10 to watch: our pick of fiction sessions at LitFest 2023

As usual, we’ve been trawling the list of authors appearing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to pick out some recommendations for you. This time: fiction sessions, why we like them, and where you can see them. Up next: ten non-fiction sessions.

Mohsin Hamid: The Last White Man
3 February 6.30–7.30pm @ InterContinental
Session No 72: Gold AED 75, Silver AED 60

In The Last White Man, Mohsin Hamid’s fifth novel, his protagonist, Anders, wakes up one morning to find that his skin has changed colour: in the mirror he sees not the familiar white face, but “the dark man who had been Anders” with skin that is “a deep and undeniable brown”. We never find out the reason for this transformation – shades of Kafka’s Metamorphosis – but it starts happening to everyone else across the land. Eventually there is just one white man left … and then there are none.

The result is a beautiful, incantatory allegory, an invitation for us to think about race, privilege, loss, love, belonging, and who we really are in a time of unsettling change.

Mohsin Hamid is also the author of bestselling novels Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and the Booker-nominated Exit West.

Alexander McCall Smith: Serial Storyteller
4 February 10–11am @ InterContinental
Session No 19: Gold AED 75, Silver AED 60

Alexander McCall Smith is a phenomenon of literature, a prolific writer with a broad range of interests and an enviable style. As the New York Times said: “McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humour, his gentleness and humanity, and his ability to evoke a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension have endeared his books to readers”. And the Guardian was spot on with “these books, like their author, have charm. You cannot overstate the power of this – it’s the missing ingredient in contemporary fiction”.

He is the author of over 100 books on a wide array of subjects, including the award-winning The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (over 20 million copies sold in the English language alone), the world’s longest-running serial novel 44 Scotland Street, and the Isabel Dalhousie novels (the interests of Edinburgh’s top amateur sleuth include classical music, young men and suspicious deaths). Most recently he’s embarked on the Ulf Varg series of ‘Scandi blanc’ novels set in Sweden.

This session should be informative and entertaining, essential for anyone who wants an insight into the mind of a very particular kind of writer. He should be excellent company.

Michael Lynes: Isaac Alvarez Mysteries
4 February 11.30–12.30pm @ Mohammed Bin Rashid Library
Session No 245: AED 60

Michael Lynes writes historical mysteries set in early 16th century Andalusia. He says he’s “fascinated by the interplay between cultures, globalisation and religious intolerance of the period” (this was the time of Torquemada and the Inquisition); he knows his stuff (there’s a helpful bibliography with his debut Isaac Alvarez novel, Blood Libel) and he’s able to deliver rich local colour as well a suspenseful plot. He’s also a Dubai resident and won a prize for Blood Libel at the 2020 LitFest; he’s currently on his third book in the series, The Red Citadel, to be published shortly.

Blood Libel is a great read, and Lynes should be an interesting speaker – not just because of his knowledge and his ability to deliver a great story, but also because of his journey to becoming a published author. He’s an alumnus of the Faber Academy ‘Writing a Novel’ course, for instance, and can talk authoritatively about being a new writer with a book to promote.

Kwentong Filipino – Filipino Stories: Angelo R Lacuesta, Danabelle Gutierrez & Miguel Syjuco
4 February 5.30–6.30pm @ InterContinental
Session No 20: AED 60

The Filipino diaspora comes no surprise to residents of the UAE, but beyond the Gulf it’s one of the less well publicised patterns of migration. This session gives us something of a unique opportunity to see how stories of the contemporary Filipino/Filipina work beyond the borders of the Philippines; there’s a large and growing reservoir of knowledge and commentary about identity, power, movement and economic privilege in the experience of this people, and there much to be said about the way modern Filipino writing handles it – especially, what it means to be a Filipino writer in a transnational community.

So we expect a good session from these three Filipino writers as they discuss their processes of writing, finding community through their work, and how their unique literary environments informs their careers.

