A brave little writing festival happened during the last weekend of June. It was brand new and modest, but full of illusions and aiming to fill in the gaps in our local and national literature scene. And it succeeded.
Leicester Writes Festival was conceived by Farhana Shaikh from Dahlia Publishing as a way to showcase the microcosmic and diverse writing scene in our city and connect all of us as colleagues and potential friends. “Leicester” might not be a word that comes out from the general public’s mouths when talking about writing scenes and communities, but there is something big happening and it can keep developing only and if only we are aware of it and stay connected.
The festival began on Thursday 25 June at Leicester University’s fairly new Centre of New Writing. It was a pecha kucha presentation about literature development in Leicester, condensing the answers that many writers in the area gave to a survey that was filled in in advance. Later that night, on that massive venue called twitter, there was a Q&A with Damien Walter, one of the first columnists to pay attention to indie writers and publishers in the digital era. Throught the hashtag #AskDamienW, he answered in a clear and honest way to several enquires about online publishing and offering alternatives to mainstream outlets like Amazon, “not the writers friend, but […] a business that presents big opportunities if you are savvy”. One of the plans he suggested was to join Patreon and build a fanbase with exclusive online content in exchange for regular income. Something worth checking out.
Friday was more “in the flesh”, back to Leicester Uni for edifying masterclasses. I was fortunate enough to attend The Art of Short Writing, a morning masterclass hosted by Jacob Ross. Delicious, juicy and visceral. We had to read works in preparation to see how something as brief as a short story could hit you harder than more extensive pieces of literature. Stories by Olive Senior, Mark Hanks, Elise Muller, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Patrick O’Brian and Carys Davies; authors from different walks of life, bringing their realities into our worlds, sometimes harsh, sometimes witty, always like punches to the stomach. To Ross, short stories are meant to be singular, economical, with one dominant result or outcome, and an implied story arch inferring that nothing will be the same. Above all, short stories must have truth and integrity, blend the different with the usual and convince the reader that this can happen, even if it’s fiction.
Saturday and Sunday at the Phoenix were just busy, busy, busy. I will only speak about the events I attended, as they were so many of them and I have heard they were all fantastic.
Kerry Young and Rod Duncan spoke about writers on writing. Young comes from a youth worker background, and she writes not as therapy, but as a voice for those who can’t speak. Her novel Pao may have earned her a seat in the pavilion of contemporary literature, but it took her many years of discipline and crafting to become “an overnight success”.
Duncan is still taken aback by the how fast his reputation has changed: he has gone from hopeless waster to promising new voice and respected novelist; with his Bullet Catcher’s Daughter as a finalist for the 2014 Phillip K. Dick award. However, he doesn’t write for external validation but for internal improvement. Just like characters have inner and outer journeys based on what they achieve in and out of themselves, writers have inner and outer journeys. The inner journey is what motivates us to write.
Bali Rai was another novelist sharing his journey and results. A lot of his comments were sharp reflections on the general unspoken theme of the festival: unprivileged voices navigating a circuit full of privileged shouting. Growing up, he struggled to find books about the multicultural life he lived in Leicester, and all he found was the Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend. After briefly living in London and spending his Odeon wages on Brixton bookshops, he came back to write about what he knew and to continue the Townsend tradition of putting Leicester on the map. Through the years, he has noticed that “the concept of diversity is [being] hijacked by the white middle class”, and that “the voices least heard in literature are the voices least heard in society”. That’s why he keeps writing about life in the city, making his voice and those of his neighbours heard, speaking about the true colours of modern-day Britain.
We moved briefly to the Curve to see Divya Ghelani read her “Imperial Typewriter”, a story created exclusively for the Hidden Stories compilation and part of a multimedia project about the past and present of the Cultural Quarter. It’s a story about rebellion, dignity and trying to rewrite history as it happens. Ghelani is an intriguing storyteller, and listening to her narration transports you right to where the events took place — not far from the theatre, actually. Also, as someone who wasn’t alive nor here when the Imperial Typewriter strike happened, it was appalling to see the way people back in those days referred to Asian Ugandans and foreigners in general. To think that the smell of curry they certainly despised would take over town and actually turn it into one of the most attractive things about this place…
Speaking of which, An Indian Summer was happening during the same week and spreading its wonders, colours and flavours. Many talks and panels for Leicester Writes Festival were brought in association with AIS, including the audience with Bali Rai, Divya Ghelani’s reading and Nikesh Shukla’s keynote on being a contemporary novelist.
I was particularly excited to see Nikesh Shukla on Sunday, as his Meatspace speaks to my soul in ways people like Nick Hornby or Douglas Coupland never will. He slaps you in the face with truth and gets your arse into action. Some of his points on how to be a writer include jewels like “aspire to nothing”. If your twitter bio says you’re an “aspiring writer”, delete the “aspiring” bit. You are a writer, because you write. Social media is not the enemy, but a tool that can be used to share your exciting news and create a following. Another thing Shukla mentioned, to destroy the stereotype of the “starving artist”, was that there was nothing wrong with having a 9-to-5 job and being a writer — he personally thinks being a barista is where it’s at. But where do you take the time? Josie Long’s Golden Game seems like a good solution: write 90 minutes a day. I should try it. We should try it.
For a first edition, Leicester Writes Festival was quite complete and exciting. It brought us together and not only established links within the writers community, but between cultural and geographical communities in general. There were people who came from places like London or Glasgow, and they had never seen anything like this before. This sense of union and equality is what sets us apart from larger cities that may call themselves “cosmopolitan” but are all about hierarchy, elitism and segregation. Here there are no secrets and no crabs-in-a-bucket mentality. No one-ups. Just mutual support. There may be few people who still behave like prima donnas, want all the credit for themselves even on team work and don’t support anyone but their niche little friends, yes. But those people do not belong here.