International Literature Festival Dublin: Storytelling in Merrion Square

Guest writers will illuminate with fiction and memoir about trauma and family

In a big year for literary anniversaries in Ireland, 2022 marks the 25th birthday of International Literature Festival Dublin. We may only be a quarter of the age of Ulysses and, as a festival, we’re still a whippersnapper compared to Listowel Writers’ Week (51 years young), but when we launched in 1998, the landscape for books in Ireland was nevertheless a very different place. There was no Irish Laureate for Fiction, no One City, One Book promotion, Dublin had not been decreed a Unesco City of Literature, and Sally Rooney was only seven years old. The past quarter century has seen books take centre stage as a public artform, in ways difficult to imagine a generation ago.

Our strapline is “25 Years of Stories”, and 2022 feels like a pivotal year for the festival. We’re returning to public stages after a two-year absence, and taking up residence in our new festival village in Merrion Square. For the first time, we’re creating a hub where all our events take place. Where friends and families can spend the day across a huge range of events and drop-in activities. We’re turning over a new leaf, in what will be an exciting new chapter for the festival.

And yet we celebrate this anniversary against the uneasy backdrop of “real history” being made on the borders of Europe. And while the conflict in Ukraine feels too raw and immediate, too complex, to grapple with through public debate, we know that its manifestations – the destruction of cities; the displacement of peoples; the shifting of territories; and the loss of loved ones are the human stories that artists will wrestle with for decades to come, in direct and sometimes more oblique ways. As the horrors unfold, how will the writers of the future tell the story of what’s happening now in Mariupol, in Kyiv, in the Donbas?

The stories brought to the festival this year by an international array of writers provide some important clues. Through what lens do they reflect on past traumas? What tone do they adopt to describe the indescribable? How do they sift stories through their own lives and the lives of their families? Before he became a writer, Joseph Conrad (born in Ukraine in 1857) travelled the world as a merchant marine. He bore witness to the excesses of imperialism and colonialism but saw his writing in stark terms: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.”

Soldiers and raids

With Conrad’s maxim in mind, discovering the work of French-Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga has been a revelation, and no author in the festival better reflects writing out of trauma. Mukasonga left Rwanda in 1992, and her memoir, The Barefoot Woman, is peppered with flashbacks of soldiers raiding her family home. In the civil war of 1994, 37 members of her family were killed. It took Mukasonga 10 years to find the courage to return to Rwanda, and through doing so, she found the courage to begin her journey as a writer. We’re honoured to be partnering with Trinity College Dublin’s Centre for Resistance Studies in bringing Scholastique to the festival.

Lana Bastašic grew up in Bosnia in the midst of war, and this year marks the 30th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo. Writing her debut novel, Catch the Rabbit, became an act of physical and psychological return, voiced through childhood friends, the Serbian Sara and Muslim Lejla, who reunite to search for Armin, who is missing, presumed dead, during the war. Bastašic will be in conversation with Priscilla Morris, whose father bought a flak jacket and went to Sarajevo to rescue her maternal grandparents. Her home in London filled with refugee relatives and her debut novel, Black Butterflies, draws on these experiences – with their echoes of the conflict in Ukraine – in its depiction of life behind the barricades.

Faïza Guène is a writer whose dispatches from the Parisian banlieues have helped bring peripheral voices to the centre of French literature. Her new novel, Discretion, published in May, marks the 60th anniversary of the Franco-Algerian war, and beautifully reflects how these epochal historical moments echo down the years, through the stories of women, through the experiences of second-generation immigrants, and through feelings of allegiance to a country, which is at once home, and not.

Poetry and resistance

We close our festival with a celebration of the work of Eavan Boland and Thomas Kinsella, both of whom were lost to Irish literature during the pandemic. Our event, Pillars of a City, will reflect on the power of their poetry and their enormous legacy. And Kinsella, too, reminds us that sometimes, political resistance happens much closer to home. His poem Butcher’s Dozen was written as a direct response to the Widgery Report, which whitewashed the atrocities of Bloody Sunday. It was published on April 26th, 1972, with the poet himself saying that “The Widgery report was a great insult. [My] response was instant; the poem itself was written and issued in seven days.” Butcher’s Dozen is published in a new edition this year, to mark its 50th anniversary, alongside a prologue from the Saville Report, an epilogue from the British prime minister’s House of Commons apology, and a new author’s note. It shows that poems can offer both an immediate dispatch, but also become part of the historical conversation for decades to come. Great writing both responds to history and also helps to shape it.

And so our mind turns to Merrion Square later in May. After a period of restriction and limited horizons, it feels exciting to welcome the world’s writers back to Dublin. We feature authors from Japan, Nigeria and Angola, from the US and Europe and of course from across Ireland. There will be readings and talks. There’ll be workshops, yoga, running and walks. We’ll be building on the success of our online festival editions in 2020 and 2021, and livestreaming events to audiences across Ireland and around the world.

But it’s the return to public spaces – echoing Conrad – that gives us that wonderful opportunity to properly hear and feel and see the world again. And I can’t think of a better environment to hear the world’s stories than at a literary festival, in the company of fellow readers and writers . . . in the company of fellow storytellers.

Martin Colthorpe is programme director of International Literature Festival Dublin, which runs from Thursday, May 19th, to Sunday, May 29th, in Merrion Square Park. To view the full programme and to book tickets visit: ilfdublin.com

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