Edinburgh International Book Festival: Week two recap

As the Edinburgh International Book Festival draws to a close for 2021, we recap a handful of highlights from their second week of hybrid literary entertainment

Feature by Heather McDaid | 31 Aug 2021
  • Edinburgh Book Festival

Carmen Maria Machado: The Language of Violence

In the Dream House is a memoir like no other,” begins chair Paula Akpan. Carmen Maria Machado documents her experience of abuse within a queer relationship; the writing is “beautifully poetic while telling a very painful story”.

Across the hour the duo explore Machado’s work in many forms, from initial conception – where she was told that she was still in the middle of things and wasn’t ready to write about this in the way she thought – to the cross-genre approach that clicked into place when teaching. When talking about genre vs. actively thinking about it, she went “Huh." She was thinking about genre as a mode of interrogation.

That mode of interrogation allowed Machado to create a memoir about domestic violence in a queer relationship – something rare in itself, but even rarer in this distinctive form that spans creative genres and styles. The notion of archiving also became crucial; why are there stories simply not told? Why are they hard to find, when you dig through history for stories that absolutely must exist? It’s notions of value, of gatekeeping and destruction – queer and trans archives have been burned through history.

Through the written voice, to the language that lesbians face surrounding abuse, to the power dynamics at play and the ideal landscape (cabin in the middle of the woods, for the record), it’s an exceptional event for an exceptional book. 

Hysteria: A Post-Apocalyptic Cabaret

Turns out the post-apocalypse can be disrupted by the fateful ping. Mae and Hanna, founders of Hysteria – the Aberdeen-based arts collective platforming women, non-binary and otherwise gender-marginalised – put together a blinder of a cabaret, but had to watch from home. Poet Sarah Grant stepped up to dual hosting duties, walking attendees through the post-apocalypse with finesse.

"So amazing and so scary to be in a room full of actual people," began Grant, but it’s a welcome change. Molly McLachlan opens the eve with a masterful blending of burlesque and spoken word, navigating a rejection of that shame and a future where no one is made to feel ashamed about who they are. Seimi, a radical singer-songwriter weaving tales of resistance and freedom, begins with a calming rendition of The Times They Are A-Changin’, and ends in an energetic delight. Sofia Sirén is a powerhouse – “Being sorry is no way to start a poem” – and revels in defiance of expectation, and celebration of the meadows they choose to roam in, where musician Jamie McCormick delivers an enchanting acoustic offering.

“You don’t have to be in a room together to be a collective,” Sarah Grant says, and here you feel it. Even watching from home, in the comfort of pyjamas, Hysteria’s Post-Apocalyptic Cabaret captures what we’ve sorely been missing these last 18 months – the real magic of live shows, with resistance and acceptance at the core. 

Michael Pedersen presents Good Grief!

We’ve all experienced grief in some form, particularly this last while – loss of someone close, of opportunity, money, time, something difficult to articulate. Here, grief comes ‘glittered, gritty and gutsy’ – a celebration.

It starts, as it will end, in music. Rachel Sermanni tops and tails the event in soulful acoustic tones, a soothing welcome and send-off befitting the occasion. Betwixt these bookmarks, Pedersen chats to all his guests about their own relationship to grief, handing over the spotlight for performances to explore it.

“One of the amazing things about grief is it creates a togetherness, in a visceral otherworldly way,” explains Gemma Cairney. There’s a vibrancy, something explored in her lesson plan of sorts in grieving. Michael Mullen didn’t want to focus on the being here then being gone, but instead exploring the moment between grieving someone and the memory of them in poems, liking to think about it as a constant process of when you lose someone that’s close to you.

E.A. Hanks takes the audience to Texas, and a dive into her book which blends grief and travel. In discovering her mother’s journal which outlines witnessing a horrible crime when younger, it becomes an exploration of not the elephant in the room, but the ghost. Hollie McNish explores loss in a digital realm – the passing of a grandparent when having to witness the funeral on a livestream. While her work explores the complexity within that – ‘Chasing ceremony’ – the surrounding conversation shows the light and humour we can find in these tougher moments, and the accidental funeral-crashing happening when they’re streamed back-to-back on Zoom.

Grief is complex. It’s often dark and consuming, but here it can be healing, it can be joyful, and – for this night, at least – it was a lightness that we have often lacked in this 'great still'. There’s heart and humour to be had in loss, and this event buoys the heaviest of hearts. 

Douglas Stuart with Nicola Sturgeon: Welcome Home, Shuggie Bain

Last time Douglas Stuart was in Scotland, Christmas 2019, he hadn’t yet published his debut novel. Now as he returns for his first UK event, chaired by the First Minister, he’s not only published Shuggie Bain, he’s won the Booker Prize for it. “My body sat there, my mind left the building,” he jokes, on finding out.

Based on his own upbringing by a loving mother devastated by addiction, the novel recounts the challenges of being a Glasgow boy who is working-class and gay. “I write about it from the inside,” he says on the big themes of poverty, addiction, queerness and otherness, but it’s not autobiographical – the characters rushed in to showcase the complexity truly.

For an acclaimed debut, it took a lot of rejection, and he did lose faith a lot in the process. But writing the book was about personal expression and the story itself; there was a freedom and catharsis for Stuart. Men from the west coast of Scotland aren’t really meant to talk about feelings or express themselves, he notes: “Art and literature allowed me to do that.”

“There’s a lot of dignity in details,” he continues. “When you’re talking about ugly things you can make them beautiful.” His themes reach beyond Scotland – at its heart it's a human story. Agnes doesn’t have the language to say ‘I see you’ to Shuggie; but she knows him, she’s teaching him to have strength. It’s a love story – on new love, familial love, self-love.

“Writing Shuggie asked me a question,” explains Stuart, on what we did to young working-class men, what we expect of them, how we hurt them. He couldn’t answer that in his debut, and so he went away to write his next novel Young Mungo, looking at two teenage boys growing up in the east end of Glasgow, thinking about masculinity in that way.

An hour that really dives deep into the world of Shuggie Bain and the author, there’s little more an audience could want. We delve into the pages, the challenging of stigmas around addiction, the isolation of suffering, the feeling that you can’t speak out, the joy of connection with readers, the connection to Scotland. The hidden stories are powerful. With a world exclusive reading of Young Mungo as a cherry on top, it’s quite the finish to the festival. 

The Edinburgh International Book Festival programme is streamable on a pay-what-you-can basis via edbookfest.co.uk