Liverpool and Ross-on-Wye events postponed

I’m very sorry to say that for health reasons I’ve had to postpone this week’s #EveryoneBrave events in Liverpool tonight and in Ross-on-Wye on Friday night. (The events in Corbridge on Wednesday and Birmingham on Thursday will go ahead as planned, and the rest of the tour is unaffected.)

The two venues concerned are being considerate and unselfish by not giving the reasons for the postponement, so I want to say it here to make the point that it certainly isn’t those booksellers’ fault.

I hate to let down all the kind readers and incredibly supportive booksellers who will be affected – especially at such short notice. If you’ve made plans to be at the events and this has messed things up, I’m so sorry.

I was hugely looking forward to these two evenings and I wouldn’t postpone unless I had to. (The reason is that just before the start of this tour I had emergency surgery for appendicitis, which has left small issues that I won’t bore you with but do need to deal with.)

Three things:

(1) If you were planning to be at one of the postponed events – I know it’s only a small thing but – I can sign, personalise and send a book plate & bookmark to you, which is at least some kind of substitute for having your copy signed. Do get in touch via Twitter if you would like this.

(2) We will of course work to reschedule the events.

(3) Thank you for your kindness and your interest in my books. It means the world that you are always there for me and it is really frustrating not to be there for you in return. I am getting stronger by the day and looking forward to making this up to you when I’m back – very soon – at 100 per cent.

Thank you & all my best,

Chris Cleave

Thank you for the festival

Dear everyone involved,

I hope this short video will be my abiding memory of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2016. It’s taken during a masterclass I taught on character psychology. I’d just split the participants into random pairs and invited them to ask four specific questions to get to the heart of the other person’s character. The participants were Emiratis, Palestinians, Australians, Pakistanis, Indians, Europeans and Americans, and they came from all walks of life. Some were writers, some beginning to think of taking that step.

Having only met each other ten minutes previously, isn’t it amazing to see how readily everyone engaged with each other and with the task? They worked so hard and produced some winning ideas for novels and non-fiction projects. It’s good to know that some of these people will be keeping in contact with each other.

The 2016 edition of the Festival was the best I’ve attended: the most diverse, the biggest, and the most inter-culturally curious. I would like to say a huge thank you to the incomparable Isobel Abulhoul, to the superhuman management team, and to the incredible 1,200 volunteers who gave their time and energy to provide the Festival with its beating heart.

Thank you to Jo Browning Wroe and Annabelle Corton for moderating my sessions so brilliantly, and to Ghada Karmi for being fascinating in the session I was honoured to moderate for her.

Thanks too to every bookseller who worked so hard and so cheerfully to match books with their readers at extraordinary speed in the mad scramble after every session.

Thank you to every reporter who covered the Festival on TV, on radio and online, and who let people be involved who couldn’t be there.

I’d also like to thank my fellow writers for their many kindnesses during the week. Underneath everything it is a vocation and not a career.

The highlight of the Festival for many of us was Education Day, in which pretty much all were able to make our school visits despite the thunderstorms and flooding. I loved talking with the students and faculty at Universal American School, where the young people were effervescent and gave all kinds of hope for the future.


Most of all I would like to thank every single one of the readers I had the pleasure of meeting in the sessions and the signings. More than anyone, it was you who made the Festival. Thank you for coming in such great numbers. Thank you for engaging with books. Thank you for your questions, which were so lively and insightful that every Q&A was a blast. Thank you most of all for your smiles and your tremendous warmth in the signing lines. There is no better moment than when writer and reader shake hands over a book, since each have brought so much of themselves to it.


Safe journey and good health to everyone traveling away from the Festival today, and to everyone staying in Dubai. I’ve no doubt many of you, like me, are feeling that contrary post-festival syndrome of being exhausted and yet freshly energised. The only known cure, of course, is reading and writing: all my good wishes for both.

Until next time, with grateful thanks,

Chris Cleave

London, 14th March 2016


Why I’m not boycotting the Emirates Lit Fest 2016

I will attend the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next month, despite a sincerely argued call from the Think Twice Campaign to embargo it. Boycotting the festival, they say, “would send the message that the Dubai government must stop suppressing free thinking and free speech.” I think a boycott would send the opposite message: that free thinking and free speech are quite capable of suppressing themselves.

