I write this in a town bordering England and Wales, east of the River Wye and north of the Black Mountains, as the sun shines over a festival where there are strawberries and stir-fry to feed the body and stories aplenty to feed the mind. Jacqueline Wilson has just been sitting beside me wearing a blue top embroidered with the silver words ART IS TRUTH. It is a slogan pertinent to festivals the world over, for beneath the billowing canvas of tents, writers explore, challenge and present versions of the truth from a myriad of perspectives.

Not all of the world’s border crossings are as peaceable as this idyllic terrain. Far away, at the Israel-Palestine border, four festival attendees were held for five hours during the Palestine Festival of Literature (Palfest), the week-long festival supported by the British Council and UNESCO, with international authors touring Jerusalem and the West Bank. The police intervened on the first and final nights of the festival by closing down the venue, the Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem.

From Manchester to Mumbai, the festival circuit has gone global including the Jaipur Literature FestivalGalle Literary FestivalVancouver International Writers Festival, and in Dubai the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature. Hay has exciting new initiatives: adding to its portfolio of Hay-on-Wye, Cartagena, Alhambra and Segovia are Beirut 39 (celebrating Beirut Unesco World Book Capital 2009 and 39 of the best Arab writers under the age of thirty-nine) and the Storymoja Hay Festival Kenya.

The imagination can also be a passport to places beyond the realms of our own experience, a lesson learned at festivals which have at their core the concept of storytelling. At Hay last year the events I chaired offered a journey through the ganglands of South London (two former gang members, Elijah and Maddox, joined us on stage to discuss their experiences, chronicled in Tim Pritchard’s thought-provoking Street Boys); a Russian prison and St Petersburg (author Tig Hague talked about his hair-raising nineteen-month stint in jail in Zone 22, coupled with author Edward Docx reading from his beautifully written Self-Help); the landscape of New York City post 9-11 and war-torn Serbia (Joseph O’Neill’s beguiling Netherland and Sasa Stanisic’s compelling novel, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone); the mind of a ventriloquist dummy (By George by Wesley Stace), the airfields of Pakistan (A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif) and the tortured mind of a bullied teenager (Submarine by Joe Dunthorne), thus showing the breathtaking diversity which descends upon the small town of Hay-on-Wye each year .

‘There is nothing to fear but fear itself,’ said Theodore Roosevelt, who I called upon for courage whilst chairing a sold-out event at this year’s Hay Festival with two distinctive and powerful voices, Sadie Jones, prize-winning author of The Outcast, and Matthew D’Ancona, author of the haunting Nothing to Fear, whose novels show how, even on such a sunlit day, a human being might become unhinged by fear. It is a motto D’Ancona’s characters have not yet learned, for they are scared of darkness and death, loneliness and intimacy. The theme of fear was a catalyst to a discussion ranging from how art offers the freedom to fail, to how creativity is using pain to good effect. ‘Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood,’ assured Marie Curie and indeed – as an enthusiastic audience agreed – both gripping novels shed insight into that primal human emotion.

The festival thrives on the sparks that fly from interesting juxtapositions, from conversation both on and off stage, but there is also a powerful dialogue between contemporary and past writers. The ghost of Kafka haunted the Dream Stage for an hour, as I talked with the entertaining comic writer James Hawes about his debunking of the ‘Kafka myth’.

The grandest literary ghost haunting the delightful Segovia Hay Festival was Antonio Machado, who taught and lived in the small city north of Madrid one hundred years ago, and whose footsteps I traced past the vast pillars of the Aqueduct, the Plaza Mayor and the San Quirce church. Machado’s plaintive metrical feet were haunted by the untimely death of his wife from tuberculosis, the Spanish Civil War, and by landscape, which exerts a strong influence in much Spanish poetry, as is clear after four days of engrossing lectures. The festival also paid homage to Octavio Paz, a decade after his death, in two events exploring how nature – sea, fruit, light – is a poetic reflection on his childhood, time, the body and spirit. The panel recalled the relative merits of Paz as poet and essayist; the moment he had an epiphany whilst gazing at the moon; and that ‘nobody uses semi-colons quite like him’.

The act of translation and transition – both linguistic and geographical – is at the heart of festivals. The etymology of translate is ‘to carry across, to bear’, and indeed we see what is lost and what is gained in translation. Headphones provide simultaneous translation from the original language, although it is telling how much meaning can be gauged from the texture, sound and intonation of words. The festivals reveal how the greatest writing can transcend its place and particularity and reach a universal audience.

