I had the great pleasure of attending this year’s Birmingham Literature Festival. After a ‘pandemic break’ (that also gave us their fabulous “Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…” podcast) and a one-day festival version last year, the 2022 edition of #BLF took place at the Birmingham REP (Birmingham Repertory Theatre), bang in the centre of the city (at least that’s what it felt like to me). The REP and the stunning library are melted together (entrance-wise) and I really enjoyed the space that felt welcoming and at the same time accessible and special.
My first event was with Michael Rosen – and what a start it was. For some reason I have ‘filed’ him under “Arsenal”, “socialist” and “children’s books”. Well, the event had a bit of all of this, but it was mainly about his covid infection and his time in the ICU. Now he said himself that he was a socialist and as such loved the NHS – and many people in the audience seemed determined to have a good laugh, which he totally encouraged. But I was feeling a bit raw and found it rather depressing. Cause if you listened through the rather funny bits, it was really depressing – his infection and suffering as well as the circumstances under which the nurses worked.
So Rosen read passages from his patient diary – or as he called it: “a very patient diary” – short texts the carers wrote down about their observations and what they had done while Rosen was in a coma. It’s hard to imagine how the overworked nurses were able to make time for this, but it was a very touching account. OK, and some stories were also rather funny, like his nightmares about German Christmas parties or these two: “They worried about my blood pressure. But they brought me the Daily Mail so I’d be fine.” And they asked him questions like who the current PM was. “I thought: cruel to remind me of that.” (that was after the coma, btw)
In the end, he also read from the “These are the Hands” poetry anthology, written “by NHS Staff about the NHS – FOR the NHS” and I wanted to share the link with you: www.fairacrepress.co.uk/shop/these-are-the-hands-poems-from-the-heart-of-the-nhs/
Afterwards, I needed some time to recover. “Some nurses haven’t recovered”, was one of Michael Rosen’s observations.
“Birmingham, the city that raised me”
Kit de Waal and Osman Yousefzada were chaired by Paul McVeigh in a panel entitled “Birmingham, the city that raised me”. Both writers have memoirs out, both did not grow up in leafy suburbs or white middle-class families. I have to admit it troubled me a bit that Yousefzada introduced his book as “a window in a world we don’t often see” and gave me the same “Brick Lane marketing & exoticisation vibes” I was frustrated by all those years ago. But maybe I’m just a bit sensitive to these kinds of patterns. And it was rather moving to hear a woman in the audience comment on the book. While the writer felt he had lost some friendships and connections to the community he was writing about, this person thanked him for representing people like her and her siblings and parents and it was a rather emotional moment.
Kit de Waal did not only talk about her childhood in Moseley, South Birmingham, but also about austerity and enraging politicians. The “recommendations” that have been “shared” by the Tories recently are just infuriating. “They don’t understand what poverty is and what it does to people”, and she gave us a couple of glimpses into her story, but it never felt like voyeuristic. I’m looking forward to reading her book and figure out why Moseley “is still the best place in Birmingham”.
If you want to hear more about Kit de Waal and her memoir “Without Warning and Only Sometimes: Scenes from an Unpredictable Childhood”, please join us on in Berlin on 1 November 2022, at the Centre for British Studies: www.gbz.hu-berlin.de/events .
Demystify and Encourage
My Saturday at the festival started with Women’s Prize founder Kate Mosse, writers Anita Sethi and Irenosen Okojie, and Curtis Brown literary agent Jess Molloy. They talked about the writers’ development programme run by the Women’s Prize for Fiction: “Discoveries” (link: womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/discoveries).
“Discoveries invites unpublished and unagented women writers in the UK or Ireland to submit the opening of a novel in English – up to 10,000 words – across any genre of adult fiction for the chance to take part in a bespoke creative writing course, securing personalised mentorship packages, representation with a literary agent and a cash prize of £5,000. Unlike most initiatives of this kind, writers are not required to have finished their novel, and Discoveries is completely free to enter.
