I’ve been a big fan of Bradford Literature Festival for a number of years. It’s a bright spot in Bradford’s cultural calendar and I’ve written in the past about why I love it.
In previous years I’ve usually attended a fair few sessions during the annual festival. I’ve loved the variety of subjects on offer, the chance to hear interesting (and well-known) speakers in some marvellous venues, and the opportunity to listen, learn and reflect – and often to be challenged.
This year – as a result of the general uncertainty and a lack of organisation on my part – I attended only two events. But what this year’s festival lacked (from my point of view) in quantity, it certainly made up for in quality.
As a trailblazer – a South Asian woman in a predominately white male industry – Anita talked about the difficulty of negotiating various ‘spaces’ and having to curb aspects of her personality to meet certain expectations. She has clearly thought long and hard about the privileged position in which she now finds herself, about how she could – or should – use that position to carve a path for others, and about her regrets for not speaking out on particular occasions.
Many of Anita’s reflections also touched on the personal sphere. She talked about food, family and weddings. She talked about how South Asian girls were mostly not encouraged to speak up, except on the topic of beauty. And she wondered how much the lives of women (particularly those from South Asian backgrounds) have changed since she was growing up.
This was an entertaining and thought-provoking discussion. Anita’s book is now on my reading list.
Rev. Richard Coles and Arifa Akba
The setting for Sunday evening’s event was the magnificent ballroom at Bradford’s Midland Hotel. The topic – grief – was a more sombre one than Saturday’s, although there was plenty of light on hand, not least from the amazing chandelier that graces the venue.
Rev. Richard Coles and Arifa Akba were interviewed by Peg Alexander. These were two quite different stories, with some common threads. Richard Coles’ husband, David, died in December 2019 as a result of addiction to alcohol. Arifa Akbar’s sister, Fauzia, died in 2016 from undiagnosed tuberculosis. Both deaths were a shock, yet in some ways not really a shock, perhaps complicating the grief that these two authors have felt since.
There were other common observations – and ones that anyone who has ever been bereaved will recognise. For instance, when someone dies there is a huge amount of ‘admin’ to deal with, sometimes lasting many weeks (or even months). This can, in one sense, be welcomed as something practical to focus on, but it can also be exhausting. Another aspect of grief is the baffling realisation that everyone else is carrying on as normal with their everyday lives, while you’re still dealing with the enormity of your bereavement.
Richard and Arifa each reflected on what had helped them to deal with the grief they felt. As a widow, Richard didn’t appreciate being told by others how he should be feeling and behaving, but did value conversations with other widows who told him how they themselves had felt/behaved, without giving advice. Meanwhile, Arifa noted that the loss of a sibling isn’t as widely recognised as the loss of a spouse is, something that left her feeling rather adrift. Coincidentally, two of her close friends had also lost siblings, so Arifa was able to discuss her feelings with them.
The two authors also discussed addiction and attitudes to it. David’s alcoholism wasn’t public knowledge, so many were shocked by his death. Richard described the strain of living with and caring for an addict: he often went without sleep so that he could make sure David was safe. Arifa described the complex issues associated with her sister’s eating disorder – a type of addiction – including the shocking negative comments made by a member of medical staff.
Arifa and Richard touched on the way in which grief had affected their relationship with art and music, respectively. Fauzia was an artist who had created striking paintings and embroidered art. She had been deeply affected and inspired by the Sistine Chapel, leading Arifa to visit the Vatican after her sister’s death to share that experience and feel a connection with Fauzia. Richard and David had played music together, so Richard had avoided revisiting their shared music after David’s death because it was just too painful. Instead, he had decided to learn to play a new instrument: the accordion.
There were some interesting questions from the audience. Had Arifa considered taking legal action for her sister’s undiagnosed fatal illness? She’d certainly discussed the possibility with a lawyer she knew, but decided not to pursue it in the end because of the time, effort, stress – and money – involved. Did the two authors feel that David and Fauzia had experienced a ‘good death’? Perhaps surprisingly, given the circumstances, both Richard and Arifa said they did. As it happened, this was the final question, and it was a positive note on which to end the discussion.
And so ended my Bradford Literature Festival 2021. It was brief, it was bright, it was brilliant. I can’t wait for next year…