photograph NCLA Festival of Belonging

Helen Oyeyemi’s reflections

It was wonderful to see so many of you at NCLA’s first Festival of Belonging. The response to the quality and range of events has been overwhelming and there was a great review on The Guardian’s blog. Nicholas Baumfield from Arts Council England thought it was a ‘really interesting festival programme, some great writing, a lovely atmosphere and a good example of the creative case for diversity’ and NCLA writer in residence, Helen Oyeyemi, has the following thoughts on the Festival:

‘Modern technology plays a part in shaping the contemporary attitude towards belonging – we travel, we stay connected to our friends and families by email and Skype and cross-continent text messages; scholars consult e-texts from universities thousands of miles away – communities broaden and we sometimes forget the size of the world. This festival has offered a forum for the discussion and consideration of ideas surrounding home, community, identity – in terms of nationality and otherwise. It’s fitting that Bloodaxe’s Out of Bounds, a poetry collection re-mapping Britain through the voices of black and Asian writers, was launched at this festival. And other flagrant stylistic and formal boundary crossers spoke and read here in Newcastle - Bernardine Evaristo, Daljit Nagra, Hari Kunzru, Jackie Kay, and Sapphire. 

Here are other highlights of the festival for me: first there’s the feeling of kinship that connects those who attend any festival that has a real interest in books and the people who read and write them at its heart. Some may go to readings and deny experiencing any such feeling, but you may be sure that if reading was banned tomorrow, these are the people who’d raise hell (or be driven underground, to begin a warren-like network of civil disobedience, complete with codewords and insignia). At this particular festival I brought pages of text from my favourite writers to the workshop table and we had a word picnic, fourteen thoughtful, curious literary folks and me, looking at different ways of narrating our place in the worlds of others, and the place that other people hold in our own worlds. It’s just struck me that none of the writers whose work we discussed are currently living. Pushkin and Dickinson have been dead for a couple of centuries. But of course they were with us, so much with us that it wasn’t easy to isolate what era all of the stories had been written in.  

The sharing of stories continued in other ways, whether it happened as part of informal conversations (recognising my younger self when Helen Limon mentioned learning Englishness through Enid Blyton stories), but I’ve also been part of an audience that Sapphire thrilled with her integrity, her loyalty to the characters she’s created and the social and psychological realities they live through. Hearing her in conversation with Jackie Kay, and hearing how calm both writers were about the complicated manoeuvres they pull off in their writing, only highlighted their sheer intellectual gutsiness. In Sapphire’s case, we’re talking about bringing some of the characteristics of the slave narrative into synthesis with contemporary feminism, holding contemporary America in a radical gaze at the same time as occasionally riffing off Dostoyevsky. There is that side of belonging that demands that we challenge the context we live in.’ 

In the run up to the main festival, the Festival of Belonging Fringe provided workshops and four lively evenings of entertainment with ‘We’re All Mad Here’‘Castles, Collieries and Coastline’, Kalagora, ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’ and ‘I Don’t Think We’ve Met?’ Fringe organisers Trashed Organ filled venues at The Bridge in Newcastle and The Central in Gateshead with an exciting array of writers, musicians and artists and gave audience members the opportunity to go low-fi with a typed or handwritten post-it-note ‘tweet’ or to send a postcard to a stranger.  


Selected extracts from the weekend’s events will be available on our community archive soon. But in the meantime feel free to visit the archive , where you can view photos and videos from previous NCLA events.

If you attended the Festival of Belonging, there is still time to let the team at NCLA know what you thought. Leave feedback about your experience and you will automatically go into a draw to win signed copies of books written by the Festival of Belonging authors.

Lastly, don’t forget, NCLA is still accepting submissions for the Belonging Poetry Competition in two categories - 14 and under and 19 and under - with a deadline of 20th July 2012. Competition judges are Matthew Sweeney and a panel of young adults and shortlisted poems will be turned into a poetry trail across Newcastle-Gateshead in autumn 2012. Further competition details are available on the NCLA website.



published on: 18th May 2012

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