Dreaming of a better future? Ali Smith, Malcolm Gladwell and more on books to inspire change

As our thoughts turn to life after the pandemic, authors from this year’s Hay festival choose books that have inspired lasting change in them

Ali Smith, novelist
Books, and all the arts, naturally and endlessly inspire change because they free up the possibilities between reality and the imagination, and the possibilities for change in us. They never stop doing this. It’s one of the reasons the current powers that be are hellbent on controlling the arts, devaluing them, removing easy access to them and controlling history’s narratives. Last week I read a debut novel called Assembly by Natasha Brown. It’s a quiet, measured call to revolution. It’s about everything that has changed and still needs to change, socially, historically, politically, personally. It’s slim in the hand, but its impact is massive; it strikes me as the kind of book that sits on the faultline between a before and an after. I could use words like elegant and brilliantly judged and literary antecedents such as Katherine Mansfield/Toni Morrison/Claudia Rankine. But it’s simpler than that. I’m full of the hope, on reading it, that this is the kind of book that doesn’t just mark the moment things change, but also makes that change possible.
Ali Smith, the author of Summer (Penguin), will present an exclusive film in collaboration with Sarah Wood at Hay festival on 6 June at 6pm.

Malcolm Gladwell, author
After I wrote my second book, Blink, I decided that there was something wrong with my writing. It was too chilly. All theory and no feeling. I had characters in my books, but the reader never got the chance to know them. I would drop a name and then charge on with the story. So I said, which writer can teach me how to engage with my characters? And my answer was: Michael Lewis. In particular Lewis’s brilliant book The Blind Side, about a wealthy white couple in Memphis, Tennessee who adopted, Good Samaritan-style, a poor black teenager they saw walking down the road. I must have read The Blind Side four times, making notes in the margins and underlining huge sections. Lewis has a gift for being patient with his subjects, and letting them speak for themselves, so the picture that emerges is authentically of them, and I wanted to figure out how to do that too. Am I now as good as him at this task? No. Of course not. But I’m better than I was, and it’s safe to say that I could never have written a book like The Bomber Mafia without the benefit of his tutelage.
Malcolm Gladwell, the author of The Bomber Mafia (Allen Lane), appears at Hay festival on 29 May at 7pm.

Imbolo Mbue, novelist
My mind is not easily changed. I can’t be convinced to drink alcohol or try any drug and yet Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind made me wonder if I should open myself to a psychedelic experience. Beyond its superb exploration of everything psychedelic, the book encouraged me to voyage deep into my own mind, understand its intricacies, find new ways to tame it and prevent it from rushing off to places it has no business going to. Not an easy task for any human, but one that I’m now committed to more than ever before.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (4th Estate) won the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction. She will be at Hay festival on 3 June at 8pm.

Sathnam Sanghera, journalist
It is natural to put authors on a pedestal, especially if, like me, you didn’t grow up surrounded with books at home. Even after I’d become a journalist, when it was suggested to me in my late 20s that I write a family memoir, my response was laughter. But it was Andrea Ashworth’s beautiful memoir Once in a House on Fire, the story of a close-knit family forced to battle poverty and abuse, and a conversation with Ashworth, that made me appreciate that it’s not always other people who write books; that the mundane details of my family life might be remarkable in their own way.
Sathnam Sanghera, the author of Empireland (Viking), will be at Hay festival on 4 June at 7pm.

Alice Roberts, anthropologist
The Panda’s Thumb by Stephen Jay Gould draws threads from many different skeins to weave rich tapestries of literature, history, philosophy and evolutionary biology. This was the first book of his essays that I read; I was about 15. Gould described debates in biology, in the 19th and 20th centuries, with such passion that it was impossible not to be completely drawn in. He made evolutionary theory understandable and approachable through metaphor, but also wrote about how scientists are human – flawed and influenced by prejudice like everyone else. He encouraged me to see science as very much part of our culture, not separate from it.
• Alice Roberts, the author of Ancestors (Simon & Schuster), will be appearing at Hay festival on 30 May at 4pm.

Guvna B, rapper and author
For me, it was The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always relentlessly strived for something more. It goes further than aspiration, I had a burning desire to achieve at a high level. This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but it was sometimes to the detriment of my mental and physical health. I’d feel the pressure to reply to emails instantly, or fit in as many meetings as I could in a day, to prove I was some kind of inspirational workaholic. Reading this book made me realise it’s OK to slow down – for the benefit of myself and my family.
• Guvna B, the author of Unspoken (Harper Inspire), will appear at Hay festival 2021 on31 May at 9pm.

Horatio Clare, writer and broadcaster
I’ve spent two years writing about how we treat distress, from insomnia and anxiety to psychosis, for my book Heavy Light. It tells the story of a breakdown, being sectioned, release and healing. The book that changed me is Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker. Whitaker shows that though drugs work in crisis, we vastly overprescribe them, swamping symptoms in chemicals, failing to address causes to scandalous effect.
Horatio Clare, author of Heavy Light: A Journey Through Madness, Mania and Healing (Chatto), will be at Hay festival on 27 May 2021 at 9pm.

