I am a writer in search of eclectic literature spaces that challenge the ‘stale’ and cultivate something of benefit to society.
Otherwise what is the point?
Sometimes travelling to places off the beaten track can yield the most enlightening experiences and the Paisley Book Festival was a recent exemplar.
Committed to the idea of critically examining the issues and ideas shaping our futures, Paisley did not shy away from an ambitious focus for its first run of this inaugural festival. ‘Radical Voices and Rebel Stories’ was the bold theme that drew me to this place I knew very little about, beyond the fact that it was a handy trip to Glasgow Airport – and clearly did not shy away from subverting the status quo.
Though a seemingly small and unassuming town, you did not need to be in Paisley long to be drawn into a rich historical and contemporaneous streak of radicalism. The kind that reverberates and drives change for the betterment of society, however small it starts.
From the outset the Festival challenged participants to seek what lay at the heart of rebellion and radicalism and for me that seemed evinced in the stories of the silenced, the unheard – which Paisley was very much addressing by enabling such voices to be amplified and made readily accessible.
The Festival Opening saw Maggie Craig restore silenced voices from the past to challenge present oppressions, while Jim Carruth raised a question on a theme I have rarely heard given the dignity deserved in white western communities; ‘When is the right time to listen to water?’ and finished with Heir of the Cursed leaving us enraptured in sublime, ethereal music and lyrics challenging our acts of self-suppression and asking the audience to let go of fears and self-judgement, because ‘No one is watching as much as you think.’
In the days that followed, I was privileged to attend small, intimate and edifying critical discussions that reflected on literature, shaping society with our writing and subverting the omissions of current literary spaces, all made directly possible by forward-thinking accessibility options for festival participation. The atmosphere in Paisley Book Festival, though challenged with rainy deluges, hail and snow, was consistently warm and welcoming and my highlights from the sessions I attended, began with Raman Mundair’s Masterclass in BAME Writing.
Raman’s Masterclass was an exploration of layering and self-subversion that was both challenging and enriching. Steven Biko often spoke of the mind of the oppressed as being a key space from which emancipation begins and Raman made us examine the textures and sensory realities of our own experiences till something integral to our own voices and experience was inevitably rendered. Two hours felt like fifteen minutes. It was also practically useful and heartening to connect with the Scottish BAME Writers network – a core new organisation for creative change in Scotland that supported the session – and I would highly recommend that local BAME writers add this group to their network. If this had been the total sum of my festival experience then it would have been worth the journey, but the time I had following was equally elevating.
The Script by Jenny Lindsay and Writing Rebel Women with Jenni Fagan, Kirstin Innes and Emma Jane Unsworth, directly confronted the intersection of economy and identity, centred in a female experience. These sessions interrogated the undermining, constructed, narrative binaries of what is designated worthy and unworthy, demonic and virtuous, and what is allowed spoken and intentionally silenced. Jenny Lindsay examined the “script” placed upon our bodies; the words that form the narrative framings of ourselves whether assigned by family friend, foe, society and self.
I found myself contemplating the ‘Scripted’ experiences of mine in parochial Éire, that saw ‘immigrant’ designated an insult but ‘emigrant’ a virtue. Where, ‘you’re very clever aren’t you’ was said with a crocodile smile worthy of the predatory realities described so eloquently by Jenni Fagan, who in her exclusive first reading from Luckenbooth relayed that cleverness and skill within the body-form of a minority is ever a problematic reality. I doubt there is an attendee who isn’t now on the waiting list for that particular release and rightly so.
Such radicalism and rebellion can be serious and personally taxing labour, but it can also be immense craic. Especially in the solidarity derived from understanding, shared humour and wilful dreaming. Writers imagine the futures. They extrapolate and navigate difficult but joyful realities as was exemplified in my final pick of my festival experience highlight which was; ‘Writing Queer Identities’ with Dean Atta and Eris Young.
Eris’ They/Them/Their formed a wonderfully pragmatic conversation for how we give ourselves the ability to know better, do better and be freer in ourselves in gender and sexual expression and where these intersect with other aspects of identity. Difference need not only circle around narratives of fear, violence and alienation – the transformational and affirming are just as true and important to pursue. The Black Flamingo is the coming-of-age story by Dean that examines this also, and in his discussion he truly captured the complexity of difference, but centred the optimism of exploring pathways to self-expression and freedom that should be the drivers of change as much as the challenging harsh realities of inequity.
My wanderings of Paisley resonated with an awareness of something marvellous reviving, and there was one particular walk that captured this for me. At the centre of a busy intersection there is a circle of cobblestones within which sits a horseshoe memorial for the last mass execution for witchcraft in western Europe, that occurred in the township in 1697. The red building across is an Undertakers – a reminder you better time things right. The crosswalk and patient local drivers give just enough leeway to read the inscription: “Pain Inflicted, Suffering Endured, Injustice Done.” It seems to me there is a promise of something in Paisley, that seeks to upend such realities in pursuing cultural change as a rebellious and radical start towards futures that challenge present and past failings.
Feature photo courtesy of Ryan McDonald