‘Why aren’t we talking about universality?’ Bare Lit Festival 2016

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This past weekend saw the inaugural Bare Lit Festival take place in the east end of London. ‘Bare Lit Festival is a new literature festival for writers of colour, giving them the platform and visibility they deserve.’

On Saturday I went to two panels, ‘What Does Liberation in Literature Look Like?’ followed by ‘(Re)Writing Pasts and Futures’, before going to listen to JJ Bola perform some of his poetry and then discuss his work with Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire.

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L-R: Radhika Swarup (chair), Robin Yasmin-Kassab, Leila Aboulela, Joan Anim-Addo, Sareeta Domingo

The first thing that was immediately noticeable was the make-up of the audience. I’ve been to a number of literary events and they’re dominated by white people, on and off stage. For the first time, I was in the minority – and hurrah for that. If publishers are wondering where their audience is for books by people of colour, they were there in the Free Word Centre and the Betsy Trotwood on Saturday and Sunday. They were on Twitter following people who were live tweeting from the events.

The other thing that became apparent as the weekend went on was how many women were on stage. Not just as speakers, but charing panels and events too. I mean, imagine, everyone treated as equals.

The first panel discussed liberation in literature: what that meant for them, how they were oppressed or pigeonholed as writers and readers. (Note: I’m only going to share the comments from women as that’s what this blog’s all about. If you want to read more, check out #BareLit16.) Joan Anim-Addo commented on the statistic that African Caribbean children perform far below average at reading. I don’t think anyone’s considered the literature these children are given, she said. She went on to talk about black people being represented in the literary world. They’re told their writing won’t sell – so was Toni Morrison.

Sareeta Domingo writes romantic fiction and pointed out that you don’t see many characters of colour in that genre, nor many writers of colour writing it. She went on to say  that readers might be surprised to empathise with a character from another background but how would they know if they don’t exist?

Radhika Swarup, whose novel Where the River Parts is about a romance between a Hindu and a Muslim set against the partition of India, said she’s had reviews commenting on the smell of turmeric. ‘There’s no turmeric in the book.’

Leila Aboulela talked about fiction being more liberating for non-fiction. The latter attracts hateful comments online. She briefly discussed her work-in-progress about a Russian woman. She says she worked her way into the character through motherhood, which is something they have in common.

The panel ended with Swarup saying, ‘The ultimate liberation is in writing for yourself’.

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L-R: Haris Dirrani, Tosin Coker, Patrick Vernon (chair), Zen Cho, Tendai Huchu

The (Re)Writing Pasts & Futures panel focused on Historical Fantasy, Speculative Fiction, Sci-Fi and Afrofuturism. Zen Cho talked about growing up reading books and thinking only white people had adventures. She processed the world through writing and felt she was lacking because she didn’t see herself in the texts she was reading. She said she felt a responsibility ‘to be the right kind of person’ because she’s one of very few published Malaysian writers.

Tosin Coker felt similarly. She said that reading so many Western novels triggered an identity crisis for her. Writing sci-fi gave her a different perspective on herself as an African, as a black person, as a woman. ‘Sci-Fi’s not as fictional as we think.’ Coker said that she thinks it’s easier for writers of colour to understand each other’s cultures as they use more analogies and descriptions than white writers. She commented on other differences in perspectives too, giving the example of insults. People of colour use comparisons, white people swear.

I’ve spent years saying I don’t read/like Sci-Fi but I’ve come to realise that this is a bare-faced lie. I encourage you all to look up the work of these writers. They began the panel with each of them reading to us from their work and it was fantastic.

I’m going to mention JJ Bola briefly here as much of what he discussed about his work on Saturday was to do with masculinity and feminism. Again, I recommend you take a look at #BareLit16.

I was disappointed to miss two events on Sunday morning: Catherine Johnson/Peter Kalu and Sunny Singh/Malika Booker. Foolishly I managed to leave my notebook – with some notes for my PhD work inside – at Waterstones Piccadilly at The Word Factory event on Saturday night so spent Sunday morning retrieving that. (Huge thanks to the Waterstones staff who were brilliant, particularly Rob Chilver and the security guard at the shop.)

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L-R: Sherif Dhaimith (Darf Publishing), Esther Kuforji (The Jeli)(chair), Crystal Mahey-Morgan (Own It), Valerie Brandes (Jacaranda Books)

The first event I saw on Sunday then was ‘What lies ahead for publishing?’ Each of the panelists had slightly different perspectives on this due to their own current ventures.

Valerie Brandes, publisher at Jacaranda Books, talked about how they’re looking for new voices, previously unpublished writers, and that she works with them on the raw manuscripts that are submitted to her. She also collaborates with authors to work out who their audience is. She said authors often have a strong sense of who they are and their social media profiles support this.

Esther Kuforji commented that The Jeli include poems, flash and writing prompts below the picture on their Instagram feed, using social media to share and promote stories. She also commented that if you submit to The Jeli and they decide not to publish you at that point, she’s still keen to work with people again later on.

