Words by Helen Knott
Antonia Beck’s first programme as Birmingham Literature Festival’s Festival Director focuses on celebrating and championing female writers. So it’s little surprise, as I walk into Birmingham REP’s Door space for my first taste of their spring weekend programme, that the audience is predominantly female.
It’s shame that more men aren’t present for this engaging panel discussion – titled 2018: The Year of Publishing Women? – which is inspired by the novelist Kamila Shamsie’s ‘provocation’ that publishers should only publish books by women in 2018. I think they would find it interesting.
When proposing the concept, Shamsie argued that her approach would both highlight and counteract the gender bias in publishing and literary awards towards male authors. Initially published in The Guardian, the article sparked much discussion and publicity but only one publisher, And Other Stories (represented on today’s panel by Fiction Editor Tara Tobler), has taken up the challenge. Today’s panel members make it clear, however, that there are a lot of other positive ways to work towards greater gender balance in literature and in society in general. Catherine Mayer set up the political Women’s Equality Party, Sian Norris founded the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, and Sabeena Akhtar is compiling an anthology featuring work by women who have experience of wearing the hijab.
The panel discuss some of the issues that they have faced as female writers and editors. They agree that female authors are marketed in certain ways, with sexualized or feminised book covers, that they are typecast into writing in limited genres or about particular themes, and that, although female authors achieve high book sales, they are less often named on award shortlists than men. Panel and audience members put forward a number of suggestions of how to counteract these issues, including networking and mentoring, refusing to work for free, and utilising the internet to publish work independently.
Perhaps the most striking thought that I’m left with is that this isn’t just a problem of female representation. It’s an intersectional issue. Yes it’s difficult to be a woman in publishing, but you could further argue that a white, wealthy woman is – on the whole – going to find it easier to build up a professionally broad network of contacts than their counterparts from a different class or culture. The lack of equality in publishing is a complex challenge that isn’t going to be solved by a single panel discussion in Birmingham – yet this event carries out the important job of making sure that the issue continues to be highlighted.
Next is #MeToo: A Movement in Poetry. Fair Acre Press has published an anthology of poetry featuring the work of 80 female poets in response to the #MeToo movement – which highlights the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault against women in society. In this event, 24 poems are read aloud by over twenty different female voices. Some of the poems are read by their authors on the stage (such as Kathy Gee’s ‘Still Guilty’ and ‘=Not Him’ by Pat Edwards) and some are read by audience members, either at the front of the room or from their seat in the auditorium.
This format is simple, but incredibly powerful. When the woman next to you in the audience suddenly stands up and starts reading a poem about sexual assault or harassment, it really brings home the fact that this could be happening to the person next to you on the bus, at work, or even at home. And you had no idea. The poems are thoughtfully arranged, starting with the ambiguous ‘Reeds’ – which describes an episode that could be the start of something, or of nothing. Poems like ‘The Bicycle’ show the narrator trying to focus on other things to distance themselves from what just happened, whereas ‘Spunk’ powerfully describes an episode explicitly.
By the end, ‘Spartaca’ sees women standing together in solidarity and speaking out. The sheer number of episodes and stories presented brings home the widespread nature of sexual assault and harassment that women encounter. But it also creates a sense of solidarity. Poem after poem, experience after experience, momentum builds, and the more women that speak out the more women have the courage to join in. Considering the distressing subject matter, the poetry, presented as it is here, has an uplifting effect.
We’re back on a more comfortable footing for the festival’s final event. Festival Director, Antonia Beck, describes Jenny Murray as having a voice that’s a “staple in all our homes” in her introduction to A History of Britain in 21 Women with Jenny Murray. As you go through life, you occasionally meet people with such charm and ease that you’ll listen to them, enthralled, for hours. Murray is such a person. It’s not surprising that she has become such a beloved institution on our airwaves.
This event is named after Murray’s book, which is part memoir, part accessible take on British history. Tonight, Murray tells a series of anecdotes from her life mixed with interesting stories about 21 women who shaped the history of Britain, all framed by questions from ex-BBC Midlands Today presenter Sue Beardsmore. Murray describes history as being the “biography of great men” and her book addresses this by documenting some important women in British history, some of whom Murray believes are somewhat passed over in the school curriculum.
She talks about women like Boudica, who led an uprising against the occupying Romans and who Murray first encountered in statue-form on a trip to London as a child. And Elizabeth I, who would be her top pick for a fantasy dinner party. And Margaret Thatcher, the only woman Murray says she has ever been frightened of. The evening ends with Murray speaking about the sexism that women still encounter, particularly highlighting the difficulties faced by female MPs and praising the #MeToo movement for raising awareness of harassment and abuse.
It’s a fitting end, both to the event and to the weekend as whole, which certainly posed some interesting questions about the role of women in literature and in society. Whether Antonia Beck continues to focus on celebrating and championing female writers in the full Birmingham Literature Festival programme, running from October 4th to 14th, remains to be seen. But until autumn, there is both plenty of food for thought and plenty still to accomplish.
For more on Birmingham Literature Festival, visit www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org
For more on Writing West Midlands, visit www.writingwestmidlands.org
For more from Birmingham REP, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk