Monday, 30 May 2011

The sound of world voices in New York

Our Programme Manager Roland Gulliver recently took a trip to the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. Here he reflects on the experience…

New York, New York - it’s so famous they named it twice, and it’s where I was very lucky to find myself for six days at the end of April to experience the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. As part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s continued international work, and the development of our Word Alliance, we worked with the PEN World Voices organisers to present Scottish authors at this most multinational of occasions!

The Festival runs for 7 days at the end of April and has been chaired by Salman Rushdie for the past 7 years, with 2011 being the first year for the new director, László Jakab Orsós. It presents an extraordinary programme of events with authors from over 40 countries at venues across Manhattan Island, taking in their various cultural partners such as Scandinavia House and Instituto Cervantes, and a range of New York’s iconic venues including the 92Y, the Bowery Poetry Club and Carnegie Hall. The festival brings together this wealth of international writers to discuss the key issues affecting the world and the world of writing today. Unsurprisingly, the ‘Arab Spring’ and WikiLeaks were high on this year’s agenda but other hot topics included Pakistan, China, Russia, the Middle East, libraries, prisons, publishing and translation. The programme’s unifying thread was that the writer is central to everything - whether that be the writer's role of documenting change in our world, or the persecuted writer representing the challenges of gaining free speech and free society around the globe.

Inside the Bowery Poetry Club

This was my first visit to New York since I was a student so I was hugely looking forward to visiting as a ‘grown up’, but having not been for so long meant that first impressions were overwhelming! New York, probably more so than any other city, already exists for us - we inhabit it through television, film, music, and books, and our imaginations are awash with cultural references. So to actually be in the city of yellow cabs and rattling subways, skyscrapers and steaming sidewalks, hotdog stands and diners was quite disconcerting. The first time I took the subway, out to Brooklyn where our friends Five Dials were launching their latest issue, my head pitched between the seminal 70s film, Warriors, and the Beasties Boys back catalogue. In between the events, as well as taking the subway, I did a lot of walking - Union Square, Washington Square, Central Park, Grand Central Station, Broadway, Park Avenue, Greenwich Village, the Empire State Building - just trying to absorb as much as possible. 

The Five Dials launch

The festival based itself in the remarkably, intimidatingly stylish Standard Hotel in the very cool Meatpacking District. The hotel itself is perched over The High Line, a raised subway line which has been converted into a park making a long narrow strip of green through the warehouses, and providing a unique perspective on the city; the locals have taken it to their hearts very quickly. The High Line played host to some of the intriguing smaller events in the programme - the Saturday afternoon book swap, the mobile library and the Karma Chain (think of a very long game of Chinese Whispers!).

The Standard Hotel also played host to the Edinburgh International Book Festival reception on the Tuesday evening where our invited guests were treated to a reading from Alan Bissett, including a short performance from The Moira Monologues!! Remarkably, Moira fae Falkirk fit right in! My personal highlight that evening was after our reception when Alan, Ali Bowden from the City of Literature and I joined Irvine Welsh in a local bar to watch his beloved Chicago White Sox beat the Yankees. It was one of those moments that you never expect to happen but when they do you are reminded of how magical your day job is! Irvine was taking part in several events throughout the week - he had appeared at the opening event on the Monday night and also did a reading later in the week at the Bowery Poetry Club where, amongst others, David Bezmozgis and Rahul Bhattacharya were reading; I knew about Rahul’s book but it was lovely to discover how well he reads.

The High Line

The final part of the Scottish contingent was John Burnside who took part in two of the most innovative events in the programme: The Poetry Safari which took place in an apartment block with the audience going from apartment to apartment to hear writers read; and Poetry: The Second Skin which featured a wonderful cast of poets reading their work while the iconic Laurie Anderson played improvised electronica in accompaniment. It was wonderful to see how the poetry and music responded to each other, especially how the poets naturally took up the rhythms of the music. The evening was completed with a guest appearance from Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons. Only in New York would someone like that just pop in to sing a couple of songs!

My time at PEN World Voices was encapsulated by two events, each at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of style and content, but both equally inspiring. The Best of European Fiction event hosted by Aleksandar Hemon featured authors from Slovenia, Moldova and Norway. All three read and talked eloquently about their work and the importance of literature in Europe no matter where you are. And most inspiringly, they told this to a packed audience!

The other event was the big Saturday night show being presented by The Moth and hosted by Salman Rushdie. The Moth appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a couple of years ago so it was great to experience the show on home turf. The line up of storytellers included stellar names like Elif Shafak and Jonathan Franzen but the most moving story of the night was from Warren MacDonald as he told of his catastrophic climbing accident. It was also where I got my best celeb spot - Courtney Love sitting just a few seats away!

Monday, 23 May 2011

“Whenever I’m away from home I feel like a different person.”: An Interview with Rodge Glass

We recently nabbed contributing author Rodge Glass to ask him about his Elsewhere short story, After Drink You Can Turn Earth Up Side Down. Read on to hear his thoughts on travel, reading work aloud and his serendipitous adventures due to last spring’s volcano incident.

