Virtual Book Festival: Spreading the Word and Giving Voice: The Power of a Good Book Festival #VirtBookFest @NayrouzQarmout @valmcdermid @iamkp @edbookfest

The integrity and courage of the Edinburgh International Book Festival

I reckoned it might be a good idea for me to do an event of my own here at the Virtual Book Festival. And I also reckoned it would be good to base my post on why I was inspired to organise this festival in the first place. But over and above that I also wanted to highlight a real world book festival that continues to get it right and achieve great book-related things.

Book festivals should be about books

I was prompted to run my own virtual book festival here at Put it in Writing after being very disappointed by the line up at a local book festival this year – a festival that has in the past had an appealing line up of authors, but that now seems to have lost sight of what I see as a book festival’s purpose i.e. to be about books. This local festival had no authors of genre fiction (apart from a couple of children’s authors) on the programme which was made up primarily of television stars, presenters and other celebrities, several of whom hadn’t even written a book.

So I must say I had a bit of trouble getting my head round a book festival that wasn’t mainly about books and didn’t seem to want to attract book readers to attend. Hence my attempt to do better on the blog.

However, I’m happy to say my faith in the book festivals of the real world was restored when I saw the programme for this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival which will be taking place as usual in August. Yes, it has its fair share of famous names and and literary big-hitters and that’s understandable, but it also (despite some criticism) has genre fiction writers too. It offers writing masterclasses for aspiring writers, and it has smaller events with lesser-known authors too. It even has some events where those attending are asked to pay what they can afford rather than a set ticket price.

In other words it’s about BOOKS, WRITERS and READERS coming together, and it hasn’t lost sight of the fact that books and the power of the written word should be at its heart.

And by way of illustrating this fact I thought I’d recap on an event I attended last year especially as one of the authors from that event is back again this year and I have my ticket for her event already.

2018 Edinburgh International Book Festival Event

Nayrouz Qarmout is a young Palestinian writer from *Gaza. Her original event at last year’s festival had to be cancelled after the UK Home Office refused her the visa she needed in order to attend. After the ensuing outcry a visa was eventually granted and a new event was hastily organised.

It speaks volumes that the new event, although announced only two days before it was due to happen, was a sell out. The aim of the event was to give often otherwise unheard writers a voice and it was chaired by writer, Kamila Shamsie.

Besides Nayrouz Qarmout there were two other female writers taking part.

One was Brazilian philosopher and writer, Djamila Ribereiro, who said that one of her aims as a writer was to normalise not exoticise ‘the other’ and she shared with us how at the airport in Brazil on her way to Edinburgh she was spoken to in English – as it was assumed a black Brazilian woman couldn’t possibly be travelling abroad.

And the other was Hsaio Hung Pai a Taiwanese journalist who works on the Guardian newspaper and has written about the difficulties faced by migrant workers to the UK.

Both of the other writers were impressive but it was Nayrouz who left a lasting impression on me. She told us she was a writer had so far had only one short story about life in the Gaza strip published in a 2014 anthology called the Book of Gaza and that she was working on a book of short stories – The Sea Cloak & Other Stories due to be published in 2019. Yet here she was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

She told us she’d been born in a Syria to Palestinian refugee parents, but then as part of the Oslo Israeli-Palestine Peace Agreement in 1994 her family were sent ‘back’ to Gaza. She hadn’t been allowed to leave since. She spoke of her battle to get to Edinburgh, of the weeks it took to get a passport, then permission to travel, then eventually setting off, crossing into Egypt where she spent a horrendous night before getting to Cairo for her flight to the UK.

Nayrouz spoke with grace, humility and humour. She said she had no intention of seeking asylum – she has had enough of being a refugee. She said she was in Edinburgh to share her story – although this didn’t prove enough of a reason to meet the terms of a UK visitor’s visa. She spoke realistically about Gaza but described it as home. She didn’t get into the challenges posed by Gaza’s fractious and sometimes deadly relationship with Israel other than to highlight the practical difficulties that result for daily life.  She acknowledged the peace movement in Palestine is conflicted with the two religious/political sides of Hamas and Fatah. But she made a point of adding that most people there are, as elsewhere, ordinary people. They’re neither peace activists nor terrorists as they’re so often portrayed in the media. Most people just want to live their lives in a place they call home – as we all do.

It was both a humbling and impressive experience to listen to this writer. I also regard it as a privilege to have been able to there.

2019 Event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

So, I was happy to see that this year Nayrouz Qarmout will be back to speak at a book festival event on 12th August this year. She will be taking part along with fellow writers in a discussion of personal stories relating to the experiences of migrants and refugees – something she also writes about in her new book.

