Unbound 2016: Welcome from Roland

Each August, Unbound offers 16 nights of free literary shenanigans which push performance to the fore. Roland Gulliver suggests you say hello once more to the improper child of the festival proper

Feature by Alan Bett | 28 Jun 2016

Hmmm, how to describe Unbound? Do we have any poker players out there? Of course we do. Now that doesn’t sound too literary a comparison does it? That twilight pastime where you might win or lose it all with the turn of a card? Well, au contraire. Poker has been pulled onto the pages of everyone from Updike to Faulkner to Fleming. And just think of that magical scene in Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction – a very apt choice of book, because as a second analogy (we have more, lurking), Unbound is the cult novel to the main Book Festival’s classic text; Bukowski to the Festival’s Brontë.

But back to the green baize of the poker table: Edinburgh International Book Festival is quite simply a sure bet. It is literary royalty; a flush. The after-dark corner of Unbound, however, is pushing your chips all-in to bluff on a 2-7 – and winning, of course. It’s impish, unpredictable and more than a little intoxicating.

For those unaware, Unbound is a 16-night run of free literary performances in the Spiegeltent, nestling in the corner of Charlotte Square Gardens, which the Book Festival call home each August. At this party of writers, it is the kitchen where the cool kids hang. The literary punch is agreeably spiked with poetry, performance, illustration, song and sometimes dance.

Roland Gulliver is the parent of Unbound – he devised the first programme in 2010 and still holds the reins – so he is the man who must attempt to explain that the apple has not fallen far from the Book Festival tree, and his unruly child is really just misunderstood. “When I programme Unbound I’m trying to find things that reflect the main programme,” he suggests over wine and a chat, “but present them in an unusual way. So more often it’s around storytelling, it’s around music. It’s around putting together writers and artists in an interesting way.

“One of the themes of the programme is the refugee crisis. Those stories being told are quite scary and sad in terms of how these people are being dehumanised: people are withdrawing and reducing human contact. But the Unbound events look at how we engage as human beings.”

Poetry, Scotland and migration

An example: this year Unbound hosts a night confronting the refugee crisis through poetry – showcasing how powerful the form can be for expressing emotion in relation to the tragedy. Unbound gleefully flips the common argument. We often struggle to understand an issue until we wear the shoes and share the experience.

Scotland of course has a history of migration: ancestors fleeing the Highland clearances reached Canada and founded Winnipeg. So Winnipeg International Writers Festival are coming to discuss their city’s cultural make-up from varying angles and interpretations. “They’ve brought four writers over from Canada to talk about their work and modern Canada,” says Roland. “With their connection to Scotland it’s a really interesting twist on the migration issue.”

Unbound also pulls diverse voices to the fore: ”What I always try and do with Unbound is to fit different languages into the Festival,” he continues, ”so one of the Canadian writers will be reading in Cree and the Pakistani writers (with Highlight Arts Pakistan) will be telling stories in their original language.”

To feel the rhythm of a language can be just as important as interpreting its words. Unbound favourites The Bookshop Band will welcome Han Kang to the stage, to read in Korean, with the band performing songs inspired by the 2016 Booker International Prize winner's novel The Vegetarian.

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More on Unbound 2016:

 From Lewis to Lahore: Highlight Arts Pakistan

 Liz Lochhead: Performing with The Hazey Janes

You see, Unbound might be absolutely free, but it’s far from cheap. On a single night last year, Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James read alongside the newly crowned Bailey’s Prize winner Lisa McInerney and the highly acclaimed novelist Ryan Gattis – just imagine those three voices on stage together, speaking for Galway, Kingston and LA.

Gattis himself provided one of those magical Unbound moments, when he read the first chapter of his devastating LA riots novel All Involved. “That was the moment where you could just feel in the silence that everyone is there, everyone is listening, everyone is captured,” Roland explains. “On one side you have those beautiful and intense moments where everyone is caught in the story, then in contrast you have the moments where people just start having fun and start dancing.”

This may be a loose reference to talents a little more homegrown. Last year, Scottish hip-hop band Hector Bizerk blew the roof off the Spiegeltent while performing for literary rabble rousers Neu! Reekie!. Those enablers of rowdiness once again host a night in 2016 and it would be wise to squeeze into the packed Spiegeltent early. They make magical moments part of their routine.

Unbound challenges the audience: those who might feel literature is not for them. It simultaneously challenges the traditionalists by showing that there is literary value beyond the words on the page. The word 'novel' means to make new, so why not approach storytelling through as many forms as possible? Stories will be drawn out on stage at Unbound, literally, as one evening's hosts will illustrate. “Phoenix Comic is the best comic being written for kids,” Roland exclaims. “It’s storytelling, it’s history, it’s funny, it's quality – there’s no plastic tat toy on the front.”

And of course the Babble On spoken word strand from the main festival programme lets its hair down (even further) for Unbound.“Tongue Fu are on Saturday night. Two years ago we had a boxing ring in there for Babble On’s Page Match night – how are we going to match that?” asks Roland. “Tongue Fu are a jazz-funk band who get people to come and read and perform and sing. It’s going to be upbeat, it’s going to be what you need on a Saturday night.”

Belief in stories

While acts from the main programme do bleed into Unbound, on the Festival’s final night, Unbound itself spills out into Charlotte Square for readings and shenanigans. Vic Galloway is hosting an evening of writers and bands, which will pause politely for the fireworks, then reconvene for further debauchery.

What differentiates Unbound from the multitude of shows on offer in Edinburgh each August? It goes beyond simple entertainment. “You need integrity at the bottom of it,” suggests Roland. “You need the belief in stories and storytelling and books. If you’re trying to find the thing that drives me, it’s for people to discover that books aren’t scary, and that if you can just creep a little bit further you’ll find something which is quite incredible and can change your life.” And did we mention it’s free?

For 16 nights in Edinburgh in August you can experience top level writers and musicians from around the globe having fun, challenging your expectations of them and in this way challenging themselves. “All writers want to be rock stars and all rock stars want to be writers,” is the phrase he coins. You can even have a beer (although you’ll need to pay for that). Returning to Bukowski, he once suggested, “When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.” We’re not encouraging you to bevy particularly, but here you can get drunk on words as much as wine.

The signs at the entrance to Charlotte Square Gardens invite all in. “There are so few free cultural spaces now,” concludes Gulliver. “All the libraries are closing, yet here is a free literary space for you to come and discover.” 

Unbound, 14-29 Aug, Spiegeltent, Charlotte Square Gardens, free