Council criticised for lack of diversity at literary festival

Robin Ince, Deborah Moggach and Jill Dawson to speak at WI festival.  Pics: Michael Josephson, PalFest and Ubud Writers Festival

Robin Ince, Deborah Moggach and Jill Dawson spoke at WI festival.
Pics: Michael Josephson, PalFest and Ubud Writers Festival

Criticism from local artists has forced Tower Hamlets council to admit a recent literary festival they hosted failed to ensure sufficient representation of the area’s various ethnic groups.

There was disappointment at the inclusion of only two non-white artists in a programme of more than 30 at The Write Idea Festival in a borough that has a non-white majority population.

The festival, according to its organisers, Idea Store, a council-run library service, was aimed at bringing east London’s readers and writers together with a “packed programme catering to all tastes.”

Hackney resident Tim Wells, author of ‘Rougher Yet’, said: “Write Idea Festival? It should be called ‘White’ Idea Festival. Given the event is held in east London, it is quite shocking how unrepresentative it is. Almost nothing is featured from cockney, black or Asian writers.”

A council spokesperson accepted that they “were not able to organise as varied a mix of authors from different ethnic groups” as they would have liked.

The festival, which has run for the last five years, was held at the Idea Store in Whitechapel.

Niall O’Sullivan, a poet who has performed at numerous cultural and literary events in Tower Hamlets, but not at the Write Idea Festival, said:

“The booking of ‘Write Idea’ represents a failed opportunity to nurture communication between communities and hint that literary culture and the power of the written word belongs solely to one side of this divide.”

He added: “I do not begrudge any of the featured writers, nor do I deny that there is plenty to enjoy about the festival for all the residents of Tower Hamlets.”

Gita Malhotra, who worked in Tower Hamlets, wrote to the council directly, voicing her concerns. After receiving no response, she contacted ELL.

Malhotra said: “There are clearly some very big names featured at the Write Idea Festival, visually apparent when one opened up the web page showing a sea of white faces. I spotted [Simon] Okotie and noted Sunny Hundal [two minority writers] on a fringe event but that would seem to be it. The demographic make up of Tower Hamlets is less than 50% white. Not exactly representative.”

In another response to criticism of the festival, a council spokesperson said: “Kate Fox, an author at the festival, commended this year’s line-up for having many more women authors than other festivals, and also praised local Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) poets speaking at the festival.”

The festival’s online programme displaying all featured artists was available until Sunday evening, after which it was removed from site. It was replaced by a one-year-old video featuring black author Alex Wheatle, who appeared at last year’s festival.

The council spokesperson did insist: “We had an excellent line-up of high-quality authors from a wide range of ages, genders and backgrounds.”


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