Not only that but the other writers at the event are two  of my favourite authors – Val McDermid and Ali Smith – and they’ll be joined by one of my favourite musicians, Karine Polwart as well. Safe to say, I wasted no time in getting my ticket.

Here’s what it says in the festival programme about the event:

HOME FOR MIGRANTS AND REFUGEES?

‘Hordes’, ‘swarms’ and ‘invasion’ – words used in recent headlines to dehumanise migrants. Guest Selector Val McDermid explores stories of individuals and families who’ve faced the decision to leave their homeland. Nayrouz Qarmout talks of her birth in a Damascus refugee camp and her subsequent move to Gaza; Ali Smith discusses those she encountered in her work on the Refugee Tales project; and singer-songwriter Karine Polwart shares some of her powerful, deeply-felt music and ideas about the migrant experience.

 (Click here to go to the event page on Edinburgh Book Festival website).

THANK YOU!

So, thank you Edinburgh International Book Festival – for having the integrity and the courage to go for an event like this, for keeping the power of the written word and of books at the heart of what you do and for bringing writers like Nayrouz Qarmout to the attention of your book-loving audience.

 

More about Nayrouz and her writing from her publisher, Comma Press’s, website:

Nayrouz Qarmout is a Palestinian writer and activist. Born in Damascus in 1984, as a Palestinian refugee, she returned to the Gaza Strip, as part of the 1994 Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement, where she now lives. She graduated from al-Azhar University in Gaza with a degree in Economics. She currently works in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, raising awareness of gender issues and promoting the political and economic role of women in policy and law, as well as the defence of women from abuse, and highlighting the role of women’s issues in the media. Her political, social and literary articles have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, and online. She has also written screenplays for several short films dealing with women’s rights. She is a social activist and a member of several youth initiatives, campaigning for social change in Palestine.

PUBLICATIONS BY NAYROUZ QARMOUT

The Sea Cloak – To be published on 22 August 2019 

A collection of stories from an exciting female Palestinian writer, translated from Arabic into English for the first time. The Sea Cloak is a collection of 14 stories by the author, journalist, and women’s rights campaigner, Nayrouz Qarmout. Drawing from her own experiences growing up in a Syrian refugee camp, as well as her current life in Gaza, these stories stitch together a patchwork of different perspectives into what it means to be a woman in Palestine today.

Whether following the daily struggles of orphaned children fighting to survive in the rubble of recent bombardments, or mapping the complex, cultural tensions between different generations of refugees in wider Gazan society, these stories offer rare insights into one of the most talked about, but least understood cities in the Middle East. Taken together, the collection affords us a local perspective on a global story, and it does so thanks to a cast of (predominantly female) characters whose vantage point is rooted, firmly, in that most cherished of things, the home.

 

ANTHOLOGY FEATURING NAYROUZ QARMOUT

The Book of Gaza

This anthology brings together some of the pioneers of the Gazan short story from that era, as well as younger exponents of the form, with ten stories that offer glimpses of life in the Strip that go beyond the global media headlines.

 

*Gaza is a self-governing territory of the Palestinian state. It is bordered by Egypt and Israel and life there is far from easy and has many restrictions. To find out more see Wikipedia here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaza_Strip

 

And Finally:

Do you agree that book festivals should be about books, readers and writers? Which book festivals do you enjoy and why? Please feel free to leave comments below.

Virtual Book Festival: Event 7 – a feature on storytelling by writer Trish Nicholson @TrishaNicholson #VirtBookFest #books #stories

Hello and welcome to the seventh event in the Virtual Book Festival. Today’s guest is writer Trish Nicholson. Trish has travelled the world for work and pleasure and as well as working as a social anthropologist she also writes narrative non-fiction and short stories. For her event here today she has written a fascinating article on the importance of stories to all of us as human beings – on where they come from and why they are important for our survival. Much of what she says is particularly topical today. So without further ado, I’d like to welcome Trish to the festival and hand over to her.

Stories and the Art of Living by Trish Nicholson

Where do stories come from? Why have some stories stayed with us for thousands of years?

We’ve been asking questions since we possessed language to speak. From how to fulfil basic needs for food and safety, to a deeper curiosity: the ‘why’ of all things. And the question beloved equally by scientists and storytellers: What if? Both search for meaning in better stories.

Each of us in our own way longs for meaning, for resolution to our inner conflicts and those that surround us, for a pathway to the art of living, and for hope. We strive to achieve these through our inner narrative fed by the stories of others: “Each of us … constructs and lives a ‘narrative’ and is defined by this narrative.” (Oliver Sacks) We are all storytellers.