The Elsewhere stories had a specific theme - namely, to be about something unfamiliar or unknown. What did this idea mean to you, and how did that develop into your story?
Well, the Elsewhere theme turned out to be really lucky for me, as ‘Elsewhere’ could be a possible title for a whole collection of stories I’ve been working on for a while now, each dealing with loners or single people in different parts of the world.
I have one called ‘A Weekend of Freedom’ which was the beginning of this idea, a story based on a nightmare stag weekend in Sofia, Bulgaria, commissioned for the Homecoming year, and which was published in Gutter #2. (Gutter is a magazine of new Scottish creative writing. Find out more on the Gutter website).
At the time of that story I was really wanting to change my style. Loosen up a bit. Be unafraid. After that one I wrote several others, some commissioned, based in Belgrade, Manchester, Tunis, Edinburgh…I’m not sure but I think I’d like to work on the collection steadily over the next couple of years. There’s a powerful poem by Kapka Kassabova called ‘I Want to Be a Tourist’. If she’ll let me steal that title for my book, I’ll be happy.

Did you find a predetermined subject like Elsewhere was a helpful jumping off point or a limiting factor in developing your story?
I know some writers struggle with being given a particular subject but generally I have a few ideas knocking around at any given time, and I like a challenge. As I say, with this one, it was a great excuse to write on a subject I was really interested in exploring anyway.
Whenever I’m away from home I feel like a different person. You can’t avoid that there’s a whole world you can never know or understand out there. You’re forced to confront what you do not know. It’s overwhelming, but it makes me want to eat it up at the same time. Which is an odd feeling.

Your piece is set in a bar in Hong Kong. Is this based on any personal experience of the city?
Yes. I went to Hong Kong for the first time ever last year, in the April, shortly before I was asked to write this story. My Dad has lived out there for a good few years, he runs the family business from there, though he’s moved to China now. I’d never seen that part of the world and I was fascinated.
One night we went to a bar in Wan Chai with just myself, my brother, my Dad, and a cousin who lives out there. We don’t get a huge amount of time together so it was an important few days really. And it was great! But something about those bars set up for Western men to get all nostalgic and cruise for young vulnerable women from Hong Kong, or more likely Thailand or somewhere like that. It made me uneasy. And the Filipino band playing the covers of 60s and 70s Western classics, songs that used to represent rebellion but now represent a kind of comfort. I thought there was something in that. Apart from the bar and the band, the whole story is fictionalised. I’m a bit quiet. I tend to just watch, think too much, go away and write about stuff that might have happened but didn’t.

You've mentioned previously that you like to read unfinished work to audiences, for their feedback and reactions. Does this ever alter your work? Did it affect the final result of this story in any way?
Yeah, I love to do that. Because, as Alan Bissett says, “If it’s dead in your mouth then it’s dead on the page”. When I read out a story, I work out whether it’s alive. And if it is, how I might improve it.
As for this story, I did make all sorts of changes after doing readings over the Atlantic. It’s not so much about the audiences, although sometimes people do engage and give advice. But it’s mostly about reading something out then realising there’s a more succinct, or poetic, or satisfying way to say the same thing.

The Elsewhere stories are meant to be about something "not connected to your own home or your own people". Do you think, accidentally or deliberately, the stories we've collected (yours included) have anything to say about Scottishness or Britishness?
Mine is very much about Westerners abroad – although that Western thing is always fractured and mixed up. The escaping rich man in my story, dancing with the young Thai girl to Eric Clapton’s ‘Cocaine’, could be from Glasgow, or London, or Pittsburgh. The point is, he’s looking for Western comforts in the East.

And lastly, you did a surprise reading of this piece at Toronto's International Festival of Authors last year. How did that come about?
When I was in the middle of writing this story, I was invited to do a reading in Pittsburgh (my life isn’t always this rock ‘n’ roll), and on my way home I got rerouted to Toronto because of the Icelandic volcano. No one could get over the Atlantic, basically, and I had two weeks in Canada that I’m deeply grateful for. I love Toronto and had a great time there.
Someone heard about my story and asked me to cover for Andrea Levy, who was in England and couldn’t make it over for the same reason. It was amazing. Writers were covering for each other at festivals either side of the Atlantic. Which was also the reason I got invited to read at the Metropolis Bleu Festival in Montreal around the same time. I was still stuck, and Jason Donald (also part of the Elsewhere project, I believe) couldn’t get over. I was gutted for Jason but he really didn’t want to let them down. He generously recommended me, and I ended up reading my work in Canada. The only thing I had with me at the time was my copy of ‘After Drink…’, unfinished. Thankfully it went down really well and I managed to get it finished before I came home, much delayed by the volcano.


Many thanks to Rodge for sparing the time to chat to us. We look forward to his collection of elsewherian treats when it’s finished!

Rodge spoke about After Drink… at the 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival. Find out more in this video of his event with fellow Elsewhere contributors Jen Hadfield and Eleanor Thom.