Interview – Here & Now, International Literature Festival Dublin 2021

One of Ireland’s most important literary events is now well under way, and this year’s programme clearly has people very excited. The festival got off to a cracking start, with Valeria Luiselli confirmed as this year’s recipient of the prestigious Dublin Literary Award, the world’s most valuable annual prize for a single work of fiction published in English.

International Literature Festival Dublin, showcasing the best in national and international literature, is a festival celebrating writing and storytelling; bringing together those who love to tell stories (be it fictional or real-life) and those who love to hear stories.

This year’s expansive programme, comprising a vast and diverse range of readings, talks, discussions, screenings, walks, workshops, podcasts and more, is divided into four main areas of interest.

WriteNow showcases over 60 Irish and international writers, featuring everything from well established literary heavyweights to some of the most exciting newcomers right now.

StoryMachine will feature events geared at families, children and young adults, where a highlight will entail special messages of friendship and kindness compiled by award winning French illustrator Barroux.

Billed as a celebration of well-being, Boundless is where the festival gets to let its hair down a bit and have some real fun, encouraging audiences to engage with literature in quirky and unusual ways.

Advance encompasses the practical element of the festival, where people get to engage in a more hands-on manner with selected writers.

To find out a little more, and discuss what lies at the heart of this festival, I caught up with Hillary, head of communications and digital media.

The first thing that strikes me is the vast quantity and diversity of events and elements encompassed in this year’s festival. Can you tell us a little about this year’s theme ‘Here & Now’, what inspired this, and how this influenced the selection of writers invited to take part?

Literature festivals are always a great cultural space to pause and reflect on the current state of the world, whether that’s in poetry, fiction, biography, reportage or any other form of non-fiction writing that seems to directly focus on the present ‘reality’.  During the Covid period, the opportunity to gather together (albeit virtually) and hear from writers, and to discuss current topics and themes, feels particularly valuable. So we think ‘Here and Now’ is both about focusing on our current realities in different parts of the world, but also about putting down a marker, to say, ‘we are still here’, come and join us. Many of the key writers in the programme are publishing books which particularly encapsulate the cultural moment. We’re thinking here of writers like Hanif Abdurraqib with his brilliant, essayistic survey of black performance, A Little Devil in America, or Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind which, in its focus on human empathy and co-operation, seems particularly fitting to what a positive, ‘post-Covid’ world might look like. In fiction, Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist (published in English translation in 2020), with its focus on disaster tourism and late capitalism, seems incredibly prescient about these times.

The theme of ‘Here & Now’ is taken from a line in Joyce’s Ulysses‘Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past’ and the novel’s centenary is marked next year. It seems fitting to point the way forward to that particular anniversary and that book which took the action of one day in Dublin, and which has reverberated so loudly since publication.

The WriteNow strand of the festival showcases some really exciting names in literature, both well established and emerging. The ‘Forms and Influences’ series within this, featuring six writers from the strand, will be giving those attending a more direct and intimate insight into where the writers are coming from. This sounds like a great opportunity to get a more in-depth look at what they are bringing to their work, in terms of personal and professional journeys?

Forms and Influences as a strand title is taken from sections of Lydia Davis’ book, Essays, and the book is a revelation. Davis discusses the work of a range of writers, including Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Lucia Berlin and the Japanese poet Basho. These writers are not necessarily influences in a direct sense, instead Davis shows us what she admires in different writers, and how they might develop her own practice, through what she calls ‘good writing habits’. The book extends too, to look at visual art, through fascinating chapters on the painter Alan Cote and on Dutch photography from the early twentieth century.

By contrast, André Aciman’s book Homo Irrealis, is more impressionistic in terms of conveying what he calls ‘the irrealis mood’ which, according to the author, is ‘the state of mind where we spend most of our time, “the might-be and the might-have-been”’. Aciman’s book is conceived as an in-depth exploration of a particular subject, as reflected by different artists, rather than a collection of pieces assembled over a period of time. This is also true of Hanif Abdurraqib’s book, A Little Devil in America, which, as you suggest, is a very personal journey through his own life, through the moments in which he first encountered legendary Black performers, and what the wider cultural resonance was for America as a whole – eg Whitney Houston performing at the Soul Train music awards or the death of Michael Jackson. He also steps back into history, looking at, for example,  the significance of Josephine Baker re-visiting America after her rise to fame in 1920s Paris.

