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Common Ground: Friendships and London at the 2021 London Literature Festival

Of London, friendships and friendships with London. “Common Ground” with Caleb Azumah Nelson, Vanessa Onwuemezi and Naomi Ishiguro

Image credit: India Roper-Evans

The London Literature Festival has been around for 14 years now, but this year’s opening night has an air of novelty to it. Last year’s edition of the festival moved online and you can tell that the audiences at Southbank Centre were itching to be back in the rooms, where you can watch London’s literature happen.

This year, the festival goes under the name “Conversations With Friends”, after the title of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, which, the Centre assures, the author has allowed to be borrowed. The theme, heart-warmingly, is just that: friendship. What is it, how does it prevail, what challenges does it face? What is so unique about friendship in London? “Have you been missing your friends?” The festival asks you through all its platforms, and then assures: “You’re not alone.”

“Common Ground”, one of the festival’s opening panels, takes place in the Purcell Room, a cozy auditorium lit with soft pinks and violets. The three panelists are rising stars of the London literary scene: Naomi Ishiguro, Caleb Azumah Nelson and Vanessa Onwuemezi. Its focus is on that of London and friendship, thus fitting with the Literature Festival’s theme.

During the event, all three panelists took turns reading excerpts from their groundbreaking newly published books, all with unique, startlingly contrasting voices. Ishiguro’s debut novel, Common Ground, after which the panel was named, is a sweet coming of age tale, narrating nearly two decades of an unlikely friendship between Stan, a shy scholarship kid, and Charlie, a sixteen year old boy of Roma traveler heritage. Nelson’s debut novel, Open Water, reads as a touching love story with London as almost a third party, as the protagonist constantly toes the line between loneliness and community. Onwuemezi’s debut, a short story collection called Dark Neighbourhood, is gripping, dark, thrilling and disturbing; an enigmatic tale of loss, love and shame.

All three works are brought together by the evening’s themes: London, friendship, and maybe also rocky, unpredictable, not always healthy friendship with London. All three panelists grew up in the city, albeit in different parts of it - there are sentiments they share, and some they disagree on. London, through their eyes, shows up something less as a city, and more a collage of spheres, communities and cultures, a multitude of startlingly different places glued together. Onwuemezi calls it the “shape-shifting”, a place that can be your best friend one day, and the bane of your existence the other. Nelson points out how the city changes season to season, how summers here must make up for the winters. Seamlessly, the discussion moves to the notion of Londons, plural, and maybe there’s just as many Londons as there are Londoners.

Among the discussion of London, Ishiguro confesses that her novel was largely inspired by the erosion of public space in London, through her observations of how once the summer wears out, you have to constantly justify taking up space in the city by spending money. From this, socialising becomes economically draining, and increasingly becomes a privilege. There’s no definite conclusion to it, just as there is no definite London, but when the discussion moves to the questions from the audience, it is instantly clear that there’s a common ground of the city within all of us.

This year’s London Literature Festival starts with a chance of peeking behind the scenes of the city’s up-and-coming literary stars, breaking traditional publishing ground. Once again, the audience gets a chance to watch the gap between what’s lived and what’s written slip away. Once again, it’s a promising opening: after all, Londoners love talking about London, and we all have been missing our friends.

Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor