Tottenham Literature Festival: ‘Literature is at the heart of everything’

To reflect on five years of Tottenham Literature Festival, Miriam Balanescu speaks to festival founder and Bernie Grant Arts Centre artistic director Azieb Pool

Speaker Gary Younge, credit: Jonas Mortensen

The Tottenham Literature Festival (TLF), returning in November for its fifth edition, is all about centring the “Black British experience through lots of lenses that have literature attached to them”, says the festival’s founder Azieb Pool. Its programming team started this year with a quote from Between the World and Me by African American author Ta-Nehisi Coates: “I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”

From there, the festival aims to explore the Black British experience with a holistic approach, making ‘mind, body, spirit’ this year’s theme. On the line-up, writers like Gary Younge – former editor-at-large at The Guardian – and Dr Ronx – CBBC presenter turned author – will headline, with talks on wide-ranging themes related to the mind, body and soul.

The festival emerged in 2019 when Azieb Pool joined the Bernie Grant Arts Centre (BGAC) as artistic director. “One of the things I wanted to create was a home for Black literature essentially and a space in which our voices aren’t kind of marginalised off to the side,” she explains. “I go to a lot of literature festivals and spaces and, when they do programme Black artists, often we’re stuck in some faraway tent, or they might [have] somebody headlining but we’re not part of the main festival offer. And so I wanted to create a festival where it’s open for everyone, but where the voices and the storytelling comes from a Black perspective. And for me, [in] Tottenham there’s such a rich history around Black-led storytelling and narratives and I want to create a forum for that to just exist and to thrive.”

Countering the stereotypical literary festival scene, Azieb wanted to make TLF about “literature in its most accessible forms” – and that, for the festival team, encompasses music, visual installations, art, and photography. “We have so many languages in Tottenham, we have so many artists in Tottenham, and we have this music making tradition, a tradition of poetry spoken word,” Azieb says. “And so it was about finding a gathering place for all of that creativity.

“Although it’s called a literature festival, it’s not just about books. It is about poets and artists and writers and music and just a joyful expression of the word through the Black lens.”

All of these art forms, Azieb argues, stem back to language and literature. “For us, literature is at the heart of everything, pretty much all forms of artistic expression starts in some form, or is inspired in some form, by a word. Even if it’s a visual medium, like photography, often you will find a kind of a moment where a photographer is stopping and pausing and thinking and turning their visual expression into something that feels like visual poetry. So, I’m encouraging us to think about literature in a really broad, accessible way.

“I wanted us to be about the power of words and the power of expression,” she continues. “I also increasingly find the most exciting artists are working across different mediums, and so artists are often working in poetry, across visual art, collaborating with musicians.

“We’re running an arts festival all year round essentially in our programming. But I wanted to have a moment where the word was the centrepiece and every thing else is jumping off from that.”

Primarily, though, TLF is about opening up room to discuss the Black British experience. “It was us knowing that there was space and that the space was necessary for Black artists to be leading the conversation,” says Azieb. So far, the festival has attracted examples of the coun writers, from Lemn Sissay to Candice Carty Williams.

“Some of our best Black British writing talent just came because that space is so vital,” Azieb enthuses.

Meanwhile, Tottenham writers such as Derek Owusu and Zena Edwards have been an important part of the festival. Some of these writers have even dropped into local schools as part of the schools programme, working with young people to craft poetry on the festival theme ahead of a 300 student-strong performance in the BGAC theatre.

The theme ‘mind, body, spirit’ came out of multiple publications by Black writers this year. “We felt there’s quite a strong theme at the moment in books that are by Black authors, thinking through the decolonization of our bodies, of our mind, bodies and spirit,” says Azieb. “Once you are looking at things through the prism of race, it suddenly opens a world. Suddenly, we’re able to talk about love, we’re able to talk about your imagination. We are, of course, thinking about decolonization and anti-racism in literature, but because we have a Black perspective, all these other experiences suddenly open [up] to us.

“It’s all about this kind of holistic view of the Black experience. And that’s what hangs our authors together.”

Tottenham Literature Festival will run at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre from 13th–19th November.

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