Angelo R. Lacuesta is a much-awarded Filipino author who has written five short story collections, two non-fiction books, and a collection of graphic stories. His new novel, Joy, navigates a Filipino man’s ruminations of memory and identity, loss and love, after a late-night virtual message rekindles relationships abandoned after decades of distance.

Danabelle Gutierrez is a poet and writer; born in Las Piñas, raised in Cairo, Vienna, and Muscat, and now a long-term resident of Dubai, her current work centres on identity and its relation to locus and the concept of home.

Miguel Syjuco is an author, journalist, civil society advocate, and currently an Assistant Professor of Practice, Literature, and Creative Writing at NYUAD; Salman Rushdie has called Syjuco “his country’s most original and unflinching literary voice”. His latest novel, I Was the President’s Mistress!!, is highly recommended – “bawdy, fearless, insightful, delightful,” said one reviewer of this political satire.

Rhianna Pratchett: Writing Fantasy Worlds – Environmental Storytelling
4 February 7.30–8.30pm @ InterContinental
Session No 29: AED 60

There are few entertainment fields that Rhianna Pratchett hasn’t written for – video games, comics, film and TV – and she’s also co-director of Narrativia, the multi-media production company who control the rights to the works of her late father Terry Pratchett. Her favourite achievements reportedly include creating an origin story for Red Sonja’s chainmail bikini and having Lara Croft fight bad guys on the London Underground while dressed as one of the Bennet sisters, but we’d also recommend the unputdownable Campaigns & Companions: The Complete Roleplaying Guide for Pets.

She’s well qualified to talk about the way to create immersive environments for fantasy, where the look and feel matter at least as much as the narrative and the characters. It’s all about using every possible attribute to tell the story, and Rhianna Pratchett brings a wealth of experience to her craft.

Agatha Christie and the Golden Age of Crime Fiction: Lucy Worsley & Ragnar Jónasson
4 February 8.30–9.30pm @ InterContinental
Session No 167: AED 60

Agatha Christie isn’t to everyone’s taste, but she was undoubtedly one of the great influences on modern crime fiction. She was also a fascinating woman – “thrillingly, scintillatingly modern” as the historian Lucy Worsley says in her page-turner of a biography of Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman. She went surfing in Hawaii, she loved fast cars, she was intrigued by the new science of psychology, and she became an astonishingly successful working woman in a world which had strict rules about what women could and couldn’t do. That’s the ‘elusive’ element of the Agathe Christie story: why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, did Agatha present herself as a retiring Edwardian lady of leisure?

With access to personal letters and papers that have rarely been seen, Lucy Worsley’s biography is both authoritative and entertaining. It demonstrates that Agatha Christie was a pioneer, and a leader of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, an era of classic murder mystery novels published in the 1920s and 30s and still widely read today.

She’s joined in this session by Ragnar Jónasson, the Icelandic author of crime fiction responsible for the bestselling Dark Iceland and Hidden Iceland series. He is the cofounder of the Iceland Noir Festival, which is Reykjavik’s first and only international crime fiction festival. He has also translated 14 Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic, the first when he was just 17 years old (he’s now in his late 40s). “Translating her gave me the confidence to write a novel of my own,” he said. “Christie was not just an inspiration for my writing, but a support.” More than that, translating her novels meant he was able to fully comprehend her technical skill: “no other writer constructs plots so well. Her surprises are in jigsaw pieces. Her twists so simple and elegant that the tricks are fair: the clues are all there …”

Jamil Jan Kochai

Jamil Jan Kochai: The Haunting of Hajji Hotak & Other Stories
4 February 8.30–9.30pm @ InterContinental
Session No 251: AED 60

Born in an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, originally from Logar, Afghanistan, currently a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, Jamil Jan Kochai is the author of 99 Nights in Logar, a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. His latest work, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, was a 2022 National Book Award longlist selection. Critics and reviewers are definitely impressed; “a remarkable collection …seamed with sharp wit, and often hilarious … Kochai is a thrillingly gifted writer, and this collection is a pleasure to read, filled with stories at once funny and profoundly serious, formally daring, and complex in their apprehension of the contradictory yet overlapping worlds of their characters.” said Claire Messud in Harper’s.

