Tag Archives: literature festival

Ideas of India: The Jaipur Literature Festival at the British Library 2017

When events are successful in one place, it often makes sense to send them travelling so that people in other cities and countries can enjoy them, too. The fourth UK edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, taking place in the Pink City every January and started by writers Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple in 2008, was held for the first time at the British Library, from 20-21 May 2017. I was looking forward to exploring a culture and its literature which I knew very little about before the festival, although India has been on my bucket list for quite some time. The diverse two-day programme with authors from across the globe was made up of 30 tempting sessions for literature lovers and also offered some beautiful Indian live music, including a lively set by amazing Mumbai-based band Kabir Café on Saturday night. I did my very best to attend as many of the events as possible and came home with some great stories and lots of fascinating reading material in my very beautifully designed festival bag.

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The very first event on Saturday morning was a live music session with singer Vidya Shah and poet Arundhati Subramaniam introducing us to some mystical devotional Bhakti poetry in the Piazza tent set up for the festival in the courtyard of the British Library. I stayed on for ‘The Beatles in India’ with Beatles biographer Philip Norman, who had some very entertaining and surprising stories on the band’s time at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh.

Academic Rachel Dwyer’s interview of Bollywood director Karan Johar was predictably popular. Having not been much of a fan of this genre of film before, it definitely made me curious to find out more about its history and place in Indian culture in future. One of my favourite panel discussions on Saturday was ‘Migrant Words’ with writers Amit Chaudhuri, Lila Azaam Zanganeh, Meera Syal and Prajwal Parajuly very ably and humorously chaired by Anita Anand. The panellists shared their thoughts on and issues with identity and home, which all of us not living in the countries we were born in can certainly identify with. One of the most surprising and enlightening events for me was ‘The Genetics of Skin’, which I hadn’t originally had on my to-attend-list. Dr. Sharad Paul talked eloquently about the history of the human skin and skin colour and how it affects our health in a myriad of ways.

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The ‘India Votes’ as well as ‘The Rise and Fall of Mughal Art’ sessions were a great reminder why I love festivals so much as places of informal learning, as I picked up a lot of information about Indian politics and art. While most of the other attendees I spoke to had a connection with India and therefore an obvious reason for being there, there were also other members of the audience who had been brought along by friends or were planning a trip to India in the near future. As far as I’m concerned, festivals which promote a particular culture or country are a great place to do research for your travels as – unlike in most regular guide books – they provide you with up to date information on current events (e.g. recommendations for The Sacred Pushkar Festival and The Ragasthan Festival) and access to lots of knowledgeable people to quiz about your chosen destination.

The second and last festival day was equally busy. The ‘Footloose’ travel session, which was one of my favourites purely because it was such a pleasure to hear some of the top travel writers read from their own work, in this case William Dalrymple, Anthony Sattin, Hugh Thomson, Samanth Subramanian and Monisha Rajesh. A little later, British writer Giles Milton told us the fascinating story of ‘Nathaniel’s Nutmeg’, which highlighted the many issues and quite gruesome conduct during colonial times. Food for thought indeed.

‘Shaping the Novel’ with writers Kunal Basu, Sarvat Hasin, Amit Chaudhuri and Tahmima Anam discussing the art of novel writing with festival director Namita Gokhale and ‘Ideas of India’, a panel discussion with some of the festival authors, were a real treat at the end of this wonderful festival, which was illuminating in so many ways. Most importantly, it has put India on the map for me and I’m not just talking about its vibrant, diverse culture, but the many individual voices I listened to over the weekend, the identities this vast country is shaped by and their hopes for a common humanity, which we can all learn from.

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On a more practical note, all weekend the three festival venues inside the British Library, the large knowledge centre theatre, the Piazza tent and the BL foyer (these events were free to attend, which was good to see given that all events at the original festival are free, too) were brimming with lively energy. I have rarely seen such a smiley – even if naturally extremely busy – festival team. Every single event I’ve been to was very well attended, which suggests that the organisers might look into expanding the venues in the years to come. It would also be lovely to see additional, possibly more interactive events, in order to draw in a younger crowd, too, as well as some Indian food and drink to also get to know the various flavours of Indian cooking.

Quite exhausted from the two-day literature marathon, but very happy to have learned so much about the many different Indias, I am now even more keen to make it to Rajasthan for the original Jaipur Literature Festival, which is the largest free festival of its kind. Those of you based in the USA or heading there later in the year might like to know that the festival will also be travelling to Boulder, Colorado (another place on my ever-growing bucket list) in September 2017. You just can’t escape extraordinary literature!

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Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press pass for the festival.

