Running a literature festival in a context where freedom of speech is not a given is like playing chess on a plain grey board. Sometimes you are just not able to imagine where to move, and sometimes you just keep playing on grey. But as US President Barack Obama said so eloquently after November’s election: “You say, OK, where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward?”
Bringing people together around a table or a picnic rug or a campfire is a specific challenge. There is no mediated distance of print or broadcast. The whole point is that you’re face to face, that you’re making it personal. And the offence and the risk are as personal as the joy and the discovery. This makes it a fascinating challenge when the practicalities of running a big public event run into conflict with the authorities who license you to put up your stages.
Sometimes it comes like this: a week after a successful festival, a man you’ve been working with for a couple of years suggests a meeting in a café to review the year’s work. He’s a good man, an enabler; a man who has the careworn look of a bureaucrat who’s survived in an undemocratic regime by knowing which battles to fight.
You like him, because he’s helped navigate the public licences and public funding avenues. He orders cake. He enthuses about the opportunity to meet Hanif Kureishi at the screening of My Beautiful Launderette, and the honour of hearing Carl Bernstein speak about the First Amendment. His funder is thrilled. They love the Hay Festival in the city. We’re in a coffee shop, not his office. They are so thrilled they’d like to double the grant they give us. Alarm bells. Could we help them? Here it comes: could we programme the next festival just the same way, but without the homosexuals or the Jews?
Sometimes it’s harder. Our first festival in volatile, thrilling Mexico comes to a world heritage site in Zacatecas, because the state’s visionary governor has visited our festival in Cartagena, Colombia, and she wants to bring a similar experience to her home. The festival is a huge success. Her term ends and she is succeeded by a new governor who cancels all his predecessor’s funded projects.
But across the country a dynamic new governor in Veracruz, Javier Duarte, picks up the baton and invites us to Xalapa. A fortnight before we start, a drug cartel dumps 35 mutilated bodies onto a busy road nearby. “It’s a gang thing, an inter-narco incident,” we’re told.
We hold the festival. Tens of thousands of students come and listen and talk and wonder.