The Primadonna Festival: yes, not why

When Catherine Mayer asked if I wanted to be involved in setting up a new festival where women’s writing would take centre stage it took me about five seconds to say yes.   And that’s been the response so far from everyone else involved.  We’re all saying yes and no-one’s asking why.

That’s because the why is so obvious. On Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this week I was finally asked why, why we needed a festival that concentrated on women when we have literary giants like Hilary Mantel and JK Rowling. And was I really saying that women don’t get reviewed in literary journals?  

This isn’t the place to go into the research and the data that clearly demonstrates that literary festivals – and music festivals – are skewed towards the male voice and that women are not reviewed as often as men and even when they do, there are comments on the woman’s clothing, size, make-up, cheery disposition (or not) and the inevitable question about juggling writing with motherhood and that in 2019 the word ‘chick’ is still used to describe writing by women for women.  

Nor is it the place to go into the barriers that women face in getting published in the first place because, yes very often we are juggling writing with motherhood or caring responsibilities or that if you are a disabled woman, a woman of colour or one of the gender minorities you will face enormous hurdles in being published (as with other areas of life) and questioned whether or not there is a market for your book and your very ‘niche’ take on the world.  That’s if you can afford to write at all and austerity hasn’t decimated the free time and emotional energy you need to write a novel or a poem. Nope, this is not the place.

This is a space for telling you about the Primadonna Festival, a literary festival with music and film and food and wellness and things for kids and toilets that don’t smell (promise) and a chance to make new friendships and cement old ones, all in the beautiful Suffolk countryside (with hotels and B & B’s nearby for those of us that don’t camp).  Jane Dyball, one of the founders of Primadonna who regularly puts on music festivals in the grounds of her house has donated this space and a whole production team to go with it so that for this first year we can keep the costs down and hopefully break even.  

Above all else, Primadonna is a celebration of brilliant writing by brilliant women (and men that support us) and by diverse voices, a chance for those writers who don’t usually get a place at the table to have an opportunity to talk about the content of their work rather than their bra-size or lack of a bra at all.

At the Primadonna Festival we’ll hear from writers at the top of their game like Adele Parks who’s giving a lecture on genre writing, Sarah Winman, Sophie Hannah who’s doing a crime masterclass, John Boyne, Kerry Hudson founder of WoMentoring and The Breakthrough Festival, Professor Kate Williams,  Joanna Cannon, Konnie Huq and Luke Jennings who wrote "Killing Eve" and created some of the most kick-ass female characters we’ve seen for a long time. And I’ll be introducing debut novelist Ely Percy, whose queer rom-com is set in Glasglow and written in dialect – and in a session on the new anthology of working class memoir, Common People, three writers will talk about their work and their journey to publication. There are also plenty of new writers whose names you won’t know – yet.

We’ll have round table discussions that won’t be restricted to the usual formulaic fifty minute slot but have proper time allocated for questions, audience participation and discussions, like the one we’re planning on motherhood ‘Damned if You Do and Damned if you Don’t’,  or ‘Alexa, While You’re Down There’ on the new world of artificial intelligence, its intersection with sex robots and what the future might look like with our in-house voice activated companions.

For developing writers there’ll daily writing challenges, open mic night, meet the agent, meet the editor and publisher and the opportunity to question the experts on how to get your manuscript ready for publication and what agents are really looking for. Again, we’ve been able to get an immediate yes from two agents nominated for Agent of the Year: Cathryn Summerhayes and Jo Unwin. The Good Agency will talk about developing the career of underrepresented writers and there’s editorial input from Helen Thomas of Hachette Children, Lisa Milton of Harper Collins and Sharmaine Lovegrove of Dialogue Books. And there’s lots more to come.

We’re still programming as this goes to press. We, the Primadonnas, who are all donating our time and expertise for free, interrogate ourselves again and again about what we’re planning, making sure it lives up our intention of being fresh, being inclusive, being accessible and most of all fun. Many of the speakers and writers have waived their fee so that we can offer free and subsidised tickets to people who wouldn’t normally be able to attend a three-day festival in the countryside. But we’re still looking for sponsors so if you’d like to join in, get in touch.  

Finally, I’m overjoyed to be a Primadonna along with Sabeena Akhtar, Joanna Baker, Jane Dyball, Catherine Mayer, Shona Abhyankar, Jude Kelly, Alexis Kirschbaum, Lisa Milton, Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, Sonia Purnell, Catherine Riley, Monisha Rajesh, Athena Stevens, Cathryn Summerhayes, Sandi Toksvig and Sioned Wiliam.

If you haven’t asked why, I’ll probably see you there.  

The Primadonna team

Kit de Waal is the author of The Trick to Time and My Name is Leon (both published by Penguin), and winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2017.