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Hay Festival 2016: Sunday

A photograph of Marlon James

My last day started on the previous evening’s intended end note: Marlon James had not been well and his conversation with Martha Kearney was rescheduled for the morning. Happily, he was okay to go ahead.

Was he surprised to be invited to Hay? James said he’d always imagined himself in Welsh used book stores, his books on shelves, rather than himself on stage.

The book that came into his head was not the one that has been published, so to speak. James wrote in a stream of conciousness. He wrote a 7 page sentence. The first part he wrote appears on page 456. He had to write freely – the editor could take it out later. This book was supposed to be his shortest but he realised that couldn’t be so; he kept failing when he tried to finish it 50 pages in. Then a friend suggested that maybe it was more than one person’s story. The first publisher asked him to write it in ‘Jane Austen English’. They aren’t friends any more…

James said that Bob Marley was a controversial figure. His hair, for instance, differed from the norm. For the voice of the country’s struggles to be Rastafarian was not cool, and Marley was half white. For a while, the Marley the writer saw was the one of news reports; it was James’ only experience of him. He wanted that Marley in his book, the one from the television. He didn’t want to try to ‘get close to the physical person”.

“I really believe in complicating characters, don’t believe you should make it easy for the reader.” James would get coffee with his bad guys. They’re the characters he’s most interested in. “A violent act in a novel should have the same impact as violence in real life… I’d rather have a few scenes that resonate than 40 that make you turn numb.”

James got hooked on Shakespeare. The language, the ‘epicness’, how vulgar it all is. He can’t decide if his own generation is the last of an era or the first. He had a literary education – Dickens, Twain. “You like [Twain] in spite of what they do.” We have this idea that readers read to escape, but reading is where we confront things,” he said. He gave an example: he didn’t enjoy reading Portrait Of A Lady but nonetheless he’s read it 3 times.

In regards to his coming out, James spoke of the prayers, support, and shaming. One is supposed to get rid of demons. He didn’t know what the bin bags in his room were for until he started vomiting. Speaking of his gaining self-acceptance he said getting rid of the sin and sex parts didn’t work so he thought he’d try getting rid of the church part, which did work. He left the church after his book was published.

James is interested in Ancient Greek tragedy, especially the chorus aspect. He re-reads Greek plays before he writes his books and said the playwrights were the only ones to get human nature. (I think this makes a good opposing point to the ones about Shakespeare in my previous Hay post.)

Of The Book Of Night Women, James said Lilith (the main character) was never meant to take over, he fought with her the whole time. “That damn woman took over the whole book… I grudgingly handed it over to her.”

Of writing and description he had this to say: A sunset doesn’t need help, it’s amazing on its own – just say ‘sunset’, there’s no need for a metaphor. By and large people can’t be compared to a summer’s day. And Jamaica is not any one thing. One novel can’t be the voice of Jamaica.

James’ next book is going to be an ‘African Game Of Thrones’ – he’s writing something mystical set in the year 1000.

A photograph of George Alagiah and Lionel Shriver

Next up was Lionel Shriver talking to George Alagiah. Alagiah introduced the session, stating that what Shriver does is take regular subjects and turn them into compelling novels. And he said something Shriver has said in the past, that when we talk about a novel set in the future, we’re really thinking about the present. He asked Shriver now if the future is something to worry about.

Shriver: “Americans have a lot more to worry about right now.” Later she said that Donald Trump would never work on the page, that he’d sound farcical.

If you look at the history of dystopian novels, they’re all set in cities, Shriver said. The breakdown of society and life is quicker there. Once electricity fails, all bets are off. It makes no sense. She doesn’t want society to fall so quickly in her books because there would be no story. She advises people to skip the sections of her books they don’t like, finding no problem in it. There are a lot of little details in her newest book, The Mandibles, that “you’ll either pick up on or you won’t”. One of the characters has a name that’s an anagram of her own: “I did insert myself quite deliberately into this book.” Shriver believes surveillance will end up being about money rather than what people are thinking.

Shriver said that healthcare in later life often lengthens death rather than life, that in trying to save people from dying when they are heading that way, it can cause more pain. (Though she wasn’t advocating death – I want to make that clear because it can sound that way.) She’s blunt. Alagiah noted that she’d said no topics were off limits. One of those topics? The NHS. On the topic of whether parenthood is a right, she said that for the working of the health system to continue, they need to bring their work to curing disease and disability, not dissatisfaction.

