Debut novelist events are often the best bet at any literary festival, not only is there an element of surprise when you discover new and interesting writing, but there is also a sense of nervous excitement when you stumble upon authors who, having not yet settled into their literary persona, explore what it is they want to say and how much they are willing to reveal to their readers.
Both Hannah Kohler and Nadim Safdar have written ambitious first novels which explore the blurred boundaries between the personal and the political. Hannah Kohler’s The Outside Lands set in 1968 explores the impact of Vietnam on those closer to home, as well as on those who fought, while Nadim Safdar’s Akram’s War, tells the story of the radicalisation of a former British soldier. With such different, and difficult, material, literary editor and novelist Rosemary Goring could have easily played it safe and asked questions limited to that of form and practice but instead the evening was full of questions of war, violence and history and what impact the writing on conflict and suffering had on the authors. This made for a fascinating discussion and also gave the writers the space to explore why they had written the books they had, rather than just how they had written them.
One of the most interesting discussions was in relation to Kohler’s decision to write of the war from dual perspectives, one of which being female. She discussed how the literature she had read was written predominantly by men focused on the actuality of war, as well as the sheer brutality of it, and that there was little said about the effects of war further afield. Her character, Jeannie, begins the novel politically disengaged but due to the actions of her brother who, while stationed in Vietnam, commits an act of betrayal grows ever more aware of the full impact of the war.
The discussion grew to cover much more than individual characters, exploring how people can be changed by the sheer force of history that draws them in to events and decisions which at first appear to have little to do with them. All good discussions of historical fiction inspire and reframe thoughts of the present, and so it was perhaps inevitable that as the questions drew to a close it was left up to the audience to wonder what our own period of historical turbulence will uncover and whose stories will be told.
For more on Aye Write, which concludes today, do go to the website.