Run in partnership with Audible, Curtis Brown Literary Agency, and the Curtis Brown Creative writing school, Discoveries is more than a traditional prize; it is a pioneering development initiative which offers practical support and encouragement to aspiring female novelists of all ages and backgrounds.” (Discoveries website)
I liked how they all tried to explain and demystyfy the process of finding agents and publishers – and genuinely encouraged women writers to enter their texts. And I thought Kate Mosse did a great job chairing since she kept asking everyone to explain things like “what do you mean by we’re looking for a unique voice”.
Words of encouragement came also from Anita Sethi: “Your voice belongs. Keep powering on.” But questions about finding out when to put in more work and when to let a text go and/or put it in a drawer for some time or forever were also addressed with appreciation and taken seriously.
Anway, if you’re a woman writer in the UK or Ireland, it can’t hurt to have a look at their programme. They offer mentoring, support and a cohort of people who will go through a similar process with you. And if you’re considering submitting, Kate Mosse and the team “will love you forever if you submit before the deadline on 15 January”.
“It’s a fabulous Time to be Queer” (in the UK)
Novelists Julia Armfield (Our Wives under the Sea, Pan Macmillan) and Paul Mendez (Rainbow Milk, Dialogue Books) were in conversation with Paul McVeigh and talked about code switching, how one is read, positioning and they joys and challenges of being queer writers. When McVeigh was wondering whether they felt the same pressure he had felt in the past to represent gay communities in their writing, their answers remained cautious. But hearing a girl in school tell Armfield “I’m buying it for my girlfriend” or seeing parents pick up books for their non-binary kids seemed to fill them with hope. And Paul Mendez shared that he had only recently started discovering Black gay literature and seeing it because more was done for its visibility (but there was also a shout-out to Gay’s the Word and others who have been doing the work for much longer).
Personally, I would have liked to hear more about their actual writing process and literary decisions, but it was nice, indeed, to listen to them, e.g. talking about how horror and gothic were linked to their queer creators. I loved the question from the audience: “Queer writers are often asked to share their trauma. I would like to know: what gives you joy?” As you can imagine, writing was among the first replies.
“It’s All About Class”
This event was another one that was well attended and sparked lots of conversations afterwards. The two authors – Sam Friedman (The Class Ceiling. Why it Pays to be Privileged, Policy Press) and Natalie Olah (Steal as Much as You Can. How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity, Repeater Books) – both wrote books about class, the first one more academic, the other one more journalistic or “polemic” as chair Otegha Uwagba described it. They both had in common that they called to stop the misrecognition of merit and denying class as a discrimination factor. And even though it’s a complex matter, class should be made a protected characteristic to help fight discrimination on the basis of class (paraphrasing Friedman here).
Among the findings in Friedman’s academic research was that people were ‘downplaying’ their class position since “people want to write a story of merit” rather than admitting that they’re (partly) in a position because of their privilege. Interestingly, Otegha Uwagba reminded us of the British context: “Nobody in Nigeria downplays their class”.
The findings around quality, taste and ‘gut feelings’ – in a nutshell: heavily dependent on someone’s class background and education and crafted rather than ‘fallen from the sky’ – were also what Anamik Saha and I found in our research about the publishing industry in the UK (Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing, 2020)
The lie about meritocracy was mentioned by both, and Natalie Olah went a step further to call out New Labour’s social mobility promises as coming with a caveat: resources were only available if they were used by people to excel. She claims they were not accessible for the sake of it or the greater good, but to “meet economic demand”. So in a way, if you don’t get a good job and make decent money, it’s your own fault (I’m paraphrasing). At the same time, assigned value and hierarchies “denigrate certain skills that we need for society to work” (Natalie Olah), seen e.g. in relation to care workers during and ‘after’ the pandemic (ok, I can’t write after without the airquotes…). In this context, Olah stressed the psychological impact of the meritocracy lie and the burden of shame as well as how media are often complicit in this.
I could go on about this forever. The conversation between the writers and also later on with the audience about dangerous f*** who are currently in leading positions, the “enough is enough” campaign and strikes were inspiring. It made me curious about the books and sparked some great conversations with other festival goers on that day.
