A UK festival to “celebrate the work and achievements” of black, Asian and minority ethnic writers (BAME) has launched a crowdfunding campaign.
The Bare Lit Festival, organised by non-profit advocacy group Media Diversified, will take place on 27th–28th February in London. Novelists Leila Aboulela and Xiaolu Guo, poet Jane Yeh, London’s young poet laureate Selina Nwulu and journalist and fiction author Robin Yassin-Kassab are among those scheduled to appear at the event.
Business coach and consultant Mel Larsen last year calculated that in 2014, just 4% of the authors appearing at the three big literature festivals—the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Cheltenham Literature Festival and the Hay Festival—were black or Asian, with this figure decreasing to 1% once “cookery book writers, footballers, poets, children’s authors and writers who were black or Asian but not residing in the UK” were not included.
Samantha Asumadu, founder of Media Diversified and one of the organisers of Bare Lit, told The Bookseller that the current representation of writers of colour at UK festivals was “abysmal”, and accused publishing of “institutional discrimination”. She added: “That writers of colour are invited only to speak about diversity is a damning indictment of both the publishing industry and literary festivals themselves. By curtailing them in this manner, readers are missing out on the full range and beauty of their work.
“If we don’t value writers of colour and they are not seen and heard with their white peers, they are even less likely to get published. I can’t imagine my life without having read Buchi Emecheta and Toni Morrison as a teenager. That future titans of writing may not get their chance to be read widely because of institutional discrimination in publishing is heartbreaking.”
Mend Mariwany, another organiser of Bare Lit, said: “We can focus on making mainstream festivals more ‘diverse’ or we can create something magical of our own.”
Aboulela told The Bookseller that some festivals “tend to see BAME writers as one homogenous group from which they can choose the most accessible or easily categorised and regard him/her as representative”.
She added: “Writers from BAME backgrounds differ hugely and squeezing them in the same category overlooks the endless possibilities and disparate reading experiences they have to offer. A step forward would be for festival programming committees themselves to become diverse in their make-up. This would broaden the range of experience and reading among the committee and challenge the selection status quo.
“I think Bare Lit will help to shatter the illusion that all diverse writers are the same. I am hoping it will be an opportunity to showcase published writers at various stages in their careers, with books to satisfy every kind of reader.”
Author Tendai Huchu, who will also appear at the festival, told The Bookseller that anything “that opens up a space for literature—especially literature marginalised from the ‘mainstream’—should be welcomed.” There is a “sufficient and growing audience” for works by writers of colour, Huchu added, “and because this is not translating to a place at the larger festivals, it is almost inevitable that something like Bare Lit should emerge”.
Huchu said he was relieved that Bare Lit would be a “serious space for the discussion of literature”. He added: “You have no idea how many of my peers (at least anecdotally) I have spoken with who have felt like objects of anthropological curiosity—inevitably being shunted to some panel on diversity or the like—as opposed to serious artists on the rare occasions they have done events at the larger festivals.
“Festivals, in an ideal world, should be spaces not only for the celebration of the known and the popular, but also places for exploration where readers can stumble upon great stuff outside of what they are used to. The poor representation of authors from BAME backgrounds should not simply be viewed as a problem for the authors, but as a more fundamental crime, because it robs audiences and readers of the opportunity to explore, to experience, to discover different perspectives . . . this is the great tragedy.”
SFF and speculative fiction author Zen Cho said: “As a writer who is neither white nor British, I am used to sticking out at conventions and publishing events. The stories that fill our heads should reflect the richness and diversity of the world around us. I’m excited to be part of a festival that is trying to encourage that.”
The Bare Lit Festival, which takes place at The Free Word Centre and The Betsey Trotwood pub in Farringdon, London, is fundraising on crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, and offering a number of incentives to donate.
For more information, click here.