I kept meaning to write up my experiences as this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, but somehow life kept getting in the way. There is being late to the party, and then there is this blog post. But I’m still doing it because it was such an amazing experience, and I want to share it with you all.
The festival coincides with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the International Festival, so the city becomes a bit of a madhouse. The Book Festival is tucked away on Charlotte Square, behind Princes Street, and is actually a haven of calm amidst the craziness that is Edinburgh in August. A number of tents were put up around the square, housing the theatres where the events took place, as well as a book shop and a cafe. In the centre of the square were loads of comfy chairs where you could sit and read, or have a coffee.
Unfortunately the weather was pretty bad for most of August, so I didn’t really make use of it. As I was still working on my dissertation during the first half of the festival, I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the festival initially. I had pre-booked two tickets: one for the event with Kader Abdolah and Meena Kandasamy titled “Massacre and Modernity”, and one for Alexander McCall Smith. But even on days when I wasn’t planning on attending any events I occasionally just wandered around, both to escape the rain and the hustle and bustle of the city. I spent the majority of my time staring at all the wonderful books I wasn’t able to buy, because I was moving back home at the end of August, and my luggage was limited to 40 kg.
The first event I attended was the one with Kader Abdolah and Meena Kandasamy. I’m a big fan of Abdolah’s work, but I’d not heard of Kandasamy before. She’s a truly fascinating person, and she spoke in such a captivating manner about her first novel – she was a poet to begin with and has only recently started working on novels – that I really want to read it now. It’s called The Gypsy Goddess, and it’s centred around a peasant revolt against their landlords in Tamil Nadu, where Kandasamy is originally from. Abdolah spoke mostly about his latest novel, The King, of which I’ve recently posted a review. He also spoke about his flight from Iran to the Netherlands, and his struggle to become a novelist in his newly adopted country. The event was chaired by Claire Armistead from the Guardian, and a podcast of this event is available here, on which I can be briefly heard as well (see if you can spot me!). I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Kader Abdolah after the event, which was really exciting, and I had my copy of The King signed.
About a week later I went to my second planned event, with Alexander McCall Smith. What I gathered from Book Festival regulars, he’s an annual guest – he lives in Edinburgh – and every event with him is as wonderful as the next. And it didn’t disappoint. I laughed until I cried, and so did everyone else at the venue. He’s such an interesting man with a wonderful sense of humour, and it was an absolute treat to be in his presence. He spoke mainly about his latest instalment of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and since I’ve only read three so far I did hear some spoilers, but I didn’t mind too much to be honest. He also spoke about the way his 44 Scotland Street series came about – these short stories were published in The Scotsman in daily instalments before being bundled into a book – which was really interesting. As this was a much bigger event I had to queue for quite some time at the signing session afterwards, but it was worth it because I wanted to have a book signed for my mum, who’s a massive fan of his. The way McCall Smith approaches his fans is very endearing. Rather than sitting behind a table to sign books, he stood in front of the table so he could interact with his fans properly, and he shook everyone’s hand and thanked them for coming. I think it’s lovely to see when people genuinely seem to appreciate their fans.
Another event I really wanted to attend was the one with Richard Dawkins, but it was sold out before I could get a ticket. He was only there for one day, so I suppose people tried to get their tickets as quickly as possible. Still, I decided it was worth a try to go and see whether people had returned any tickets. I had to queue for about an hour with a group of people, but I got lucky and was the third person in the returns queue to get a ticket. I think in the end most of the people in the queue with me managed to get a ticket. I really enjoyed this talk a lot, because Dawkins spoke predominantly about biology and science in general, rather than about religion and atheism. He can seem (and often be!) rather arrogant when talking about religion, but he’s truly fascinating when he talks about evolutionary biology. I had the chance to ask him a question as well, which was nice, because only a few people in the theatre got a chance to do so. Again I had to queue for quite a long time afterwards to have my book signed, but all in all it was worth it.
I didn’t really go to any other paid events, because I’d been spending quite a lot of money already, both on the Book Festival and on Fringe Festival events as well. I did go to a free event hosted by Amnesty International, as part of their “Imprisoned Writers” series. This particular event was about writers on death row, and writers that have been sentenced to death in general. It was quite shocking to hear some of their testimonies read out loud, but I think it’s good that they are heard, even after their death.
So all in all I had an amazing time at this year’s Book Festival, and I would love to go again next year!
Have you ever been to the Edinburgh International Book Festival (or any other book festival?). Share your experiences below. I’d love to read them!