Edinburgh International Book Festival 2019: a celebration of literature from rising stars to prize winners

Posted on August 31, 2019 in News & Reviews, Scotland

For residents of Edinburgh and Scotland, the annual transformation of the capital city is extraordinarily fun, if a smidge frustrating. The dazzling change to Charlotte Square is something else, however. The daily events, author events, readings, panels, discussions and workshops which take place during Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF) are a whirlwind of literary liveliness. As this year’s month of discussion and debate comes to an end, it seems that the 2019 festival theme, We Need New Stories, has hit home.

During the final weekend of the Festival, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chaired a panel with the Northern Lights publishing conference. The panel discussed the need to publish new, diverse voices, and spoke about the importance of collaborative work between Scotland and North of England-based publishers, in order to counteract the homogeny of London publishing. We Need New Stories is an astute tagline; EIBF audiences are largely white and very middle-class, generally reflecting the books industry itself. Nonetheless, this year’s Festival saw its most diverse public programme yet. In a post-festival press release, Nick Barley said, “people are thirsty for public, face-to-face encounters with experts and visionaries – new voices, with new stories, from new places. The Book Festival is unquestionably answering a deep public need for grassroots democratic discussion.”

However, during her EIBF event titled ‘National Treasures,’ poet and Scots Makar Jackie Kay told the audience that Scotland’s perception of itself as progressive was naïve. “I am not saying Scotland is more racist,” she said, “I’m saying Scotland has not found a way to reflect back in the media, in the history, in social structure, the diversity that’s happening. When people think of a Scottish man or woman they still have a particular image, whereas when people think of a Londoner, you might instantly think of a black Londoner.” Kay has often spoken about this issue; she appeared at the Festival following the launch of a stage adaptation of Red Dust Road, her memoir which reflects upon the racism she encountered growing up in Scotland. At the Festival, she said the country had to “grow up” and take more responsibility for the treatment of black and ethnic minorities.

Last year, Edinburgh International Book Festival made headlines when multiple authors were refused visas by the UK Home Office, and were unable to attend. Following this, Festivals Edinburgh, the collaborative body for eleven of the city’s arts and culture festivals, met with immigration minister Caroline Nokes to lobby for more flexibility. Nick Barley, EIBF director, is concerned that these visa issues may begin to worsen post-Brexit.

“This is about culture in Britain as a whole,” he said. “After Brexit our major concern is that this might begin to affect authors within Europe and therefore there’s an urgent need to sort this out, not just in order to make sure we can get visas sorted out for authors from the Middle East, Africa, Palestine and so on.”

And yet, despite political turbulence and uncertainty, the 2019 Festival has certainly felt like a community-driven space. A new event titled ‘Beloved: A Tribute to Toni Morrison’ was added to the programme after the sad passing of the Nobel Prize Winner, and it was as emotional as it was vital. This year was also the first year that the Festival ran its ‘Pay What You Can’ scheme, inviting Book Festival attendees to pay anything between £0 and £25 for a single event, in a laudable effort to make the pricey Festival more accessible. Finally, 2019 marked the 100 year anniversary of the University of Edinburgh’s £10,000 James Tait Black award, with the winners of the Fiction and Biography prizes being announced on stage at the Festival. Olivia Laing was named winner for her debut novel Crudo, but decided to split the prize money in protest, she said, against “Boris Johnson and Brexit, and a sense of wanting to fight back against this endless culture of winners and losers.

“Crudo was written against a kind of selfishness that’s everywhere in the world right now, against an era of walls and borders, winners and losers. Art doesn’t thrive like that and I don’t think people do either. We thrive on community, solidarity and mutual support.”

This seems a key message to take away from any celebration of literature, let alone from the largest books festival in the world. In 2019, despite everything, we are coming away from the Edinburgh International Book Festival with a feeling of hope.

By Niamh Anderson

Edinburgh International Book Festival runs annually. In 2019, it ran from the 10th to the 26th August.

Image credit: Joe Gordon