Sharing stories is what defines us as human beings. In the first light of their humanity, our ancient forebears created names for things and for each other, so they could think and talk about them.  Objects, places and persons once named acquire a relationship to us, a character, a past, a present and a possible future – they begin to inhabit their own story. Storytelling shared this knowledge in ways that it would be remembered and passed on through generations.

Vital to the survival of early humans was recognition of their dependence on the natural environment: the elements that offered succour even as they threatened; the challenging landscapes through which they travelled; the plants and animals they foraged and hunted. In ancient tales of Indigenous peoples, animals play important roles: the Sanema-Yanomami peoples of Venezuela were given fire by the humming bird, who darted into the mouth of the fearsome caiman to capture burning embers and place them in the sacred Puloi tree – whose twigs the Sanema-Yanomami rub together to make a fire spark.

Storytellers passed on accumulated knowledge that encouraged early hunters and gatherers to co-operate with each other; those who did flourished despite the hardships and trials of raw nature. These stories contained the wisdom for survival – an understanding that most of us have lost along with the words but now desperately need.

Accounts of great floods are among the oldest stories and they may be universal. This would not be surprising since the geological record supports widespread flooding in earth’s recent history from receding ice sheets, or from massive volcanic action that disrupted the landscape of an entire continent. Australian Aboriginal stories of inundations have been traced back to rising sea levels 10,000 years ago. In Indonesia, the Moken, the Sea People of Aceh, held on to their myth of the ‘seventh wave’; the wisdom it held saved their lives and enabled them to rescue others during the terrible tsunami on Christmas Day in 2004.

But stories, myths, epics, fairytales and legends have multiple roles. A seemingly simple tale is multi-layered, multi-dimensional. Stories define our identity; establish a past and the hope of a future; provide models of behaviour through the actions of their heroes, heroines and villains; reassure us of our humanity; inform and expand our inner lives, our emotions and empathy; and, of course, they must enthral and entertain to ensure their own survival.

In other ancient Indigenous stories the characteristics of specific animals – brave, skittish, cunning, clever, dangerous – are related to human behaviour, encouraged or cautioned against as the plots unfold. Our inheritance is the ‘beast fable’ found in most cultures. We are, perhaps, more familiar with Aesop’s fables, but his inspiration marked a high point in a tradition reaching back millennia and still existing in various forms throughout the world. As a source of essential truths, their appeal touched all levels of society: Socrates enlivened his time in confinement by creating verse forms of the fables he remembered.

And practically every culture tells a migration story. It may be expressed in the movement of heavenly bodies; the arrival of strangers who brought some precious benefit; the wanderings of adventurous individuals; or in a tribe’s search for new lands. In a Celtic myth describing the peopling of Ireland (in Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Book of Conquests), families of Nemeds landed on the western shore after migrating from Scythia – around the Caspian Sea in the centre of Eurasia – a history that genome research has since proven to have taken place around 3,000 BCE.

 Norse mythology recalls the long journey of Odin and his family, also from the Caspian, sailing north up the Volga River – the same route along which Vikings later traded and raided in the opposite direction. Māori culture, too, is rich in tales of exploration in their peopling of the Pacific. We are a migratory species. A moment’s reflection will reveal how often journeys, real and metaphorical, flow in and out of our favourite stories,

Interwoven through all of these ancient tales are stories of coming of age, of opportunity, bravery and cowardice, of risks and riches, of growing old, of battles won and lost, and of love. Oral storytellers still enrich our tales with their unique voices and gestures, enchanting each audience anew.

But whether stories in all their immense variety are told orally, in texts, on stage, or on screen, and however old or new they are, they all have a common core: conflict. Challenges faced or failed, and the transformations that result. Struggle is the human condition.

Apart from the struggle for survival between the bounties and threats of our natural environment, the greatest source of conflict has always been that between ourselves and others because we are social beings: conflict between the needs of the individual and the group; competition between and within generations, not only for resources but for recognition, power, love; opposing forces of different groups; and the inner conflicts of each of us balancing sometimes incompatible desires. Through stories we live many lives, inhabit new places. Such is the power of story.

Beginning writers are often advised that ‘where there is no conflict there is no story.’ Tension must be felt and ultimately resolved. Of all the multiple roles that stories perform, the recognition and resolution of conflict is arguably the most significant to us and to the nourishment of our inner narrative.

Although the implications of conflict may have been different for our ancient ancestors – expulsion of a person from their foraging group, for example, was virtually a death sentence – we still face those same sources of conflict. The same act of ‘naming’ allows us to think and speak of our darkest fears, to address the unknown and the unknowable.

As humans, our needs are complex, our desires even more so. We still need stories to provide meaning, resolution and hope. That is why elements of so many ancient tales are still with us in some form after thousands of years. Today’s stories bear the ‘genes’ of all our stories past. Chinua Achebe understood this, “The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.”

It may not be true that ‘everyone has a book in them’, but each of us has our own story to tell, to share, to add to the pool of human wisdom upon which we draw to learn the art of living. Our future survival depends on it.

Anne: Wow! Thank you, Trish. I certainly learned things I didn’t know before from reading your article. It’s clear from what you say above that stories are about so much more than just our entertainment. They pass on not only our history, but also important warnings and advice and they get us to see how vital the connections that stories highlight and share things that remain are vital for our survival as a species. And I loved that practically every culture has a migration story – something we should all be aware of in these sometimes difficult times.

Trish has written several books ( see below) but the one that relates particularly to her article is the wonderful A Biography of Story – A Brief History of Humanity which is available here in paperback and hardback from The Book Depository (free freight worldwide) and we have an extract from it below:

From the backcover:

A Biography of Story, a Brief History of Humanity  is our own human epic, thoroughly researched and referenced and told with the imaginative flair of an accomplished storyteller.

In this highly original take on the power of stories past and present, Trish Nicholson brings us a unique interweaving of literature and history seen through the eyes of storytellers. From tales of the Bedouin, to Homer, Aesop and Valmiki, and from Celtic bards and Icelandic skalds to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Scott and Chekhov, some of the many storytellers featured may be familiar to you; others from Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific may be fresh discoveries.

Beginning with oral tales of our foraging ancestors, the emergence of writing, the great migrations, the age of exploration and the invention of printing through to the industrial revolution and the digital age, Nicholson brings us voices from all over the world to reveals their story-power in the comedy and tragedy of human affairs. And what of Story’s future…?

Intro to extract from Trish:

When we discover the ancient storytelling heritage that gave rise to these tales, we better appreciate their enormous popularity in the East and later in the West, which still continues. Though not intended as children’s stories, for many, Christmas is incomplete without Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin’s magic lamp, or Ali Baba with his gang of forty thieves transported, as if by a mischievous jinni, from the medieval caravans and caravels of Arabia onto the stage of the local Palladium. Our journey is a long one, starting with those caravans raising dust along the Silk Road.

The extract is from Chapter Six – 1001 Days and as Many Knights –

The power of Scheherazade’s storytelling saves her life. The characters, too, often gain redemption through telling their own stories. Even Schahriar, the sultan who holds Scheherazade’s life in the balance each day, is freed from his self-defeating obsession against women by listening to her stories.

On the ‘one hundred and twenty third night’, Scheherazade begins the humorous tale of little Hunchback, the favourite buffoon or court-jester and storyteller of the sultan of Casgar.

Hunchback’s sudden and mysterious death implicates the tailor, a Jewish doctor, a Mussulman (Muslim), and a Christian merchant, each of whom believes he inadvertently caused the death, and secretly offloads the corpse to the unsuspecting other. The sultan, fond of his little jester and eager to whip off the head of his murderer, is so enthralled by the extraordinary account from each of the ‘accused’ that he exonerates them. But the story is extended for sixty-two nights by frames within frames, as a barber and each of his six brothers take up aspects of the event and continue convoluted tales of their own. This is all deemed to take place around the corpse of the unfortunate Hunchback. Eventually, the ancient barber rubs vigorously at Hunchback’s neck with a special balm and he is revived, coughing up a fish bone that had lodged in his throat as a consequence of arriving at the tailor’s house drunk and accepting the hospitality of a fish dinner – Arabian audiences of the Middle Ages preferred happy endings to their tales of uncertain fortune and rolling heads.

And so, Scheherazade’s life is saved for another day, but in the outer frame of the stories we learn that her storytelling arises from a far more heroic motive than self-preservation in a tight spot. We are told in the prologue that she was renowned not only for her beauty and virtue, but also as a scholar of philosophy and literature and one of the best poets of her day. Being the eldest daughter of the sultan’s grand vizier and chief administrator, Scheherazade was aware of the disaster that had befallen the kingdom, leading its citizens to despair.

 

About Trish

Trish Nicholson, narrative non-fiction and short-story author, former columnist and features writer and a social anthropologist, has travelled and worked worldwide. Born in the Isle of Man, she describes herself as half Celt, half Viking and blames both for her passionate love of stories. Her recent books include: Passionate Travellers:Around the World on 21 Incredible Journeys in HistoryA Biography of Story, a Brief History of Humanity; Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea JournalsJourney in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon; and Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the complete guide to becoming an author. Trish lives in New Zealand.

Link to website here:

Link to Trish on Twitter: @TrishaNicholson

 

 

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