Val McDermid, novelist
I was 18 and in my second year at Oxford when a friend thrust Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics on me. “You’re reading English, it’s all about lit crit, you should like it,” she said. I was intrigued. The critical perspectives we were encouraged to employ were traditional and limited. Although we were encouraged to think for ourselves, we were also discouraged from straying too far. Millett’s work was a radical eye-opener. It approached literature from a feminist perspective and felt like a bomb exploding in my brain. It was my first encounter with the intellectual underpinnings of feminism. Millett led me to the feminists and the feminists led me to the lesbians. And nothing in my life has been quite the same since.
• Val McDermid, author of Resistance (Wellcome), will be appearing at Hay festival on 1 June at 8pm.

Kehinde Andrews, academic
I picked up Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism by Stokely Carmichael because of its front cover. It was part of my parents’ extensive collection of black power books and had a bespectacled Stokely holding a shotgun over his head. I think it was meant to be powerful, but my teenage self found it amusing. However, the book completely transformed how I understood the world, explaining my own experiences of racism with a global perspective on how to fight injustice. From then on I was hooked on the literature that I now have the honour to teach.
Kehinde Andrews, author of The New Age of Empire, will be at Hay festival 2021 on 4 June at 7pm.

Jon McGregor, novelist
When I first read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House (winner of this year’s Rathbones Folio prize, for which I was a judge), I told someone that it had “expanded my feminism”. I’m still working out what I meant. I think it had something to do with this painful but scrupulously interrogative memoir teaching me that patriarchal structures have poisoned all sorts of relationships and not only heteronormative ones; that domestic violence is not only about the violent acts of men but about coercion and manipulation being taught, constantly, as an acceptable price of being in a relationship; that, again, the world is more nuanced and complex and bigger than I knew.
• Jon McGregor, author of Lean Fall Stand (4th Estate), is at Hay festival on 30 May at 3pm.

Tahmima Anam, novelist
I read Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed almost a decade ago and it completely changed the way I interact with people. The book consists of letters that people have written to Sugar, Strayed’s agony aunt alter-ego. Sugar doesn’t give advice; with every reply, she gives the writer – usually a person in pain, battling impossible demons – a true story about her own life. Not just a trite little anecdote, but a deep story that is a window into her own pain. She never soothes or merely comforts: she is 100% real. And after I read that book, I decided to be real too. I feel comfortable skipping over the froth of chitchat and going straight into a conversation. I have a genuine openness to telling stories about my own life, even painful, embarrassing, awkward ones. Sugar taught me that, and all my friendships are better for it. I revel in the real because of her.

Tahmima Anam, author of The Startup Wife (Canongate), will be at Hay festival on 3 June at 3pm.

Nina Stibbe, novelist
I hugely admired Patricia Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy but my excitement to read her novel No One Is Talking About This was tempered by the worry that I wouldn’t identify sufficiently with its “extremely online” protagonist. I mean, I tweet a bit, but not enough to be a problem. I’ve had two tiny spats and only once been cyberbullied – by a few Dawn French fans over the correct way to serve scones. Then I read it, and it astounded me. It’s not just the scrolling, reading, checking, liking, not liking, judging, validation-seeking, I realised, but the way the lying politician, the poor whale, global injustice and the pug having his nails clipped and screaming like a human, affect my mood, my creativity, my sleep and the work I’m supposed to do. It’s a beautiful love story, too, a profound and extraordinary novel with lots to say, that has guided me to a healthier relationship with my phone and my time, and changed the way I consume the news.
• Nina Stibbe, author Reasons to Be Cheerful (Viking), will appear in conversation with Patricia Lockwood at Hay festival 2021 on 28 May at 10pm.

Hafsa Zayyan, novelist and lawyer
I was raised with a very strong emphasis on education. Both my Pakistani mother and my Nigerian father brought me up in a household that espoused progressive views in the face of traditional and cultural gender norms. I first picked up Eve Was Framed by Helena Kennedy as a starry-eyed teen, when I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but not much beyond that. Eve Was Framed was my introduction to gender bias in the law and the legal profession. It explores, from a feminist perspective and with elements of intersectionality, institutional and structural misogyny in the criminal justice system and at the bar. Although it was first published in 1992 and in some aspects is now outdated, much of its content remains relevant today. It’s the book that reinforced my determination to contribute to and participate in traditionally male-dominated spaces. I’ve been inspired by Helena’s work and commitment to justice ever since.
• Hafsa Zayyan, author of We Are All Birds of Uganda (Merky), will be at Hay festival on 28 May at 3pm.

