Cymera: International and home-grown genre literature talent meets in the Scottish capital

Cymera: International and home-grown genre literature talent meets in the Scottish capital

Tom Pollock / credit: Mia Whitmore

We spent a day at the debut Cymera Festival listening to the literary wisdom of science-fiction, fantasy and horror writers

Not even the gloomy and unpredictable Edinburgh weather was capable of deterring literature lovers from converging at the inaugural edition of the Cymera Festival in the Pleasance Courtyard. The festival had an ambitious programme, with 80 authors across 50 events in only three days, aiming to represent a wide variety of themes, voices and publishing experiences.

Regardless of whether your poison of choice is science-fiction, fantasy or horror, there was something on offer for you in the Cymera programme, so it was hard to choose which events to attend when we went along for one day only. Here is a quick summary of the talks we managed to sit in on, and the inspiring things that were said.

Lauren James and Tom Pollock
The early hour of this talk might have affected the audience numbers, but it definitely did not deter both authors from engaging in some great conversation over their works. Lauren James' and Tom Pollock's latest novels (The Quiet at the End of the World and Heartstream, respectively) both engage with social media in a futuristic, sci-fi setting. While James explored what social media might mean to us in the future, and its permanence after we are gone, Pollock went slightly more Black Mirror-y and tackled the issue of intimacy in the age of social media, where friendships become so 'synthetic'.

The conversation was lively and entertaining, with some time to explore even One Direction conspiracy theories (courtesy of Tom Pollock). The event was preceded by a 'Brave New Words' reading (a Cymera initiative bolstering new voices) by A.M. Hall, reading from his debut Children of Shadows. This was the only event we attended with such a reading, but they were scattered throughout the festival; a great opportunity for emerging authors to share their work.

RJ Barker and Micah Yongo
The archetype of the assassin is one commonly resorted to by fantasy authors, but there are many ways to approach it, as it was evident to see from RJ Barker (Age of Assassins) and Micah Yongo (Lost Gods)'s engrossing conversation. From reluctant assassins to natural killers, both authors use their own versions of the assassin to explore in their works themes of betrayal, friendship and family–which those of us without murderous tendencies can more easily relate to.

The talk expanded into a conversation about their writing influences, processes and the magic systems they employ in their worlds, which gave way to the best sentence we heard all day, weaved together by RJ Barker: 'Writing is the closest to magic you can get'.

Also, now we cannot stop thinking of Miss Marple as the most ruthless of detectives, surpassing even Sherlock Holmes (as Barker animatedly defended). That's an image hard to erase from our minds!

Cymera: International and home-grown genre literature talent meets in the Scottish capital

Micah Yongo

Mythical Creatures with Sarah Maria Griffin, Alexandra Christo and Lesley Glaister
Sarah Maria Griffin was unfortunately unable to attend Cymera this year, but Alexandra Christo (To Kill a Kingdom) and Lesley Glaister (Aphra's Child) expertly explored the concepts of non-human characters as protagonists, nature vs nurture, what makes a monster and even what is humanity (to quickly shake away those post-lunch blues).

This was an eye-opening talk, where both authors explained how they use the concept of the 'monster' to create unapologetically ambitious and goal-orientated female characters, with the usual default of the human portrayed as the 'other'. Again, even in a fantasy setting, they approach topics closer to our understanding, such as blood vs. found family, finding oneself and social hierarchies. Both Christo and Glaister showed just how passionate they are about their craft, and it was an absolute delight to sneak a peek at their creative process.

Eastern-Inspired Fantasy with Zoë Marriott and Natasha Ngan
To end our day at Cymera we attended what seemed to be one of the most popular panels of the day, between Zoë Marriott (The Hand, the Eye and the Heart) and Natasha Ngan (Girls of Paper and Fire). Self-proclaimed authors of 'angry feminist books', both their latest novels infuse elements from the East into a fantasy world, which led to a great conversation on diversity in publishing, the appeal diverse stories have to readers vs the difficulty authors face when attempting to publish these books and the recurring use of stereotypes when it comes to portraying diverse characters.

Marriott and Ngan still found time to approach the often sensitive subject of white/cis/abled/straight people writing diverse stories, and the challenges they face every day as diverse authors. It was quite a lot to pack into less than an hour, but it was a very important conversation to have, and one that festivals such as Cymera should always find the space to include in their programmes.

As a first year festival, Cymera proved to be a very impressive endeavour, with plenty of room to grow for years to come. We certainly enjoyed our time there and would very much enjoy seeing it thrive, so if you are on the same boat as us do feel free to support Cymera. We look forward to seeing what 2020 has in store for Scotland's first festival of science-fiction, fantasy and horror writing.

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