Revolution, romance and writing in Cork

Egyptian author and activist Ahdaf Soueif: spoke with the insight as well as the experience of a seasoned liberal campaigner. Photograph: Tony McElhinney

The brine-laden air of Bantry may seem a far cry from Cairo, but rarely can a literary event have coincided so dramatically with a popular up-rising as at the opening talk at the West Cork Literary Festival last Sunday. Having published Cairo: My City, Our Revolution last year, Egyptian author and activist Ahdaf Soueif was trying to explain the recent overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi to her audience at Bantry's Maritime Hotel.

That evening Ms Soueif said that when the economically powerful Egyptian military had declared earlier this month that it did not want power but also did not want people killing each other on the streets “this time we believe them”.

The next morning, however, she was on the radio to denounce the overnight shooting of Morsi supporters in Tahrir Square by the army. “This is now a disaster at both the human and the political level.”

On her first visit to Ireland, Soueif had spent the night before her talk at the closing concert of the West Cork Chamber Music festival. It was "everything that such a final concert should be," she said.

Thronged streets
From this serenity she brought alive the hot thronged streets of Cairo to convey something like a sad excitement, a sense of what might have been and what yet might happen.


In her replies to festival director Denyse Woods’s questions, she spoke of the nature of democracy: the elected but deposed Morsi was “a side street the country had to go down, but it turned out to be a very short street”.

For a while after 2011, it had seemed the dominant Muslim Brotherhood, accepted for fear of finding something worse, might put the country on the road to social justice and economic recovery. “But we discovered that the Brotherhood had no agenda apart from self-empowerment.”

Wilting under the pressure of explanation, Soueif, who works in London, spoke with the insight and experience of a seasoned liberal campaigner, covering issues such as the organised assaults on protesting women, the deterioration of Egypt under former president Hosni Mubarak, the reasons the country is so angry.

There was a homely element to her talk too. “I went to see my Dad,” she said when describing an arrest in a neighbouring building. “Wherever you go in Cairo, something is happening.”

This is a literary festival and Soueif, who prefers to remain someone who can speak the truth about difficult things, read at last from Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, ending on a memory from Tahrir Square in 2011: "The young people asked us to stay with them, and we did."

Romance of revolution
When Woods wondered why that book about the first revolution seems so romantic, Soueif replied that it is: "It has to be a story with a positive outcome. Egypt is a very big prize."

The hallmark of Denyse Woods’s management of the festival from which she is now about to retire has been its emphasis on young or emerging writers. Not only does it provide a combination of workshops in creative writing of different genres, but it also offers tuition on editing, promotion, online opportunities, publishing options (Canada seems the most supportive of these) and improvement in vocal delivery.

This year journalist Brian Moore won the memorial JG Farrell Fiction prize for the best opening chapter of a novel in progress by a Munster writer.

Awarded a place in adjudicator Richard Skinner's week-long fiction course, Moore may have missed three North American writers speaking on their publishing experiences. Variously stressful or successful as these have been, the enduring message was that of Barbara Claypole White, whose childhood dream of becoming an author was not realised until she was 50. She said she came late to the realisation that finding an agent was a matter of dedicated research. "You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince," she said. Her advice on writing a successful cold query letter ended with the encouragement that "you'll be told it doesn't happen, but it does".

If such a letter had to be written by novelist Philip Hensher, author of The Missing Ink it would be hand-written on paper with a pen. His audience on Tuesday were told of the emotional and educational value of the disappearing art of writing by hand.

This is not childish stuff, although children and teenagers have a hearty strand in the festival programme, which also features participants such as poet Ruth Padel and authors John McKenna, Deborah Levy and Peter Murphy. Other events of note will be an evening with former President Mary Robinson, an excursion to Whiddy Island with James Harpur, Billy O'Callaghan and Tim Severin, and also a literary tea with Jane Murray-Flutter, daughter of novelist Rumer Godden.

The festival continues until Saturday, July 13th. See