Crystal Mahey-Morgan talked about how it was liberating not to have to dilute things for the corporate world. (She worked for PRH for five years.) Editors don’t always know best when it comes to certain voices and stories. That’s the difference between the mainstream and independent publishers who specialise. She works on multi-media projects and quoted the statistics that the UK’s 16-24 year olds are the most illiterate in the developed world but also the most tech-savvy. She sees smartphones as a way to bring multimedia projects to new audiences, seeing a link between technology and oral culture.

She talked about her London accent, telling us she was criticised for it when she first began working in publishing, ‘Don’t let anyone make you feel it’s not for you’. She also called for ‘diversity with diversity: we’re not all the same’ and that she was ‘fed up of talking about diversity; why aren’t we talking about universality?’.

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L-R: Kelly Kanayama (chair), RAMZEE, Asia Alfasi

My final event, bar Courttia Newland’s closing speech, was ‘Comics in Context’. Like Sci-Fi, a couple of years ago I would have told you that I didn’t read/like comics/graphic novels but then came Persepolis and Alison Bechdel and a change of mind on my part.

Asia Alfasi came from Libya to Scotland – the east end of Glasgow, to be precise – as a young girl. In Libya she read Western classics in graphic novel form. When she moved to Scotland, she found a barrier between her and her peers that wasn’t just to do with her moving from another country, but was also because she was the first girl in her area to wear the hijab. She lived in the library and learnt about UK culture through literature. She began to create her own comics because she couldn’t see herself represented. She said she can’t think of a better medium for someone who wants to tell a story and have complete control.

‘The odds aren’t always stacked against you,’ she said. She talked about travelling to China and Russia, amongst others, and how people at comic conventions there were interested in her work. She said Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella and so on have been done so many times in so many different ways that there’s a thirst for new tales that aren’t the Western staples.

The whole weekend was absolutely fantastic. I was introduced to writers I’d never heard of, and might never have heard of, before. I heard some interesting discussions. I met lots of brilliant people. What’s stuck with me though is a comment from my friend (of colour) who I used to work with when I taught in London and who was there on the Sunday. She said it was the first time she’d been to a literary event and left feeling positive and inspired. And that, surely, is what it was all about. Bring on Bare Lit 2017!

The festival are in the process of uploading footage of all the events to the Media Diversified YouTube channel.

Where the River Parts – Radhika Swarup

Asha’s first memory was of trying to scale the wall that separated her house from Nargis’…Nargis’ earliest recollection was of knocking on Asha’s heavy wooden door with a bowl full of fat, cool, milk-sodden rasmalai disks in her hand…

Asha, a Hindu, and Nargis, a Muslim, grow up in the village of Suhanpur, in the north west of India. As the novel begins, Indian independence is imminent and calls for the Partition of India from the newly created Pakistan, where Suhanpur sits, are gaining traction.

In the girls’ personal lives, it is marriage which appears to be imminent. Nargis’ parents are arranging her attachment to a man in the police whom she’s met once but can’t remember much about. Asha’s father, meanwhile, is twice asked for Asha’s hand, firstly by Om and then by Firoze, Nargis’ brother and the boy Asha is in love with. Asha’s father tells Firoze he must wait until Partition is complete to see whether their Hindu family can continue to live there.

Violence fanned across the land like a flame. Trouble seeped into dry, parched plains from the arid north, and the Punjabis – excitable at the best of times – found that any spur – a look, a word, a shove – was like kindling to the fire.

Suddenly, those who read, those who had access to news, learned to differentiate. People spoke of ‘those Muslims’ and ‘those Hindus’, of separatists and patriots, of a Hindustan for Hindus and a Pakistan for Muslims. They spoke of two nations, they mourned the martyred, the shaheed. Reports came in from elsewhere – always from elsewhere – of violence. Throats were slit, men were shot, houses were torched, innocents from the wrong religion ambushed, and revenge was paid in kind.

When one of the servants becomes intent on attacking Asha, the family concede it’s time to leave. Unbeknownst to anyone, Asha is pregnant with Firoze’s child. She leaves him with no idea when they might see each other again.

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The blurb on the back of the book reveals that Asha and Firoze meet again in fifty years’ time. However, there’s a whole life to be lived before then and Asha’s contains some particularly significant events and choices.

It would be easy to call Where the River Parts a romantic novel – it is, in one sense – but it’s so much more than that. It’s an examination of the choices a woman might make to survive in a world that’s hostile towards her. While the men fight, organise and do business, Asha has to work out how to make it to tomorrow. The book also considers how the choices made – by society as well as parents – affect the beliefs and actions of future generations.

Swarup’s prose is clear and precise, describing moments of romance and friendship with the same clarity as violence and fear. There were a couple of occasions where the plot veered towards coincidences that threatened to reveal the writer’s hand at work but Swarup avoided contrivance, especially at the end of the novel.

Where the River Parts is an interesting look at a woman’s life torn apart by violence and reconstructed through huge personal sacrifice. It’s violent, bloody and often shocking but a current of love runs through it, adding humanity where it seems to have been taken away. I look forward to seeing what Radhika Swarup writes next.

 

Thanks to Sandstone Press for the review copy.