Primadonna Festival

This isn’t the most cheerful December I can remember, so I’ve been searching for positives and found myself reflecting on a most wonderful festival I went to last summer. The Primadonna Festival of great writing, ideas and creativity, co-founded by 18 amazing women, had its début in August in Suffolk and I was lucky enough to be invited to join its inaugural line-up. Designed from the ground up to celebrate women’s voices, it was a remarkable, inspiring experience—and a significant one. It’s why I’m so delighted to hear that it’s happening for a second time this coming year.

History teaches us that the darkest hour often comes before a darker hour still, that progress is neither inevitable nor linear, and that gains made by women and minority populations are often fragile. A lot of my historical research and writing revolves around correcting what might be called “fake old news”, narratives written by intervening generations based not on fact, but designed to promote particular ideologies. 

We have seen repeatedly that by choosing to reflect the dominance of particular ideas, classes and individuals, and of course one gender, history can end up erasing whole swathes of experience. My research while writing my books on Emma Hamilton and Josephine Bonaparte showed me how much these vital, inspiring, dazzling women had been pushed to the background. It is so important that these forgotten voices can be heard, and that we rediscover the lives we have lost. 

At Primadonna, the founders were on a mission to, as they put it, create ‘the world as it should be for one weekend’. It was a wonderful experience, fun, stimulating, friendly and full of inspiring words. In a world where I still see events in which the panel is all male, occasionally with a woman chairing, it was great to see a festival intentionally giving prominence to women. The line-up mixed well-known writers including Bernardine Evaristo and Elif Shafak, respectively joint winner and shortlisted finalist for this year’s Booker Prize, with début authors, such as Alya Mooro and Zeba Talkhani. There was comedy—including a hilarious open mike contest to Make Sioned Laugh—Sioned Wiliam, commissioning editor of comedy for BBC Radio 4—and amazing poetry and music from well-known names such as Raymond Antrobus and the Noisettes’ Shingai and emerging artists such as Nadine Jassat and Signkid.  

The mix of performers, comedians, musicians and other fascinating and compelling speakers attracted not only festival veterans, but an audience of many ages and backgrounds, many of whom were completely new to this kind of event. The organisers worked to make the whole thing accessible, with travel bursaries and free tickets for those who couldn’t afford to come. 

The audience really got involved with key panels, including one that sparked a lot of conversation about motherhood and the choices that women make about it, or its absence—Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t, in which sharply different perspectives from Sabeena Akhtar, Monisha Rajesh, Sinead Gleeson, Jude Kelly and Hannah Peaker nevertheless coalesced around the central premise, that a woman’s reproductive choices carry penalties irrespective of what they are. It resonated so much that the South Bank Women of the World Festival 2020 is restaging it as a branded Primadonna panel. Details here: https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/140498-damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t-2020.

It was wonderful to give my talk about the relationship between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, based on my book Rival Queens. These were two of the most powerful women of their time, and although we could never describe them as "forgotten", it was remarkable to me how much our understanding of their reigns has been seen through the prism of men, during their lives but also during the centuries between us as the narrative of their lives was created by men. Both were surrounded by men who wanted to take their power, and then blamed for what these men forced them to do.

Other panels that audience members enthused about included Her Breasts Preceded Her into the Room, uproariously chaired by Sandi Toksvig who quoted some particularly florid examples of men describing women; Where There’s Muck, There’s Brass on the brilliance of working class writers, a demographic represented across Primadonna’s programming; and Alexa, While You’re Down There on technology and the impact of the future being shaped by too narrow a range of perspectives. 

The five writers who made it through to the inaugural Primadonna Prize shortlist for unrepresented and unpublished authors are not the only authors to gain the attention of publishers and agents. At least one book deal has already been done on the back of Primadonna and quite a few creative partnerships were forged. WhatsApp groups and other friendship and professional networks continue. Primadonna is still being discussed on Twitter, as a model for a female-led festival.

It was such a wonderful weekend of curiosity, optimism and hope—and the vision of a different future, new ideas and connections. The optimism, the enthusiasm, the open-mindedness was truly striking and inspiring—I will be there next year, come join us! 

Kate Williams is a historian, author and broadcaster. She is also 2019 Chair of the Women's Prize for Fiction and a Primadonna Festival supporter.