A Good Enough Mother… In Belfast

 In Diary, Events, News

This year’s Belfast Book Festival was bigger and better than ever.

‘Bigger’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘better’, particularly in the case of friendly festivals, but in this case, it did. All the warmth of previous welcomes was there, the team was as helpful as ever, and the programme was both ambitious and inclusive.
Hats off to @Sophie_Hayles at @CrescentArts, @nphegarty and their amazing team. I was back and forth to the Crescent Arts Centre several times during the BBF, and I had personal experience of the kindness and efficiency of everyone concerned.

One of the writer-stars for me was Margaret Drabble. She was in conversation with @WednesdayErskin and it was like eavesdropping on two friends having a long-overdue catch-up. I’ve read pretty much everything Margaret Drabble has ever written – but ‘The Seven Sisters’ for some reason had escaped me. I put that to rights and thoroughly enjoyed returning to her mischievous, clever, and perceptive exploration of human relationships. As always, she wears her learning lightly.

Another reason for wanting to hear Margaret Drabble speak is one that goes back several decades to my teaching days. One particularly bright student resisted all my efforts to encourage her to read widely. The ‘whys’ are complex and varied, but eventually she agreed to a challenge. We’d been discussing how stories and novels can help us feel what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin. To my astonishment, what unlocked the door of her resistance was The Millstone. The predicament of the central character and the society she came from were all light years away from this girl’s own lived experience. But the novel enthralled her. I’ve always thanked Margaret Drabble for that.

Among the other writers – and I don’t have space to name everyone – who appeared at the Belfast Book Festival were Sinéad Gleeson, Colm Tóibín, Kevin Barry, Elaine Feeney, Cecelia Ahern, Jacqueline Wilson and Martin Doyle.

Household names, for sure: but the Festival also made room for exciting initiatives. One was The Fun Fair, an informal social event to help those interested in writing build their own network of contacts.
Literary journals, such as Banshee, Pig’s Back and Abridged got a chance to talk about their excellent work; Katherine O’Donnell and Diarmuid Hester discussed Our Queer Lives with Neil Hegarty and the focus was on creativitiy as a way to explore trauma and grief.

Luciana de Melo facilitated a workshop of Stories from the Periphery. Among the texts explored was fiction from Kurdish community, a growing presence in Belfast.
First-time novelists were also represented. Aimée Walsh and Niamh Mulvey discussed their new work, Exile and The Amendments respectively. I had the pleasure of facilitating that event and we discussed the loneliness of adolescence, the power of cults, emigration, motherhood…but always coming back to the novelist’s job of creating characters, first and foremost: all else is secondary.

A Good Enough Mother

The following evening, I enjoyed being in conversation with Pallavi Padma-Uday. We discussed the writing process, along with the representations of motherhood and migration in our own work: Lola in Belfast by Pallavi, and my own new novel A Good Enough Mother.

Poetry took centre stage on several occasions with Marie Howe, Moya Cannon, Dawn Watson, Martina Evans and the Belfast Book Festival Slam 2024! presented by Poetry NI. Film poems were presented on TV in a corner of the café, where it was possible to just sit quietly and enjoy the screenings.

The BBF also hosted a Story Building Workshop for children with Paul Howard, New Picture Books with Colleen Larmoir and Ashling Lindsay, and the Irish Writers’ Centre’s Young Delegates Showcase.

Last but by no means least, Fighting Words launched their Zine: Happiness! and Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann had volunteers present every day of the festival. We located ourselves in the café and encouraged festival-goers to write messages of support to writers in prison or under duress because they have spoken truth to power.
Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann now has dozens of postcards to send to imprisoned writers, letting them know they have not been forgotten. We know from previous PEN Friends events the positive impact that such messages have. It was great to experience the wonderful response of the festival goers, and many thanks to the BBF for facilitating this initiative.
It’s uplifting to see this festival going from strength to strength. Congratulations to all concerned.


  • Margo Gorman

    Engaging write-up, which gives me an idea of what I missed this year. Great themes, perspectives and personalities.

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