Kochai, who these days probably counts as an Afghan-American writer, has produced a collection of stories that explore the complexities of contemporary Afghan experience both in Afghanistan and the States, mostly via an Afghan family settled in California. But it probably doesn’t make sense to try to connect the characters and the stories too literally; instead The Haunting of Hajji Hotak provides a patchwork of filial devotion, religious beliefs, family, history and the effects of endless war. It’s the latter that really resonates; Kochai’s stories are often fantastical in their description of ordinary lives lost as a result of the war. Said The Atlantic: “In a vacuum, Kochai’s characters and scenes would come off as ludicrous, but framed against the past two decades, they reveal how inured we’ve become to the strangeness of war”.

Hananah Zaheer: Lovebirds
5 February 1.30–2.30pm @ Mohammed Bin Rashid Library
Session No 259: AED 60

Hananah Zaheer is a writer, editor, improvisor and photographer. In her chapbook, Lovebirds, Hananah Zaheer has a dozen short, poignant, affecting stories, mostly about women’s relationships with power and violence. You might think that the title would suggest a sentimental, sickly-sweet view of relationships; but if anything, it’s loaded with painful irony. The characters are trapped in physical, mental, and spiritual cages. The result is a bittersweet meditation through stories that move from Pakistan to America, to a chicken coop and an apocalyptic carbon harvesting tent in a coal-choked Anywhere. And the trick with Zaheer’s writing, if that’s not too dismissive a term, is to leave the story hanging – the inconclusive, dreamlike endings invite us to fill in the gap. We know these people, we know their feelings.

Salha Al Busaidy: The End of Summer
5 February 2.30–3.30pm @ InterContinental
Session No 287: AED 60

Twenty-two-year-old Summer is a funny, stubborn, clever and very opinionated millennial Muslim woman. She’s also dead; she can only watch on as her devastated sister finds the body and calls the rest of her family. With no way back to her body and no idea how she died, Summer remains a helpless observer as members of her devoted, dysfunctional family come back home to bury her – and her secrets, jumping back and forth in time until we get to understand how she ended up dead on the bathroom floor in the first place.

The End of Summer is a lovely, heartfelt story that of family strife, cultural misfits and overdoses seen through the eyes of a child of the diaspora; and it’s funny too.

Salha Al Busaidy says she has been daydreaming, performing, and creating songs, plays and stories since she was a child. As an adult, she’s a family girl, proud Muslim, crazy cat lady, doting wife, shoe enthusiast, professional rock star, and now published author; having lived in Bahrain, London, Germany, Los Angeles, Muscat, Beirut, and Dubai, she has finally settled (for now) in Zanzibar.

Tomb of Sand: Daisy Rockwell & Geetanjali Shree
5 February 4.30–5.30pm @ InterContinental
Session No 140: AED 60

Geetanjali Shree was the first Indian writer to win the 2022 International Booker Prize with her novel Tomb of Sand, a family saga set in the shadow of the partition of India. The chair of the judging panel spoke of being “captivated by the power, the poignancy and the playfulness” of the work; “this is a luminous novel of India and partition, but one whose spellbinding brio and fierce compassion weaves youth and age, male and female, family and nation into a kaleidoscopic whole.”

It was also the first Hindi-language book to be shortlisted for the International Booker, which is awarded every year for a book that is translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland, and the £50,000 prize money has been shared by the author and the book’s translator Daisy Rockwell.

As Ms Shree said, “Behind me and this book lies a rich and flourishing literary tradition in Hindi, and in other South Asian languages. World literature will be the richer for knowing some of the finest writers in these languages”.

That will be the key motivation for this session, but we’d expect some serious insight into the empathy and the alchemy required to turn an intricate, articulate novel into an award-winning translation.

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