Coinciding with International Women’s Day, and with one of its strongest female line-ups yet, this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is looking more relevant than ever. Festival Director Isobel Abulhoul explains how she keeps her finger on the literary pulse…
You plan a long way in advance, and yet this year’s programme has a real feminist aspect to it, which seems to chime with global sentiment at the moment. Was that a conscious decision?
I think there’s an aspect of luck to it, it’s sort of just happened – but that always seems to be the case. We start planning 18 months ahead so we’re already deep into 2019, but somehow the programme takes on a life of its own. It’s determined in part by the authors who are able to come and the links between them. Someone asked me whether we consciously invite equal numbers of men and women to speak and we don’t at all – we go for the best writers, the best topics and the current bestsellers, and we look at things that catch the programming team’s imagination. But we do have a strong feminist link and I think that, more and more, with everything that’s going on around the world at the moment in terms of examining women’s role in society, it is a discussion that’s still to be had. We’re not at the end of the story.
The programme will include a special discussion panel on International Women’s Day itself for the first time. Is that an opportunity you’re excited about?
We’re absolutely delighted. We have an amazing panel who will be talking on the theme of Press for Progress on March 8. And what I would say is that this is not just a session for women. We make up 50 per cent of the world’s population, so we all need to know what the problems are and I hope men will come along too to discuss the issues still affecting women and what we are doing collectively, as a society, to tackle them. I think it also stands to be a very interesting event for teenagers. I’m always delighted that whenever we’ve marked International Women’s Day we’ve always had a large number of teenagers in the audience, coming along with really interesting questions. These young people are the leaders of tomorrow, so that’s very encouraging.
The children’s programme this year is incredibly broad. How do you set about creating that?
We tend to select children’s writers who, as well as telling amazing tales, are also great performers. David Walliams sold out in 24 hours, but we also have Jacqueline Wilson, perhaps the best-loved and most borrowed British author thanks to Tracey Beaker and her other amazing characters. We have Anthony Horowitz with the Alex Ryder series, a sort of James Bond-type of character, we’ve got Tony Ross, Corky Paul and perhaps some lesser known names who are truly fantastic performers. I’d say the challenge is knowing what to go to and what you can’t miss…
How different an experience is organising the festival now compared with ten years ago when you made your debut?
It’s still as challenging as it was ten years ago, because people now have expectations. It was a bit like living a dream ten years ago, the first year was just incredible. But you can’t really decide, until it’s all done, whether what you’ve created has a life. I think we have more confidence now in what we’re doing. We have the experience of doing it year in and year out and coping with the unexpected, of creating plan A and also plans B, C and D. You have to be quick on your feet and make adjustments based on what happens, and that’s part of the thrill. And this year, it really is a celebration of our love for the word. The authors who come, everyone who works here, we are all passionate about our love for the written word, and I hope that by bringing all of these people together we are, in our own small way, trying to make the world a better place. We’re bringing 180 authors from 47 nations to the festival this year. Some of them have never been to this part of the world before. They can meet with Emirati writers, writers from across the Arab world and from further afield, and friendships are formed here. People go away with new ideas about what this place is, what its magic is, and I hope for their short time here we can show them a little bit of the heart of Dubai.
How important is the seminars and workshop programme to you?
Very – I cannot tell you how excited I am about this year’s programme and the breadth of choice there is. Last year we had a publishing conference, this year we have a whole day dedicated to publishing bringing together all of the most popular and over-subscribed aspects of the conference, so that should be very interesting to a whole host of publishers, writers, would-be writers and anyone looking to go into that industry. On top of that, we have a whole spectrum of workshops. We have a one-day creative writing course, which sold out almost immediately, with Greg Mosse, who is a master of giving creative writing classes. Then we have Ibrahim Nasrallah doing the same in Arabic – we always try and match up what we do in one language in the other so we can reach as many people as possible. Then we have Peter James, doing a masterclass in crime writing, and Kate Adie doing one on journalism. We have Ali Sparkes speaking to young writers from ten to teenager, Corky Paul doing a writing and drawing workshop and the same for Tony Ross, so we are spoilt for choice this year. Harry Baker, the world’s Grand Slam Poetry champion, is also doing a workshop for young people interested in poetry.
You have some very political writers on the programme. Do you see yourself as having a duty to inform and educate?
To a degree, yes. I think part of the festival’s aim is that, if we can get more people to read for pleasure, they will have access to some of the best minds and thinkers of the world, both alive today and from the past. And that makes us into people more able to cope with the fast-paced world we live in today. I think that we tend to feed off soundbites at the moment, get our ideas from 140 or 280 characters. We’re not given enough meaty, deep thinking to get our heads around, and I think that is what reading offers. History always repeats itself, so it is fascinating to have these great minds here who have spent years and years studying their own specialist subjects and are able to offer up just a little of that expertise to us. Life is not finished, humankind is not a closed book and there’s a lot to still happen.
It would be remiss not to ask – what’s your favourite thing you’ve read in the last year?
Elmet by Fiona Mozley. It has such an incredible voice. She wrote the first draft, apparently, on her mobile phone on the train on her way to work, having got her idea from looking out of the window and noticing a small copse near to where she worked in the UK. The book is so strange and so got under my skin. It’s not a big book, but it has such a fresh voice and I love when you suddenly discover someone who touches you so deeply like that. I’m also delighted that Carlos Ruiz Zafon is coming this year. We’ve asked him every year since we started and this year, on the tenth time of asking, he said yes. He’s the Spanish author of The Shadow of the Wind and The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, the second most popular author in Spanish after only Cevantes, with more than 35 million books sold globally, and to have him here, finally, for our tenth year is just absolutely magical.
March 1 to 10
Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, InterContinental Dubai Festival City, Dubai. Tel: (04) 3559844. Taxi: InterContinental Dubai Festival City. emirateslitfest.com