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Bristol Women’s Literature Festival: Women Writing Today

To round off what can only be described as a brilliant and fantastic assortment of talks and programmes, Bristol’s Women’s Literature Festival ended on a rather inspiring and fitting talk on women writing today. The talk was made up of an exciting and eclectic mix of novelists, playwrights, memoirists and poets including Michele Roberts, Samantha Ellis, Helen Mort, and Amy Mason. Unfortunately novelist and filmmaker, Xialu Guo was unable to attend but that didn’t detract from the brilliant and insightful quips and remarks made throughout.

To start off the debate and conversation, host Sarah Lefanu asked the thought-provoking question of whether or not these women identified themselves as ‘women writers’. A complex, often problematic issue for many contemporary female writers, it was an interesting issue to begin on. Michele Roberts, (author of fourteen novels and winner of the WH Smith award for Daughters of the House) was eager to interject on the topic. With an incredibly prolific career spanning from the 1970s, Michele was able to talk about the transformation of the label and what it was truly like to be described as a woman writer through her own experience. It seemed in her opinion that women have always been desperately trying to challenge the subversive, and often constraining, division made by a predominantly male literary world. In the past, it was a constant battle against the idea that women should only write in a more feminine manner. However Michele stated that the label ‘woman writer’ shouldn’t have negative connotations but should be seen as a powerful statement. Instead of punishing ourselves for being both female and a writer it is important to view our imaginations as androgynous, or as she liked to call it, “channel our inner Brains”.

Similarly both Helen Mort (winner of the Foyles Young Poet award) and first-time novelist Amy Mason agreed that it was vital that as a society we should get rid of such disparaging images of women writers. She argued that we should instead celebrate the label and as Amy so fittingly put it, “prove you don’t need a pair of shoes on the front cover to make it female fiction”. The resounding answer though seemed to be that it was vitally important that people should write about REAL women, warts and all. This led onto a nice exploration of Samantha Ellis’ novel ‘How to be a Heroine’, an inspiring and insightful consideration into how previous fictional female characters have shaped our lives. (Interestingly when debating who was a better heroine, Cathy from Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, the audience was unanimous in their admiration for good ol’ independent Jane). But as Samantha was so emphatic in pointing out, born into an Iraqi-Jewish family, it was essential that there should be heroines who portrayed the diversity of women out there.

These women’s work varied from Samantha’s plays about choosing not to marry the boy approved by your family, to Helen’s poems on pubs (I like this woman’s thinking more and more), to Amy’s first work on the relationship between mother and daughter. Amy’s novel ‘The Other Ida’ follows a dysfunctional family trying to identify with an even more dysfunctional mother. I won’t give too much away but it was incredibly refreshing to hear about a plot line where the characters were unflinchingly flawed, with issues such as alcoholism covered, Amy’s unapologetic angle really proved how important it is for women to write about all kinds of problems faced by people every day.

It was brilliant to see that these women were writing, performing and directing their works without trying to hide their rage at literary misogyny, but using it instead as inspiration, eager to create and empower in witty and often insightful ways. If you do anything today it should be to check out these incredibly inspiring writer’s works. They’re definitely worth a read or two. 

Head to the festival’s website for more info about all the women writers, and updates about future events: https://womensliteraturefestival.wordpress.com.

Photo credit: Watershed.

Photo credit: Ilka Kemp-Hall.

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