I admire Think Twice and feel that their campaign highlights human rights in an effective way. And I hope it goes without saying that I have undiminished respect for any authors who do choose to boycott. Though I dissent, I don’t for a moment deny either the magnitude of the issue or their moral conviction in choosing to react to it in this way.

I follow the news and I knew what Dubai was like when I signed the agreement last year to attend the Festival. In a volatile region the UAE is at a crossroads, able to move towards the West or away. It is making up its mind, which marks it as a significant place to engage with at this time. I took advice from journalist friends who cover the area, and from friends who live and have lived there. Their view is that Dubai is one of the more tolerant states in the Middle East, and that if we turn up our noses when engagement is on offer then we should not later complain if engagement is withdrawn. A festival, anywhere on earth, is held under a flag of truce.

I choose to believe in dialogue, and my starting point is that my own opinions may be in need of reform as much as those of my interlocutor’s. Festivals create opportunities for dialogue, formal and informal, on the record and off. If I were a country solely bent on suppressing free thinking and free speech, then there are several festivals I might sponsor over a literary one. I could host a symposium on surveillance methods, or an extrajudicial jamboree, but I probably wouldn’t invite a couple of hundred international writers to make unscripted and live-streamed comments in front of a paying audience.

The deeper issue, then, is whether one’s participation in any state sponsored festival equals an endorsement of the sponsor. Does the international writing community, by its engagement, sprinkle a sugar frosting of free speech on an excrescence and thereby disguise it?

The danger of selectively applying that absolute logic, of course, lies in falling into the trap of Western paternalism. I don’t boycott the French government’s cultural invitations because they bulldoze a refugee camp at Calais. I don’t shun the British Council’s outreach programmes because the UK subsidises jet fuel and sells arms to oppressive regimes. I don’t eschew the Edinburgh Book Festival because a sponsor, the Scottish Government, allows asylum seekers to be detained without trial in South Lanarkshire.

Instead I write books about these things, and I talk about them when I’m offered a platform, perhaps even if it is imperfect. I don’t use the festival to signal my position – I use the stage. At festivals, I engage. On the assumption that every country on earth is a more-or-less polished turd which its citizens must nonetheless inhabit, I engage.

I am not sufficiently sure of my worth to believe that my silence has any special weight. I don’t believe that a writer’s silence is worth more than a nurse’s or an architect’s. And in any case silence is safe, silence is easy, silence is the same default setting selected by the people who consciously boycott a conversation and by the people who merely don’t join it. My only legitimacy is as a communicator, so when I choose silence I am not being brave, but remiss.

By muzzling myself I do not claim the moral ground but surrender it to louder voices which – and here I do flatter myself – may have less of value to say. I shan’t stop touring the United States, for example, if they elect Donald Trump to the office of President. I shall continue to believe that there are hundreds of millions of Americans who deserve to remain part of the world’s cultural conversation even if they find themselves in a minority. I engage. Even after Abu Ghraib, even despite Guantanamo, even though it still has to be daily pointed out that black lives matter, I engage.

There is a whole set of presumptions in boycotting a speaking event. You presume that the speaker is unsubtle. You presume that the audience is naïve. You presume that the sponsors are inhuman and therefore immutable. But the fact is that you don’t know what I’m going to say on any given stage, and with which nuance, and to whom. You don’t know who will be in the audience, and what they will hear or understand, and what they will go on to do. You can’t evaluate the inclination of the powerful to make up their minds upon judging the arguments they hear, nor can you guess their agenda in the first place.

Furthermore, to decline to speak brings an attendant refusal to listen. In previous years, by attending Dubai, I’ve discovered things about my own country that I hadn’t learned elsewhere. What is unique about the Festival is its rendezvous between the writers of the Arab and the Western worlds. This year in Dubai in addition to presenting my own body of work I will be interviewing the Palestinian exile Ghada Karmi on stage, in front of an audience of Emirati writers and guests drawn from over 100 nationalities in the local population. I don’t know of anywhere else that could happen. I plan to speak my mind and I suppose that Ghada does too.

I will also be visiting local schools, as I do every time I go to Dubai, and where I hope I provide an inspiration – or at least a cautionary tale ­– for a large number of kids who might not otherwise get a writer visit from one end of the year to the other. I will also be teaching master classes for local adults who are at various stages of their journey with writing, and perhaps I will help in that way to speed a new and important voice towards publication.

