Why Literary Festivals Need to Be More Diverse and Inclusive

Literary festivals are something of a cultural pastime in the UK. There are over three hundred that take place each year, from local community events to industrial-scale affairs such as Hay Festival, the ten-day literary festival described by Bill Clinton as “a Woodstock of the mind.” Despite this huge number, many literary festivals based in the UK have previously been accused of being elitist, corporate and not diverse enough. In 2015, the UK’s three largest literary festivals only had a 4% ethnic minority representation in the 2000+ authors who featured on their bills.

The publishing industry itself is renowned for failing to be representative. In late 2017, journalist and critic, Arifa Akbar, addressed this in her article for The Guardian, Diversity in Publishing – still hideously middle-class and white?, Akbar, who is also head of content at Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher, and launch editor for the literary magazine, Boundless, discussed the issues surrounding the publishing industry’s lack of diversity and inclusivity. Prior to 2017, it was commonplace to see all-white longlists for literary prizes, and people of colour were few and far-between when it came to panel events and publishing talks.

Over the past year, there has been a marked change in diversity in both the publishing output and the publishing workforce. Some of the leading publishers in the UK have rolled out initiatives in the form of paid internships, traineeships, mentoring schemes and partnerships with organisations such as the Stephen Lawrence Trust and Aspire.

In a bid to make the industry more inclusive in terms of social mobility, ethnicity, gender, disability and sexuality, employee networks have been set up such as Hachette’s Thrive (BAME) network, and wider-scale events, such as BAME in Publishing, the industry-wide network set up by Sarah Shaffi and Wei Ming Kan. Publishing powerhouse, Sharmaine Lovegrove, previously literary editor at Elle, launched the imprint, Dialogue Books, dedicated to publishing stories for, about and by, BAME, LGBTQI+, disability and working class communities, and recently launched a new online magazine for new contemporary writing from and about the Caribbean. Prizes have also been launched to celebrate diverse talent such as the Wasafiri Prize, and Penguin’s WriteNow campaign. With the likes of Akala, Malala Yousasfazi, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Otegha Uwagba, and Chidera Eggerue becoming household names in the literary world, it does appear to be a turning point in the book world.

However, despite these changes, literary festivals still appear to be the last pillar of elitism to knock down. It takes a few simple clicks to see that despite numerous talks and live events with authors of different backgrounds, literary festivals are still slow to catch on. Hampshire’s Curious Arts Festival has a mere three BAME features on their literary line-up, Lemm Sissay MBE, breakthrough author Guy Gunaratne, and James Massiah from poetry collective, Little Grape Jelly. Cornwall’s Port Elliot Festival boasts nearly eighty big names in the literary world – less than ten are from BAME backgrounds. The same can be said for many more of the UK’s ‘prestigious’ literary festivals such as Harrogate’s Crime Festival.

It is no surprise that Bare Lit, the UK festival dedicated to black and minority-ethnic writers is back for its third year at The Albany, Deptford. The founders of the literary festival, non-profit advocacy group, Media Diversified, first organised the festival in 2016 in response to the lack of diversity and inclusivity in the literary festival scene. Samantha Asumandu, founder of Media Diversified also noted even if writers of colour were invited to a literary festival, it would often be solely to speak on the topic of diversity.

Bare Lit, which takes place from May 25th to May 27th, boasts a jam-packed weekend filled with the stories of writers, poets, journalists and playwrights of colour. From talks and workshops to live performances, on a range of subjects from politics, society and culture, to discussions on utopia dystopia, superstition and magic, and multiculturalism and development, the festival refuses to limit its speakers or audiences to repetitive conversations on race and identity. With zine creators, a bookshop, and an opportunity for guests to chat to literary agents, the festival is both an excellent opportunity to network and gives emerging voices a place for their voices to be heard.

With its inclusive invitation as an open and accessible event for all to attend and enjoy, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or religion, the 3-day festival seeks out a wider group of ‘book lovers, culture fiends, poetry fanatics and aspiring writers’. It’s a far cry from festivals such as Hay Festival, who have been accused on celebrating an ‘unapologetic celebration of elitism’. In addition to line-ups that fail to be appealing to wide audiences, there’s also the issue of high ticket prices at literary festivals (entrance fees and individual event prices alongside booking fees, travel costs and accommodation costs). Bare Lit offers concession tickets for a lower price, and also gives attendees the opportunity to get in touch if they can’t afford to buy tickets but still want to attend.

With literary festivals introducing readers to new writers and emerging voices in the publishing industry, these events are necessary for building a community between writers and significant figures in the book world. It’s high time literary festivals across the UK made themselves more inclusionary to new writers, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, and not under the guise of being an advocate for diverse literature. Books are fundamental to building bridges and links between different communities. With literature being the bond that brings people together, there has never been a more pressing time for literary festivals to showcase more stories and connect audiences to different voices.

Written by Mireille Harper

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