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Hay Festival: A Weekend Amongst Words

Hay Festival brings together writers, illustrators and thinkers in the beautiful town of Hay-on-Wye. Hay-on-Wye is filled with bookshops and booklovers, and nestled in the Welsh hills. The festival itself is a village of white tents just down the road, green fields sloping up around it on either side.

I come for the final weekend of the festival, which spans 11 days and 2 weekends. I pitch my tent in a local campsite on the Friday evening and am sat in the front row for my first talk at 10am on Saturday morning.

Cressida Cowell, illustrator and writer of the How to Train Your Dragon series and newly out Which Way to Anywhere, marches onto the stage and asks the audience to put up their hand if they’d like to have a magic power. “If the grownups don’t have their hands up,” she says, “they’re lying.”

She opens up her sketchbook to us, and offers insight into her own process and the world of Which Way to Anywhere, from seahorse hair dryers to a family of toothbrushes. She shares some of her favourite story starters, from magic powers to map drawing, and encourages the children in the audience to start writing their own stories. As a child who struggled with handwriting and spelling, she didn’t feel she could be a writer but writing, she says, “is about your ideas.”

“Reading gives you magical powers,” she says, begging “poor knackered adults” to dedicate just ten minutes a night to read to their children. Her talk is a call to imagination, a manifesto for reading and a vehement reminder that “you could do this.” She is warm and vivid onstage and you’d have been hard-pressed not to walk away feeling a bit of magical inspiration tingling in your fingers.

Another highlight of the day was Max Porter (Grief is the thing with feathers) being interviewed by Kim Sherwood. “Oi dickhead,” he shouts into the audience as he begins an off-book reading of his latest book Shy. It is a reading that deserves an applause and gets one. Shy is a book about boyhood, teenage anger and the deliberate dismantling of care by the government. It is a love letter to teachers and space for collaboration between Max and the reader, he tells us.

The conversation ranges from the seed of the book to the role tenderness has to play in Shy’s story. “I’m very interested in the use of gentleness as a weapon,” he says, demanding care in the place of abandonment and violence. He reminds us of how playful writing can be, discussing the different paces offered by different forms and his own experience of moving between them in his work.

By the time the talk has finished, there is a palpable sense of energy and emotion in the room (every question asked by the audience begins with a heartfelt thank you) and I, for one, will be avidly following Max’s writing - and everything he has to say around it - from now on.

Two books also now on my TBR list are Empty Houses by Brenda Navarro and Hungry Ghosts by Kevin Jared Hosein. Interviewed by Thea Lenarduzzi, the pair spoke about playing with language and paring it back, about how political problems manifest domestically, and about the role absence plays in their work.

Hungry Ghosts follows five families living in a barracks, with no privacy, nature coming in, the poverty extreme. Kevin speaks about the title, which comes from a figure in Hindu mythology with an insatiable appetite. “It represents wanting something they can never have”, he says. Empty Houses follows a mother whose child is stolen, and the woman who took him.

Both writers discuss writing complex characters who are not always good, character who are living in difficult worlds, characters who make decisions to save themselves. “When we are in difficult situations we are not good people. When we are in violent situations we have fewer choices,” says Brenda, as she talks about building a character who is both criminal and tender. Common to both their writing, it seems, is an ability to hold the terrible and the beautiful, the terrible beautifully.

Perhaps the talk I learnt the most from was Irene Vallejo’s, in conversation with Charlotte Higgins. She shares some of the fascinating discoveries she has made writing her new book Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World.

She paints a picture of the Library of Alexandria, where people walked and lounged as they read out loud from manuscripts. “Silent reading,” she says, is something that developed later and was revelatory: that someone could be beside you but their mind could be so many miles away. Irene talks about the mystery of Homer, that we don’t actually know if he was one person, that he may well have been an editor of poems passed down along a chain of poets orally.

What we do know, is that he was not the first writer, as he is often positioned as. The first person to write and sign text, that we know of, was an Arcadian priestess called Enheduanna who wrote religious poems, compelled by a goddess that she said ‘inseminated’ her and made her ‘give birth to words’. A very queer story if ever I heard one.

The festival is not just about books. It is also about ideas. And this year, Hay’s ‘Thinker in Residence’ was David Olusogo, who invited Colin Grant, Joseph Harker, Kavita Puri and Marcus Ryder to be a part of a panel discussion about racial diversity in the media. Three years on from the murder of George Flloyd, he posed the question: “where are we today?” They discussed empty promises, gatekeepers and the lack of education in schools around Empire history. They investigated both the obviously problematic institutions, as well as the more liberal ones, and stressed the importance of diversity AND inclusion in the media as having a direct impact on democracy. The panel challenged each other, their industries and the education sector to tackle DEI, Empire and elitism head on.

That’s just a snapshot. Writers talked on topics ranging from male mental health to queer storytelling, and on forms including hybrid memoir and graphic novels. Between talks, people lounge on deck chairs or sit on the grass under colourful bunting. A choir sings and people gather around, stallholders selling artisanal tea, cord dungarees, books that have been rescued from landfills and recycled into notebooks. In the book tent, there is always an author or two signing and queues formed around them.

I leave on Sunday, fizzing with ideas and the wonderful people I have met, bag heavy with books, intent on coming back year after year.

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