Maaza Mengiste, novelist
I first read the three volumes of Victor Klemperer’s I Shall Bear Witness soon after the 2016 American presidential election. Back then, I wanted to understand how one person living through the onset, then the collapse, of nazism managed to survive, and how he changed along the way. Klemperer’s journals are a cautionary tale, a terrifying reminder of what is possible if injustices are allowed to flourish and then become law. Over the years, I’ve recognised something else: the power of the written word to force a reckoning with official history. He insisted on keeping a record of those he knew who were murdered by the Nazis – a task that would have sent him to certain death if discovered – and in the process, make them known to future generations. His defiance and dogged belief in the power of language to restore some semblance of justice from the debris of hatred inspire me daily.
Maaza Mengiste, author of the Booker-shortlisted novel The Shadow King (Canongate) appears at Hay festival on 3 June at 2pm.

Monique Roffey, novelist
A sacred text in my home is The Myth of the Goddess by Anne Baring and Jules Cashford. I refer to it often. It’s an opus of research which uncovered that the first stories humans ever told were matrifocal and female-centric; they were the stories of the wondrous mystery of birth and rebirth. Of course they were. Our ancestors were wowed by this miracle, that babies were born and that the Earth died and re-birthed itself every year. Stories of the hunt and the quest came later. I love this book and owe Baring and Cashford a debt of gratitude. It changed my attitude to telling my stories and gave me a deep conviction of woman as agent and power image.
Monique Roffey, author of the Costa book of the year, The Mermaid of Black Conch (Peepal Tree), appears at Hay festival on 31 May at 7pm.

Peter Scott-Morgan, scientist
If long ago, in 1979, I’d not devoured I, Robot by Isaac Asimov on the slow train from Paddington to Torquay, I wouldn’t have gone on to tackle my motor neurone disease by becoming part cyborg … I’d be dead. I needed a credible reason for Imperial College to grant me a year’s sabbatical from my computing-science degree so I could live with my Torquay-based boyfriend – today my husband. By the time I reached the English riviera, I had my reason; a few years later, I received the first robotics PhD in the UK. As modern AI approaches the sophistication of Asimov’s “positronic brains”, the ethical paradoxes, robo-psychology, the three laws of robotics in this prescient anthology – first published in 1950 – are jaw-droppingly relevant. The concepts won’t just make an impact on my life (and undeath); they’ll soon dominate yours.
Peter Scott-Morgan, author of Peter 2.0: The Human Cyborg (Michael Joseph), talks to Stephen Fry at Hay festival on 29 May at 6pm.

Hollie McNish, poet
I read I Don’t Want to Go Into School by Colin McNaughton in a children’s poetry anthology when I was about eight years old and it single-handedly, in two supposedly silly, humorous, lighthearted rhyming stanzas, shattered and softened my opinions about adults and adulthood. Before this poem I’d seen adults largely in terms of the roles they played in my life – mum, uncle, teacher, nurse, local shopkeeper, lollipop man – but this poem turned them into actual human beings, full of many of the same fears and boredom and longings as kids. The ending of this poem, the idea that a head teacher could also moan to their mother about attending school, blew my little mind apart. I read it over and over again, giggling in shock.

I don’t want to go into school today; Mum,
I don’t feel like school work today.
Oh, don’t make me go to school today, Mum
Oh, please let me stay home and play.

But you must go to school, my cherub, my lamb,
If you don’t it will be a disaster,
How would they manage without you, my sweet,
After all you are the headmaster!

Hollie McNish, author of Slug (Fleet), will be appearing at Hay festival on 5 June at 5pm.

Mel Giedroyc, comedian and novelist
Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Thought of as the last epic poem in European literature, this Polish-Lithuanian masterpiece takes you into the sumptuous world of its 19th-century gentry. It is gorgeously entertaining, touching, redemptive, bittersweet and escapist. All things I needed when I used to read a chunk of it aloud every night to my mum, who was extremely ill at the age of 54. I felt that she must survive if she could only keep hearing just a bit more Pan Tadeusz from her sickbed each night. She did get to hear the end of it, and is now 84! For this reason I always think of Pan Tadeusz as being close to miraculous.

• Mel Giedroyc, author of The Best Things (Headline Review), will be appearing at Hay festival on 29 May at 8pm.

Maggie Shipstead, novelist
In 1985, when she was 18 and aimless, a New York City club kid, Tania Aebi’s father gave her a choice: she could go to university, or she could sail alone around the world. Although an inexperienced sailor and navigator, Aebi chose the circumnavigation. I stumbled on Maiden Voyage, her account of her improbable three-year adventure, in my early teens, and I was gobsmacked that a girl not much older than myself had simply raised a sail and struck off. Yes, she was afraid, but she persevered. This book made me suddenly alive to the possibilities of adventure and courage.

Maggie Shipstead, author of Great Circle (Doubleday), will be appearing at Hay festival on 28 May at 6pm.


Ali Smith, Malcolm Gladwell, Imbolo Mbue, Sathnam Sanghera, Alice Roberts, Guvna B, Horatio Clare, Val McDermid, Kehinde Andrews, Jon McGregor, Tahmima Anam, Nina Stibbe, Hafsa Zayyan, Maaza Mengiste, Monique Roffey, Peter Scott-Morgan, Hollie McNish, Mel Giedroyc and Maggie Shipstead

The GuardianTramp

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