The highlights and challenges of organising a literature festival
The highlights and challenges of organising a literature festival
13 May 2015
Producing a literature festival is a mammoth task and it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. But Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival Manager Jemimah Steinfeld looks remarkably calm and collected despite being in charge of producing more than 20 events at this year’s literature festival. She previously worked as a journalist in China, published her first book about Chinese youth earlier this year and has a Chinese Studies MA from SOAS.
Explaining why she took up her first ever role as a literature festival manager she said: “I think it’s all down to Asia House. I have always found it to be a great institution – there are not many places in the UK where you can channel that interest in all things in Asia in the UK. I had just written my own book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China and I was quite involved in the China literary scene so it felt like quite a natural progression to move to the other side. I think it’s quite a dynamic role and you feel like you are directly engaging with the public.”
One of the challenges of managing a literature festival was putting together a programme of events close together without overwhelming the audience with too much choice and without making too many events compete together, she said. Another challenge was getting big Asian authors based in Asia to attend despite not having an “endless budget”.
She said holding it close to the Hay Festival, which takes place in May and close to London Book Fair, which takes place in April, was deliberate as many authors were anyway coming over for those. “This year London Book Fair had a Mexican theme though, whereas last year it was South Korean,” she said. But she added: “I am sure Hay and Edinburgh can’t always get the authors over that they want to.”
Despite these difficulties various authors have flown over for this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival including Hwang Sok-yong, Amitav Ghosh, Anuradha Roy, A Yi, Quan Barry, Amanda Lee Koe and Audrey Chin.
As for the highlights of running a literature festival, Steinfeld said: “So far it’s gone really well. We have attracted new audiences to Asia House and discussed new themes. Some of the authors I am working with this year are really famous, but equally it’s tremendous to be able to work with new authors and to give them a platform. Even if only 20 people come and listen, we are helping them in what has become a really difficult world. Authors are earning less and less, so however we can help them is good.”
She said another major highlight was that she had got to work with authors that were “personal favourites” such as British-Chinese writer Xue Xinran who opened the Festival on 7 May. “I am really excited about Hwang Sok-yong also. His life is insane, so to have him at Asia House is amazing. He has led the most colourful life of anyone you will hope to meet. We have also got Amitav Ghosh this year who is speaking at a post-Festival event at Waterstones. I think one of the things that makes the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival so special is that, unlike some other literature festivals, where the authors are on stage and the audience are seated in an auditorium, our events are more intimate where you can actually rub shoulders with authors and meet your literary heroes.”
Steinfeld was in China recently to promote her book. “I did seven talks in 10 days at different literature events so I know what it’s like to be an author, attendee and organiser of a literature festival now,” she said. She is also chairing several of this year’s events, such as the session with Ghosh. “I think the key thing if you are interviewing an author is to prepare and do your research. I had one person on stage with me in China who had not even read my book!” she added.
The theme of this year’s Festival is gender and youth. Xinran’s book Buy Me the Sky which was launched on the Festival Opening Night, looks at the offspring of China’s one-child policy – young people in China aged under 36.
“I have got lots of female writers coming and the festival is a celebration of women as well. With Anuradha Roy we looked at women in India. We are also looking at youth in Asia through events such as The Living Goddess and our closing night is ‘Love Across Divides’ which looks at contemporary relationships which often cross cultural and geographical boundaries,” she added. That panel will feature Turkey’s bestselling female author, Elif Shafak, who has written heavily on love across cultures, Jennifer Klinec, author of The Temporary Bride, an autobiographical account of her marriage to an Iranian man, and Mirza Waheed, author of The Book of Gold Leaves, which looks at a fated relationship in war-torn Kashmir.
There are lots of special treats for Festival participants this year too. Blackwell’s has a bookstore at Asia House selling books from the Festival throughout the event. Cocktails and snacks from Dishoom were served at the successful Indian storytelling event held last Friday and Dishoom drinks and snacks were served to children at the family storytelling day last Saturday. Chinese canapés were served at the Opening Night and tasty Vietnamese snacks will be served at the Good Evening, Vietnam event on Wednesday 13 May when writers will discuss how much the Vietnam War still dominates current discourse and contemporary writing on Vietnam. There will also be a delicious tea tasting at the afternoon event ‘A Tea Odyssey’ on 18 May when Jeff Koehler, writer and cook, will launch his new book Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea. For aspiring novelists a creative writing masterclass will take place on Thursday, 14 May.
“We are doing a creative writing masterclass as it’s nice to do things that are interactive and it’s hard to do a one-off course like this in London,” Steinfeld said. The course is being taught by author Susan Barker.
Once again writing workshops are taking place at schools across the country introducing young people to some of the books featured at the Festival. This culminates in the annual Student Writing Competition in which school pupils aged 13 to 18 are invited to submit fiction or non-fiction around this year’s theme ‘women hold up half the sky.’ For the first time the Festival has introduced a Youth Panel allowing young people aged 16 to 24 to be part of the literary debate and share their views during selected events as well as meet the authors. Festival events are also taking place at libraries and youth centres across the summer.
Beautiful images from the British Library will accompany the event ‘Travelling China’s Silk Road’ on 14 May when four writers will offer their perspectives on Xinjiang. Another upcoming highlight is ‘The Living Goddess’ on Friday, 15 May. “Isabella Tree is a travel writer who has lived in Nepal twice. She has spoken to people who were once Kumaris,” Steinfeld explained.
Kumaris are pre-pubescent girls chosen to look over Nepal who are believed to be incarnations of the goddess Durga, who are worshipped by Hindus. The girls are selected if they are considered to have perfect beauty, in excellent health with no blemishes, are pious and fearless and if they pass other stringent tests. They continue in this role until they reach puberty when they are replaced.
“We don’t really engage with Nepal and Vietnam that much in the West,” Steinfeld said, “apart from talking about Vietnamese food, so I organised ‘Good Evening, Vietnam’ to help understand Vietnam and show there is more to the country than food.” At the Singapore event held earlier this week with Audrey Chin and Amanda Lee Koe, she said she hoped to show all the different sides of Singapore such as what is it like being gay in Singapore and other fresh tales from the country.
To accompany the Literature Festival, there are a number of new exhibitions and installations at Asia House including Jukhee Kwon’s Dipping into Darkness, a work that hangs from the central staircase that resembles a gigantic multi-layered calligraphy brush with the tip of the cut pages soaked in black ink.
Also installed are two works from Chinese artist Qin Feng. The two paintings are from the artist’s Desire series and reflect Qin Feng’s transnational background, incorporating tea and coffee marks as well as calligraphic and abstract forms.
In the Gallery, Pakistani artist Farina Alam’s series My Kolachi is exhibited in full to coincide with the Festival exploring the notion of place and how it bears upon Pakistan as a post-colonial nation state.
“What I hope to achieve, the number one thing, is that people walk through the doors and learn something new. I hope it’s fun and that it changes what people think about Asia,” Steinfeld said.
This year’s Festival is partnering with The Leeds Big Bookend Festival to showcase Sunjeev Sahota, a British novelist who shot to fame after publishing his first novel Ours are the Streets in 2011. He will speak about his latest book The Year of the Runaways on 6 June. The same day Steinfeld will speak about her book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, and the sexual and cultural revolution taking place in China. “We want to engage with people that are not part of a privileged London milieu so that’s why we do that,” Steinfeld added.
To see all the events taking place at this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival click here.
To read more about the literature festival click here.