As our festival is celebrating its tenth anniversary this spring, a look back from an international viewpoint by Jason Goodwin is in store. In the meantime, enjoy his wonderful piece from 2014.
The success of the annual HeadRead Festival must have something to do with the seasonal thaw. Summer is on its way – and Headread can’t be far behind. Birds sing, writers chat, and audiences gather…
Other festivals around Europe may be bigger, or more focused on genre, but none do quite so much as HeadRead to showcase the work of writers from different traditions, working in separate genres – or in none; writers from different backgrounds and countries, at different stages in their writing careers.
It’s this mix that draws so many of the world’s leading writers to the HeadRead festival, and explains why authors as popular and diverse as Boris Akunin and David Mitchell, Tom Stoppard and Jennifer Johnston, have all spent time at HeadRead over recent years. The line-up is always spectacular. Zinovy Zinik brought his unique brand of surreal penetration to the stage, sharing a topsy turvy story of mistaken identity and false memory. Rawi Hage discussed exile and taxi driving. Madeleine Thien bore witness to the dislocation of Cambodia. Simon Sebag Montefiore talked about Stalin with the former PM. Christopher MacLehose described his career as a publisher of international fiction and memoir. M.C. Beaton reduced an audience to helpless laughter – and afterwards declared she had never met so many nice people in one place. Sofi Oksanen talked about recent history; Keith Lowe recalled the opposition movements of the post-War world. The list goes on – Nabila Sharma and Claus Ankersen, Indrek Hargla and Selina Guinness, Vincent Woods, Natasha Cooper, Marina Stepnova…
From the moment guests arrive to the moment they leave, every event – every talk, every interview – is a shared event. There is a genuine camaraderie among the visitors, built out of their shared experiences at the festival, out of the easy hospitality of their Estonian hosts and publishers, and out of an appreciation of the mysterious alchemy that has assembled them all here, in Tallinn, at the beginning of summer.
HeadRead puts everyone together, weaving the conversation between the writers themselves, and between them and their audience. The formal events punctuate a sequence of friendly receptions, parties and dinners, and conversation continues in the cafes, and in the lobbies. For many of us it epitomizes what time spent with writers and readers ought to mean.
So often at festivals a writer parachutes in, delivers his or her thoughts, and then rolls aside to make way for the next event: this is the production line model of a festival, the classroom model. Literary Fordism is an efficient way of promoting a book: title, name check, content. Add a signing session – and the job’s done.
But HeadRead is a lot more interesting, for authors and their readers – it’s like a fantastical weekend in a rambling country house, or a gathering of a Round Table. Needless to say, visitors discover fairytale aspects to old Tallinn, with its spires and city walls, its lower and upper town, the cobbled streets, the promenade along the shore. Tallinn has an almost allegorical quality, to those of us who come from cities more sprawling and diffuse: where else would one find a playwright discussing freedom with a president, or listen to a talk delivered to an audience sprinkled with ambassadors and Cabinet Ministers? Here are writers, used to describing our world, or distilling a common experience of it, in conversation with the people who are shaping it. What that entails is a sharing of viewpoints, at the very least.
History has something to do with it, too, and the experience of language. Estonians don’t speak with one voice, or address themselves to one issue, but over the years I’ve come to sense that giving voice is important, perhaps especially in a country where the right to speak has been regularly suppressed. There’s a powerful link between the urge to self-expression, freedom, and the telling of stories. Even as Europeans, language expresses who Estonians are.
Writers may be in a good position to appreciate that experience, which echoes their own. Writers deal in language: it is what interests them. They create, and record, many voices, too – their own, the voices of others, voices of the past and of the imagination. In Estonia, it feels language still matters: freighted with allusions, accretions, rhymes and hidden echoes of the shared past. And with it remains the instinct to listen – to hear on one’s own terms the voices from elsewhere.
Last year, before the festival began, I had a chance to visit Hiiumaa, ringed with those extraordinary lighthouses beaming out to sea. At night, in the silence on the edge of the Baltic, in that eerie crepuscular half-light of the Estonian summer, I listened to an astonishing sound I have rarely, if ever, heard before. A sound that has vanished from much of Europe, where perhaps there are few people left to listen to it. It was the singing of nightingales in the woods.