In whatever downtime this packed – and unpaid – schedule will leave, I shall be available in the Festival’s lobby, as I am every time I attend, to enjoy hundreds of unticketed, unpredictable one-on-one conversations with readers of all stripes. If the net effect of all that is to bring darkness then I really ought to be doing more than boycotting the Festival: I ought to be boycotting myself.

It’s wrong to presume that writers attend festivals only to present our books. We go to engage with the diaspora of readers, wherever they find themselves in the world. We assume they have a good reason for being there. We go to learn from them, and from our fellow writers – and this becomes a festival’s big attraction as we age, as hustle gives way to curiosity.

I hope I don’t go to any festival unthinkingly. Nor do I go for the wine (I don’t drink) or the sun (I’ve had chunks of my skin cut out) or the relaxation (I just don’t) or the gossip (I’m interested in my fellow writers, but only really in what they write, and how they talk about their writing). Mostly I go where I’m invited, with the assumption that my hosts are complex. And in the countries that have urgent progress to make on human rights – which is all countries – I assume they’ve invited a bunch of progressives through the door because they can see some benefit in people listening to one another.

Above all I keep in mind how important it is – in an era in which dark forces on both sides seek to precipitate a clash of civilisations – to support these peaceful meetings between almost unimaginably different cultures. I wish there were a British literary festival that flew 200 Arab writers over here for a week – but until such a time, anyone curious will have to go in the other direction instead.

For Western writers to boycott Dubai would merely be well meaning self-censorship. But if Dubai ever chose to boycott Western writers – well, that would be a much more ominous occurrence. That isn’t happening, and we should soberly acknowledge the fact. My readers will know that I am not an apologist for any regime – least of all my own – but so long as our hosts have the refinement to invite us, I hope I shall have the grace to speak my mind, not turn my back.

Chris Cleave

London, 24th February 2016

Three writing tips

Here are three questions I was asked today, with my responses in case they’re of interest:

1.       What inspired you to write?
Do you mind if I respectfully turn your question on its head? Imagine that the natural tendency of a person is to examine their short life, to be curious about the lives going on all around them, and to be compelled to explore the beauty and the horror and the wonder of it all – either in writing or music, science or art – as much as we are compelled to eat, sleep or breathe. Then you could ask: What would inspire someone NOT to write, as soon as they knew their ABC? What else were they planning to use the letters for?
2.       Share 5 hacks to write better
The best writing advice I can give is not to think in terms of “hacks”. Writing is not about short cuts to reach a result. It’s about putting your mind onto a page, then reading it back to yourself, seeing how you feel about it, and redrafting. In the process both your mind and what’s on the page will be changed – sometimes by adaptive evolution, sometimes by grinding attrition, sometimes by exhilarating revolution. Recognising that a line writes you as much as you write the line is neither a spooky metaphysical statement nor a trite aphorism. It’s a radical acceptance that writing is a feedback loop, and that any finished pages spat out of the loop are a happy by-product, or spent fuel. It’s a solemn acceptance that writing is a vocation and not a profession, an end and not a means. Because the thing with a loop, of course, is that you can never get out. So, finally, it’s a lonely acceptance that readers can’t rescue you from the fire but can only witness the scorch marks it leaves on the page. The flames will consume you all alone. You need ask yourself whether you’re really after a short cut to that. On the other hand, I suppose you do have to die of something.
3.       Which is the one book that changed your life?
I’d be cheerfully suspicious of anyone over the age of thirty who claimed that one book had changed their life. Show me an older person in that state and I will show you someone who needs to read a dozen more “life-changing” books as soon as possible. Like everyone, I’ve read more-or-less widely in the canon of books that are more-or-less widely read, and I’ve been bewitched and transported as all of us have. Each time it happens, I’m reminded that life is inexhaustibly mysterious: that there is always another perspective, another way of seeing things, from some new author just around the corner. That’s why it’s important we should keep expanding the literary franchise, never allowing our minds to be dominated by one age, language, nationality, gender, sexuality or race – and certainly never by one book.

“Calais” (a short story)

By Chris Cleave, February 2016

This is an English version of a story I wrote for the French weekly “Le1”, in their special edition on the refugee camps at Calais and Dunkirk.


And so I moved to London, like half-a-million other French. The Eurostar must have passed through Calais but I didn’t notice the exact moment. I spent the journey in the bar, drinking lager from cans like the English. One must respect a nation’s culture and values.

