Monday 19 September 2016


While many literature festivals have become predictable in their line-up of bestselling authors, some innovative events have added a social-issues factor to their sessions, raising awareness about everything from climate change to the need for more diversity in publishing.

Nigerian-born, London-based writer Ben Okri
will be one of the speakers at the MLF
The Manchester Literature Festival (MLF), taking place Oct. 7 – 23 in northern England and celebrating its 11th edition, is one such event. This regional gathering of authors and book-lovers has increased its focus on global concerns since 2006, and its programme this year includes topics such as immigration, mental health and the urban experience.

“The Manchester Literature Festival is a place where authors, poets and broadcasters come together to share stories,” say the organizers. “Some of these stories enthral us with breathtaking plot twists and great leaps of imagination. Others are real-life stories that challenge and inspire us. Events like Refugee Tales, The Good Immigrant and Powerlines reflect the turbulence of the world we’re living in and remind us why we need to come together to fight discrimination and xenophobia.”

The participants for 2016 comprise regional, national and international authors, including Scotland’s Jackie Kay, Nigeria’s Ben Okri, Pakistan’s Kamila Shamsie, Canada’s Margaret Atwood and American writer Lionel Shriver. The latter recently caused controversy at a festival in Australia when she used her keynote speech to mock the movement against cultural appropriation, so her Manchester contribution will be particularly interesting for some observers.

The MLF's co-directors Cathy Bolton
and Sarah-Jane Roberts
The MLF is equally hosting writers from Sweden, Holland, Spain, Sudan, Bangladesh and North and South Korea, and it will “celebrate stories from the South Asian Diaspora in a special series of events curated in partnership with the Karachi Literature Festival”, the organizers state.

The MLF’s co-directors Cathy Bolton & Sarah-Jane Roberts discussed the festival’s direction with SWAN’s editor Alecia McKenzie in an e-mail interview.

SWAN:  How has the Manchester Literature Festival changed since its beginning in 2006?
Cathy Bolton: The festival has quadrupled in size over the past ten years both in terms of the number of events programmed and the audience we attract. The festival started out as quite a niche series of events largely showcasing regional authors but we now attract an impressive range of leading international authors and thinkers.

SWAN:  Some literature festivals in various countries have been putting emphasis on social engagement, rights and activism. Do you see this as a growing trend, and, if so, why?
CB:  It has certainly become an area of focus for MLF – we have found that there is a growing interest in activism and issues such as immigration, perhaps as a result of increasing disillusionment with mainstream politics and reactionary government policies. I think a great percentage of the population felt let down by the Brexit vote earlier this year and are understandably worried about what the future holds  - many are looking for an alternative form of leadership.

SWAN:  How did you decide on the programming this year?
CB: As always, we make a wish list of writers we would like to invite to Manchester (particularly focusing on those with interesting new books out).  We are always looking for high-calibre writers but also try and programme a balanced programme of established and emerging writers with particular programme strands showcasing literature in translation and events for children and families. We try to make the programme as diverse as possible so there is something on offer to suit the tastes of readers from all backgrounds and ages. We also work in partnership with a wide range of cultural partners including university writing schools and cultural embassies who feed in programming ideas. Over the past year we have been developing a partnership with Karachi Literature Festival which has resulted in a co-curated programme of events showcasing writers from the South Asian diaspora.

The MLF includes "An Evening with Jackie Kay",
with the writer who is Scotland's national poet.
SWAN:  One of the festival’s stated aims is to promote Manchester as a true hub for international cultural exchange.  Why is this important for the festival, and the city?
CB:  We are keen to open up our audiences’ reading horizons and programme events that reflect the lives and concerns of the city’s very diverse population. Manchester’s industry and culture has been very influenced by immigration – we want to celebrate the city’s unique history and diversity and hopefully attract increasing numbers of international visitors to the festival.

SWAN:  The festival also has a youth focus. How do literature events like this encourage reading among children, young people?
CB:  Literary performances by the likes of Michael Rosen and theatre adaptations of children’s books such as Hey Presto! really help bring books alive and make them more accessible for even reluctant readers. I think people of all ages get more out of reading if they’ve heard poetry read in the poet’s own voice or heard an author talking about the themes of their latest novel and what inspired their stories/characters.

SWAN:  The events include a presentation by Vivienne Westwood, a designer known for her activism and someone who is a part of the ethical fashion movement. How did her involvement come about?
CB:  We have been trying to persuade Vivienne Westwood to come and talk at the festival for a couple of years and luckily our persistence paid off this year. Her talk this October is very timely as her fashion designs are featured in the current Fashion and Freedom exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery.

The MLF hosts the Black and Asian Writers Conference
SWAN:  In addition to South Asian writers, the festival is putting focus on Black British writers. Can you describe the themes of the Black and Asian Writers Conference taking place Oct. 8?
CB:  Themes for this year include Afrofuturism, flash fiction, immersive poetry and new directions in theatre. You can read a full description of the various panels at:

SWAN:  Is the international component of the festival expected to expand, with more authors from abroad?
CB: We hope to continue to attract an exciting range of authors from abroad but this will be balanced with appearances from UK authors.

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood.
SWAN:  What is your greatest hope for the festival this year?
CB:  That thousands of people have a wonderful mind-expanding experience and discover some new favourite authors!

SWAN: How do you see it evolving in the future?
CB:  We would like to develop collaborations with more international festivals and develop a bigger and more ambitious programme of new commissions for the festival that could then be toured nationally and internationally.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale