Last weekend I had the privilege of being able to visit Cambridge Literary Festival and seeing some of the best writers and academics discussing a range of subjects.
Although I saw a range of different talks, from literature to history to politics, there were some really interesting recurring ideas which came out of the weekend. In the panels on The Good Immigrant, Women on the March and Where are all the Women, the importance of representation was focused on; ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ pointed out Lennie Goodings.
Yet Darren Chetty showed us that for children of colour, even when they are encouraged to read diverse books in school, they exclusively write about white characters – based upon an assumption that stories have to be about white people. Equally, Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Stateman points out than when we think of professors, academics, politicians and economists we think of men. So these events were looking at what we can do to overturn these assumptions, by pushing harder for representation, to break stereotypes and create more opportunities.
Equally these talks also focused on the importance of speaking openly about sex and women’s bodies, particularly for women of colour, whether it is making sex less taboo as Coco Khan advocates for, or dealing with issues like FGM, which Nimko Ali argues is specifically gender based violence – you are only at risk of it if you are biologically female. With women such as they talking openly about these subjects, and encouraging others, and even politicians to do the same, it is the first step towards dealing with these issues. As Elif Shafak says these conversations are happening, but in homes and cafes, and we need them to happen in a political domain and in the media.
The range of talks show a clear concern about how geo-political history is affecting contemporary society, with talks on Russia from the fall of the Berlin Wall through to Putin, an examination of Trump’s first 100 days and Elif Shafak speaking on contemporary politics in Turkey. We are seeing a growing concern over relationships with Russia, divergent politics and the spread of populism throughout the Western world.
For both Sarah Churchwell and Elif Shafak polarising views and the inability to compromise is dangerous, and we risk diverging further by refusing to listen to and converse with our opponents. Equally Shafak and Coco Khan both demonstrate how nationalism is concerning. For Khan, it is alienating and threatening, while Shafak sees how in Turkey it is damaging free speech, academia and democracy.
Despite the apparent range in the subjects of the talks I went to, there were many recurring themes which illustrate common concerns within contemporary society, but these talks also aim to explore solutions, stoke debate and help fuel action and change.
Overall it was a great weekend and I was excited to see so many wonderful speakers, and be involved in such interesting discussions on literature and politics.