Aka: Why you should be going to (“gangsta”) literary festivals & supporting diverse story-making
I’d already bought my Sunday ticket to Bare Lit when I realised I hadn’t a clue what a literary festival was.
I projected my only experience of going to a “festival” (does Wireless count as a one?) on my current situation. Maybe it would be held outside in a large open space, a field perhaps, with lots of different stages scattered around and books hoisted up on stands like those holding up coconuts at a coconut shy. The writers would talk about their books and the biggest cheers would spurt out from the direction of the most popular book. There’d be music and donut stands and ice cream vans and a general honeybee-buzzing atmosphere.
Well, as those of you who have been to a literary festival before can confirm, this was not the case.
Firstly, Bare Lit actually occurred inside Toynbee Studios and not in a nearby field. And although there wasn’t wild exclaiming by the audience, there was definitely an intense feeling of wow emanating, literally pouring out from the wide-eyed listeners.
A canary yellow brochure told me that the Sunday was split up into a series of talks ranging from discussions of how fiction can use fantastical elements to talk about the real world to writers’ experiences of addressing themes of violence to writing about scientific topics. Everything looked delicious. And me being the greatest decision-maker (not), was left feeling disorientated, muddled, befuddled, bamboozled, thinking what on earth was I going to go to?
And to make things that little bit worse, my late self had unsurprisingly found myself scrambling through a Sunday market (that I need to remember to check out) weaving in and out of a rainbow noodle soup of boldly coloured clothing in an effort to not be more than half an hour late. Max.
Thirty-three minutes later after the scheduled starting time, I was spared the crucial decision of which talk to attend. This was kindly chosen by the guard who hurriedly ushered me into the nearest talk about how fiction can be used to talk about the real world. Contradictory? Of course. And it was eye opening because of it.
The first panelist, Ali Bader (Iraq+100, 2016), talked about his portrayal of Iraqi soldiers as your average “English bloke”- going to the pub, enjoying dancing with the girls, laughing- being humorous and human. I thought this very sweet, until I realised I couldn’t imagine it. As if sensing this, he proceeded in a more somber tone, mentioning that the scene was probably very hard to imagine because of the media’s demonic portrayal of the soldiers in a passionate pursuit to satisfy readers, these being vultures of all things negative. I was pretty shocked to hear that his friend was watching Sky News showing footage of his exact location being bombed-in real time while he was sitting in a café sipping coffee.
I mean, come on. There’s fake news and then there’s pure absurdity.
Or maybe there’s not much difference.
I found myself agreeing with him about novels being often “allowed” to portray the truth, often much more than can be done through journalism. This is especially the case in countries where there is censorship. If you can pass it off as fiction, as the elusive imaginary world, then there isn’t really a crime in writing about stark, honest truth.
And what’s more, I was left feeling saddened by the very fact that Bader’s novel was about humanising humans. That there was this existing diverge, more a valley of thought separating us from people that are repeatedly tarnished by cruel, mass media coverage. We, being the “safe” population who aren’t, like the soldiers, labeled as evil and merciless. I guess, through writing, Bader was trying to cover ground and close this gargantuan gap of thought.
By lunchtime, I had already felt incredibly inspired. And hungry to hear so much more from people who were working hard against the grain, to recognise the marginalised in society. So much so were my thoughts elsewhere that I ended up asking for extra tomato on my subway as opposed to asking for ketchup.
And I really, really hate tomatoes in food.
But luckily, the talk after lunch on writing about trauma satisfied, almost saturated this desire to hear more of the good stuff (the talk, not ketchup) and I was able to forget about my tomato incident instantly.
“Does life imitate art or does art imitate life?” Started Robyn Travis, author of “Prisoner to the Streets” and the embodiment of a truly warming personality and prolific speaker. He emphasised that artists, writing being an art form, had a responsibility. A responsibility to their readers, to tell it how it was- to tell the truth.
And I agree. We are focusing when we are reading a book, really working on blocking out our surroundings and devoting a lot of time and energy into understanding. This is something we don’t do with a lot of everyday tasks, when we are ticking (or harshly scribbling) off our to-do-list. Therefore we become desensitised to feeling deeply- until we have a book in our hands or are watching a film or sinking into that smooth, understanding melody.
I was processing these thoughts when I heard something along the lines of “The Bible is traumatic- I mean look at the stories like Noah’s Ark: God killed off basically all the animals on earth with this dramatic flood.”
And what can you say other than: that’s true. It seems that memoirs of traumatic events can be found everywhere. Stories of god included.
Travis then swiftly moved on to discussing the benefits to writing about trauma, and how they just keep coming. Firstly, in his words, “You need to mentally vomit”. As is quite common-known the process of writing about trauma to the writer can be a form of therapy, something that can heal you as you splurge out your feelings of anguish on paper. And double handedly something that can heal others, too. Coming back to the point of being an influencer, Travis is shockingly the only black male novelist of the year (source, the Guardian) and therefore the only black voice in a myriad of white, middle-class writers. Making him not only influential but also very, very inspiring.
Being stabbed at the age of 14, he makes the point that “there was no counselling for that”. And it was precisely because there are individuals in society who have to suffer these sorts of atrocities, without support, that more diversity in writing is needed. A narrative is powerful; it’s a way of understanding the beginning of ones life to the end, and all the ups and downs in-between. If a reader can relate to that, especially if they are dealing with the traumatic experience of being masculine, synonymous to not showing any emotion/ not giving an F at the death of a friend or loved one, then you as a writer have made a massive impact on them.
Reluctantly walking away from this talk to the tube station, and through the almost closed skeletal market stalls, I felt again bamboozled. But this being in a good way. I understood the importance of writing with intention and how much power artists really have: a helluva lot of it. They can do more than just influence people – they can change perceptions and lift people up. The talk also reiterated my assumptions that finding a book about a topic that closely follows your life, which maps to places where you have grown up and has a positive ending, is arguably one of the strongest proponents of social change.
I’m not usually one to talk “gangster” but thank you Bare Lit for giving me this chance to hear from these great voices, for this absolutely bare lit experience. I only hope that those reading this feel, like me, crazy excited for next year.
Link to buy “Prisoner to the Streets”: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Prisoner-Streets-Robyn-Travis/dp/1902934482
Link to buy “Iraq+100”: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Iraq-100-Stories-Another-x/dp/1905583664