Durre Shahwar reports back from this year’s Bare Lit Festival in London, the annual celebration of the work of BAME writers.
After keenly following the online coverage of the inaugural BareLit Festival in 2016, I was determined to physically attend this year, even if for a day. The BareLit Festival is a literature festival dedicated wholly to BAME writers to highlight and celebrate their achievements and voices, thus enabling them to create their own space among mainstream festivals. It was organised by Media Diversified after a Spread the Word report found that out of all the UK-based writers at major literature festivals at 2014, only 4% could be classed as from a BAME background. This year, the festival took place in Toynbee Studios, London on the weekend of 21-23rd April and I managed to make the trip up and attend three of the Saturday panels; “New Print Cultures”, “The Art of Editing” and “Writing to be Seen”.
While all the panels were informative, thought-provoking and engaging, it was “The Art of Editing” panel that left a lasting impression, chaired by Margaret Busby (Allison & Busby), with editors Bibi Bakare-Yusuf (Cassava Press), Sabrina Mahfouz (The Things I Would Tell You, 2017), Vivek Shahnbag (Ghachar Ghochar, 2017), Bobby Nayyar (Limehouse Books), Rukhsana Yasmin (Commonwealth Writers).
The panel discussed the role of the editor and the editor-writer relationship today, while also making interesting points for reflection on how we write. It was also refreshing to see a panel actively engage and counteract each other’s views, providing a really lively and nuanced discussion. Many of Bibi Bakare-Yusuf’s views in particular stayed with me – such as how we need to move away from the cult of the writer and artist figure as some sort of genius. She argued that the glorification of the writer figure creates a barrier to the writer being open towards feedback from an editor. Similarly, the importance of having a critical editor at the beginning of your career was emphasised, as, if this isn’t the case, then later on, success may make you less receptive to external feedback.
An important point was also made about the laziness of editors when it comes to publishing books by writers of colour for the sake of ‘diversity’. While I agree that there is a need for nuance and to move beyond pigeonholing writers of colour into catering to stereotypes in their stories (something I can often be guilty of), I also think that there should be flexibility. That it is equally important to not be dismissive of what might be someone’s lived experience and reality that they are now channelling into fiction as catharsis. Stories with topics such as immigration, trauma and belonging are important, as writing them can often be a form of therapy.
The issue of sales, commerce and business in deciding who and what to publish, and how editors often come across brilliant books but are unable to publish them due to lack of a market, is a familiar one. Yet again a refreshing and bolder response to the problem came from Bibi Bakare-Yusuf who stated that her role is to create new desires in the audience, and that she wasn’t interested in existing desires. She argued that this is how mainstream publishing fails writers of colour and stays dominantly middle class and white, because we can’t imagine people being interested in what we’re writing. Bakare-Yusuf stated that for her, the idea of not knowing who’s going to buy it is more exciting, and that the cutting edge of publishing is never mainstream. With highly successful books such as The Good Immigrant (2016), Nasty Women (2017), and others crowdfunded and published by indie publishers such as Unbound, 404 Ink, Dead Ink Books, and Influx Press to name a few, this couldn’t be any truer.
At one point, a show of hands survey of the room indicated that there were more people interested in being editors than working in publishing. Later on, an audience member asked the panel to convince them of the editorial aspect of publishing as opposed to the more seemingly glamorous marketing side. The panel’s response to this was that more editors are needed from BAME backgrounds who are able to connect with and put out ‘diverse’ stories. As Sabrina Mahfouz pointed out openly and honestly, that there is no such thing as 100% objectivity when it comes to stories. Bobby Nayyar also mentioned how, to him, being an editor isn’t necessarily about being knee-deep in manuscripts (an image that seems to dissuade people from becoming editors) but also about taking what seemed to be a more proactive approach; networking and discovering new voices and developing them.
Some of the points raised also made me reflect on the literary scene in Wales, or more specifically, Cardiff (the one I’m more familiar with). There is no denying that there is still a stark lack of representation of people from diverse backgrounds. That sometimes ‘diversity’ still feels more like a tickbox exercise without any real drive or fresh thinking. Yet the festival – and this panel specifically – also made me appreciate the grassroots opportunities available. Sabrina Mahfouz, in response to an audience question, mentioned how the best way of editing poetry is also performing it. Milieu, Juke and other open mic nights instantly came to mind, that allow new writers such as myself to test out our work in front of a local, friendly audience. Similarly, the panel kept reiterating the point of having a critical reader who could look at your work and give honest advice. Again, my thoughts went back to how I’ve been a part of writer groups where we meet, give constructive feedback, because the local community aspect of it makes it easy to do so.
The local aspect of being a writer was also emphasised upon by the panel, especially for new writers, yet festivals like Bare Lit are a great reminder of the global aspect too. Bare Lit provided me with a chance to feel less of a ‘minority’ and more of a part of a bigger community. I always see literature festivals or events as a chance to create a community, meet new people who are interested in similar topics as you, or going up to that one author you admire and finally letting them know in person how much you appreciate their work. Bare Lit allowed me to do just that.
A quote from Toni Morrison, which seems to be the underlying message behind the festival, comes to mind:
“We don’t need any more writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writer’s movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious.”
Sadly, I came back to Cardiff to discover how TedxCardiff was devoid of any BAME speakers despite the event being held in one of the most multicultural areas of Cardiff – Butetown. To say this is disappointing would be an understatement. Cardiff is a beautiful and multicultural city, yet organisers of such events keep failing to represent and reflect that. Yet if I took one thing away from the Bare Lit, it was the idea that all the panellists seemed to be promoting, be it through creating cutting-edge magazines, publishing BAME authors or writing as one: that if people continually want to look at only themselves in the mirror then you should let them and instead use your own resources to create your own spaces and platforms. So while it is disappointing to see an established organisation such as Tedx, with global outreach, fail to do better and be representative, it still stands that BAME writers, artists, and creatives should create their own spaces. And as a young Welsh writer of South Asian and Muslim heritage, I’ll still keep pushing for that here in Wales, so if you have ideas for collaborations, reach out and let’s talk.