The pink-shirted, snowy-haired Mario Vargas Llosa, speaking beneath a ceiling painted with angels and harps in the capacious Teatro Juan Bravo described his yearning to escape from his childhood town in Bolivia. It was reading books that ‘tremendously expanded [his] horizons’ and stopped him ‘dying of boredom’ at his military school. Through reading Sartre he came to believe that literature itself is a form of action, words are actions, fostering sensitivity, exacerbating motivation. ‘I look in the mirror and wonder if I would have been the same person if I had not read Tolstoy, Faulkner, Don Quixote. No, I think those stories have made me what I am.’ He extols the virtues of literature to ‘break provincial barriers’, create fraternity with those unlike ourselves, and enable us to change for the better.

His dream to be a storyteller, ‘the oldest vocation in the world’, was realized in the Amazon rainforest, where he saw how the entire community was held together by myth and stories, allowing people to know that they were not alone in the immensity. His decision that he would live by his pen was a psychological turning point, but ‘if I wait for inspiration I could wait forever. When you are not born a genius you can fill in the gaps with discipline, hard work, stubbornness, obsession. I work in a very disciplined way. Flaws can become virtues if you have determination and Flaubertian passion to break limitations’.

‘Insecurity is my greatest enemy,’ he confessed. A stirring voice from the audience wished to know more about his notorious real-life enemies. Vargas Llosa insisted that writers, like everyone else, have friends, enemies, phobias. He drew a distinction between ‘the public figure’ of the writer, and the ‘deep, repressed, irrational being, that core element of dark personality, that is released out of the cage when writing’. Audience questions can indeed be a highlight of the festivals.

Hailing from a landscape closer to the Welsh roots of the festival was the voice of a writer with a gripe to air. As co-founder of Friends of the Earth, Robert Minhinnick has a keen sensibility for the natural world, using the powerful image of the sea, ever in flux, to pose the question: are we able to change ourselves or are we stuck? However, ‘Most people who review novels are middle-class English people and they would inevitably describe a Welsh seaside town as “tawdry”, but I have lived close to that environment and I know it’s much more than that. This is the problem with that class system of British reviewing’. His interviewer, festival director Peter Florence, asks: ‘Do you see yourself as a transnationalist?’ As the Spanish sun shines outside the packed auditorium, Minhinnick muses: ‘As a writer you should never define yourself because that is to diminish yourself. I would like to think that people thought I came from nowhere’.

The same sun warms our disparate countries and it burned generously in Mumbai. Less reliable was the electricity supply. At the Kitab Festival the power cut out in the midst of a reading, bathing us in darkness, but candles were soon produced, endowing the room with even more atmosphere. Setting alight the festival with their words were writers including Amit Chaudhuri, Sonia Faleiro, Shobhaa De, Geoff Dyer, Toby Litt, Helen Simpson, Philip Hensher, and Esther Freud. It is such unexpected mishaps – the element of unpredictability rearing its head in plans; chaos amidst the order – that can cause both the pain and pleasure of a festival.

Wherever in the world, be it West or East, across land, water, desert and rainforest, what is shared is the impulse to tell stories. ‘The essence of human tragedy is in loneliness’, wrote Thomas Wolfe, and it is the epigraph to Matthew D’Ancona’s novel. Literary festivals can be a brief respite from the solitude as writers honestly reveal the fears and fascinations at the heart of the writing life, politicians debate what might make a better world, environmentalists discuss ways to save our planet, and comedians tickle our funny bones.

As we sat beneath the great stone arches of a Segovian church, Michael Ondaatje described how he drew strong literary inspiration from other arts; that it is possible to learn much about how to structure a novel, for example, by examining architecture, as painting, too, inspired the poetry of Octavio Paz. Indeed, the most powerful festivals are those which interweave art forms: at Hay the words which pervade the day give way to evenings of music, with stunning performances from among others the Amit Chaudhuri Band, South African legend Hugh Masekela, Asian Dub Foundation, Jane Birkin, and a dazzling display from a group of Kenyans, who fused elements of drama and music to explore the concept of tribe. Such intermingling serves to shed greater truth into the mysterious workings of art.


Photograph by Zach Beauvais

A question of identity
Jhumpa Lahiri and Mavis Gallant