Cardiff Book Festival – Highlights from 2018

Poet - Rhys Owain WilliamsNow in its third year, the Cardiff Book Festival is not only a great platform for local writers and authors from further afield, but also a catalyst for debate on all sorts of issues. There were plenty of workshops too, aimed at writers perfecting their craft, and this year I ran my own event on the subject of blogging.   

Poet Rhian Elizabeth reading at the Cardiff Book Festival

Rhian Elizabeth

For me the festival began on the Friday evening, with the Poetry Showcase – an opportunity to hear from a wide range of poets, including some I’d never heard before. I was laughing out loud at Rhian Elizabeth’s poems, from her newly published book The Last Polar Bear on Earth, but equally impressed by the more subtle work in Rhys Owain Williams’ collection That Lone Ship and the surreal world of Norse mythology in Ross Cogan’s Bragr. It was also good to hear again from Elizabeth Parker, Claire Williamson and Mari Ellis Dunning, all of whom I have heard before.

There were plenty of other fascinating events on the Friday which I missed due to work, but after the excitement of running my own event, I enjoyed hearing Deborah Kay Davies speak about her new book Tirzah and the Prince of Crows. She explained that Tirzah is a kind of ‘idealised version’ of her own teenage self. Although the book is firmly rooted in the Welsh Valleys, she said that she doesn’t really see herself as ‘a Welsh writer’, having encountered negative reactions in the past, and she’d prefer to be seen simply as ‘a good writer’.

Angela V. John, author at Cardiff Book Festival

The room was packed for the ‘Trailblazers and Outsiders’ discussion, led by Lyndall Gordon (author of Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World) and Angela V. John (author of Rocking the Boat: Welsh Women Who Championed Equality 1840-1990)

This theme of ‘writer identity’ was debated in several of the events. Niall Griffiths and Lisa Blower talked about being labelled as ‘working class writers’, and whether you can call writing ‘a proper job’. They concluded that, yes, it is a ‘proper job’, just one that doesn’t pay very well, and you’re the only person at the Christmas party!

Publishers suggested that Lisa Blower should re-write her novel Sitting Ducks from the viewpoint of a child to ‘make the politics more palatable’. She is working with others to promote and support working class writers, challenging the barriers within the publishing industry. Both writers suggested that sending writers into schools to inspire children is essential, and encouraging the publishing industry to provide basics such as travel expenses, to allow writers to access opportunities from outside London.

It was also interesting to hear from Durre Shahwar, Sian Norris and Ben Gwalchmai, whose essays have been published in Know Your Place, an anthology which explores the experience of being a ‘working class writer’. Durre explained that she felt working class when entering a space that was unfamiliar, such as a smart hotel, which brought with it a feeling of not belonging, and a sense that she was not entitled to be there. Ben’s experience is different, as someone who grew up in rural Wales, only having access to culture through Young Farmers clubs, while Sian Norris had a more unusual upbringing, feeling marginalised and unrepresented while growing up with two mothers at a time when such a thing was ridiculed in the press. Their stories illustrate the diversity within such a term as ‘working class’ and the need for wider awareness.

Durre Shahwar, Sian Norris and Ben Gwalchmai with Chair - Hanan Issa at the Cardiff Book Festival

Left to right: Hanan Issa, Ben Gwalchmai, Sian Norris, Durre Shahwar

All in all, it was a diverse, interesting and insightful weekend, with plenty of food for thought. The festival continues to grow, year on year, and I’ll be looking forward to another exciting weekend in 2019.

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