Cheltenham Literature Festival: Bernadine Evaristo, Sebastian Faulks and More…

Bernadine Evaristo introducing Judith Bryan, Jacqueline Roy and Nicola WilliamsThe highlight of my day at the Cheltenham Literature Festival was seeing Bernadine Evaristo and Dawn French in conversation, but I must admit that I was too tired to take proper notes by this point (and too busy laughing!) so I can’t report all of what was said. It felt good, after the last two years, to be part of a live audience again, and it was fascinating to hear them discuss their own careers and compare writing techniques, both coming from a background of theatre and performance. They also discussed the controversial topic of white writers writing black characters, agreeing that so long as the characters are fully rounded, well-researched and well-written, it is good to create diverse characters in order to reflect the society in which we live.   

I also attended Bernadine Evaristo’s ‘Black Britain: Writing Back’ event earlier in the day, where she introduced us to three other writers whose books are being re-published as part of this new series. Judith Bryan, author of Bernard and the Cloth Monkey, talked about how her training as a social worker sparked questions around family trauma and buried secrets. The story is set in the home of a British Caribbean family, where two sisters meet once again after many years of living apart.

Jacqueline Roy’s book, The Fat Lady Sings, is set on a psychiatric ward, following the stories of two black women: Gloria and Merle. Roy described how it was partly inspired by her own experience of the mental health system. The novel explores Merle’s loss of her sense of self, while there is some uncertainty in the book as to whether Gloria actually is mentally unwell, or simply eccentric. The book poses questions around the ways in which black people in particular are treated by institutions of this kind.

Nicola Williams is the author of Without Prejudice, a courtroom thriller with a black female protagonist: thirty year-old barrister Lee Mitchell. This plot was also inspired partly by the author’s own experience, working as a barrister. I think I’ll read this one first, though I would also love to watch it in the form of a TV drama…

It was a treat to hear an extract from each of these novels, and to hear the authors compare their experiences of publication two decades ago with their re-publication this year. There wasn’t much time to discuss the issue of race in the publishing industry, but Evaristo summed it up by saying that, back then, in the 1990s, it was extremely difficult for a black woman to be published ‘well’. Despite moderate success, such as Judith Bryan winning the Saga Prize in 1997, Evaristo believes that such books were not given the attention and readership they deserved.

Sebastian Faulks at Cheltenham Lit Fest 2021It was also a treat to hear Sebastian Faulks discuss his most recent novel, Snow Country, the second book from a loose trilogy that follows on from Human Traces, published over a decade ago. He explained that the first book was a doomed attempt to answer life’s biggest questions: Who are we? What are we? So this book is another failed attempt to answer these same questions. But, as with all his books, he admitted that it is a love story at heart, though fraught with self-analysis. He explained that he wanted to test out the various scientific theories of selfhood, by examining what happens when a character is placed under extreme pressure.

It was interesting to hear that Faulks based one of his characters on a real psychiatric case history, of a woman who found that she was only really happy when pregnant. He also decided not to describe the physical appearance of Lena, one of the novels’ female protagonists, merely hinting at her untidy hair, and the way that she walks. Having read the book, I can honestly say that I barely noticed this omission.

Cheltenham Literature Festival 2021I also attended a creative writing workshop led by Anthony Anaxagorou, and it was really interesting to hear him describe his own first encounter with poetry, and to hear him discuss the differences between spokenword and page poetry. I have a rather unusual draft poem in the making as a result of his ‘opposites’ writing exercise, and hope to develop it further.

Apart from the rather more quirky storytelling festival in July, this was the first proper literary event that I have attended since covid, and I’d forgotten how much better it is to be right there, in the tent, with a whole host of other people. The atmosphere was fantastic, though I would have felt more comfortable if everyone was wearing masks (only about 50% of people seemed to think this was important), and it did feel odd sitting in close proximity again, after so long. That said, it was wonderful to be surrounded by literary enthusiasts, and I now have a few more books to add to my reading list for the coming year.

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