Wonderful events at Hay this year; I enjoyed the company of Reza Aslan, Dinaw Mengestu and Mohsin Hamid. Three writers who, in their various ways, tackle difficult subject matter with courage and true style.
May 31, 2011 · 10:45 am
One of the most remarkable things about Hay is the sense of intimacy, the lack of grandeur. Offstage, Mohsin and I chatted about his great mentor, Toni Morrison, and how his contact with her gave him a sense of belonging and ownership of his talent. But it was a tribute to his real class that he seemed as interested in my life as in discussing his own. His charisma on the stage was mesmerising, as he talked candidly about controversy, hash and the realities of contemporary Pakistani life for the young. If you haven’t read his books, then do. Moth Smoke, which we were discussing, is a gripping noir, with corruption and an infernal, eternal triangle at its heart. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was Man Booker shortlisted, is a monologue that challenges the reader’s own ideas of justification and reasonableness, and tackles the post 9/11 world with a personal history – though not, I should emphasise, Mohsin’s own.
Mohsin was reading and talking to a packed-out audience alongside Ethiopian-American author Dinaw Mengestu. Dinaw’s first novel was Children of the Revolution, which garnered prizes and critical admiration galore, and took the Guardian First Book Award in 2007. He was humble, softly spoken and ailing terribly with a sore throat. Our wonderful young steward was trying to hunt down some Strepsils, to no avail. Sans Strepsils, Dinaw nevertheless went on stage and floored the audience with a superb delivery of excerpts from his haunting novel How to Read the Air. A must-read book, and one that has true reach. While the legacy of immigration anchors the narrative, this is a novel that is of interest to anyone who has ever thought about how their parents’ pathology repeats within their own – or how they are fugitives from it – and one that considers the use and abuse of fictions in our lives. The wind repeatedly struck our tent, but it only seemed to contribute to the atmosphere and the themes under discussion.
The night before, I discussed Reza Aslan’s superb anthology Tablet and Pen. Reza is an intellectual giant, but one who is also in possession of a large heart and a fantastic sense of humour. Anyone seeking po-faced worthiness would have been disappointed. Our event was full of optimism, mixing the seriousness of this activist enterprise with a welcome levity. Knowledge and education were great, Reza noted, but without the arts cultural understanding and the sense of a shared humanity would always elude us. He regarded his anthology as another hopeful step along the way towards establishing the literature of the Middle East in the canon of world literature. Sample highlights under consideration were the hidden histories of women poets, fatwas, the truth about the green revolution in Iran, and the future of East-West relations.
Meanwhile, in the Green Room, I might have missed Mr Rob Lowe, having arrived an hour too late to deconstruct St Elmo’s Fire (regular readers of this blog will have noted my passion for the film and for Lowe’s place in it), but I swooned over one of my favourite maverick directors, none other than John Waters. Impossible fangirl, I couldn’t muster up the courage to speak to him. A missed moment to file under ‘Regret’. I bumped into friend Tiffany Murray – brilliant novelist and brilliant person, to boot. Henning Mankell, Scandinavian king of noir and creator of the Wallander mystery novels, was one of the highlights of the day, and sat quietly, with super-charged charisma. Owen Sheers had just enjoyed a fantastic event with Don Paterson. And noted journalists drank lots of coffee. There was much laughter.
At breakfast on the last day, in my pretty lodgings, I sat around a table with the distinguished author, journalist and co-writer of The King’s Speech (book of the film), Peter Conradi, and the marvellous Polly Toynbee. Both were charming, down-to-earth and very witty. Another example of the many surreal and wonderful moments I’ve experienced at Hay over the years. And to think, I might have become a medievalist. Praise be for the road not taken.