The local literature festival where there is something for everyone

Author panel hosted by Salma El-Wardany with Caleb Azumah Nelson and Sara Jafari Pic: Haylen Madden

Organisers Tom MacAndrew and Ruth Harrison talk about how they curated this year’s programme of Deptford Literature Festival to mirror the diversity and creativity of Deptford. Harry Thorfinn-George reports.

For a third year running, Deptford Literature Festival returns with a packed programme promising to “celebrate the diversity and creativity of Deptford and Lewisham through words, stories and performances.”

Putting together the programme was no small feat. Freelance producer Tom MacAndrew seems relieved that the programme is finalised: “There’s a big chunk of work to pull the programme together and then the work to make the events happen begins- we’ve got a week or so to catch our breath.” You can tell he is proud of the programme they have put together for this year’s edition.

The festival takes place this Saturday March 18 and consists of 28 free events that take place across Deptford, including workshops, talks and award ceremonies – but also a drum circle and club night.

The festival is founded by Spread the Word, an organisation aiming to “foster a literature ecology which reflects the cultural diversity of contemporary Britain.” It’s a literature festival that strives to celebrate local talent, something Spread the Word and MacAndrew are deeply committed to.

Ruth Harrison, director of Spread the Word, explains the festival evolved as a natural progression of their work. “Our focus is on supporting writers,” says Harrison. “We do that through development programmes, open access workshops and working with public libraries. The festival is an extension of that.”

But how do you get the local community engaged with a literature festival? This is a question MacAndrew and Harrison have been asking themselves. A part of this is addressing the feeling that literature “exists in a different world”, says MacAndrew, “but it doesn’t, it’s on our doorstep.”

In London you are never more than a stone’s throw away from a pub where Dickens frequented or an internationally acclaimed author lives. This is especially true for Deptford. For example, Natasha Brown’s novel Assembly was one of the most talked about debuts last year and she will be at the festival running a workshop on experimental writing. The celebrated novelist Leone Ross and the award-winning publishers Fitzcarraldo Editions are hosting events too, all at Deptford Lounge.

There is no shortage of talent around. The question is rather how to draw audiences outside of the literati. “We didn’t want a traditional literature festival with writers who have a book out doing a reading… there are other places that do that really well,” says MacAndrew.

Out of the 28 events, 22 are with writers from Deptford, and five events are based on community submissions: “It comes back to that fundamental idea of ‘you need to see it to be it’,” says MacAndrew. “Our work has been about increasing diversity in publishing and the literature sector more widely.”

Being open to submissions from the public has been important in diversifying the programme. “We’ve got an African drumming and literature workshop that we would not have programmed otherwise because African drumming is not our area of expertise as a literature organisation,” says MacAndrew.

MacAndrew is referring to the event How Memory Survives with Christxpher Oliver and Veronique Belinga which explores African and Caribbean literature through drums at the IRIE! Dance Theatre in the Moonshot Centre.

Another way of expanding the festival is by giving writers absolute freedom, as with poet Caleb Femi’s event Blindmouth. Femi is one of the most exciting young poets in the U.K. His debut Poor was acclaimed as the introduction of a unique voice inspired likewise by T.S Eliot and J Hus (both quoted in the foreword to Poor).

MacAndrew says they approached Femi and said: “What would you do if we gave you the Albany Theatre?” In response Femi plans to unveil a film and has invited SLOGhouse collective to DJ.

“We’re trying to build an accessible festival in all senses of the word,” says Harrison. “So people feel welcomed into words and stories. I suppose this all sounds a bit daft, but it’s trying to invite people if they think ‘this isn’t really for me’ and have them see that ‘there is something here for me.’”

If you are interested in reading more about the local literary scene of Eastlondonlines boroughs, ELL will be publishing the series “Reading Between the Lines” in April featuring interviews with local writers, publishers, independent book shops and much more. 

Deptford Literature Festival is happening on the March 18. Book your tickets here.

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