompanied by a translator, Yan Lianke – who speaks no English – patiently waits as the moderator introduces him before commenting that in Chinese culture, the most important person speaks last at a business meeting. It’s a throwaway joke but there’s truth to it; Yan is one of the most acclaimed writers working today. Literary award nominations include a spot on the Man Booker International Prize shortlist, The Franz Kafka Book Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Man Asian Literary Prize, and the Principe de Asturias Prize for Letters in 2011 and 2017. Yan is truly a contemporary master.

Critics in the West have struggled to analyse Yan’s writing, most generalising his work as being about the Chinese Dream. Yan sets the record straight and is more bemused and frustrated than angry at critics’ inability to see beyond sweeping generalisations. While Yan’s work is blisteringly political and satirical – his latest novel The Day the Sun Died is clearly rooted in a critique of modern China – Yan says that the nightmares of his novels are more about his fears of writing than anything else.

While Yan is often called a master of Chinese literature, he can be more accurately labelled a master of global literature. He’s an international writer who describes his homeland as being everywhere, whether that’s China, the UK, Italy, or Africa.

Censorship is also at the forefront of the discussion. Yan’s writing is banned in China and he jokes that not having a Chinese publisher allows him greater freedom to write. When an audience member asks why his books are censored by the Chinese government, he suggests that he writes beyond the lines of what is deemed artistically appropriate in the country. More seriously he says: “If you won’t publish me, just leave my pen. If I talk to much, just leave me my shoes so I can travel and speak around the world.” [Katie Goh]