Lit Chic: Tears and terrorism

Originally written August 2011 for Fest magazine’s website: http://www.festmag.co.uk

I shed my first real tears of the Festival today: there’d been a few sniffles in Amnesty events but nothing that might have incited concerned glances from fellow audience members. This all changed in Nick Holdstock and Roger Hunt’s Caught in the Terrorist Crossfire.Holdstock’s discussion of life in the western Chinese town of Yining was fascinating; he used words and visuals to give us an intimate glimpse into everyday realities. This meant that his subsequent discourse on the massacre of 1997 was especially moving. So I was emotionally primed for Roger Hunt’s incredible tale of surviving the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Hunt was trapped in a hotel for 43 hours, during which time he barely dared to make a sound in case he was heard and shot: he’d already witnessed open gunfire and killings in the hotel lobby. He told us how he considered taking his own life; how hard it was to sleep for months afterwards; how his wife would find him curled into a ball in the corners of rooms. The question and answer session that followed Hunt’s talk was personal rather than political, which illustrates just why this was such a moving event: he is overtly normal, no foreign correspondent or war journalist, making his story all the more frightening.

Sobbing subsided, I spent the afternoon soaking up some much needed sun in a deckchair (Michael Morpurgo, today) before heading to the Amnesty International event: today, on persecuted journalists. Catherine Mayer, a journalist herself, spoke first, about the work of Anna Politkovskaya. Mayer pointed out that she feels very lucky to have the luxury of leaving the dangerous places she sometimes works; a luxury that Politkovskaya and the other journalists discussed today (Hollman Morris, Marielos Monzon and Mohammed El Dashan) could not share. This highlighted, once again, the importance of freedom of expression: something at the core of Amnesty’s beliefs and policies.

My last talk of the day was one I’d been eagerly anticipating since the EIBF 2011 programme first came out: Alastair Bruce and Judith Schalansky’s joint event Islands of Memory, Islands of the Imagination. Schalansky, cheeky and charming even when sharing the stage with a translator, stressed the poetic nature of her book, Atlas of Remote Islands. An audience member suggested rather angrily that she should visit the islands mentioned and write another (more accurate, was the implication) version of the book. Schalansky responded by saying that she wasn’t interested in reality; her book is about “exploring these islands in terms of being spaces for imagination”, whether utopian or – as she believes – sometimes hellish.

This was a more emotionally intense day than previous ones – probably not helped by my increasingly significant lack of sleep – but no less stimulating. A quick visit to the Spiegeltent helped to soothe me a little, with its plush drapes and calming colours, and I’m happy to report that I now feel thoroughly ready for the next few days. Anyway, tomorrow’s main event, the debate The End of Books? looks set to be intellectually rather than emotionally challenging – probably no need to carry tissues.

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