New literature festival tackles belonging and nationality in ‘uncertain times’

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“WHAT does it mean to belong?” That was the question being discussed by people of faith, writers, film-makers, philosophers, journalists, and campaigners at a new literature festival on belonging and nationality, in London, over the weekend.

More than 100 people attended readings, seminars, and workshops hosted by the national writing organisation Word Factory, at the University of Liverpool in London, in Finsbury Square.

One of those who attended was the Vicar of St Clement’s, Notting Dale, the Revd Alan Everett, who was at the centre of the response to the Grenfell Tower fire in June (News, 14 June), and who subsequently wrote about his experiences in the Church Times (News, 26 June). His poem on the disaster, “14 June 2017”, was featured in The Guardian.

“An element of the festival dealt with Grenfell Tower, and how writers respond to citizens, responsibly, in a deep way,” he said on Monday.

Fr Everett began writing poetry while studying English at Oxford University, but resumed the art in earnest 12 years ago. He wrote about Grenfell while on holiday, shortly after the disaster. “I feel a sense of responsibility as a priest to follow through from that poem, because it enabled people who were having trouble imagining what the fire and its aftermath were like, to do so.

“That is part of my ministry, to communicate more widely, and so I was delighted to be part of the festival and read my poem aloud there.”

The festival, Citizen: The New Story, was created in response to recent events, including the fire, terror attacks, the rise of fake news, and the public and political response to Brexit, the director of the Word Factory, Cathy Galvin, explained.

“Nationality, identity, and belonging have become divisive concepts, creating tension and fear; but they also lie close to the heart of our humanity. The festival was so named to find a new beginning, new questions, new stories for the events we are living through. . .

“Literature at its best strips everything down — be it in the smallest detail or the most epic narrative, to the universal and the deeply human. And that happened over these few days.”

Residents and neighbours of Grenfell Tower were in the audience, and on the panel alongside Fr Everett on Friday evening. “The issues of when is it right to speak; how should one speak; and cultural appropriation were addressed,” he said. “The consensus was that writers have always written, and should write, about things outside their direct experience: but it is important that they craft it well.

“Although the community in North Kensington have clearly felt intruded upon, there are few who actively want to keep the media out: quite the reverse. People want to keep the story alive.”

The national memorial service for the victims of the fire, due to be held at St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 14 December, on the six-month anniversary of the disaster, is part of this, he says.

“There is a sense that the difficulties that emerged from North Kensington are going to have a huge impact nationally, and the community feels a sense of responsibility to ensure that those issues remain live and are carried forward, which is hard, because of the trauma involved.”

Other participants at the festival included the philosopher and author A. C. Grayling; the Sunday Times foreign correspondent Christina Lamb; the comedian Alexei Sayle; the poet Ben Okri; the film-maker Amir Amirani; and the novelists Andrew Williams, Nikesh Shukla, and Preti Taneja.

“It was a spiritual journey,” Ms Galvin said. “The words ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ were used by participants of faith and no faith. Most importantly, we encouraged ourselves to be honest about our own responses.”

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