Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival apologises for absence of female writers of colour

Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival apologises for absence of female writers of colour

The organisers of the 2021 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival have apologised for not including any female writers of colour in the programme in response to criticism.

This week the organisers announced their final line up including special guests Richard Osman, Elly Griffiths and Ann Cleeves. However, on 2nd July, the festival said it had received criticism over the bill from the Twitter account of Asian Booklist, a platform which helps readers discover new books by British-Asian authors and advocates for diversity in publishing.

In a statement on Twitter Harrogate Festivals said: "It has been brought to our attention that our 2021 Crime Writing Festival Programme contains no female writers of colour. It should not have been necessary for this to be pointed out to us. 

"We work hard on diversity at the Crime Writing Festival but, although there have been many unique challenges this year, we got this wrong, and we apologise. 

"We will be examining our planning processes, changing our practices — including expanding our programming committee — and working hard to make sure it never happens again in future years."

A spokesperson told The Bookseller: “Our attention was drawn in the first instance to criticism of the programme from the Asian BookList Twitter account which led us to self-reflect on how we can address the issue and improve things together going forward. Diversity and inclusion are incredibly important to us when programming the festival. This year’s festival has proved more challenging than anyone could have predicted, with a constantly changing programme, continued lack of clarity around restrictions lifting and the enormous difficulty of reinventing the event with social distancing in place. We are committed to staging a world-leading festival in all areas including diversity and are already identifying changes we will be making for future year."

The Asian Booklist Twitter account had posted on 30th June: "This looks like a great lineup, but we count ~70 writers and not one woman of colour. Can we be right? Very much hoping we're wrong."

Invitees author Abir Mukherjee and A A Dhand also issued a joint statement on Twitter saying that they were "pleased" the concerns raised were recognised and that "constructive conversations have taken place resulting in a welcome change in policy for future literary festivals". They said this meant "such missteps should not be grounds for condemnation". 

Referring to research released by Penguin Random House on a lack of diversity in books taught for English Literature, they said: "It is important that our festivals and our society in general be as inclusive as possible. In a week where it has been reported that while 34% of GCSE students come from BAME backgrounds, less than 1% of students study a book by a woman of colour, it is clear that there is much work to be done. Harrogate has always been at the forefront of championing new voices, so the commitment to changing practices and widening the diversity of the planning committee is a very welcome step."

However, they noted that it was not an issue specific to one particular festival, and said that "too often writers and readers of colour are overlooked". In 2017 historian Rebecca Rideal pulled out of the Chalke Valley Festival over the lack of diversity, after learning that the programme of 148 speakers only had 32 women and one person of colour. 

They said that "diversity and inclusion are tricky subjects" and there is a "fine balance between genuine inclusivity and box-ticking tokenism" adding "it is a fear of every author from a minority background that they are invited to festivals or listed for awards not on merit, but from a need by the organisers to 'make up the numbers'. We believe that diversity in all such committees which plan festivals and judge awards would be a good step on the road to allaying such fears."

They also added: "This is a journey that we are all on together. There will be missteps along the way, but as long as all people involved in such festivals have a desire to make things better, such missteps should not be grounds for condemnation. Indeed the Harrogate committee's swift acknowledgment of their mistake and their determination to change things should stand as an example of how we make progress together."