I made it through my first day at The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and what a day it was. Simply put, it was a roller coaster of emotions ranging from the exhilarating to the tiring to the emotional. The energy of the festival is quite extraordinary in itself not only for the unbelievable talent on display with speakers, writers and literary professionals pouring their hearts out, sharing their experiences; genuinely happy, slightly humbled, to be a part of this magnificent literary gathering but also for the palpable energy of the army of organisers and volunteers who were professional, helpful and very very nice.
On a personal level I could not have chosen a more poignant time to attend this festival that runs under the common theme of Metamorphosis. Whoever decided that this was going to be the case deserves a medal for that is exactly what attending this festival, in particular, forces one to do. There is no way but to be affected after listening to the likes of John McCarthy, author of 'You Can't Hide the Sun', talk about compassion, understanding the other, and forgiveness; this from a man who was robbed of five years of his life, held hostage in Beirut, not knowing whether he will be killed or spared. As the likes of Raja Shehadeh, a soft-spoken Palestinian and author of several books, struggling on a daily basis with the indignities of daily life that is forced upon him and his countrymen under Israeli occupation. These two men prove that anger need not only 'metamorphose' to bitterness but that it can be channelled to serve a higher purpose, a greater cause that better serves and builds a resilient, brave and ultimately more humanised existence.
And then there was girl-next-door author Jojo Moyes, best known for her tear-jerker of a book 'Me before You', with her vibrant animated talk about making it back from the brink and sharing the news that only a few hours ago she'd received confirmation that her latest book 'One Plus One' had hit #1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list. She openly discussed how as a writer although you are changing and adapting whether to publisher's demands or needs of the market one has to remain faithful to one's 'true voice', to put onto paper the story 'that is there in the forefront of your mind for no other will work'. Change is inevitable for a writer because audiences change too and she was honest in her account about the miserable days of pre-fame when she struggled to make it into the literary world, succeeding for a while only to be knocked down and then shooting to fame thanks to the Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan's book club. She did offer up a plethora of anecdotes that kept us well entertained and a confession thrown in for good measure about 'missing journalism so much for the first 18 months' that she 'needed counselling'.
Speaking of Judy Finnigan, let me tell you that sitting in on her session 'From Sofa to Author' was my favourite of the day. There is a certain vulnerability to Judy and yet I have always felt that there is a fierceness of character and more strength and determination than she lets on. It was lovely to see her on the podium, briefly emerging from husband Richard's shadow, who was still present in the audience though, and listen to her talk about her novel 'Eloise' that, according to her, was inspired after the death of her very dear friend, Karen Keiting. There was not a dry eye in the house and not a soul unchanged by Judy's narration of the experience that will cement the memory of her friend in the minds of all. Writing the novel was her way to prove 'that good things can come out of the most tragic of events'. But after the tears came laughter as she regaled us with stories about her children who she said jokingly 'never leave do they?' and how becoming a grandmother has brought out the 'tribal' in her. Oh, ever the bookclub enthusiast, she did slip in a recommendation to read Joseph O'Connor's book 'Star of the Sea'. Judy is currently working on a new thriller that takes place on St. George's Island about a woman who loses her son in a sailing accident.
I did sit in for Arabic sessions as well. My favourite was Mohammed Acchaari, winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), for his novel 'The Arch and the Butterfly'. This fantastic, mild-mannered Moroccan author has a lot to say but unfortunately had little time to say it in being part of a panel of three in a one-hour session moderated by IPAF trustee Professor Yasir Suleiman. His views on the current state of Arabic literature are poignant; In my opinion he is a modernist and a reformer and I look forward to more chances where he is a speaker. Present on the panel with him was author Abdo Khal, winner of the 2010 IPAF for his highly controversial novel 'Throwing Sparks' which is now published in English. The panel was also shared with the 2012 IPAF winner, Saud Sanoussi, author of 'Bamboo Shoots' which has yet to be published in English.
So many more sessions to write about, but for fear of making this post too long, I will mention them in brief here and return to commenting on them in posts along the week. Author Alia Mamdouh's session entitled 'A Life in Writing', moderated by Professor Ibrahim Suleiman stood out for me and is one I will definitely return to next week. Charismatic 'Ibrahim Nasrallah', author of 'Time of White Horses', John Boyne, author who wrote 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' discussed his new novel 'Stay Where You Are and then Leave' aimed at young readers shared a lot of insightful details into the life of authors and their struggle to come up with ideas for their books. A Charlie Chaplin die-hard fan, he was highly entertaining to listen to and he offered up some great advice for the young audience attending the session.
So, that's it for the first day folks, tomorrow there is always more.