A Bookish Christmas: The Hay Festival Winter Weekend 2016

Have you ever wanted to go to a place where everything revolves around books, where you can spend a whole weekend browsing tons of second-hand bookshops all without leaving the little town you’re staying in? Then the world’s first ‘book town’, Hay-on-Wye is definitely for you! Since Richard Booth (bookshop pictured below) opened his first bookshop in the little Welsh town near Hereford in the 1960s many other towns from all around the world have followed his example and joined the International Organisation of Book Towns.

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I had been to the ‘big’ book festival in the summer of 2009 once before the year I started the blog and had had an absolutely fabulous time, but had never made it to the winter edition until this year. It was exactly what I needed a month before Christmas: a few days away from it all in a cosy B&B surrounded by books, taking in the beautiful scenery, munching mince pies and sipping mulled wine like it was an Olympic sport AND a book festival on top of all that – genius!

I had arrived in Hay on Friday night just in time for the big Christmas light switch-on with Ben Fogle in the centre of town. There was a little Christmas market in a sizeable tent by the Cheese Market and it was the first time this year I really felt like Christmas isn’t all that far off now. A little later that evening a lot of us gathered for music of a very different kind, the Ben Baddoo Afrobeat Band. It took place in the Castle, which is about to get an exciting makeover (more details below), one large room of which was nicely decorated with holly twigs, a real Christmas tree and a roaring fire in the corner. After a few minutes, the West African beats had everyone shedding their coats and dancing as if we were partying in much more sunny climes.

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Saturday morning started out well with an intriguing talk by Gruffyd Aled Williams about the significance of Owain Glyndwr in Welsh history followed by braving the pretty chilly temperatures on an equally fascinating guided tour of the now obsolete Hay Railway, which was in fact a narrow gauge horse-drawn tramway and was in operation from 1864 to 1962. After having checked out the pop-up stalls of the food festival and warmed up with some spiced apple cake and latte at the Old Stables Tea Rooms in the centre of Hay, it was time for another event, this time in St. Mary’s church. Ben Rawlence talked about his book ‘City of Thorns’, which describes life in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya and we also heard from Yohannes who made it to the UK from Ethiopia via the Libyan desert and Calais. Lots of food for thought about what home means to all of us, especially at this time of the year.

I ended the evening with a lovely carol singalong in Hay Castle with more mulled wine, homemade mince pies and in good company. It was strange being in a small community such as Hay where nearly everyone knows each other and it felt at times almost like gate-crashing some sort of private celebration. I did meet a few others though who had come from further afield, such as London, like myself, Manchester and even Belgium to attend the festival. We all agreed we wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else that weekend.

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My Sunday began with an absolutely fabulous tour of Hay Castle (read up on its history and planned restoration on the Hay Castle Trust website) led by Mari Fforde. I’ve always loved how old houses preserve so much history over the centuries and was glad to see how passionate the local committee is about keeping their local history alive. It was a really dark, cold day, but thankfully the town centre was lit up by many beautiful lights, all the shop windows were lovingly decorated, there was a vintage festival on in town and many mugs of hot beverages waiting to be consumed by thirsty festival goers.

After finally having had enough time to do a really good bookshop crawl (yessss!), I attended my last talk of the weekend, ‘Browse: The World in Bookshops’, with the book’s editor Henry Hitchings who was interviewed by Hay Festival director Peter Florence (see picture below) in the Swan hotel, which was also the official festival HQ. The festival closing event at the Castle was another concert, this time with Australian born, Bristol based singer-songwriter Nuala Honan. Of course, there was more mulled wine and more lively conversation until it was time for the short walk back to my B&B and, alas, bye bye to Hay-on-Wye the following morning.

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Judging by the many sold out events of the weekend, the smaller, more intimate sister of the bigger Hay Festival is definitely a successful addition to the already existing roster of literary events in Hay. For me, it was the perfect booklovers weekend getaway and now I’m looking forward to Christmas even more!

Hay also has a vibrant social media presence, if you’re into that kind of thing. Do check out the below twitter accounts for updates on events, foodie delights and more if you’re planning a visit: @hayfestival @HayHOWLs (to stop the closure of their local library!) @chefonrun @BoothsBookshop @childrnsbkshop @haycastle @HayMarketsLtd @4bruce7 @alanababycorner @marifromvalley @thestoryofbooks @haydoesvintage @broomfieldhse @haycheesemarket @Chris_the_Book @globeathay @Oxfam_at_Hay @thefudgeshop @OtherworldzHay @thefudgeshop and many more.

