Saturday, 20 October 2012

Birmingham Book Festival: On the fringe!

My final two events as a volunteer at the Birmingham Book Festival were both Fringe events, organised by Birmingham Libraries.

The first, on October 12th, was Take Three, an author event featuring three very different writers: Stuart Evers, Adam Nevill and Chris Morgan Jones. Stuart Evers is a former editor and bookseller who has previously published a collection of short stories, and was talking about his novel If This Is HomeAdam Nevill is also a former bookseller (and night watchman!), who started out writing erotica and horror but is now known for his supernatural horror books, one of which, Last Days, was being discussed at this event. Chris Morgan Jones is a former corporate spy, and his novel An Agent of Deceit draws on some of his experiences in that world.

Each author did a short reading from the new novel, and then opened up a discussion in which they talked about their pasts, before they became full-time writers. Adam talked about the variety of jobs he has held whilst simultaneously writing his first few books whenever he could find the time, and about the twenty years in between beginning to write seriously, and being able to call writing a full time job. There were lots of insights into life as a writer, and all the authors on the panel offered some writing tips to aspiring authors: read a lot; write a lot; don't be afraid to be autobiographical; when you think it's done, revise it again; listen to things happening around you. There was also some discussion regarding the worst thing about being a writer,  of which finding time to write was a perennial concern!

The second event, on October 13th (and my last as a volunteer), was What's Love Got to Do With It?, featuring three authors who discussed writing about love, relationships and marriage for young Asians. The panel was made up of Bali Rai, Yasmin Hai and Sagheer Afzal, who spent over an hour discussing their books, their writing and their portrayals of young British Asians in their work, particularly related to how relationships are built and presented. They also discussed issues of diversity with fiction, particularly for young adults, and the problems of integration facing British Asian kids today.

The talk was one of the most interesting ones I have heard at the festival. Bali Rai talked about his novel Killing Honour, which addresses honour killings in the British Asian community. Sagheer Afzal talked about The Reluctant Mullah, his novel about a guy who is training to be a mullah, but is disgraced when he is caught trying on the niqab and burka to see what the women around him experience. His father gives him thirty days to find himself a wife, or else he will have to submit to an arranged marriage. Yasmin Hai talked a little bit about her memoir, The Making of Mr. Hai's Daughter, which covers her life growing up and her search for an identity as a British Asian girl.

The Q&A covered lots of topics, including the definition of honour killings as somehow outside, or separate to, domestic violence, and Bali argued that cultural sensitivity shouldn't stop them being treated as such. There was some discussion about faith schools and polarised communities, particularly after 9/11. As both Bali and Sagheer have worked in schools, they had some insights into how children are increasingly gravitating towards other kids with similar religious or ethnic backgrounds, rather than diversifying (as Bali suggested was more common when he was at school). Yasmin talked about how, growing up, a lot of her Asian friends would flirt with boys and (secretly) date, but would already be arranged to be married to someone else from a young age. Sagheer told some funny stories about his parents trying to match him with various girls (one of whom looked like his dad), and the difficulties for young Asians with traditional parents to find partners, as well as the focus put upon financial factors, rather than personality, from a family's point of view.

Above everything else, there was a definite desire to see more diversity in young adult fiction, and the importance of young readers being able to see themselves in the books they are reading. I was all ready to purchase a couple of the books talked about, but they were so popular we sold out!

This was my last event of the festival. The whole thing has been a lot of fun - time wise, it came at a really unfortunate moment, when I had a million other things commanding my attention, but it's been well worth the extra effort and evenings out of the house. I've met a lot of nice people, seen a lot of interesting talks and got to attend events I never would have been able to otherwise. Hopefully the programme will be just as exciting next year!

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