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Features / AyeWrite! founder Cunningham to bring fresh ideas to Wordplay literary festival

Wordplay curator Karen Cunningham (centre) pictured with Cara McDiarmid (left) and Floortje Robertson (right) of Shetland Arts. Photo: Jenny Leask.

THE FOUNDER of Glasgow’s popular AyeWrite! literary festival has been appointed as the curator of this year’s Wordplay event.

Karen Cunningham, who also worked as head of Glasgow’s libraries for a number of years, said the role offered a “dream” opportunity to work in the isles.

She visited Shetland on Tuesday to kick-start her first day in the job with a number of meetings and appointments before heading back south the next day to continue her work.

Cunningham said she will be happy to “open up her contacts book and do a bit of arm-twisting” in an attempt to bring leading names from areas like literature, politics and journalism to the annual Shetland Arts book and writing festival.

A consultation was previously held by the organisation into Wordplay, which has run since 2001, and one key issue raised by respondents was a perceived lack of high-profile names.

“I hope that what we can do is rebuild Wordplay and build on what’s happened, but maybe also kind of take a slightly different direction,” Cunningham told Shetland News.

“It has to be inspiring, it has to be challenging, it has to be the highest quality that we can aspire to. But above all, I think it has to be celebratory. If you get all of those elements right, hopefully you get the level of participation and engagement that gives it a buzz and make it feel successful.

Cunningham founded Glasgow's popular AyeWrite! literary festival. Photo: Jenny Leask.

“I think if we’re ambitious enough – and I’m certainly getting the feeling of aspiration and ambition from the people I’ve been talking to – then I think we can pull off that together and make it work.”

Cunningham has regularly travelled north to Shetland over the last number of years to visit friends and she hopes the role will enable her to “get to know the islands a bit better, and get to know the people a bit better.”

The programme for this year’s Wordplay is still firmly under wraps, but she is planning to tap into VisitScotland’s labelling of 2017 as the year of history, heritage and archaeology.

However, it looks set to straddle a broad range of themes and topics in an attempt to entice all walks of life to the written word.

Last year the festival saw the likes of Scots Makar Jackie Kay, writer Kevin MacNeil and comic book artist Edward Ross attend, while there were numerous readings and workshops.

“I really want all ages to be involved, but from all parts – I want to try to do a programme that appeals to all elements of Shetland society, including the fishermen, the oil guys, the farmers, as well as the readers and writers,” Cunningham said.

“I know there’s a really strong community there – they’re probably the ones that are quite easy to engage and to think of the things that are going to reach out to that different audience. I think that’s what we managed to do in Glasgow. It was a book festival that appealed to people that don’t usually go to book festivals.”

Cunningham will start having meetings with major national organisations such as the Scottish Book Trust, Scottish Poetry Library and the National Library of Scotland – “let’s just get everyone rallying around and putting in as much as possible” – to get the ball rolling.

Behind her enviable connections and big-name contacts, however, is an underlying passion for the written word and it’s potential to “transform people’s lives”.

“I was a fanatical reader when I was a child. I did English literature at Glasgow University and became a librarian, that was my career path,” Cunningham said.

“I believe very, very strongly in the power of books and reading to transform people’s lives. Literacy for me is a fundamental human right and the ability to get the information you need to survive is basic, and it’s something that we take for granted in this country.

“But at the same time, I don’t think that we can, because literacy rates aren’t great. Across Scotland we’ve got 20 per cent of kids leaving school who are still struggling with literacy issues. I think one of the ways of overcoming that challenge is making it exciting, inspiring and relevant to people.”

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