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How book festivals can fix their diversity problem

Bradford Literature Festival CEO Syima Aslam says her event is committed to reflecting the cultural diversity of modern life

Syima Aslam

Syima Aslam Image: supplied

As we commemorate the third anniversary of George Floyd’s tragic death, it’s time to critically reflect on issues of racial inequality not just in our communities but also in our cultural and artistic spaces. His passing sparked necessary conversations around the globe, prompting a wide array of entities – from cultural organisations to corporations, both local and global – to vow improvement. Yet, it’s worth questioning whether the realms of literature, arts, and culture truly reflect this commitment to diversity.  

Despite the widely held misconception, literature and arts have never been exclusive to white, middle-class communities. Words, ensconced in the heart of books, are universal tools – fundamental in nurturing children’s literacy and aspirations, expanding our collective worldview, and fostering empathy as we grow. Literature festivals serve as an incredible platform to animate these words, sparking discussions that our social media-centric age often overlooks. These events are crucibles of inspiration, not just for children, but for adults too.  

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However, a closer look reveals that these festivals often cater predominantly to white, middle-class audiences in terms of content and ticket prices. This issue promotes an environment of exclusion where the mental wellbeing, inspiration, and overall benefits of arts and culture become accessible only to the privileged few. Addressing these concerns isn’t an insurmountable challenge. All it requires is a genuine openness to diversity of thought and experience, a commitment to providing access to those without financial means, and the willingness to put in the effort to make traditionally marginalised communities feel welcomed in spaces they perceive as not intended for them.   

Failing to create inclusive spaces for everyone also serves to reinforce the feeling among individuals from minority or socio-economically diverse backgrounds that they don’t belong in the creative industries. This will exacerbate the continued issue of underrepresentation, making it seem an increasingly daunting task to tackle. In a 2021 survey by The Bookseller it was found that only one in five respondents from the publishing industry were from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Further, an analysis of ONS data in 2022 revealed a significant decline in the number of people from working-class backgrounds employed in creative industries over the last 50 years. These statistics highlight the widespread nature of this issue and underscore the urgency to challenge stereotypical ideas about who literature is meant for.  

Literature festivals and cultural spaces are at a crossroads. They can either perpetuate the status quo, maintaining their exclusivity and reflecting a narrow, stereotypical view of who belongs in cultural spaces, or they can use their influence to foster change, ensuring that everyone feels welcomed and represented.  

At Bradford Literature Festival, we’re committed to breaking down these barriers and encouraging diversity. We have instituted an extensive ethical ticketing policy that provides free tickets to those who may otherwise be unable to attend. This includes individuals with disabilities, carers, students over 16, senior citizens, benefit recipients, adults living in social housing, refugees and asylum seekers, teachers and educators. If other literature festivals adopt similar measures, we could initiate a transformative ripple effect across the sector, increasing access to culture, books, and art at large.   

However, enhancing access is merely the first step; welcoming and embracing these diverse audiences is equally crucial. Our Bradford Literature Festival line-up is a testament to this commitment. We pride ourselves on a world-class programme offering events that not only intrigue our audience but also reflect and excite them.  

This year, we’re hosting a wide variety of events, ranging from a literary club night with Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh to a performance of Sir Muhammad Iqbal’s seminal poem Shikwa, performed by the trailblazing Manchester Camerata orchestra and sung by Abi Sampa. A noteworthy highlight is the book launch of Break the Wheel: Ending the Cycle of Police Violence by Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison, who prosecuted the George Floyd case.  

Our inclusive programming isn’t just a token gesture. It isn’t optional; it’s integral to our festival’s ethos. We’re driven by a commitment to represent the diverse voices and identities of Bradford’s residents, and we believe that no conversation should be out of bounds. By stimulating curiosity without limitations, we utilise literature and the arts as powerful tools to transform and empower audiences. It is imperative that we ensure everyone feels welcome, for our festival isn’t just for a select few – it’s for everyone. 

Syima Aslam is the CEO and artistic director at  Bradford Literature Festival, 23 June-2 July 2023. bradfordlitfest.co.uk 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income

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