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Dispatches from Birmingham and Durham Literature Festivals

  • By Sophie Wardell
  • 13th October 2016
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Sophie Wardell, Free Word's Programme Producer, reports back from two literature festivals featuring Free Word; from Ukrainian writers and a 'translation station' in Birmingham to the power of narrative in understanding climate change in Durham.

The new Library of Birmingham appeared before me. Its shining concentric copper façade stands in stark contrast to the surroundings. It’s not just a library. It’s part gallery, part arts venue, part theatre, part community college, part coffee shop and – vitally – part desirable sightseeing destination. As literature as an art form tries to attract greater and more diverse audiences, libraries – free and open to all – become a valuable democratic resource.

I was there because Free Word was delighted to be teaming up with Writing West Midlands on some translation events, handy given stats that pupils in Birmingham speak 108 different languages.

The first event of the weekend, ‘Writers from the Ukraine’, featured three lively Ukranian writers and Free Word’s very own Translator in Residence Marta Dziurosz. Novelist Halyna Shyyan joined fellow writers Volodymyr Rafieienko and Lyubko Deresh to discuss their work, their craft and why they write, touching ever so lightly on politics as they went. For Volodymyr, a thoughtful and friendly speaker, the war was a big influence in his novels that he returned to throughout the conversation. For cosmopolitan Halyna, her more pressing issues were universal ones, and the Ukranian situation was a backdrop to more familiar pressures.

Marta’s role in chairing was to close the distance between the Birmingham audience and these international voices. As our Translator in Residence she has made the art of translation relatable to non-translators and encouraged readers to take a leap of faith with fiction from parts of the world not known to them before. Following the event, Marta took up position at a wonderful Translation Station and settled down to persuade unsuspecting festival goers to try their hand at translation.

From here it was onwards to Durham and the beautiful Palace Green Library for our second Free Word event of the weekend. This was an event with TippingPoint entitled ‘Climate Change and the Stories We Tell’. It featured two of the five writers that Free Word has commissioned to produce creative writing on climate change following our Weatherfronts event in May, in partnership with TippingPoint and Durham University. These new pieces will be published in January and the authors were giving us a sneak preview of their work. I was pleased to see a full house as we took our seats to hear from climate scientist Harriet Bulkeley, and to hear readings from poet Justina Hart and creative non-fiction writer Sarah Thomas, ably chaired by Professor Janet Stewart.

We learnt how Weatherfronts had helped Harriet and her research colleagues to understand more about the role creative writing can play in the conversation on climate change, from engaging general people with the issue through to affecting human behaviour. Later, Harriet asked for more comic writing on the subject and I’m happy to tell you that one of our Weatherfronts commissions is a comic caper for children on the subject of methane gas.

Justina began with a reading of her poised and prophetic verse describing the human experience of the early inhabitants of Doggerland, an area of land now lying beneath the southern North Sea that connected Great Britain to mainland Europe during and after the last Ice Age. Sarah then read from her creative non-fiction piece inspired by the flooding that hit Cumbria at the start of the year. Instantly, she took us into the roaring chaos of those weeks and her birthday celebrations that slipped out of her control as the weather became the singular controlling force.

Justina summed the conversation up in a reflection that all of her work to date had been pervaded by climate issues; she just hadn’t realised it. I wonder how much of this is true about broader behaviour and what it might take to bring us all to a point of realisation. Perhaps a story and some strong imaginations are a good place to start.

With thanks to Birmingham Literature Festival and Writing West Midlands for having us, and to Durham Book Festival, New Writing North and Durham University for keeping the conversation going.

Free Word, in partnership with TippingPoint and Durham University, has commissioned five writers to write creatively on climate change following our Weatherfronts event in May 2016. The five new pieces will be launched in January 2017.

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