Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Free the Word!

I caught two events in the excellent Free the Word! festival in London, which Chad Post reports on too at Three Percent. In fact I saw him at one of them and introduced myself, then fawned embarrassingly and had to leave before making a complete and utter fool of myself. I did manage to use correct grammar and full sentences, though, which Post seems to assume is a characteristic of the British. He obviously didn't travel on many buses during his stay in London, then, where the cuss quotient is significantly higher than in the gorgeous Underglobe venue. My mum (not really in a position to criticise, having sported the world's silliest maiden name) took the piss out of "Pad Chost" on the way home - isn't that a Thai dish?

The first event I went to had great potential. Telling Secret Lives saw the writers Azar Nafisi and Lee Stringer and the translator Wen Huang talking about writing about lives we don't hear about - young women in Iran, black kids at a Jewish reform school and inmates in Chinese prisons. Unfortunately, the chair was so much on another planet that the discussion didn't come together, mainly because, you know, two of the people up there had little to say about Iranian film. But no doubt all the Persian film buffs in the audience were well pleased at this unexpected bonus.

That made the second discussion shine all the more. Entitled Hell on Earth, it brought together the journalists Lydia Cacho from Mexico, Carolin Emcke of Der Spiegel and the Danish novelist Christian Jungersen, all chaired by the excellent Peter Beaumont from the Observer. He really held tight onto the reins but let the speakers do their thing, and the resulting discussion was fascinating. Cacho exposed a child abuse ring in Mexico and was subsequently arrested and tortured - but is still writing about violence against women and children today. Emcke has reported from war zones and crisis regions around the world. And Jungersen based his novel The Exception, about bullying in the workplace, on personal experience.

All of them had obviously thought long and hard about how best to put hell into words on paper, and shared their ideas with us. But the discussion was also about the effect those words have on their readers, with the idea in the room that fiction is often better placed to touch our emotions than the flood of news writing and the accompanying images we see so much of. I'd say that while reporters on the ground are absolutely essential to gather the facts (and assess whether what they gather is true), fiction does have an important role to play. Think of how (German) novels have captured the public imagination, dealing with and interpreting anything from the bourgeoisie in the GDR to Jews in the Third Reich to the role of the West in the Rwandan genocide. Of course they can never be as immediate as news journalism, but perhaps they can also live longer lives for that very reason.

Interestingly, Carolin Emcke has experienced this issue at first hand. After every stint reporting abroad she sent letters to her friends, trying to bridge the gap between her experiences of war and human brutality and their everyday lives. And their response was often of shock and horror - how terrible that these things are happening! Yet, she said, they are all well-informed people who follow the news. It seems that by imagining someone they know in that situation, they could relate to it all the better, rather like following a character through the events of a novel. We all need that spark of human interest, it would appear, to feel with people on the ground.

The letters are published in the book Echoes of Violence, which I brought home with me and will no doubt review in more detail later. Emcke wrote them in English but they were translated into German for the original publication. Apparently this way a fairly painful process, as she initially found it strange to read her own words in someone else's language.

The festival has sprouted legs and will be striding over to various cities around the world, starting in the European cultural capital Linz, Austria, in October.

In other news, I met the wonderful people behind the City-Lit travel guides, Oxygen Books. Look forward to their book on Berlin, scheduled for October. And that's an order!

I also went to the magnificently appointed Daunt Books in Chelsea, which had a gorgeous display in the window revolving around Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone - but incorporating history books and related novels. By the way, did you know Fallada's novel is based on the actual case of Otto and Elise Hampel, who wrote and distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in Berlin?

And waiting for me at home was a letter from the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin - I've won a year's free entry to all their events in a prize draw. What better surprise for a German book lover?

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