Ready for Carnival with Toronto picture book writer Nadia L. Hone, who teamed up with Irene Luxbacher to create 'Malaika's Costume': read Nadia's blog post here
Philip and I were trying to work out what made this festival different to the one we went to three years ago. We decided that last time the festival had been about the amazing location, and exploring, whereas this time it was much more about the people. The festival worked us hard - we were constantly getting ready for an event, on stage, book signing, talking with the visitors who'd come to see us, talking with festival staff and volunteers, meeting other authors - but that was just what we'd asked them for, and we were happy. (Even if it did mean I only got 30 seconds riding a camel.)
The people who work for, and who travel to the Dubai Lit Fest come from EVERYWHERE, it's amazing. I got to hear from people in places I know nothing, or almost nothing about. And it makes you realise how much more interesting and complicated the world is, and how much subtlety is lost in the news coverage we get in Britain. On one of the first days when we had a bit of time, Philip and I ended up having a lunch where we lost track of time and sat for four hours talking with Egyptian journalist and author Ibrahim Farghali, author Asma Kalban (who'd been studying on the Emirates Literature Foundation writing course) and British picture book writer Smriti Prasadam-Halls.
In the Green Room lounge with Ibrahim Farghali, author of 'The Smiles of the Saints'
Without the festival, I never would have met Asma and Ibrahim...
I loved taking photos of people in these baubles. Here's Asma Kalban
...and Smriti is one of those people I always see in passing at festivals and events - I first met her in a very crowded event at the Alligator's Mouth bookshop in Richmond - but we'd never really had a proper long conversation. Meeting this group was one of the highlights of the festival for me.
Smriti Prasadam-Halls, writer of 'T-Veg' with illustrator Katherina Manolessou and 'My Alien and Me' with Tom McLaughlin
We had quite a few meals together in the amazing Anise restaurant, where you could have food from about fifteen different nationalities, each with its buffet station.
We used our meal vouchers so often in Anise that we got chatting with one of the servers, a Nigerian lady named Princess. She's a big fan of the Ankara wax print fabric I love so much, so we spent quite awhile together looking up various patterns and headscarves on the Internet. When I was having lunch with Asma, Maitha Al Khayat and Maitha's daughter, we invited Princess to our joint event, and we were so pleased when she came along! On my last day, Princess and I had big hugs and we both got a bit teary.
But that brings me to another festival highlight, my joint Pirate Picturbook Bonanza event with Emirati writer and illustrator Maitha Al Khayat. Which was so much fun! Maitha and I had met three years ago at the festival and stayed in touch a little bit by social media. But when we found out we'd both be in Dubai, we begged Yvette Judge, Carmel Rosato and the festival team to let us do something together. And they immediately said yes! Here we are in the programme, with a photo of us from 2014:
Here we are in Anise restaurant, planning our event. Maitha drew herself fully covered, so I drew myself performing in a bikini and we both howled.
I wasn't quite sure how it was going to work, performing with Maitha while she was wearing a niqab over her face. Facial expressiveness is a big thing for me, and when I first started doing library events in Leicester, it used to slightly spook me when the back row of events were filled with women in niqab. (What did they think of my events? Were they cross that I was teaching their kids to draw bums and farts? Or laughing? Or completely bewildered?) But I got used to it. I still don't like people covering their faces - I missed seeing Maitha's face, except when she took off her veil for lunch - but it's her choice (I saw that her mother and daughter don't wear it and she said her husband doesn't pressure her) so I could respect that. It was a little fiddlier for her to put on the headset microphone, but otherwise Maitha had no problem being expressive, with her eyes, her voice, and her BIG PIRATE COSTUME!
We had such a laugh when we saw each other all dressed up. Maitha comes from Ras al-Khaimah and she said it was highly unusual for someone in her culture to dress up and run around on stage like that. But she did it like a total pro, and it was great meeting lots of her family (she has five kids!) and relatives who came along. (How does anyone manage to write and illustrate books with five kids? Respect!) This group of schoolboys came all the way from Fujairah - three hours across the desert each way by bus - to see Maitha and me, which was very moving.
We thought we'd get the audience involved in making a story with us, so we got them to help us design all the details of two pirate characters, a hero and a villain. They called Maitha's 'Captain Skull' (note the bunny slippers), and mine 'Captain Garbage' (note her pet, Pete the landshark).
Then we made a pirate story, starting with Captain Skull setting off to look for treasure, an 'Epic Storytelling Cloak of Legend'. (Not all the details actually got into the comic in the fast-paced drawing frenzy, but they were discussed!).
And after we'd stormed around stage, with much sounding of ARRRRR and MARRRRHABA (which apparently is what pirates say in Arabic), we had a story! A rather mad story, which made more sense if you were there, and involved bubbles and a rabbit eating Captain Garbage, but a story that was fun making up.
