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What is the role of radicalism in Edinburgh’s literary scene?

ByJakob Tynan

Nov 21, 2019

The buzz of interested brains, the engagement and undivided attentiveness of open minds is palpable in the audience at Assembly Roxy on the bustling third day the Radical Book Fair 2019.

In its twenty-third year, the book fair is thriving, with this year’s theme of ‘Radical Hope’ guiding a programme packed full of empowering content across an array of topics – from anticolonial resistance to climate justice, with a detour via radical storytelling for kids. With speakers and panels from the worlds of academia, activism, science, and journalism, the fair has a humming atmosphere of open dialogue – a coming together of myriad shared interests under one roof – and it does indeed feel radically hopeful.

Established in 1996 and organised by stalwart of the Edinburgh bookselling and publishing scene Word Power, the Radical Book Fair has long been providing our City of Literature with an outlet for dissenting and socially engaged voices. This would certainly not change with the closure of Word Power and its transformation into the wonderful Lighthouse Books in 2016. In fact, owner and bookseller Mairi Oliver hopes only to make the event yet more inclusive, more representative and more accessible to the audiences attending and the community of which Lighthouse is part.

Briefly chatting with Mairi in the lull following an electrifying Q&A with literary scholar Priyamvada Gopal on the Saturday: she explained that the book fair’s essential relevance is what drives it forward year after year. It is always necessary to provide spaces of empowerment and radical thought, especially to showcase books and speakers who would not be included or feel welcomed in mainstream book fairs. This is a site of crossover in which books and ideas can turn into discussions and actions – as Mairi excitedly put it, a place where ideas can fizz as people talk and share, bouncing off of each other.

It was brought up at the panel on creative resistance that it can be easy to create a comfortable bubble in such a gathering of like-minded communities, in which conversations are directed to an audience already engaged and active. It is thus understandable for events in the literary scene to be perceived and experienced as exclusive or reserved for a certain crowd, especially in a city like Edinburgh. Of course, the organisers at Lighthouse are aware of these barriers to outreach, and the Radical Book Fair is testament to their commitment to supporting activism and facilitating discussions in which new perspectives abound, whilst always remaining places of supportive inclusion.

The Book Fair and the Lighthouse Book Fringe taking place in August are the two calendar highlights organised by the small team of booksellers based on West Nicolson Street, and the popularity of this week’s wide-ranging programme serves as a reminder of the collective joy to be found in coming together under a broad platform of ideas and identities.

Andrew, also of the Lighthouse team, phrased this beautifully when he admitted that the most profound moments of his career as a bookseller have been talking to those attending the Radical Book Fair, hearing their stories of bringing to life the ethos of a radical hopefulness out in the world. Considering that Lighthouse’s beginnings coincided with the disheartening mainstream surprises of Trump’s win and Brexit’s upset, it seems only more vital that these small-scale cultural events in the UK and worldwide can continue to galvanise and inspire.

The proliferation of literary events, groups and festivals in Edinburgh makes the city a natural home for the Radical Book Fair, and it’s quite thrilling to know that after spending an afternoon absorbing ideas you can always wander to a local poetry open mic or a storytelling workshop and keep that spirit alive. Such vanguard events can feel few and far between, but without a doubt it is this opportunity for engagement, this relevance of content and this urgency for such spaces and platforms of resistance and community that will see Edinburgh’s Radical Book Fair return next year and onwards, into a future hopefully all the better for the labour of a few radicals.


The Radical Book Fair ran from 14-17 November 2019 at Assembly Roxy.


Image: Edinburgh’s Radical Book Fair

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