What does freedom mean in this moment? Over the past few weeks, I’ve been asking writers around the world, from the metropolis of Moscow to a small town called Puebla in Mexico. Their work is connected by questions of change, memory and subversive individuality.
Zoomed in from their homes, they share insights across the distance, from the child of Holocaust survivors in Washington DC to a journalist in Berlin investigating her grandparents’ support for the Nazis. One writer, based in Japan, said freedom was paying taxes.
All these writers were due to travel here to Ireland for the International Literature Festival Dublin. The pandemic has postponed the in-person events but through these conversations, we are hoping to bring listeners beyond their radius, to hear insights from half a dozen authors worldwide during a moment of change. As author Arundhati Roy has written, the pandemic is a portal, laying bare inequalities and transporting us to a new reality.
The Portals podcast series, launching today, gives a virtual taste of the festival, accessible to everyone, anytime, anywhere. The first episode is with Joshua Yaffa, Moscow correspondent for the New Yorker. Before we spoke, Yaffa had filed a fascinating report on Coronavirus spreading to far-flug oil towns in the Arctic. But he wrote it without ever leaving his apartment. Moscow is two hours ahead from Dublin and I learned from Yaffa's book that Russia has 11 different time zones, an immense country to cover at the best of times, let alone under lockdown.
Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia tells the stories of activists, artists and maverick individuals and the way compromise becomes a way to succeed or survive. One of these is a zany entrepreneur, Crimea’s version of Tiger King, who Yaffa speaks to me about meeting. His book explores the idea of “freedom within unfreedom” and though authoritarian leaderships might seem interminable, Yaffa reminds us that the fall of the Soviet Union, a system that had seemed eternal to many, ended in a flash. “Things change here quickly and unexpectedly,” he said.
Unexpected connections to Ireland emerged in the first few pages of Fernanda Melchor’s engulfing novel Hurricane Season, shortlisted for the yet-to-be-announced International Booker Prize. Nicole Flattery, author of Show Them A Good Time, has described Melchor as being “unafraid to confront the unspeakable”.
The novel is about the violent murder of a witch, told through the fast-flowing, consuming narrative that allows us see through the eyes of men and women affected by and implicated in her death. Melchor chose a quotation from Yeats about the terrible beauty of the Easter Rising as one of her epigraphs for the novel.
We spoke about the growing protest movement in Mexico against femicide, a movement that is fighting for freedom from ongoing violence against women, and how people are still continuing their resistance in some ways even during lockdown.
While writing her memoir, I Want You To Know We’re Still Here, Esther Safran Foer worried about including details of her falsified birth dates on the documents that she travelled on to the US, due to the threat she felt from Trump’s presidency as an immigrant, even though she is a naturalized citizen. She remembers the exodus from Germany with her parents, who both fled hometowns occupied by Nazi murder squads, their families executed.
I had read her son Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated, when I was younger. Her book completes the quest he fictionalised and is the culmination of a life-long search for answers, involving memory jars and former FBI agents.
David Peace, born in Yorkshire but living in Tokyo for decades now, often writes about moments of massive change, from the aftermath of world wars to earthquakes and miner strikes. He advocates for change too, supporting the recommendations of the Common People report, which draws on evidence from contributors to Kit de Waal's Common People anthology, highlighting how lack of representation in publishing perpetuates inequality.
Peace wrote The Damned United about infamous football manager Brian Clough. His novel Patient X is a vivid and haunting account of Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The final book of his Tokyo Trilogy, Tokyo Redux, is out next year. The real individuals his novels portray are extreme and consumed by their own ideas. Peace was sitting in his son’s room with a poster for the latest Hollywood adaptation of the Great Gatsby in the background when we spoke. He had an unflinching response to the question of freedom: more sacrifice, more and more taxes. “Almost always someone’s freedom means someone else’s lack of freedom,” he said. “Freedom is somehow always pernicious unless you’re in a state of equality.”
I will be asking this question of Géraldine Schwarz, a French-German journalist whose book Those Who Forget won the European Book Prize. Schwarz finds documents in a family file that lead to her investigating her grandparents’ support for the Nazi regime and their attempts to justify their actions, raising questions about collective guilt and national memory at a time when Europe’s unity is being challenged by far-right populism once again.
I will also be speaking with Rodaan al Galidi, a writer born in Iraq who sought asylum in the Netherlands. His novel, Two Blankets, Three Sheets, exposes the reality of the Dutch asylum process, drawing on the author’s own experience of that Kafkaesque system. There are parallels to be made with Ireland’s system of Direct Provision, reminding us that across Europe there is a network of institutions subjecting people to years trapped in limbo. But there is humour and resilience in these stories too. There is freedom.
The first episode of Portals is out today and a new episode will be released every few days at ilfdublin.com. All of the authors' books are available through ILFDublin's festival bookseller The Gutter Bookshop.
Caelainn Hogan is a writer and journalist from Dublin. Her first book Republic of Shame explores the ongoing legacy of Ireland's religious-run institutions. She has reported internationally for The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, The Guardian, Harper's, VICE, The Washington Post and others.
Monday, May 18th: Joshua Yaffa
Wednesday, May 20th: Fernanda Melchor
Friday, May 22nd: Esther Safran Foer
Sunday, May 25th: David Peace
Tuesday, May 27th: Géraldine Schwarz
Thursday, May 29th: Rodaan Al Galidi