Shriver’s childfree – she decided not to have children at 8 years old, watching her parents clearing up sick, going shopping. She thought then that there was more time to have fun if one didn’t have kids. “I didn’t want to invite into my house someone who would throw a toy truck at my head.” Her deciding not to have children is connected to her lack of faith in the future. Of the future and age she said older people become worried about the future and apocalyptic possibilities because they’re mixing worry for the future with their own mortality. (She didn’t take herself out of that statement.) When she writes about older people she’s writing about herself, her generation.

She shies from talking about racial issues in her books because she doesn’t feel they belong to her. It isn’t her right to talk about them.

A photograph of Howard Jacobson

Next up was Howard Jacobson talking to John Mullan. I’ve never read Jacobson’s books but heard his name many times and thought it might be interesting. It was here I first found out Benedict Cumberbatch was at Hay, as Mullan thanked us for joining their talk rather than the actor’s performance. (I understandably stuck to the literary categories when choosing which events to go to.)

Mullan spoke of the commentary in Jacobson’s books. Jacobson: “Don’t say it’s a book of criticism, I want them to buy it!” He introduced his newest book, Shylock Is My Name, and an audience member shouted out, “we knew that!”. The introduction set the tone of the rest of the event – there was much laughter. Jacobson did manage to say that his newest book is a ‘Porsche kind of book’. It’s based on The Merchant Of Venice and from what I could ascertain is one of a series – Jeanette Winterson wrote the first.

Mullan asked if there’s a relationship between the sadness in the novel and Shakespeare’s play. In the play they all hang around talking about sadness, Jacobson said. A world of indulgence – we don’t do this in reality. “This is a play where Shakespeare isn’t in the mood… so I’ll do it for him.” Jacobson hopes that if Shakespeare were to read his book, he’d say, ‘hey, you saw the comedy in it!’ When he thought about writing about the play he saw it was fantastic. He admired the sadness and wanted to look at the bigotry. “I’m free to steal a plot from Shakespeare because he stole every story he wrote… Everything from European literature is there to take.” He wanted to call the book The Wilderness Of Monkeys but his publisher said shops would put it in the Natural History section. He said that we say we like a book so much we can’t put it down but if we like it really we can. He wants that point on a cover – ‘so good, I put it down!’

“It was a great pleasure to invent a [medieval] anti-Semitism! […] The only likeable person in Shakespeare is Hamlet, and he’s horrible too!” Jacobson said he could write a million pages on the following line from Macbeth: ‘there would’ve been a time when that was the word’. In his novel, Jessica gets the last line as she’s his choice of heroine from the play.

“The language in Shakespeare is everything for me… If you put a line of Shakespeare into your own, your sentence becomes a lot better.”

A photograph of George Alagiah and Tahmima Anam

Back to George Alagiah – this time with Tahmima Anam.

Alagiah introduced Anam, saying she’s put Bangladesh on the map. Anam said she’s never wanted the reader to feel they’re getting a history lesson but nevertheless wants to talk about the country and the war. She was interested in how ordinary people find war, interested in the everyday life of it. She grew up on stories of the wars her parents were in, wishing she’d been there, too, because whilst it was a bad time she didn’t own that history herself, she’d just inherited it and wanted to know more than she did. It’s got to be done right, however – Anam drew comparisons with music, saying that if you have an album cover of a starving children, for example, you have a responsibility to that place, to those people. She wanted to debate what happened in the past but to be involved. “My relationship to the country has changed… as a result of my books.” She tried to be an academic but found being faithful to facts too difficult. “The ability to imagine the past was the thing I was going to try to do.”

In regards to her newest novel, The Bones Of Grace, she said she used a whale, a fossil, as a symbol of her main character’s journey to finding herself. She got the idea to have an adopted character from her sister’s childhood pretence that she, the sister, was adopted. Her parents still don’t know that… (I think they will now!) Of her character’s travelling and her own times in other countries (Anam has lived in America and France and now resides in London) she said you can be in a place and still feel disconnected – when you’re not rooted in a place, you have to accept living with discomfort… when in one place you feel as though you should be somewhere else.

“I think arranged marriages do work for some people… Tinder is an arranged marriage.” Anam wanted the hero of her book to be very different to the heroine because we often fall in love with opposites – a bit like arranged marriages, where people can be different. Love forces her heroine to ask questions she couldn’t ask before. She chose to write the book in the form of a letter from the heroine to the hero because she’d written a novel in the first person before and wondered, ‘why do we care about what the character is doing?’ When she realised why, it gave the novel a shape and purpose.

