These days, South-East London’s Deptford is commonly discussed in the context of gentrification. While it’s true that the polished cafes selling organic fresh pressed juice and bean-to-cup coffee, huddle near the station like flags announcing regeneration, it’s comforting to know that, nearby, the white-washing aspects of the changes are being challenged.
Located just off Deptford high street is The Albany performing arts centre, which boasts a history spanning over a century. It is a neighbourhood institution, with an admirable focus on diversity and inclusion.
Bare Lit festival is at home there: a weekend festival dedicated to storytelling and confronting the void of black and minority people represented in the literature industry. Its programme of events has provided a powerful antidote to the pale and stale literary festival circuit.
A relative newcomer – the first festival was held in 2016 – Bare Lit is anything but shy and retiring. From Friday to Sunday evening last weekend, it packed in entertainment amid thought provoking forums from readings and performances of drama and spoken word; to panels, workshops and delicious, local food. Unsurprising for an event which was first crowdfunded by an initial 291 donors, the atmosphere was modern, convivial and notably lacking in the flat-pop flavour of so much corporate sponsored culture.
With intersectionality – the crossing over of various oppressions, e.g. of race and sexuality – in mind, UK Black Pride, who celebrate LGBTQIA+ people of colour on 8th July in London, were asked to organise Saturday’s highlight panel discussion: Literary Battlegrounds of an Historic Struggle. What occurred was a fascinating conversation at the point where publishing, art and the law collide with notions of ethnic and sexual identity.
The opening question – a request to define power – was answered by Dr Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, with the simple suggestion that power be a positive force. An academic and the founder of Cassava Republic publishers, she’s an advocate for using books as tools for the African voice to participate in telling stories and ‘owning the mechanism by which stories are told’. The marxist rhetoric very much intended, Bakare-Yusuf explained that her movement into publishing was unintentional, but driven by the necessity to fill the alarming absence of black, female voices in literature.
Poet PJ Samuels reflected the mood of resistance; she willed black women to remain defiant, to tell their detractors to ‘suck your mother’ and to accept themselves for who they are. Later, an audience member asked how the panel feel about being so open about their personal lives in their work. Answering, Samuels asserted that her privacy has already been stripped from her by a system which categorises her, solely based on her sexuality and race. Owning her actions now, is her only option.
Perhaps the most unexpected and powerful insights came from S Chelvan, a self-described black, gay, human rights barrister – who wonderfully highlighted the integral role that storytelling plays in his defence of many LGBTQA+ refugees in the UK. Reminding the audience that there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker, Chelvan shed light on the often unseen world of ongoing tribunals, in which he plays a vital part in understanding and translating the stories of his clients, in attempts to save them from deportation.
It’s certainly a poignant subject, and one which reminds us of the very real consequences for those who come from parts of the world where Pride marches are non-existent. Moreover, the insight into the struggles LGBTQIA+ refugees face when they reach the UK and have to continue to hide their sexualities within the diaspora communities they connect with was a startling revelation, to me, if not other members of the audience.
Undoubtedly this highlights the importance of local events which offer a multidimensional exploration of culture – and crucially, which demand white culture take a back seat, observe, listen and learn. In this sense, Bare Lit proves that grassroots activism can come in the form of creative expression. It’s also just a really enjoyable – and affordable – way to spend the weekend.