StoryMachine is the strand dedicated to children and young adults. There is a great drive in Ireland at the moment to recognise the importance of children having access to great literature from a young age. Could you talk to us a bit about this, in context of your festival?

There is an impressive number of initiatives to support literacy and reading in Ireland that are delivered primarily via schools and libraries, and literature festivals have a real and important responsibility to be a part of this, creating spaces that celebrate children’s writers and illustrators and, importantly, readers. As author Laura Ellen Anderson says, children’s books are about 3 Es – empathy, excitement and escapism – and festivals add connection and commonality between readers of all ages. Children and young adult fiction is where some of the most exploratory and experimental writing can be found. Children’s books excel at the surreal, subversive and, sometimes, the downright rude; they are a place to go to laugh out loud at life but also a place to quietly weep as we learn about the inevitability of loss and grief, and how to be resilient in the face of adversity. And festivals offer a magical moment where reader and writer come together.

For children, the connection with a story is entirely at an emotional level and so the chance to meet the creator of that much-loved story can be an incredibly special and transformative experience. Writers for young people know this and so the events they bring to festivals are wonderfully engaging, often with illustration, song, props and opportunities for audiences to interact. For many book festivals this year, programming continues to be in the virtual realm but, as always, the content for younger audiences includes crafts, illustration, stories; the opportunity to ask questions and to meet favourite authors but also to discover new writers and illustrators from Ireland and from further afield. A book festival event can be the catalyst that turns a young reader into a life-long lover of books and that’s the context and the starting point for this year’s Storymachine programme.

One of the focuses of the Boundless strand is celebrating well-being; something we could all do with after the past year! Boundless also promises to be quirky and unusual. How do you feel that ‘unconventional’ approaches to culture allow us to stimulate existing audiences, and open the doors to new audiences? 

Like so many elements of the modern world, literature is always evolving and it’s important for us to reflect that in our programming; the Boundless programme is about the experiential and in particular this year about tangible experience and where possible offering audiences a respite from their blue screens. Literature and how we interact with language is also so much more than just printed words on a page. This year audiences are invited to reconnect with Dublin City and its beautiful public parks through our series of self-guided audio walks like Flaneuse and a bi-lingual poetry trail. Boundless is pure fun. It’s a chance to connect with your imagination, to explore, to discover, and to engage with words in ways you might never have thought possible.

The Advance strand is the practical element; masterclasses and workshops where people get to have the most interactive experience. Why is this section so important in context of this festival?

The process of writing can be as fascinating for many as the actual reading of the final product. As readers we are endlessly curious about where an idea has come from and how to take an experience or inspiration and turn it into a story that we can share with others. The mechanics of becoming a published writer can also seem opaque and so this is an opportunity to offer audiences a way to learn how to navigate the publishing industry. It’s also a lovely way for anyone who enjoys writing for pleasure to join others and share the enjoyment of a common pursuit in the company of some excellent writers.

Many people have adapted easily enough to the digital element involved in cultural events over the past year but, for people who might be finding it daunting to enjoy the virtual festival experience, have you any handy tips or guidelines that will help people to maximise their engagement and enjoyment for this year’s festival?

The digital experience is relatively easy to navigate but definitely one tip is to log on a good ten minutes ahead of the start time, just in case there are any unexpected issues! Different festivals use different streaming platforms and they all work in slightly different ways. For the festival all digital events can be experienced on crowdcast.io/ilfdublin and events can be watched live and most are also available for watch back. Within our preferred platform there is also a lovely chat function inviting audiences to comment, introduce themselves and submit their questions to the featured author. The great thing about being almost entirely virtual this year is that wherever you are in the world, you can join in to events that you might never otherwise be able to attend. 

And lastly, a few parting words from International Literature Festival Dublin…

Come and join us! We have so much on offer this year from your favourite authors as well as from voices you may have never heard of before. There’s something for art lovers, foodies, poetry fans…whatever you’re interested in, there’s bound to be something for you at ilfdublin.com

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So there you have it folks. For lovers of literature, from now until next Sunday May 30th is jam-packed with events that promise to be engaging and inspiring, facilitating unique insights into some of the world’s most invigorating and profound writers. 

A big thanks to Hillary and the team for taking the time to talk to me, and for their much appreciated work bringing us the best in the world of writing.

Visit the festival website for the full programme, and details on how to book.

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