Anam spoke of having information about the conflicts in Bangladesh but of how she wrote about things she didn’t know how to deal with. She had people say, “you wrote your book in English, aren’t you shamed of yourself?” She called the genocide a ‘golden age’ (she used that as the title of one of her books) because people look back on the time with nostalgia – they made a country, changed the world in that way. Many fell in love at that time because the barriers between men and women were broken. People she interviewed said things we’d find clichéd but they said them in earnest. She feels the war still plays a part in people’s imaginations.

Why do we have to have a war to bring out the best in us? Alagiah said.

Here’s a bonus photograph: Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Season Of Crimson Blossoms), H J Golakai, and Georgina Godwin.

A photograph of Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, H J Golakai, and Georgina Godwin

My last event was Salman Rushdie, Kamila Shamsie, Valeria Luiselli, and Juan Gabriel Vasquez, with Daniel Hahn, talking about Shakespeare and Cervantes. (The authors have contributed to the collection Marcos Girault Torrente, Yuri Herrera, and Ben Okri had spoken about the day before.

Luiselli said her teacher made her class passionate about Shakespeare. The author was thankful for the need to memorise texts because it influenced her later life. She can still recite sections today. Rushdie’s first experience of Shakespeare was down to a travelling theatre company. He saw Geoffrey Kendal in India, so for him it was stage first, page later. Shamsie was 9 years old when the language of Shakespeare ‘occurred’ to her. She decided to do something about Shakespeare at school and memorised him; she loved the way the plays sounded. Here Rushdie noted that at the last few literary events he’d been to, writers were always pointing out the importance of memorising the texts when they were children. On the lack of memorising in schools today, Gabriel Vasquez said there’s a conflict between memorising and thinking.

“Great writers… open the doors in your head,” Rushdie said. Shakespeare puts lots of difference stuff together; his actions have allowed us to do similar ourselves. Is that what we mean when we talk of influence? said Hahn, that it’s okay to mix things? Gabriel Vasquez said that when we say Cervantes invented the novel what we mean is that he created a place where books can be cannibalised and used.

A photograph of Daniel Hahn, Kamila Shamsie, Salman Rushdie, Valeria Luiselli, and Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Shakespeare’s influence is so deep, said Shamsie, that we no longer say someone is inspired by him. Hahn replied that it’s impossible to say you’re not inspired by Shakespeare. Shamsie then spoke about being influenced by Rushdie. She renamed Rushdie, who was sitting beside her, ‘Bob’ so that it didn’t feel awkward!

Did you feel constrained, when adapting Shakespeare and Cervantes? asked Hahn. Luiselli said she’d played The Wall in school. She was so nervous her teacher had put a box on her head but it didn’t work, she still shook. She thought of this when planning her story – why don’t I play with the idea of re-staging? One of the problems with writing around Shakespeare, said Rushdie, is you’re having to write to the greatest writer. No one asks Beyoncé to do Bach! said Luiselli.

Gabriel Vasquez: If you memorise the whole of Don Quixote you’ll be a better writer!

Will we still be celebrating Shakespeare and Cervantes in another 400 years time? Rushdie said that Shakespeare has had a bumpy ride, he’s not always been thought about. People got bored with him, preferred happy endings to stories. Remembrance is connected to the status of English in the world, said Shamsie. In the 1930s and 1940s, Shakespeare translations dipped. Gabriel Vasquez said that Cervantes hadn’t been considered a classic, that it was only recently we’d started to read his work. They’ll both be here in a thousand years time because they’re not writers but inventors, he said. Cervantes is an education in tolerance.

A photograph of an empty walkway at the Hay Festival

With the end of the session came the end of my time at Hay. It was a wonderful experience, the volunteers were excellent (shout out to Bernard, steward at the Wales Stage, and the lady manning the BBC tent who notified those of us nearby of the influx of people we could expect the next day – in other words, she helped me get here on time!)

Many thanks to Chris for inviting me, and thanks, too, to the staff of the Media Centre.


Booker Talk

June 13, 2016, 9:45 pm

I wonder if the publisher who advised him to write his book in Jane Austen English is still employed by the company??

Literary Feline

June 15, 2016, 12:20 am

What a full day, and interesting talks. I admit that what stands out most for me is the comment Shriver made about Trump, and I have to agree with her. I guess that speaks to where my mind is right now.

I would love to have been able to sit in and hear the discussion between Salman Rushdie, Kamila Shamsie, Valeria Luiselli, and Juan Gabriel Vasquez.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us!


June 16, 2016, 6:20 pm

Sounds like another interesting day – I am particularly interested in the discussions about Shakespeare. While I have enjoyed reading many of his plays, I still think they were written to be performed/watched not read.



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