5 things inspiring Bradford Literature Festival's Syima Aslam right now

5 things inspiring Bradford Literature Festival's Syima Aslam right now

Syima Aslam co-founded the Bradford Literary Festival with Irna Qureshi,  combining their passion for books and film to create a cultural and literary extravaganza celebrating the written and spoken word. It had 10,000 visitors in its launch year (2015), 32,000 in 2016, and 50,000 in 2017 - and recently hosted over 500 speakers in more than 400 sessions for this year's event in June.

Aslam was selected as one of The Bookseller's FutureBook 40 top publishing innovators in the UK back in April. Here she shares five things inspiring her to think and work differently right now.


Hardware: I was going to talk about my new iPhone here… but actually, when I think about it, the iPhone is less of an inspiration and more of a conduit for inspirational material, from YouTube, to the midnight texts between my team and I about amazing ideas or speakers. In terms of raw inspiration it has to be my Pelikan fountain pen which I have never been separated from since I first fell in love with it in Bertram’s in Hay. I love filling it with blood red, emerald green or amethyst coloured ink and just picking it up, and feeling the weight of it in my hand, connects me in a very visceral way to the hundreds of years of writers, whose work, and the physical act of pushing a nib across paper, has brought me to where I am, and what I do, here in Bradford in 2018.

Software: Slack is a communications tool that is revolutionizing how we work on a day-to-day level at the Festival. Before using it, we would have conversations going on about programming, marketing, development, right down to the running of the office – via email, Whatsaspp, text… sometimes the sheer volume of communications can get, as any Festival Director will tell you, a bit intense! Slack has streamlined all of these conversations into one workspace, and means that rather than my phone pinging 600 times a day – with six different alert tones – I’m down to about 300…. And one or two kinds of beep!

Book: Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik. I heard Mark Miodownik give a lecture recently at the University of Bradford, that absolutely blew me away. His work with materials puts him at the cutting edge of design, technology, manufacturing, all of which feeds into art, education, politics, economics, culture - basically Mark uses materials in the way that we at the festival use books – as a way into thinking about the world in new and exciting ways. And, it would be a lie to say that as a huge fan of  slightly magical and fairytale fiction, I wasn’t slightly seduced by the quasi-magical properties of materials like self-healing concrete – which I’d never heard of, until I read Mark’s book.  

Idea: One of my favourite books, which has changed the way I think about life, is The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud din Attar. The book tells how the birds of the world, who are leaderless, gather to decide who their leader will be. At the suggestion of the wise hoopoe, the birds journey across seven valleys to reach the legendary Simorgh. The narrative is an allegory of the Sufi mystical path; in recounting how the birds go through various trials on their quest to the Simorgh, there is a message that the path to self-awareness, and self-actualization, can be a hard road to travel. This is the idea that I carry with me - reaching your goal in any aspect of life whether personal or professional is a journey, and there might be peaks of accomplishment, and troughs of despondency – but you just have to learn from it, and keep going.

Person: My teenage daughter Tayyibah, is a constant source of inspiration for me. When I founded the festival, I wanted to create something that would add to Tayyibah’s sense of pride in her hometown. I also think more carefully about things because I know my thoughts and behaviour will have an influence on her. On the other hand, I also try and see things from her perspective; engagement with young people is a huge part of what we do at the festival, and I often think – and ask – whether this is something Tayyibah and her friends would come along to take part in.  

Tayyibah is growing up in a house full of books – something that in straightened economic circumstances, where you’re struggling to put food on the table, is a luxury. There are a lot of children in Bradford, for whom books are very much in that ‘luxury’ category as they were for me when I was growing up. My access to books and literature came through libraries. I want to make sure that as many children in the city as possible, have access to as much literature as possible as I’ve seen first hand how books can animate, enthuse, and change the lives of children in a way that nothing else can.