The Edinburgh International Book Festival theme for 2019 is ‘We Need New Stories’. As part of that strand, there have been sessions on Homelessness, and I had the enormous privilege of attending two of those which have been both profound and educational in the broadest sense.
The first of these, chaired by Val McDermid, saw her asking each of the participants ‘What makes us feel we have a home?’
Robin Robertson is a distinguished poet. His book The Long Take was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, won the Goldsmiths Prize, The Roehampton Poetry Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Robin hails originally from Aberdeen, but his book, written in verse,concerns Walker, a Canadian veteran suffering from PTSD after WW11. Walker, unable to go home to Nova Scotia, moves from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco chronicling the lives of the homeless including on Skid Row.
“We need new stories. We need to picture the reality; to penetrate fake news to offer a version of events we feel uneasy about. That is the importance of storytelling said Val in her introduction.
Linda Grant is a Jewish Liverpudlian. Her book, ‘A Stranger City’ is a story woven around ideas of home; how London can be a place of exile or expulsion, how home can be a physical place or an idea. She speaks of marginalised lives.
Leila Aboulela grew up in Sudan and moved, in her mid-twenties, to Scotland. Her book, The Bird Summons deals with stories of uncertainty.
For Leila, home is where you know the rules and customs around you. It is, she said, a blessing we take for granted and only notice when it is threatened. Moving to the UK triggered her writing and she was fascinated by the contrast between Scotland and the Sudan. She was surprised by the extent of the homesickness that she felt.
Linda Grant talked about moving home after 19 years and the feeling of loss after she had to lose things she had lived with all that time and compared that to young peo0le in London moving from flat share to flat share, all the time discarding their past. She finds that Brexit has had a profound effect on her sense of what home is. She has watched as neighbours have suddenly had the plug pulled from their lives. She has German neighbours whose future is now suddenly provisional.
For Val, home is a place where you feel safe to be yourself.
Robin is a son of the manse. He went to University in St Andrews to get away from the claustrophobia of the Church of Scotland and the manse. He was chasing someone else’s idea of home. He found that he had been looking for creative turbulence whilst at the same time trying to conform to being a professional Scot.
All three writers have written about forced exile. For Leila, fiction is the place where you go to talk about things you can’t talk about in polite society; to say the things you can’t say anywhere else. She says that immigrants never talk about homesickness when they get together; they work hard to block it out, and are in deep denial. She thinks that it would be a luxury to talk about it because so many people are struggling and talking about it would seem like wallowing.
Linda Grant came from a Yiddish home, so home for her was something different to her external environment. Her father didn’t become a UK citizen until he was 48, so in one sense he always had a provisional existence. Her parents moved constantly. Her father used to tell that that a Jew always has two passports and in that there was never a sense that they were here to stay, wherever they were, something that harks back to the experience of Jews in Eastern Europe.
Robin had a deep ambivalence about moving from Aberdeen to London in his early 20’s. He felt exhilarated by it but also terrified and appalled by what he saw and experienced, which informed his decision to write about movement through a series of cities. The landmass and the language might be the same, he says, but that does it mean they’re going to like you.
That movement from Scotland to London saw him lose about a third of his vocabulary – by which he meant losing his Scots words – and that felt to him like he was losing himself. He had a sense of depletion, of being erased into anonymity.
It was that sense that he put into his character’s head. Walker goes to New York, and Los Angeles, but only in Skid Row does he find people he can relate to. Vets who have fallen through the cracks. Skid Row has existed for 70 years – that is his character’s home.
The panel discussed how and whether it was possible to deliver a new sense of belonging. Linda Grant talked about generational betterment – the reason, after all, for most immigration, to start a new and better life. But how can you know your place when you don’t feel you have a place? The nature of modern London now means that sort of betterment is no longer possible and home is becoming more and more precarious. The opposite of home is fracture and displacement, of no longer feeling safe.
As a writer, Robin seeks out those feelings he says, and quotes Strindberg “I steer towards catastrophe and write about it”. Yet while there is, he thinks, something to be said for creative turbulence where as a writer you can see things at an angle, you still need the safety of home to be able to write about it.
So asked Val, do we have to reconsider form when dealing with a changing world?
Linda thinks so. Genres are melting and moulding, she says, barriers are breaking down. Writing about the present is now writing about the unknown, because of climate change and Brexit. The present is tense.
Robin reminds us that the long form narrative poem was the way we first told stories.
Leila suggested that home is more than just a place where you have confidence in the language. There are unspoken things like culture. Words themselves can mean different things to different people.
She talked about the need for immigrants to survive and do better, but the 2nd generation have less need to conform.
Linda talked about the first wave of immigrants into Britain who had to fit into an already established British identity. Who had to pretend to be ‘English’, but that is now changing and Britain is being 8 formed by immigration.
Leila reminds us that the children of immigrant parents are not born with a hard drive of memories, so there is a created distance between them and their parents memories of home. She says how you look matters as to whether you can fit in.
The panel discussed the difficulties that can occur when the dominant culture refuses to accept that there is another way to live.
Linda talked about an increasing sense of rage. A lack of tolerism and an illiberal approach. She thinks that there is an anger and into,erance simmering beneath the surface of our s9ciety that is neither understood not being written about.
This was a fascinating panel discussion which inevitably I haven’t been able to do justice to. But this is an important strand and a major contribution by the Edinburgh Book Festival to what is informing our contemporary writers in our changing and often dispiriting world.