Reading at Edinburgh International Book Festival

Category: Writing

September, and I’m on a bus. Headphones on, music shuffling, leaving the city. August has been fast and lengthy, with all its Edinburgh festivals turned up full volume, its beats-per-minute, its riffs and split-second jumps. A big scrawled mess in my head, with no space for breathing or thinking.

In addition to work, which kept me in Edinburgh all month, I had three readings at the Edinburgh Book Festival this month. I collected my pass from the Yurt (the backstage area for authors, with carpets) and kept checking that it really did say ‘Kirstin Innes, Author’ on it. I ran out to show it to the first person I recognised. ‘You’re easily impressed by laminate, huh?’ he said.

The Book Festival asked fifty writers to produce new short stories for them this year, on the theme of ‘elsewhere’. Most of the writers were Scottish or Scottish based. I was one of them, so was Allan Radcliffe, also of this New Writing parish. The original brief was: a story set somewhere else, not your home, not Scotland.

It was comforting, when it came to reading the stories, to see that many of the authors had taken a Scottish character, or a character of the same nationality as themselves, and sent them abroad. Comforting, because I spent a good couple of months trying to write a non-Scottish character when I got the commission; or at least, a non-white, Western, privileged character. I could make the imaginative leap for a few paragraphs, but they kept trailing off. In The Magic Flute, Alan Spence wrote about a ‘wee Scottish gremlin’ sitting on a character’s shoulder, muttering ‘Him? A writer? Ach, he canny be. I know his faither.’ In addition to claiming acquaintance of both my parents, my gremlin kept telling me that I just didn’t know enough to do it, to make the step convincing. The piece I ended up writing, called Horror Story, is still up on the Book Festival website. Out of frustration, and maybe to punish myself, I ended up exaggerating the character right out, making her as white and Western and oblivious as I could. I’m still not happy with it: it feels like a cop-out (both theme and story). It’s very time-consuming, this business of being Scottish and British and Western and Etcetera. A great big scrawled mass in our heads.

Before the Book Festival event that Allan Radcliffe and I read our stories at, though, there was another one. Amnesty International asked me to take part in one of their free Imprisoned Writers events, where writers who are free to walk around Charlotte Square, and soak up the sun, genteel chatter and occasional, heart-stopping glimpses of Seamus Heaney read out the words of those who aren’t, and can’t. There’s an empty chair on the stage for them, always.

Amnesty assigned the pieces themselves: my writer was Dolkar Tso, the wife of the Tibetan environmentalist Karma Samdrup. He was imprisoned this year on trumped-up charges of grave-robbing, after challenging the Chinese government’s environmental policies on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. He’s currently been given fifteen years, and the maximum sentence may be death.

I read out one of Dolkar Tso’s recent blog posts, which had been translated into English. It was called ‘Going Home’, and she was writing about taking the annual  pilgrimage her family makes back to the grass fields her parents still live on, watching her children running around and thinking to herself that they were about to grow up without a father. Simple words, long clear lines of thought. I’d never heard of either of them before I was assigned the reading; if you’re interested, the High Peaks Pure Earth site is a good place to start.

Kirstin Innes

Kirstin Innes won a New Writers Award in 2008. She co-runs Words Per Minute, a monthly spoken word, live music and film event. The next one is on Sunday 5 September at 3.30pm, at Creation Studios, 16 Trongate, Glasgow, and features Kirsty Logan, another of the New Writer bloggers.