Bradford Literature Festival has revealed it is expecting around 18,000 more people to attend than last year.
Syima Aslam, who co-founded the festival three years ago, told The Bookseller that she believes around 50,000 visitors will descend on the 10-day event which launched yesterday (29th June) – five times as many as in 2015 when it launched.
The festival spans across the city and also includes writers such as Joanna Trollope, Jeanette Winterson, Jackie Kaye, and Ben Okri. Themes this year include 'Gender Politics', 'Empire' as well as the event’s first 'Comic Con Weekend'. Aslam also discussed the strand of events celebrating King Arthur’s legacy – “we are reclaiming here as his spiritual home” – as well as the ‘Disrobing Mr Darcy’ panel event (2nd July) as upcoming highlights.
Ticket sales have been going “fantastically well”, she added, with many of the 300-odd sessions sold out weeks in advance.
“A few events sold out a while ago, the heritage tours sell out very quickly," she said. We had 10,000 visitors in our launch year (2015) then 32,000 last year and this year I believe we could have around 50,000.”
Aslam hopes that Bradford could become the next Hay Festival and earlier this week the team found out they had been selected as one of Arts Council’s England’s National Portfolio Organisations - it will receive £300,000 in 2018/9. She said: “We would like the festival to keep on running for as long as possible. We want this to become a major destination festival not only in the UK but internationally. It’s about creating an impact in literacy and a legacy and you can’t do those things in a year.”
She added: “Hay is the town of books but it didn’t have the reputation that it does have now. If you look at the heritage we have here there are the Brontës, J B Priestley, and others - we have an amazing writing scene here and it is about having the will to do it.”
Aslam and Irna Qureshi founded the festival in 2014 based on the belief that cultural engagement through literature has the power to change people’s lives. It had the help of Bradford Council, Bradford University and ACE before Provident Financial came on board. The festival secured a further five-year title partnership with Provident Financial plc in March following a two years of the support from the company.
Aslam, whose background is in business development, told The Bookseller that after taking months to decide the programme, she “gets butterflies” seeing final result. She said: “It takes about a year or 18 months to plan it, you spend all this time curating and agonising and when you see them materialise in front of your eyes and it comes together it’s hugely exciting. I have some of my favourite writers coming this year so I’m being a groupie. There are butterflies, and you think, ‘Oh my God, it’s here now’."
She added: “I’ve been reading Jeanette Winterson forever, and Ben Okri whose work I love [both are appearing at the festival]. We are doing a memorial event for Derek Walcott [on 8th July]. He was one of the people I really wanted to get to the festival and were really sad that he passed away.”
The festival m.d revealed the team try to engage people less likely to visit literature events. Aslam told The Bookseller: "We work really hard to include groups who don’t normally go to a festival. We give free tickets to those in social housing, on benefits, over 65, full-time students, refugees, asylum seekers so that there’s not a barrier to engagement as well as free events for children. It’s all about getting people who feel that a literary festival is not for them to feel that this can be.”
She added: “It is a pleasure and a privilege to curate this. It’s about creating a community that everyone feels involved in.”
On Tuesday (28th June), one of the speakers, YA author Juno Dawson, pulled out of a panel after expressing concern about what she called "bigoted" speakers slated to attend the festival. Dawson appears to have been speaking about the attendance at the festival of Germaine Greer and the BBC's Jenni Murray, who have both separately sparked controversy recently for comments they have made about transgender people.
Aslam said she sympathised with Dawson’s views but that she believed “nuanced conversations” could help change opinions. She told The Bookseller: “I think it’s very difficult not to offend someone in all honesty. We created this festival because we wanted to create a space where people could have nuanced conversations and there were always going to be topics which made some uncomfortable. I believe in dialogue.”
Aslam said that a range of challenging discussions are core to keeping the programme relevant. She said: “We are doing an event about honour killings this year ['Hymen Obsessions: Controlling Female Sexuality' (2nd July)] and those things are really difficult, we have another, 'Why Are We Losing the War on Terror' [2nd July]. There are lots of things we do which people out there find offensive.
“It is quite difficult when you have a big festival and a lot of people and not every one’s opinion will match your own. There are people in the festival whose opinions I don’t agree with. We had a programme last year which the Muslim community found challenging and that is obviously a community I’m from."
Aslam added: “I think festivals are here to have challenging discussions and debates and it really isn’t about offending people and we have been in discussions with the LGBT community in Bradford, I completely understand their concerns, but we didn’t feel that taking them off the platform would do anything.”
She revealed that the sales for Greer and Murray’s events were going “really well”. She said: “They are both popular figures, I understand Juno’s perspective though.
The festival runs until 9th July and covers current affairs and topical subjects, as well as history, literature and poetry.
For more information or to book tickets, visit bradfordlitfest.co.uk.