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The Hay Literary Festival 3rd June: Refugees and women who won’t be stereotyped

posted on 04 Jun 2017

The Hay Literary Festival 3rd June: Refugees and women who won’t be stereotyped

This event brought together Pulitzer Prize winning novels Viet Thanh Nguyen and Turkish journalist and first novelist, Ece Temelkuran. At first look this didn’t seem an entirely logical pairing of writers and it was down to the interviewer, Daniel Hahn, to try and draw out some unifying and broad themes whilst at the same time giving each of the authors a showcase for their work. Daniel is a relaxed and affable interviewer and, perhaps against the odds, he made the event flow comfortably and enabled it to address some pretty meaty issues.

Temelkuran’s novel, Women Who Blow On Knots, is set in the time of the Arab Spring is a road novel that sees three Muslim women, each motivated by very different issues, heading towards a potentially murderous objective which they may or may not fulfil. The novel has been a huge hit in Turkey despite the fact that the women challenge what seem to be the ‘accepted’ public face of what a Muslim female should be and how they should behave. Temelkuran’s purpose here is to present a simple truth but one which can’t be stated often enough – people are more than their ascribed identity; they are complex and unique and their ideas and behaviour are also complex and unique.

Both Hahn and Temelkuran were lavish in their praise for Nguyen’s most recent book of short stories, The Refugees. In explaining both the genesis and long gestation of these stories, Nguyen highlighted just how central to his understanding of himself the term ‘refugee’ is. Coming himself from a Vietnamese refugee family, he insisted that the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘immigrant’ not only describe very different sets of social expectations but also very personally different experiences. Both labels are intensely political but carry with them very different messages.

I personally could have listened to Nguyen on his own for the full hour. In the time he had he was barely able to touch on his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer, and his most recent work of non-fiction exploring the legacy of the war in Vietnam, Nothing Ever Dies. Nguyen now lives in the USA and he is keen to explore the on-going colonialism of the US and how that is distilled in the way they talk about the Vietnam War when actually they mean America’s War. Fascinating stuff.

The hour flew past – but I’m still not sure why the festival organisers yoked these two excellent writers together on one event. Each of them could have held an audience for an hour in their own right and ultimately I felt I’d been a little cheated of what could have been a really top encounter with writers who will undoubtedly go on to produce more fabulous work.

Terry Potter

June 2017