Writers new and old, philosophers and poets close out this year’s Emirates Airline literary festival
The discovery of new literary stars, poetry in the desert and a literary cruise with a philosopher were all part of this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
The annual book gathering, with most events held at the InterContinental Dubai Festival City, concludes Saturday with a flurry panel discussions, In Conversation sessions and book signings by a cavalcade of big literary names.
While most of the spotlight focused on the best-selling writers at the festival, such as the James Bond author Anthony Horowitz and House of Cards novelist Michael Dobbs, aspiring UAE-based writers also had a chance to shine with Friday’s awarding of the Montegrappa Writing Prize Winners.
Run for the fourth consecutive year, writers were invited to provide submissions that include a chapter and synopsis of a potential novel to be judged by UK literary critic Luigi Bonomi.
This edition’s first prize winner was the UK’s Karen Osman for her thriller “Dear Michael” and fellow compatriot Charlotte Butterfield, with her comedic entry “Very Nearly Perfect”.
Acclaimed Emirati singer Ahmed Bukhatir announced himself as a potential literary force by coming third place with his fantasy novel “Dragon Boy”.
As part of her prize, Osman will now travel to the London Book Fair in April where she will meet Bonomi to flesh out her work into a fully fledged novel and shop for a book deal.
Her chances of success is high. Previous winners Rachel Hamilton, Annabel Kantaria and Lucy Strange all received book deals soon after winning the competition. Both Hamilton and Kantaria have gone on to become successful authors and returned to the literature festival this year as guests.
“This is really a fantastic result, and I don’t know of any other book festival who does it,” Bonomi said at the awards presentation.
“We urge the writers who didn’t win to finish that manuscript – revise it and keep working at it.”
While Horowitz took the stage later that day to discuss his experience penning the latest James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, he also used the opportunity to talk about his latest project – writing the crime series New Blood, to air on the BBC this year.
After writing nearly 30 episodes for the Second World War detective drama Foyle’s War, the British author said the modern setting for New Blood was a refreshing experience.
“I wanted to write a show focusing on the Y generation,” he explained. “With Foyle’s War I think I ran out of steam, and I wanted to do something fresh with crime drama.”
Thursday night found the festival action moving away from the InterContinental to the vast openness of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve for the Desert Stanzas poetry session.
This year’s eclectic line-up included the UK’s Simon Armitage, the Afro-Guyanese poet and playwright John Agard and Emirati Nabati poet Nujoom Al Ghanem.
True to form, Armitage’s dry sense of humour delighted the audience.
“You know, I never performed in front of a horse before,” he began, before launching into a piece called “Puddle”, which he described as an ode “to the runt of the water family”.
The festival also hosted a new concept last Wednesday night with a literary cruise.
Sailing the creek aboard the Bateaux Dubai, guests enjoyed fine food, live piano jazz and the lights of the emirate’s skyline.
But the real pleasures were more cerebral than sensory – a talk from British philosopher AC Grayling. As after-dinner speakers go, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting balance of profundity, eloquence and accessibility. Oh, and he was funny, too.
“Somebody pointed out we’re going around in circles,” said Grayling of the cruise trajectory. “Rather apt for a professor of philosophy.”
The evening’s theme was What is Literature? It was a question Grayling skirted around with flair and grace.
As a former chairman of the Man Booker prize judges – a role that required him to critically consume 154 books in nine months – Grayling knows well the value of prose both profound and pitiful. But reading anything is better than nothing, he says, because it will almost always lead to more worthy fare. The evening ended with an impassioned plea to lapsed readers.
“Literature is central to the very best of us in human life, because it is in itself a great conversation. To be a reader is first to be an auditor and then eventually a participant in that great conversation,” he said.
“Imagine a society that never reads, that never tells itself another story, never reflects on what happens to who or why, what choices might be made in this very complex human universe of ours.
“So I end by saying, I do recommend literature to you – and more to the point, literature festivals.”
* Additional reporting by Rob Garratt