Hay Festival 2018 – Part 2: A Constellation Novel, A Musical Odyssey and the Life of Sylvia Plath

AkalaThe Hay Festival always presents a real mix of genres and ideas and, despite a rather long commute from Cardiff each day over the Bank Holiday weekend, the atmosphere of intense literary devotion made it worthwhile. One thing I particularly love about Hay, is the fact that there are plenty of free events alongside the big names, and this year I attended the preview screening of an (as yet unfinished) documentary style film about the life of Sylvia Plath, focusing on her famous autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.  

Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar

The film will be shown on BBC2 later in the summer, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Plath’s life and work. It provides a stark and realistic view of life for young women growing up in 1950s America. The film contains interviews with many of her contemporaries, including two of the women who were winners of the prestigious New York prize, working for a women’s magazine, which is described in detail in the novel. It is shocking to hear about the sexism that they experienced. One woman describes how she ended up going to a man’s apartment after dancing with him at a ball. She became pregnant, and was forced to give the baby up when she returned home.

The Bell Jar was written seven years after the events took place, and much of it is based on memories of what actually happened, though it is told from the perspective of a fictional character – Esther Greenwood. Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter, speaks in the film about how the act of writing this novel must have been helpful for her mother, enabling her to create distance between her happy family life in the UK and the trauma she went through as a student.

The film-maker Teresa Griffiths explained that she wanted the audience to come away with a positive sense of Sylvia Plath’s life and writing, to realise that there was more to her life than just a tragic suicide, and although it is emotionally intense, you do get that sense that here was a passionate and intelligent young woman, stifled and constrained by the pressures of a society rife with inequality.

Akala discussing The Odyssey

Akala’s Odyssey

Another of the free events was a discussion with the acclaimed hip-hop artist and co-founder of The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, Akala. He produced a film for the BBC which was aired earlier this year, researching the story of Homer’s Odyssey, and has also just published a memoir which deals honestly with the struggles of overcoming racial and class prejudice. He talked about the invisible but false barriers that we create between high culture and pop culture, explaining that tales such as the Odyssey would have been recited with music and dance, and were in fact the popular cultural events of their time.

He also pointed out that almost nothing is known about the origin of the stories assumed to have been written by someone called ‘Homer’, and yet there seems to be an insatiable need for us to map them onto real people and real places, with some people even attempting to locate the exact site of the sirens or cyclops, though these are clearly made up. I’m hoping the film will be repeated at some point soon.

A Constellation Novel

Fictions: Flights-Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk
Photo taken by Mogan Selvakannu

Another interesting event was the interview with Man Booker Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk and her translator Jennifer Croft, discussing the novel Flights. Olga described the book as a ‘constellation novel’, a move away from the traditional linear novel, needed because we now live in a more ‘fragmented’ reality. She told us how her publisher didn’t quite believe her at first, when she arrived with the pages in a shoebox, and said that it was finished.

Tokarczuk described how she has been heavily influenced by the Russian classics, and by writers such as Kafka and Bruno Schulz, and explained that central European literature is different to Western literature because ‘it doesn’t trust reality as much – the boundaries are more fluid’.

Jennifer Croft explained that she feels an obligation to make her intervention in the work very clear – that it would be dishonest not to do so, and that her aim when translating any work is to make a new self-contained piece of art.

Read more about my Hay Festival 2018 experience here…

enjoying the sun at hay festival