May 25th marked the opening ceremony for Bare Lit and I was honoured to be covering such a groundbreaking annual event. The weekend-long festival, founded by Henna Zamurd-Butt and Mend Mariwany, was created in response to the lack of diversity in the literary arts. Being a writer, fan and advocate for the cause, I knew I could not miss the event as it is something I am deeply passionate about. Everyone present was open minded and mutually agreed on the fact that Bare Lit was necessary in order to inflict cultural change within various industries.
The weekend commenced with an opening ceremony on the Friday, which consisted of a short play. Gala Mae was written by Annette Brook and set in 1950s Soho. The snippet of the drama shown followed the love story between a Chinese sailor and a mixed-race barkeep who had lived in Britain her entire life. The performance was the perfect way to open the festival due to the nature of it. There was a suffocating tension during the 50s that resulted in xenophobic behaviour. It was still illegal to be gay and there was also prejudice towards ethnic minorities. Soho operated as an area where people were free to express their sexuality and culture accordingly. This is seen through the piece, as one of the characters is gay. In the opening scene, we see the man come home from work and pull down his top to become a dress. The play was an embodiment of everything Bare Lit stands for.
The discussions, panels and readings all began on the second day. I had the pleasure of sitting in on Literary Battlegrounds of a Historic Struggle, which focused on UK Black Pride. The panel was comprised of a poet, a barrister, a publisher and the host who was in affiliation with the UK Pride movement. The talk was centred on oppressive struggles and how their work counteracts the discrimination they face as members of the LGBT community. It was interesting to see how although their methods and professions differed, they ultimately shared similar sentiments against their oppressors; which can be summarised by a line in one of PJ Samuel's poems: “fuck you”.
Live Storytelling was the session that surprised me the most. Mara Menzies performance was particularly fascinating and captivating. She told a forgotten tale of a Yoruba deity called Orisha, and the origins of his story. Not only did Mara give a gripping recount, but it was also animated as she used her body to accentuate certain parts. She commanded the space that she was in and brought life to her words. After the reading, I was able to ask Mara a few questions and what stood out was how she had crafted her skill. She doesn't write the stories down and so she said,
"every story I tell is different".
I feel as if this method of storytelling brings ingenuity to a traditional custom. It adheres to how this particular tale was told with a modern twist, that interests listeners irrespective of their cultural backgrounds.
Sunday emanated a different atmosphere from the previous days, which was a testament to the miscellany present at Bare Lit. A screening that I believe held incredible significance was (Em)bodying Lit: D/Deaf and Disable Poetics. It allowed the audience to gain insight on a perspective that is arguably overlooked. It was the first time I regarded sign language in a poetic fashion and thought about how the visuals could be interpreted without sound. The afternoon began with a live poetry reading by Kayo Chingonyi, accompanied by the members of Mostly Lit, a literature and pop culture podcast. Kayo went on to recite a selection of verses from his collection, Kumukanda (loosely translating to 'initiation' or 'rite of passage'), that explored concepts of music, race, identity and masculinity. His poetry heavily resonated with me as a young black man and fellow poet. His influences were evident to myself but when executed with emotive language and literary technique, his message became universal. He then joined the rest of the panel and answered questions centred around his work. The bubbly and lively personalities of the Mostly Lit cast gave birth to a relaxed, intimate and entertaining discussion that I believe enabled the crowd to get the most out of Kayo's poetry.
The main event didn't disappoint. The highly anticipated keynote speaker came to read, drop knowledge and leave all in the space of 30 minutes. Nii Ayikwei Parkes gave a profound talk on how everything is, "by design" and used the world of literature as an example. He spoke on privilege and how inequality is not by chance, rather, something that has become entrenched with a purpose. Similarly, Parkes briefly touched on the impact of language and the design of it too. Language holds a sense of authority within a certain place, giving those who speak it a certain confidence. This brings to the light the question: how do we utilise something that isn't designed for us?
The Ghanaian writer and poet gave guidelines as a solution to the problem: starting with redesign. He stressed that the initial design was never obligatory, it was only favoured. To do this, the design has to be understood, so that the redesign can be camouflaged within. Parkes coined this, "interior design". He was informative whilst keeping his speech light, with humorous anecdotes and personal examples. It rounded off the festival faultlessly. Bare Lit had the objective to redesign the lack of diversity in literature and it is safe to say we are one step closer to change.