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A Bookish Weekend Up North: The Manchester Literature Festival 2016

manchester-literature-festival-2016-logoI really love discovering a city through its cultural venues and this October I spent a weekend in Manchester to attend a few of the Manchester Literature Festival events. Running from 7 to 23 October 2016 and in its 11th year, the city-wide festival offered over 80 readings and talks for book lovers. I managed to catch these great events:

An Evening with Jackie Kay Manchester-based writer Jackie Kay, is always a pleasure to listen to. The event at Halle St Peter’s was chaired by Rachel Cooke, who guided the conversation from Jackie’s childhood with her adoptive parents in Glasgow, to her early years as a young poet up to the present time becoming Scotland’s ‘makar’ (poet laureate) in March 2016 and planning a new project based on visiting all the Scottish islands (sounds fascinating!). There is always such an interesting contrast between Jackie’s bubbly, outgoing personality and her thoughtful, melodic poetry, often dealing with some serious subject matter. I was glad I picked up her memoir Red Dust Road, which chronicles the search for her birth parents in Scotland and Nigeria, after the reading. While the book is partly incredibly sad, it is a fascinating, multi-layered read, which is also extremely funny and honest.

Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi This event was held at the Central Library and featured one of Sudan’s best known poets who has been based in the UK since 2012. After a bilingual reading of his poetry in Arabic and English, the writer was interviewed by author Travis Elborough. I’m always interested to learn about cultures I don’t know much about and languages I don’t speak. As a translator, this often reminds me of the language barriers that need to be overcome in order for different cultures to understand each other and poetry is definitely one of the most beautiful ways to accomplish this.

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Shetland with Ann Cleeves When I was visiting Glasgow for Celtic Connections last January someone recommended the TV series Shetland to me. Having never been a fan of crime dramas or novels, I reluctantly gave it a go, but was quickly hooked by it, like so many of us have been. So of course I jumped at the chance to see the author of the Shetland series, Ann Cleeves, in conversation with lead scriptwriter Gaby Chiappe and actor Alison O’Donnell, who plays Tosh in the series. The event (see image above) chaired by broadcaster Erica Wagner provided a fascinating insight into the writing and adaptation process and it was lovely to see how well the collaboration seems to have worked in this case.

As it was my first visit to Manchester I also tried to get a good bit of – mostly literary – sightseeing in over the weekend. Here are some of my highlights:

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Literature-related museums and places: The John Rylands Library is part of the University of Manchester and the historic building dates back to 1824. I was even more impressed with a tour of Chetham’s Library (pictured above) the oldest free public reference library in the United Kingdom, which, together with the renowned school of music, was established as early as 1653. Not specifically literature-related, but well worth a visit is The People’s History Museum. It has some fascinating exhibits and brings the history of working people in Britain to life, right up to the present day. Second hand and comic bookshop Paramount Books, near the Shudehill bus station is a great place for stocking up on reading material about the city and further afield.

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Cosy cafes & pubs (with lots of veggie options): I ate at quite a few places during the weekend, which included The Earth Café (great veggie curry and desserts) in the basement of the Manchester Buddhist Centre. Another favourite was the fairly well hidden Nexus Art Café (cakes, coffee, snacks, see their courtyard above) as well as Common (extremely yummy veggie chili cheese fries). For a coffee or tea break you can’t go wrong with a visit to North Tea Power or Home Sweet Home. On Sunday night I headed to Odd Bar for a few drinks and some (by chance excellent) live Americana with The Wicked Path. I didn’t have enough time to make it to HOME and The Deaf Institute (they apparently do a great vegan hangover all day brunch on Sundays) this time, but did take a look at The Pilcrow Pub (see below), one of Manchester’s newest community ventures, which was largely built by volunteers (how cool is that?!).

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Need some literary inspiration? Try one of these book festivals!

I spent last week in lovely Norfolk where I attended the BCLT summer school at UEA in Norwich, officially the yearly literary translation boot camp, inoffically five days of self-confessed ‘word nerds’ obsessing about commas and speech marks.
One of the many highlights of our workshop week was that six fiction writers from six countries were also in attendance, hurrah. We translated excerpts from their work from Spanish, Japanese, German, Dutch, Norwegian and French into English and hung out with them over dinner and in the pub.
This is also how this non-exhaustive list of book festival recommendations came about. It’s just a tiny taste of the literary landscape of each of the countries, so do add a comment if you have any additional favourites. The good thing is half of them are still coming up later this year and all the websites look pretty tempting to any self-respecting literature festival addict. Enjoy the ‘word-nerdy’ browsing!
France
Festival des Correspondances, Manosque, September
Germany/Switzerland
Heidelberger Literaturtage, Heidelberg, May
Internationales Literaturfestival, Leukerbad, July
Harbour Front Literaturfestival, Hamburg, September
Internationales Literaturfestival, Berlin, September
Japan
Apparently there is a new literature festival in the pipeline for 2013 in collaboration with the Japan Foundation, so watch this space!
Netherlands
Crossing Border Literature & Music, Den Haag/Enschede/Antwerpen, November
Norway
Norsk Litteraturfestival, Lillehammer, May/June
Hamsungdagene, Hamarøy, July/August
Spain
Hay Festival, Segovia, September