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London Feminist Book Club Festival: A Very "Woman-ly" Weekend

Photo courtesy of London Feminist Book Club Festival

Walking into the Dame Alice Owen Pub on a crisp, cloudy weekend, a gust of fresh air brushed us as we were greeted by the founders of the London Feminist Book Club Festival. Rebecca James and Jo Gallacher culminated the North London Book Club and South London Book Club into their very first festival, spanning across the 30th of September and 1st October, with brilliant talks, creative workshops and panel discussions. Each speaker across the weekend was unique and inspiring in their own way, the audience filled with women excited for every new author, and the team at the Dame Alice Owen ever-ready to have the day be as comfortable and enjoyable for everyone there (note: the pizzas for lunch were delicious!). Throughout the days, as speakers would settle in and start speaking, we could have easily been exhausted and frustrated; however, the insights from the authors and the active engagement from the audience just did not let that happen, and within an hour we felt quite at home.

Starting off the festival on Day 1, Laura Dockrill, a prolific and deeply funny writer, manages to hit the mark with the delicate balance of humour and seriousness not just in her latest book What Have I Done?, but also in her real life interactions. Having experienced severe postpartum depression and episodes of psychosis, Laura wrote this book as a message in a bottle to herself and all other parental figures, about what it means to “suthrive” (a word she has coined herself), i.e. survive *and* thrive after traumatic experiences. She talked about the importance of speaking about issues and concerns with child-nurturing, especially as women, and having the narrative and language of women’s traumatic experiences being changed. Women need not always be “brave” and have fought a “battle” to be validated; there exists womanhood in softness and vulnerability, which Laura believes should be expressed and shared with young people and children as well. And while we may not personally understand the depth of her novel, Laura’s conviction in its power and the giggles she left us in, are capable of making us buy What Have I Done?, as well as many of her other 25 publications!

As the latest authors associated with the increasingly popular “Merky Authors,” both Jyoti Patel and Taylor Dior-Rumble offer up beautiful representations of what it means to be a woman in the modern world. With both urging the importance of being published by a team that actually understands and is interested in telling underrepresented writers’ stories, we truly see authentic voices emerge from their novels, The Things that we Lost (Patel) and The Situationship (Dior-Rumble). For the former, we see Jyoti championing the intersectional identities of her characters, telling a story from within the Indian diaspora that changes the narrative of what popular culture shows “Indian stories” as. In The Situationship, we see Taylor choosing to tell uplifting stories about Black women that do not focus merely on their trauma. That is not to say that the trauma of being a person of colour in present England is ignored, only that having non-white characters occupy traditionally white spaces allows a story that centres on their emotions and experiences beyond race. In both these novels, it is the voice of women of colour that is championed, with both authors giving deeply insightful and heart-warming readings of their books to an enraptured audience. As we sat there listening to them both, we felt overwhelmed (in the best possible way) to be in front of such empowered women of colour, a little spark of hope and faith in the literary world for other people of colour— like us! — flaring up.

Photo courtesy of London Feminist Book Club Festival

Due to unfortunate circumstances, Dr. Maxine Mei-Fung Chung could not attend the festival, but had her wonderful publicist Najma Finlay step in and give an enlightening talk on the world of publicity, publishing, and of course, Maxine’s book What Women Want. Najma’s deep passion for telling unique stories that share the experience of womanhood and her commitment to always doing right by her clients can be seen by her fondness for Maxine and her novel — a book that dives deep into the lives of 7 women (the secret 8th being Maxine herself!) and the journey of how they deal with and work around their experiences during therapy. Dr. Maxine’s work as a psychotherapist means we see a deep and nuanced exploration of the age-old Freudian question of “What do women really want?”. Even if we don’t end up knowing what every woman wants, we’ll have the joy of discovering what womanhood means to us. And on why Najma chose What Women Want, she simply says “It was so unique, and original and fresh” she couldn’t help but take it on!