A lot of the people in the audience spoke Arabic, so the event went back and forth between English and Arabic, and from what I could tell, the momentum of the event seemed to carry it along just fine. The only thing was that we never got to draw Captain Skull actually finding the Epic Storytelling Cloak of Legend. What would it look like? And then Maitha surprised me. There was a treasure chest in the middle of the stage that I thought was an empty pirate-y prop, but from it, Maitha pulled the most beautiful Epic Cloak and presented it to me in front of everyone! Here's a photo Rosie Goldsmith took of me looking hugely surprised and pleased as Maitha helps me put on my new cloak.
A little side note, just to show you the detail, isn't it lovely? Maitha got it near where she lives in Ras al-Khaimah.
Thanks so much for the cloak, and for doing the event with me, Maitha! It was amazing, for all the silliness of our event, something about it really felt like it caught the spirit of what the festival was trying to do, bringing people together in a way that's such fun that we don't mind going a little bit our of our comfort zones to try something new.
Here's a little wrap-up video from Maitha's Instagram:
Another highlight of the festival was seeing the tremendous surge of interest, pride, and excitement from the local Filipino community as two famous Filipino authors arrived: artist
Kerby Rosanes (who's based in the Philippines) and Candy Gourlay (who grew up and worked as a journalist in the Philippines but now lives and writes novels in England). The festival spanned two weeks, so I was sad I didn't get a chance to meet Kerby. But I'd recommended Candy to the festival, mostly because she's a terrific writer and speaker, but also because we'd been talking about the Filipino community in Dubai and I knew she'd be hugely inspiring. And she was! She was rushed about to a whole series of impromptu Filipino engagements organised outside the festival as well as her festival events. They even made a media splash back in the Philippines:
Three years ago, Candy and I talked about how a lot of people knew Filipinos in the roles of domestic servants. But things are changing in Dubai; Candy says the Filipino population is now about 700,000, and the city boasts four big Filipino schools. As more people arrive, people in the community help each other out, and gradually Filipinos are getting more prestigious and well-paid jobs. It sounds like a good change, and from what I can tell, Dubai is all about change; everything's new, and shifting, and Dubai in three more years might again be a very different place.
From The Gulf Today newspaper on 12 March
Candy speaking on Dubai Eye live radio
Whatever's happening with ever-changing Dubai, the locals seem to love their books. I've honestly never seen such enthusiastic audiences anywhere. Kids were totally prepared, they had excellent, well-thought-through questions, and they were right there with speakers from the start. Sometimes British (and Spanish, Norwegian) kids can hang back a bit, or start off a bit cool so they have to be warmed up, but the local kids, even the older ones, didn't seem to mind looking enthusiastic right away in front of grownups, and it was hugely refreshing and encouraging. I got to go to Philip's Railhead event, where the questions were superb:
Look at this bookmark custom-made by young Viraaj Suvarna. (Those are authors Piers Torday and Smitri in the background.)
And the schools understood that it was important for each child and teacher to meet the authors and get their book signed, so instead of being rushed off to catch buses (as is so depressingly common in Britain), the classes waited, hours, until each kid had their signed book. Here's a video where you can get a peek at my Pugs of the Frozen North school event with Philip Reeve:
And the festival stocked BOOKS! So many books! Magrudy's booksellers were amazing.
The other cool schools thing was that there was loads of visual art surrounding the festival. There was even a Fringe festival, with a lot of events taking place in the adjacent shopping mall. Here's one of the dance troupes:
I was rather awed to walk into the big shopping mall and see the exhibition front and centre, with a portrait of... ME! ... right at the front. What??!
Check this out, it's amazing; the artists have included so many characters from books I've worked on: When Titus Took the Train, Cakes in Space, Oliver and the Seawigs, There's a Shark in the Bath, Morris the Mankiest Monster, Dinosaur Police, Jampires, even some fan art that I'd painted for authors Sue Eves and Garen Ewing! (So a tribute to tributes!)
Thanks so much to all the artists!
So much fab art on display:
Loved this balloon mural from 7- and 11-year-olds at the Swiss International School Dubai:
And there was another art exhibition inside the hotel conference area, run by Drawings By Me. I spotted a couple that had some strong Pugs of the Frozen North influence. :)
Before the festival, I'd been working like crazy to finish illustrating a picture book Philip Reeve and I created for the festival's sponsor, Emirates Airlines. And I was so proud to be able to show it off! Including to a bunch of people who look most excellent in their red hats.
It's called Monkey on a Plane! and you can read it online on the Flight Time Stories website - do have a peek!
I had a goal for the festival, to nab myself one of those red hats. In fact, this was my goal in 2014, and I failed that time.
And guess what... I never did get a red hat. But. BUT! I got to try one on! AND pretend I was a air hostess. I was more than a little pleased about this.
You know what? I am doing this blog completely out of order. I've given you some of my highlights, but let me start from the beginning. One of the cool things about having Emirates sponsor the festival is that all the authors get to fly Business Class. Which, from what I usually see passing through cabins on the way to Economy, is better than most airline's First Class. So we revelled in it. In fact, Philip and I got to Heathrow FOUR hours early so we could make use of the lounge and eat all their food.
(Okay, we didn't eat ALL their food, there was too much food. But we made a dent.) We wondered whom we might see from the festival in the lounge, and the first person turned out to be children's book writer Abi Elphinstone!
I asked the very nice air steward if I could have my own Enrico monkey and he went to the back and found one for me.
Philip and I were even part of the in-flight entertainment! :D
Here's the view of the creek from my room and from the breakfast terrace, with traditional wooden ships being built:
On the evening of the day we arrived, we all went on coaches to the sleek modern Etihad Museum and had drinks with other authors and friends of the festival, then a pre-dinner tour.
Photo by Candy Gourlay
Photo by Candy Gourlay
Corwall-based author (and organiser of the North Cornwall Book Festival) Patrick Gale:
Oh, and who is that yellow bumblebee in the papers.
The museum had a lot of stamps. (I used to collect stamps when I was little. I love stamps. I have a bunch of the same stamps they have.)
Etihad Museum looks cool lit up at night.
And these guys serenaded(?) us out, with much clacking of sticks. That was cool, too.
And we had dinner by the beautiful fountain lake there, across from the museum and the pavilion commemorating where leaders from the different emirates got together and signed a paper, agreeing they would form the United Arab Emirates.
You can just about spot British author Frances Hardinge on the right, in her hat. (Philip is also wearing a fine hat that was formely a table decoration.)
Philip and I did lots of events, together and separately, but one of them was a Comic Jam workshop, splendidly staffed by this group:
If you don't know what a Comic Jam is, here's a video guide I've made with BookTrust about how to do it (which you can also use in classrooms). Or there's a more quick-and-simple version on my Jampires website with David O'Connell. Basically one person draws the first panel, a second person draws the second panel, and you keep passing it around until you have your story. Here are a couple of quick ones Philip and I took turns drawing, on the spot:
Here we are, right after our Jinks & O'Hare Funfair Repair event, in the interview room posing with Emirati spoken word poet Afra Atiq.
And here are Nonny and Tarini, who introduced us on stage!
I did manage to go on a couple outings, including 'Desert Stanzas', an evening of food and poetry in the desert (and a very short camel ride):
Smriti, Philip and I also took a cab out to Jumeirah Beach, where we had a night paddle in the surf:
To the backdrop of huge tower blocks:
It was quite a long drive there, so we decided to see if we could get the Dubai Metro back, and after a little tram ride, the Metro line went right to our 'Emirates' stop. I sent this photo to my husband Stuart, he loves public transport.
On the last evening, we got to see the FIRE FOUNTAIN do its thing right outside the Festival City hotel complex.
A few more Green Room shots; here's legendary British illustrator Michael Foreman and his wife and manager Louise Foreman:
Candy Gourlay with perfume empire builder Jo Malone MBE:
Comedian and author Ben Miller:
Journalist and author (including I Am Malala) Christina Lamb:
Author Andy Stanton with Philip, Maitha and me:
Author Frances Hardinge with Maitha and me:
With Paul Blezard (who has hosted several of our Big Draw events in the past):
With filmmaker Piyush Jha:
With Jamaican, British-based writer and poet Kei Miller, Canadian picture book writer Nadia L. Hohn, and Nadia's sister Tierra in the centre:
Nadia's costume so perfectly set off her new book! Let me show off a few images from it, illustrated by Irene Luxbacher:
Dubai-based British writer Rachel Hamilton and the festival team's Annabelle Corton:
Maitha with Science Fiction writer Noura Al Noman (whom I met at the previous festival):
Candy, with Kei and British author Tanya Landman:
Broadcaster and journalist Georgina Godwin, spotting the magazine connected with her radio show in the airport:
Journalist Rosie Goldsmith:
Amazingly efficient Jo James of the Green Room, letting Maitha, Piers and me play with the Virtual Reality headset:
Chief Operating Officer and overall hero Yvette Judge:
Festival founder, founder of Magrudy's bookstores and inspiring titan Isobel Abulhoul:
There's still so much more to say, but I think I'd better finish as this blog is already unreadably long! Let me just end with a few photos of the amazing Emirates Lit Fest team, who were so big-hearted, dedicated, and made everything run so smoothly! A big thank you to Isobel Abulhoul, Yvette Judge, my contacts Carmel Rosato, Monita Mohan and Mary Ann Miranda, and all the staff and volunteers!
I miss everyone already!! xxx