Forms and influences at the Dublin International Literature Festival

Martin Colthorpe, program director of Dublin International Literature Festival, presents the Forms and Influences series at this year’s ILDF bash, which takes place online May 20-30.

Our series Forms and influences at this year’s Dublin International Literature Festival, takes its title from a strand of Lydia Davis’ book Testing, which the author adapted from lectures she gave at New York University. And oh to have been in the amphitheater!

Her appearance represents something of a flagship event, and she will be in conversation with Brian Dillon, a writer with a special fascination with the essay form, both as a practitioner and as a critic. To reserve the festival audience, he is best known as a writer, but Dillon is also a longtime editor of Cabinet magazine, and it is under these auspices that he organized this memorable exhibition, Curiosity: the art and the pleasure of knowing at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate in 2013.

Both conservation and curiosity stem from similar, if not exactly the same, etymological roots. Towards the end of the 14th, their meanings began to converge around the meaning of “take care”. There is something curatorial about the act of putting together a collection of essays, and many books in Forms and influences borrow, perhaps, some of the elements of making exhibitions: ordering the value of a career of material, inclusion and exclusion, and thematic. To make an exhibition of oneself, but not in the usual sense!

Rachel Kushner (Photo: Chloe Aftel)

Vivian Gornick’s Looking at length, begins with his most recent writings and takes nearly 50 years back to his emergence as a critic on The voice of the village. Salman Rushdie, in Tongues of truth and Rachel Kushner, in The crowd lasts, have carefully selected writings from the past two decades in the creation of their books.

Salman Rushdie (Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

But the composition of an essay book takes many forms, and two of the authors of Forms and influences take a different approach: Hanif Abdurraqib and André Aciman. Their collections of essays come from a singular idea, from a specific lens through which to frame their cultural influences.

Aciman, perhaps best known for Call me by your name, and the film adaptation that followed, has always been a writer fascinated by place, time and migration, and this is beautifully captured in his new book Homo Irrealis. The “unreal mood” according to Aciman, “does not concern the present, nor the past, nor the future, but what could have been but never was, but could in theory still happen”. If that sounds cryptic, if not elusive, then you are right. But in a wonderful collection that encompasses the writing of WG Sebald, the films of Eric Rohmer, the music of Beethoven and even the making of a souffle, Aciman identifies a particular mood that unites each essay and in doing so acquires a wonderful sense. theme and tone throughout the book.

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Listen: André Aciman chats with RTÉ Arena

Like Aciman, poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib’s A little devil in America is a sui generis work, although its source material could not be more distinct. It reflects its own personal black performance cosmos, from Josephine Baker in the 1920s in Paris to Whitney Houston at the Soul Train Music Awards. In a bravery essay “ Nine Considerations of Black People in Space, ” he combines meditations on Michael Jackson’s moonwalk with the performance of black actor Bill Bailey in the neglected 1943 film, Cabin in the sky, to Afrofuturism, a genre that exists because “the white American imagination has rarely thought of inserting blacks into futuristic settings”. This excellent book is partly a personal anthology, partly an alternative history of popular culture.

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Listen: Hanif Abdurraqib speaks with RTÉ Arena

Since Michel de Montaigne published his Testing in 1580, critics argued over the parameters of the form. In his 2017 book EssayismBrian Dillon substantially avoids the question, preferring instead to reflect on one of their essential qualities, which he defines as an “experience of attention.

For this humble reader, their pleasures are as much digression, widening horizons, as much as zooming in. A continuous odyssey of YouTube clips, spotify searches, even bookstore releases! I recommend that you take the time to explore the forms and influences offered by these writers and, in doing so, discover new ones.

Dublin International Literature Festival takes place online May 20-30 – find out more here.

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