Stranger than fiction: Authors who’ve lived extraordinary lives

This year’s Festival features a wealth of authors who explore, confront, question and challenge life as we know it. These authors offer up breathtaking true stories that plumb the very heart of human nature — in all its flawed and complex glory. Read about some of the finest non-fiction writers on the line-up whose powerful writing is matched only by the extraordinary circumstances of their lives.

Name: Francisco Cantú

Latest book: The Line Becomes a River

At age 23, Arizona-born Francisco Cantú joined the US Border Patrol. He worked as an agent for four years, patrolling the often-deadly stretches of desert border in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. His subsequent memoir, The Line Becomes a River is a devastating, sometimes dreamlike and always compelling look at the people caught up in the politics of immigration: from the migrants risking their lives to cross the border, to the drug smugglers making a killing (in both senses of the word), to the Border Patrol agents tasked with defending a line in the sand.

This is a chance to: hear a different perspective on border control, from someone who’s lived it.

Read an excerpt: “Maybe it’s the desert, maybe it’s the closeness of life and death, maybe it’s the tension between the two cultures we carry inside us. Whatever it is, I’ll never understand it unless I’m close to it.”

Name: Tara Westover

Latest book: Educated

Tara Westover was born the youngest of seven in a Mormon survivalist family living off the grid in rural south-eastern Idaho. Tara doesn’t have a birth certificate. She learned to read by studying the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the speeches of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Her father didn’t believe in conventional medicine or public schooling. He was convinced the end of days is coming, and that their family alone will be spared. Educated tracks Tara’s story from isolated survivalist to Cambridge academic — a compelling tale of resilience, loyalty and severing the ties that bind.

This is a chance to: experience what life is like for those who choose — or are forced — to live on the very farthest fringes of society.

Read an excerpt: “I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood. I spent my summers bottling peaches and my winters rotating supplies. When the World of Men failed, my family would continue on, unaffected.”

Name: Alexis Okeowo

Latest book: A Moonless, Starless Sky

A staff writer for The New Yorker, Alexis Okeowo is a writer of singular talent. Her book, A Moonless, Starless Sky, was written after years of reporting in Africa — and provides an alternative narrative to the dominant tales of victimhood and despair. Instead, her reportage takes us into the lives of ordinary Africans whose small acts of defiance and heroism are counterpoints to the harsh realities of life. “That is the thing about fighting extremism,” Alexis writes. “Each victory, tiny and large, can feel monumental.”

This is a chance to: challenge your preconceptions about Africa and its people.

Read an excerpt: “If I wanted readers to understand that the people I interviewed were not that different from them, I needed to practice empathy when writing. That meant telling the stories of their lives, their likes and dislikes, their hobbies, the people they cared for. It meant conveying that I understood that I could have been a woman who had been disfigured by a rebel group had not it been for the fortune of my birthplace.”

Name: Zack McDermott

Latest book: Gorilla and the Bird

When he was 26 years old, Zack McDermott found himself on a New York subway platform, shoeless, shirtless and crying, overtaken by the delusion that he — and everybody else in New York — were inside a reality TV show. At the time of his first descent into mania-induced psychosis, Zack was in his first year as a public defender at the Legal Aid Society in New York City. Now 34, he’s written a poignant, essential memoir about his experience of mental illness, a work that aims to de-stigmatise mental illness, increase empathy and open up much-needed conversations. 

This is a chance to: reconsider the stigma around mental illness and discover why Zack says that, “Bipolar Disorder is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Read an excerpt: "Regaining sanity in a mental hospital is like treating a migraine at a rave."

Name: Mohammed Al Samawi

Latest book: The Fox Hunt

When Yemen-born Mohammed Al Samawi was young, he was taught to believe that Jews and Christians were the enemy. Over time, he changed his views, eventually becoming a vocal activist on a personal mission to promote interfaith dialogue and cooperation in his country. But death threats and an escalating civil war made life in Yemen impossible. Mohammed sent out a plea on social media for help – and the improbable tale of a multi-country, interfaith group of people who banded together to save his life, detailed in The Fox Hunt, makes for one of the most riveting memoirs of recent memory. And it is now being developed into a feature film.

This is a chance to: be reminded of the kindness of strangers, and that goodness and decency can triumph in even the darkest circumstances.

Read an excerpt: “I checked my messages. Nothing. I’d spent the day in front of my laptop, curled like a shrimp over its screen. I’d scrolled through my recent calls, my emails, my Facebook friends, and sent messages to everyone I could think. Help me. Please. But no one knew what to do. People needed to save themselves, their families. No one was willing to drive a car through a war zone to save a stranger—or a friend. People sent their regrets, their prayers. I appreciated the sentiment, but I couldn’t fly away on a prayer.”

Name: Emily Wilson 

Latest book: The Odyssey

Classicist and translator Emily Wilson has a literary pedigree like few others – with a Shakespeare specialist at Oxford for a mother, celebrated novelist A.N. Wilson for a father, and a Roman history educator at Cambridge for an uncle. In 2017, she became the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English – a translation that offers a contemporary perspective to the 60-odd English translations the anglophone world has been privy to since 1615. (It includes a fresh take on Homer’s well-known 'Sirens'). Having grown up in household with “a lot of silence”, Emily was drawn to the classics, particularly Greek drama, as a student. "I had a childhood where it was hard to name feelings, and just the fact that tragedy as a genre is very good at naming feelings… I love that", she told The New York Times.

This is a chance to: Hear a clear, urgent rendition of one of the oldest works in the Western canon that exposes centuries of masculinist readings of the poem.

Read an excerpt: Tell me about a complicated man. / Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost/ when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, / and where he went, and who he met, the pain/ he suffered in the storms at sea, and how/ he worked to save his life and bring his men/ back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools, / they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god/ kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus, / tell the old story for our modern times. / Find the beginning.

Name: Emily Wilson 

Latest book: The Odyssey

Born in Oxford, England, classicist and translator Emily Wilson has a literary pedigree like few others. With a Shakespeare specialist at Oxford for a mother, celebrated novelist A.N. Wilson for a father, and a Roman history educator at Cambridge for an uncle, she comes from a long line of academics. Her mother’s colleagues refused to understand that because she had children she might have extra demands on her time – and Emily became founding member of Oxford University’s Somerville College crèche. When Emily arrived at Balliol College, Oxford to study classics, the fact she had no female professors was not lost on her. In 2017, she became the first woman to translateThe Odyssey into English – a translation that offers contemporary perspective to the 60-odd English translations the Anglophone world have been privy to since 1615. (It includes a fresh take on Homer’s well-known Sirens). Having grown up in household with “a lot of silence”, Emily was drawn to the classics, particularly Greek drama, as a student. “I had a childhood where it was hard to name feelings, and just the fact that tragedy as a genre is very good at naming feelings… I love that,” she told The New York Times.

This is a chance to: Hear a clear, urgent rendition of one of the oldest works the Western canon that exposes centuries of masculinist readings of the poem.

Read an excerpt: Tell me about a complicated man. / Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost/ when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, / and where he went, and who he met, the pain/ he suffered in the storms at sea, and how/ he worked to save his life and bring his men/ back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools, / they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god/ kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus, / tell the old story for our modern times. / Find the beginning.