Women in History
My last event at the festival was surprise chair Mary Ann Sieghart (The Authority Gap, Doubleday) in conversation with Kate Mosse about her upcoming book Warrior Queens and Quiet Revolutionaries (Pan Macmillan).
I enjoyed how their conversation was very political and not only focussed on the UK. And I appreciated the link Mosse drew between the treatment of women, Black people, queer and trans people and others by those in power. There were lots of examples and anecdotes from “silence in the archive” to “the Matilda effect”, from Lise Meitner to lesbian pirates, but also how some people were highlighted more than others who were “not considered appropriate poster girls”.
Mosse sent out a call to ‘complete history’ and suggested to use the #WomeWarriors on Thursday, 13.10. with the name and maybe some words about a ‘woman who has contributed to history’. The aim is to get the hashtag to trend… While it feels like a bit of a clash with the call for attention for the silent ones, I’m always in for flooding Twitter.
I flipped through the book that will be published on Thursday but was a bit disappointed that there was only so little about each person. I suspect that this was maybe more created as a teaser or starting point, so it was just not what I was looking for.
What I would like to share instead are the following sources:
- On This Day She: twitter (www.twitter.com/OnThisDayShe, launched in 2018 by Ailsa Holland, Jo Bell and Tania Hershman) and book: onthisdayshe.com/wp/ (UK: John Blake Books; Poland (as Niezwykłe); India and Australia (HarperCollins India and Allen and Unwin)
- The show and podcast “Dead Ladies Show – Celebrating ladies who were in some way fabulous during their lifetimes” (content in English and German): deadladiesshow.com/ , run by Katy Derbyshire, Florian Duijsens and Susan Stone out of Berlin
- Passé recomposé: French podcast by Mélie collecting stories of people talking about their grandparents. There is a focus on regional histories and family stories of marginalised people the Bretagne to Algeria: podcastpasserecompose.com/
- Rice and Shine: Podcast started by Minh Thu Tran and Vanessa Vu who (re)inscribe Vietgerman stories into public history (in German): www.riceandshine-podcast.de/
Translators at Work
So there was a lot going on on the stages, but also in the foyer! On Sunday, translators live translated texts, e.g. from Spanish to English (on screen) and English to Japanese and Chinese (at the table).
“In partnership with Aston University and the established translators Roz Schwartz and Daniel Hahn, Writing West Midlands has appointed Sarah Letza as Translator in Residence 2022/23. Sarah will be working with a small team of translators from Aston University’s Translation Studies MA to offer ‘while you wait’ translations of short pieces of poetry or fiction into a range of languages.” www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org/translators-at-work/
People were able to talk to the translators and even bring along their own creative texts for the team to translate. I love how this makes translations a little more visible and creates more awareness for the craft. The European Literature Network (link) showcased some of their anthologies of works in translation – and you can access their “Riveter” online, e.g. on Writing from Germany, or Poland or the Netherlands, or their edition of Queer Writing from different countries: www.eurolitnetwork.com/the-riveter/
The Bookshop, the Podcast and Recordings
Shoutout to the local indie “Bookshop on the Green”, who presented a wonderful selection of the books that were presented at the festival. I was a bit scared that I might not be able to bring that many books over, so I just about managed not to buy them all. But I have a new wishlist, if anyone is interested…
Some of the events at the Birmingham Literature Festival were recorded and I heard that they will be released as podcasts through the autumn and winter of 2022. You can access the podcast via a large number of podcast platforms – the official name is “Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…”
TTFN – I just wanted to wrap up saying that I really enjoyed the programme and the encounters with the authors and the audience. I’ve been coming back to Birmingham and Writing West Midlands’ events because I always discover fantastic authors I did not know before – and also meet established ones along the way. The audience was always really cool, too – I have met lots of book lovers and open and friendly people, unpretentious; and I do love the team of Writing West Midlands, always helpful and never snooty (sorry, I might be a bit vorbelastet from other experiences at other festivals). I will be back – to Birmingham and the festival – and I’m looking forward already.