The Frankfurt Book Fair: Five takeaways from sessions with Margaret Atwood, Edward Snowden and more

The event was split into two 12-hour videos streamed on the book fair’s YouTube channel

Margaret Atwood took part in a streamed session as part of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Willam Parry
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As the pandemic forced the Frankfurt Book Fair to migrate the final day of its cultural programme online, book lovers were treated to an epic line-up of author conversations on Saturday, October 17.

Split into two 12-hour videos streamed on the book fair's YouTube channel, over 40 pre-recorded events were aired that touched on various subjects ranging from global literature to history and international diplomacy to home cooking.

Taken all together, the event can be chalked as a success. Not only did it provide hours of stimulating discussions, but it helped puncture some of the general misconceptions surrounding book fairs.

While they are primarily geared towards the publishing industry, they can also be home to some of the most thought-provoking discussions surrounding the state of literature today. Here are five takeaways from some of key events of the fair.

1. Margaret Atwood’s message to be calm and carry on

With Canada being the guest of honour at this year’s book fair, one of the country’s most preeminent authors, Margaret Atwood, took part for an engrossing discussion. For the course of an hour, the Man Booker Prize winner gave her thoughts on myriad issues ranging from the global response to the coronavirus and the dark human forces powering her novels.

Courteous and with a dry wit, Atwood appealed for a collective calm amid the pandemic, stating our hyper connected world served only to heighten anxieties surrounding a situation the world faced in the past.

"People have short memories. The human race has been here lots of times before but it has been spottier because if you have don't have worldwide communication then you don't know what is going on in other place," she said.

"So the famous black death or plague annihilated a lot of people before it came to Europe but Europe didn't know much about that because they didn't have telecommunications. People thought this was the end of the world but, of course, it wasn't."

Atwood said she is always attuned to human suffering over history. It's a theme informing her two celebrated novels, 1985's The Handmaid Tale and last year's follow-up The Testaments.

"I draw on things that already happened partly because I didn't want anyone saying to me, as they did on Twitter, 'where does Margaret Atwood get this weird (ideas) from?' So I want to be able to say that it’s from the behaviour of the human race," she said.

2. The UAE’s drive for tolerance is not for show

The Abraham Accords signed by the UAE and Israel will reap cultural benefits, says Omar Saif Ghobash, Assistant Minister for Culture and Public Diplomacy.

In his session with British historian Peter Frankopan, Ghobash described how the agreement, which formally established official ties between both countries, has already resulted in a flurry of exchanges within cultural circles.

“There has been a lot of outreach from the Israelis, educational and cultural intuitions in particular, who are very interested in connecting with the emirates,” he said. “By saying that we are actually interested in talking, a tremendous set of opportunities open up and that in itself is exciting.”

Ghobash said the agreement is also in line with the UAE’s policy of promoting tolerance within the region and beyond. “It works within the overall framework of tolerance that we have been talking about for a number of years in the emirates,” he said. “It really says we are putting our money where our mouth is. We are not paying lip service to an idea and it is not a PR event. It is actually something real and deep and it will be very interesting where this takes us in the next few years.”

3. Will Edward Snowden write a spy novel?

Edward Snowden's move to blow his cover with a memoir was driven by his desire to clear the record.

The former National Security Agency contractor, who was accused in 2013 of endangering lives by releasing stolen intelligence material, said there remains a "misapprehension and misunderstanding" surrounding his actions. The memoir, Permanent Record, was a way to give his side of the story.

“The only way to draw all of these threads together and paint a coherent picture of what happened, not just with me, but the world and changing technology, was in a book," he said.

“It was really about how my life came to be and how it changed in a moment and how technology and society changed at the same time. So really it is a dual history. One of which is about myself as an individual but also of this technical moment we lived through, which is our connection to the internet, how it changed and unfortunately how it changed us.”

Considering his personal history, does Snowden have it in him to pen a killer spy novel? "I am not sure if it’s a spy novel but I have been thinking about fiction," he said. "But really, right now I am thinking about the future and what does that look like."

4. Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest work is a love letter to New York

She may have set her stories in the valleys of India and the beaches of Bali, but New York is her literary love. The US author discussed her latest novel, City of Girls, set in the New York City in the 1940s and 1950s, and described how the city is a gold mine for writers and creatives.

"The city is one of the great loves of my life and one of the names I give it is the Great Mother, because she has given everything to me," she said. "So I wanted to write a love letter to New York but not make it contemporary, but the moments that were the most glamorous in New York City. This means the 1940s. The city was on the edge. It wasn't yet a global city because America was still a provincial place. But New York City was on its way then to become a world capital and it growing in its power.”

5. Jamie Oliver says you can do a lot with little ingredients

Ever taken one look at your pantry and decided it was best to order out? British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver wants us to put our phones away and consider what we can do with the stock we have. Discussing his latest book 7 Ways, Oliver said a lot can be done with the likes of chicken breasts, salmon fillets, ground beef, eggs, potatoes, broccoli and mushrooms.

He explained how the book was inspired by the extra amount of time spent at home with his family due to the pandemic. "It has been beautiful, if not a bit stressful, at times," he said. "It gave me a chance to look at ingredients we all buy week in and week out and come up with new recipes to get out us out of our usual habits. I just wanted to create simple, exciting and affordable meals."