A poet, writer and former athlete, Rebecca Perry offers us in On Trampolining a vivid account of her experiences with being involved in competitive sports from a young age, and the pain, expectations and grief that comes along with it. The memoir itself follows a prose-poetic style, slipping in and out of memories that are described with both nostalgia and pain laced into them. Rebecca mentions in her talk the feeling of living with the everlasting pain of injuries trampolining caused her, but also the relief of having left it when she did — a weight of expectation finally off her shoulders. Through her story, we see a strong, persistent woman, who knew when to let go and listen to her body, and through her memoir we see a layered, intricate portrait of womanhood emerge, a truly inspiring image that washes over with the serenity and grace of Rebecca herself.

To finish the day, we heard from J.P. Watson about Pound Project — a uniquely built and accessible publishing company. J.P. comes across as an intensely passionate individual actively trying to bring about change in the publishing world, advocating for one that is transparent about money spent and earnt. In his talk J.P. also gets candid about the struggles that come with being sustainable in publishing, all the way from printing to packaging, and how each step needs careful consideration. With a witty sense of humour, he also talks of the unique cover designs of each book ‘Pound Project’ publishes and how he is working hard to maintain a successful work-life balance. Ending with the wonderfully simple note “Books are the most active form of the arts,” J.P. left the audience with a smile on their face and a better understanding of just how tricky, yet rewarding, sustainable, transparent and unique publishing can be.

Photo courtesy of London Feminist Book Club Festival

With the first day ending on a successful note, the second one started with Ilona Bannister, author of Little Prisons, followed by Daniel Harding, author of Gay Man Talking: All the Conversations We Never Had, two wonderful creators whose talks we unfortunately missed. Later on though we were able to attend the talk by Desree, a spoken word artist based in London and Slough. She delivered an excellent creative writing workshop for the audience, and invited us to write what we had felt about certain lines from her poetry book, I find my strength in simple things. When asked about her inspiration, she told us that she likes to write about things happening around her and on long train journeys.

The most intriguing exercise she conducted was having the audience make a mind map of all the things that make us, us. By giving the audience a chance to collect material to write poems of our own, Desree showed us that everyone is in fact a poet at heart — and says that she still uses the first mind map she made! At the end, she highlighted the need for a writing community, and quoted Arji Manuelpillai — “Writing is a team sport”!

The festival also had Holly McComish performing her heartfelt poems from the book If Tits Could Talk. She started advocating for women’s health after suffering a stroke at 25 caused by the combined contraceptive pill that has been around for more than forty years. After this, she self-published her book, in hopes to remove the stigma and embarrassment that comes with women’s issues with her fun and short poetry. She writes poems that are daring, bold and graphic, challenging the notion that poetry has to be delicate and serious. She also talked a bit about her self-publishing journey, her main reason for choosing this way — the independence and a faster process of publishing that comes with it. Her top tip is to ask various organisations if they could fund you, for example, the university you are going to or banks as it could be expensive to fund it yourself!

Beth Steel, an award-winning playwright and screenwriter also made an appearance at the festival, and talked to us about how she got into theatre and writing. When asked about how she became a playwright, she let us in on her secret of re-reading a play several times until it gave her the ability to think and write like the writer. Interestingly, in her plays, instead of having multiple character perspectives, she has one single, omniscient character that reveals all about the other characters. In other words, instead of having the audience uncover the characters, a single character on stage does that for them. Beth shared that she likes when the play reveals things to her instead of her having to figure out what it is about, an experience she wants her audiences to share.

Her general advice about writing and pitching a play, was to manage your fears of rejection by believing your idea is original, and that it is not on stage yet because no one has ever thought of it before! In terms of reviews of her own plays, she said that either positive or negative, any review means she gets to exist in the theatre world, and that simply means her plays are getting an audience. Her final advice to people who feel self-conscious of going to the theatre alone is to just book the tickets and go. There is no need for self-consciousness because you — and everyone around you — are sitting in the dark!

The festival ended with Beyond the Streets (the book club’s charity partner of the year) talking about having a non-judgemental attitude towards sex workers, the barriers that sex workers have to get help, and how we can help end sex exploitation of the workers by having an open and judgement-free discussion and talk about the subject.

Ending on such a note highlighted the main purpose of the festival — championing women from all backgrounds and professions, and taking pride in all their stories. We truly had a wonderful weekend surrounded by women, talking about women, and reading about women, leaving us inspired to explore the depths of literature that, at its core, was feminist.

Photo courtesy of London Feminist Book Club Festival

You can find out more about the London Feminist Book Club here.


Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor