10 to watch: our pick of fiction authors at LitFest

We’ve been trawling the list of authors appearing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature – back in person 3-12 February – to pick out some recommendations for you. This time: fiction authors, what they wrote, and where you can see them.

In 2020 Alka Joshi found herself with a hit on her hands for her first novel, The Henna Artist – the story of 17-year-old Lakshmi who escapes an abusive marriage and reinvents herself as the most sought after henna artist in 1950s Jaipur.

It’s a great story, full of humanity and human interest with richly drawn characters and overlaid with the sights, sounds and customs of Rajasthan. It’s also well written, perhaps because Joshi – who moved from Jodhpur to the United States at the age of nine – has a background in marketing and communications. That probably helped too in fixing up a Netflix deal to develop the novel as a TV series, which does seem a no-brainer for the story. A sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, followed in 2021; and reportedly there’s as third episode in the works.

At LitFest Alka Joshi has a session of her own on The Secret Keeper of Jaipur (session 18, 4pm on 4 February, AED 65); she’s also doing a masterclass on How to Write a Bestseller, which looks unmissable (session 84, 2pm on 5 February, AED 150)

The Vanishing Half, Bennett’s second novel, has become a much-garlanded book club favourite – and within a month of publication it was reported that HBO had acquired the rights to develop a TV series with the author as executive producer.

The sprawling blockbuster is the story of twin sisters who run away from their small town in Louisiana at the age of 16 and return as adults leading starkly different lives. The novel is loaded with rich themes – what it means to be family, the intersections of class and race, how history appears much closer than one might think: … “I was aware that I was writing a book set in the past in this moment of really intense national nostalgia,” she said in an interview, “and that was something I was very suspicious about”. The whole Make America Great Again nostalgia felt a “romanticised and false vision of the past”, and “it made me very aware that I wanted to write about the past in a way that felt honest, and real”.

Brit Bennett has a solo session on The Vanishing Half (session 23, 6pm on 5 February, AED 65) and is doing a powerful-looking two-hander with C Pam Zhang titled Born in the USA – Reclaiming Your History (session 13, midday 6 February, AED 65)

David Grossman’s “ambitious high-wire act of a novel”, A Horse Walks into a Bar, won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for the year’s best fiction in translation. Set around a standup comic’s rambling and confessional routine in a comedy club in a small Israeli town, the novel unfolds to reveal a fateful (and gruesome) decision he once made. The Booker chair of judges said “we were bowled over by Grossman’s willingness to take emotional as well as stylistic risks: every sentence counts, every word matters in this supreme example of the writer’s craft”.

Born and still based in Jerusalem, Grossman has long been recognised as one of the world’s great novelists (he also a bestselling writer of fiction and children’s books) who has been translated into 36 languages.

David Grossman’s solo session on A Horse Walks into a Bar is no 15 (7pm, 4 February, AED 65). He’s also on a multi-faceted panel with Jessica Moxham, Nadiya Hussain and Sasha Bates, More than Words – Expressing the Inexpressible, which explores “the delicate art of putting difficult feelings into word” (Session 7, 10am, 6 February, AED 65)

Toshikazu Kawaguchi is a playwright and director who adapted one of his plays into a novel that became a massive success, albeit a slow burner; originally published (in Japanese) back in 2015, it’s now an international bestseller. Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a lighthearted work that sometimes pokes fun at itself; as a result it’s quirky without being whimsical, charming without being sickly.

In a Tokyo back alley the Funiculi Funicula café has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than a hundred years. It has another plus: it offers its customers the chance to travel back in time – provided they sit in the right seat, do not leave the café, travel to the past once only, and return to the present before their coffee gets cold … The novel introduces four people who intend to travel back to the past for different reasons. There are four more stories in the 2020 sequel Tales from the Café, which is exactly as sweet, as strong, as playful, and as touching as its predecessor.

Toshikazu Kawaguchi is giving a session on Before the Coffee Gets Cold in Japanese with simultaneous translation to English and Arabic (session 20, 6pm 4 February, AED 65)

C Pam Zhang’s sweeping epic How Much of These Hills Is Gold grapples with the legends of the Wild West from interesting new perspectives – race, gender, sexual identity, poverty, pubescence. Its protagonists are two destitute children of Chinese descent, Sam and Lucy, who are struggling to survive after the deaths of their impoverished parents.

The story is heavy with layers of trauma, starting with the children who dragging around their own father’s corpse as they try to find the means to bury him; alongside the family history we feel the persecution of Native American and the compulsive exploitation of the land by both desperate settlers and greedy opportunists. It is a world that is morally as well as physically rough, realised though intense attention to detail and suffused with metaphor and allusion, “a fully immersive epic drama packed with narrative riches and exquisitely crafted prose” as the SF Chronicle put it.

Zhang doesn’t have a solo session on the novel but she’s participating in two LitFest panels which will surely see her reading excerpts – Peeling the Onion with Avni Doshi, Farah Ali, Mira Sethi and Selma Debbagh (session 37, 4pm 5 February, AED 65) and Born in the USA – Reclaiming Your History with Brit Bennett (session 13, midday 6 February, AED 65)

Mira Sethi had a couple of years as an assistant book editor at The Wall Street Journal but returned to Pakistan in 2011 to pursue a successful acting career. Her 2021 fiction debut Are You Enjoying? is a collection of stories that is sometimes darkly humorous, always tender, and helps to bring modern Pakistan to life.

Her characters inhabit a culture that mixes the contemporary world and an underpinning of tradition. This conflict is fertile ground for the observant novelist, of course, and when it’s suffused with Sethi’s wit, humanity and elegant prose it makes for a great read. The title Are You Enjoying? is a question that’s directly asked to the characters: just how happy are they in the worlds they’ve created for themselves?

Mira Sethi has three appearances at LitFest: a solo session on her book Are You Enjoying? (session 16, 2pm 6 February, AED 65) plus two panels – Peeling the Onion with Avni Doshi, C Pam Zhang, Farah Ali, and Selma Debbagh (session 37, 4pm 5 February, AED 65) and the interesting Strongly Worded Letters, where the panellists – Sethi plus Annabel Kantaria, Ben Miller, and Marina Wheeler – take the opportunity to write a letter of thanks to someone who has left a lasting impression on them (session 44, 8pm 5 February, AED 65)

Born and raised in Beirut, Naji Bakhti has attracted a lot of (deserved) praise for his first novel Between Beirut and the Moon (2020) – commended by Roddy Doyle as “engrossing, warm and gloriously funny”.

The narrator is Adam, who dreams of becoming the first Arab on the moon but first has to contend with issues rather closer to home – coming of age in post-civil war Lebanon. Adam’s life lurches from from laugh out loud escapades to near death encounters as he struggles to understand the turbulent and elusive city he calls home. Adam himself embodies the country, of course, with its contrasts, its immaturity, and its genesis in the often uncomfortable marriage of two faiths (Adam himself comes from a Christian-Muslim family). He also breaks the fourth wall frequently to address the reader with regular ‘Arab-splaining’ (perhaps ‘Leb-splaining’ too); Bakhti has said he’s very aware of “that gap between the world the narrator lives in and the world the presumed reader might live in”. It’s a great read, and it’s one that has much to say about Lebanon.

Naji Bakhti is on the panel for a session on dark humour in writing, The Joke’s On Us, with Ben Bailey Smith and Jenny Lawson (session 64, 4pm, 13 February, AED 65)

Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer of prose, plays and essays who trained as a human rights lawyer before she started writing fiction. Her short fiction has been published by International PEN, Granta and the British Council and appears in several anthologies; her first novel, Out of It, set between Gaza, London and the Gulf, was published in 2011 and was listed as a Guardian Book of the Year.

Last year she edited an anthology of her own, We Wrote In Symbols; Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers. This book has been described as “groundbreaking”; Arabic literature has a long tradition of erotic writing, and much of it has been produced by women. Dabbagh’s celebration of this largely unsung corpus includes poetry, biographical anecdotes and (septically) short stories in Arabic, French and English by more than 75 writers. “These voices are furious, witty, outrageous, tender and entranced,” wrote Marina Warner. “This collection offers much delightful entertainment and fresh perspectives on women and sex in the Middle East.”

Selma Dabbagh shares a session with Noor Naga titled Between the Covers: Desire in Arab Writing (session 22, 4pm 6 February, AED 65. She’s also on the Peeling the Onion panel session with Avni Doshi, C Pam Zhang, Farah Ali, and Mira Sethi (session 37, 4pm 5 February, AED 65). And she‘s running a practical workshop titled Location, Location, Location – Bring Your Setting To Life (session 802, 10am 6 February, AED 200)

An addictive, dark psychological thriller, My Best Friend’s Murder won the Montegrappa Writing Prize at the Emirates Literature Festival in 2019. The author is Polly Phillips, a former journalist from the UK and at the time a corporate communications consultant in Dubai who currently lives in Australia.

Her novel focuses on a friendship between two women that is built on a toxic passive-aggressiveness. There’s a destructive secret burning away at its core; the tension ramps up, and you probably won’t be able to anticipate the dark twists at the end … It’s not just the plotting, which is essential for any thriller; the characters are strongly drawn and credible, the writing is taut and compelling.

Polly Philips figures in two sessions on writing about crime. She shares the stage with David Eagleman, Stephen Graham Jones and Walid Owda for Fear Factory (session 54, 8pm 11 February, AED 65) and the following day joins Felicia Yap, Lucy Foley and Mark Billingham for Originality in Crime Fiction – A Stab in the Dark? (session 75, 6pm 12 February, AED 65)

Felicia Yap is something of a phenomenon. She grew up in Kuala Lumpur, took a degree in biochemistry at Imperial College London, followed that with a doctorate in history at Cambridge University, and has been a biologist, a war historian, a technology journalist, a theatre critic, and a catwalk model.

She also writes mind-bending high-concept thrillers; her debut, Yesterday, features two kinds of people – ‘monos’ who can only remember what happened yesterday and the superior ‘duos’ who can also remember the day before yesterday. In lieu of an actual rememberable past, they all rely on their iDiaries. That has been followed by Future Perfect, a near-future novel where Alexa is never wrong – shortly after a terrorist attack, it/she tells Police Commissioner Christian Verger that he has a 99.74% chance of dying within the next 24 hours … the result makes for a tense and suspenseful race against time. Said one review: “this deftly plotted thriller will make you ruminate about the digital footprints we all leave behind and how they could ultimately define us in a world of ever-advancing technology”.

Felicity Yap has a solo session on Future Perfect (Session 61, 6pm 13 February, AED 65). Unsurprisingly, she is also on the panel for Originality in Crime Fiction – A Stab in the Dark? with Lucy Foley, Mark Billingham and Polly Phillips (Session 75, 6pm 12 February, AED 65)

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