I paid rent in advance and no one complained when I moved into my flat in Clapham. Perhaps if you are white and your migration sufficiently pathetic (from the IXème where everything reminds you of your ex-wife, to this petit-Paris where forgetting is no easier) then nobody protests that you aren’t a genuine refugee, or that you are just doing it for a better life.

The year after I arrived, an Englishwoman moved in next door. This was really a French arrondissement of London by now, but I didn’t protest. In matters of the heart I am very Schengen: I believe in the free movement of people who move me. My neighbour is attractive if you are impressed, as I am, by a look of patient sadness. (I feel nothing now for people who have never drowned.)

When I watched my new neighbour carry her life up the path in her own hands – five cardboard boxes and a weeping fig – I thought: this is one of those London films, where we mend each others’ broken heart in 115 minutes, using voiceover and montage.

My neighbour has a teenage daughter who is named after a city to which neither of them has a connection. I know this because I said, ‘That’s a cool name.’ (I really used the word ‘cool’). I said, ‘Is there a story behind it?’

She stared. ‘What?’

‘Calais. Your name. Do you have history there?’

She rolled her eyes and went inside.

Her mother said, ‘I just liked the sound of it. Paris was taken.’

It took me a moment to realise that she didn’t mean Paris was taken by Bismarck, or Hitler, but by the Hilton family.

The neighbour’s daughter inhabits her name but she has no territorial claim to it. She huddles inside the word, in squalid conditions, in a tent donated by volunteers.

Each evening a moped brings pizza for the two of them. The pizza firm is called Domino’s, and indeed the logo on the pizza boxes depicts two stylised domino pieces. My neighbour told me about a game she owns that involves matching wooden tiles, which look just like that logo. She told me the game is called Domino’s, after the pizza company. For her it’s a brand extension – like her phone case, which is styled on Disney’s Frozen. You pay extra for the branding – she tells me she knows this, she’s no fool – but you can’t help yourself if you like the brand, and that’s how they get you, isn’t it? She points to her temple, and winks, and I’m glad to be included in her ever closer union of savants.

My neighbour is not able to work, as she suffers with one of the officially recognised forms of melancholy. In consequence she receives social security. She has her daughter’s name as a wrist tattoo. The daughter goes to school but more often she stays in bed. In time she will have her own diagnosis but for now she is medically stateless, since she has left vivacity behind but hasn’t yet been granted indefinite leave to remain in either anxiety or depression. The Domino’s delivery is free because they are on a voucher scheme from the local authority. Every evening between 18:00 and 18:30 my neighbour and her daughter eat their pizzas straight from the box, watching the TV news. Afterwards they come out on the front path together to smoke.

This week the Calais refugee camp has been on TV incessantly. They asked me about it, on our shared path, while they were lighting their cigarettes and I was arriving home from the bank where I work as an analyst.

I shrugged. (I really shrugged.) I said I thought the UK would refuse the refugees, not because Cameron lacks compassion, of course – who could fail to be moved by the images, etc, etc? But because he would claim a domino effect (by which I meant that accepting these angry refugees might create a locus for more, thereby breeding more anger, even terrorism). My neighbour looked worried: did I mean it would affect her Domino’s vouchers?

When I first saw her, though – just for that minute as she walked up the path with her bruised life in cardboard and mine already unpacked – just for a moment, I believed in our shared humanity.

I have lived in London three years now and perhaps I am drinking too much. I miss my ex-wife. Sometimes I wake up thinking I am home, and then I remember it’s gone. We pass through Calais but we do not notice the exact moment.


Six things we get wrong about refugees

After initial public sympathy for drowning asylum seekers, the backlash has begun and it’s been a week of anti-refugee rhetoric in Europe. There are more than 50 million forcibly displaced people in the world. More than 27,000 refugees have died on their way to Europe since the year 2000. Why do we so quickly forget our first, instinctive feeling of empathy?

(1) We’ve forgotten that migration is heroic

We have to keep going. This is the pulse that beats in our blood as human beings. The drive to set out for some distant idea of home: this was the howl of the wind in Odysseus’s sails and the creak of the timber in Noah’s ark. It was the crunch of the gravel under the sandals of Moses’ followers as they crossed the bed of the Red Sea.

We are all the offspring of refugees. We are the descendents of those who fled from danger, and thus survived. We are an adaptable species, and our survival comes from our ability to imagine a condition of refuge, and to set out for it. We are all, as I’m sure Noah remarked at the launch ceremony, in the same boat.

Continue reading “Six things we get wrong about refugees”

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