International Literature Festival Dublin: shifting shapes, starting debates

Director Martin Colthorpe on this year’s line-up, beaming big names into our homes

Author Angie Thomas will be in conversation with Britta B, about her latest novel, Concrete Rose. Photograph:   Marla Aufmuth/Getty

Author Angie Thomas will be in conversation with Britta B, about her latest novel, Concrete Rose. Photograph: Marla Aufmuth/Getty

 

Picture the scene from the “old normal”: Did the author bring a copy of their book? Does the moderator have a watch? Is there water on the table? Does anyone have a watch? The lights have gone down, the event is up, the festival is on. Except in 2021, not quite in the traditional way.

This year’s programme for the International Literature Festival Dublin features global and local writers, thinkers, illustrators, translators and storytellers accessed from the intimacy of your laptop screen or mobile device.

And while the micro-dramas of the physical green room are temporarily off-limits, the excitement and anticipation for the festival team are equally intense, and, we hope, for our audiences too.

As anyone who has attended book events online will know, there’s something peculiarly exciting about that clock counting down, the mood music, the venue slide, and then – ta-da! – the author appearing on screen from sunny California, sultry Sydney or just down the road maybe, in Dún Laoghaire or Dundalk.

Salman Rushdie joins us at the festival from his adopted city of New York, to talk about a lifetime of reading through the lens of his upcoming book, Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020. He makes an illuminating case for the protean quality not just of books but of storytelling itself, and its ability to adapt and evolve over the centuries. Ranging hungrily from ancient myth to Cervantes, from Beckett to contemporary artists Ai Wei Wei and Taryn Simon, it’s a joyous celebration of reading, writing, looking at, and listening to, stories.

Rushdie asserts that we’re living through a “hinge moment” in history, and Proteus, you’ll recall, was the versatile sea god from Greek mythology, famous for his ability to adapt and change.

The fact that literature festivals have not just managed to survive, but diversify and thrive over the past 12 months is testament, I think, to their own protean, shape-shifting qualities. I’ve enjoyed watching online events at Irish festivals and at favourite venues further afield, and whereas once we might have commuted to a venue in predictable, smart-casual attire, we can now attend in our pyjamas, on-trend loungewear or a three-piece suit (if the gravitas of the author demands).

On a more serious level, though, the experience of the literary event has been greatly enhanced in new, exciting, ways. Being part of a networked conversation with an audience tuning in across the world has added reading tips, insight and knowledge where once we sat in silence. Even the recommendation to “say something nice” (which, if I’m honest, might have riled me in the past) now seems an important commitment to decency and positivity; a safe space, if you like, amid our sometimes toxic online culture. And surely somebody, somewhere, has met the love of their life via the litfest chat function? It would be nice to think so.

While programming the festival this year, I’ve been reading a lot of essay collections. There’s something about the shape-shifting, malleable quality of essays as a form that seems appropriate to lockdown reading; their licence to meander and digress – to wilfully court distraction – being part of their essence, and so I couldn’t help inviting some of the authors to the festival.

Rachel Kushner’s wonderful new book The Hard Crowd is a personal favourite – it covers the same timeframe as Rushdie but its voice couldn’t be more different. Written in the hardboiled style of 1970s New Journalism, Kushner covers subjects as diverse as Jeff Koons, Marguerite Duras, alongside her own reportage from the Middle East and closer to home in California: it’s an exhilarating, voracious collection.

A year after Kushner was born, Vivian Gornick started out at the legendary Village Voice magazine, and she joins us in conversation with Sinéad Gleeson to discuss her life as a literary and cultural critic. With quiet authority, she weaves writers – from Mary McCarthy to Joan Didion – into the tapestry of her own life, of women’s liberation, an understanding of self, and we’re thrilled she’ll be at the festival.

Meanwhile, Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America shifts the focus from writers to celebrate black performance through essays on Whitney Houston, Beyoncé and the March on Washington. Abdurraqib is a critical voice we need write now, one capable of re-ordering the cultural lexicon to better reflect societal change.

Ideas of democracy and social justice are also at the heart of our events for young people, and we’re thrilled to welcome Janet Smyth as our new children’s and families programmer.

Headlining the programme is Angie Thomas in conversation with Toronto-based educator and poet, Britta B, about her latest novel, Concrete Rose, an honest and poignant exploration of black boyhood and manhood that returns to Garden Heights 17 years before the events of her debut novel The Hate U Give.

Access to events for young readers is key to ensuring the festival is for everyone. The pandemic has been challenging for us all but for small children it’s also been a confusing time. Eoin McLaughlin and illustrator Polly Dunbar will present an interactive session around their latest picture book, While We Can’t Hug, which explores different ways to show love and friendship in these changing times.

Throughout our 2021 programme look out for reading lists, playlists, book nooks and varied forms of brain food, contributed by festival authors, to creatively distract you as the spring evenings lengthen, and as the old normality remains on pause.

In Ulysses, Joyce urged us to “hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past”, and it’s the perfect leitmotif for our 2021 festival. Joyce had a protean mind, and a unique way of telling a story. We hope you enjoy the new ways we’ll be telling ours!

To explore the full programme of festival events and to book tickets visit: ilfdublin.com

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