BRAP review of the inaugural Tottenham Literature Festival

‘Developing culturally diverse artists’ is the strapline for the purpose-built Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham. The complex’s namesake ‘firmly believed that the arts have the power to transform lives’, and what better place to do so than in one of London’s culturally-rich boroughs.

It is here that the inaugural Tottenham Literature Festival took place: a 9-day celebration of performances, storytelling, panels, workshops and films by Black British artists. Hannah Azieb Pool, Artistic Director and CEO of the Centre, launched the festival to ‘celebrate the power of literature to transform lives’.

The final line-up of the festival took place on Saturday 9th November. The first talk, ‘Poetry of the Mandem’ saw Amon Dabo in conversation with poets Kieron Rennie and Yomi Sode. For the panel, ‘Mandem’ is not just a collective pronoun nor a monolith, but a sense of place and community amongst a group of people sharing a similar experience. The poets discussed their respective youths growing up in Tottenham and Bethnal Green and feeling responsible for representing these places in their work. The idea of escapism was also explored: what if the mandem were beekeepers? Caleb Femi’s short ‘Secret Life of Gs sees three Black British men bonding around the act of bee-keeping and honey harvesting, somewhere in the idyllic English countryside. The short seeks to portray a version of Black masculinity that is often not portrayed by the media, whilst also divulging their relationship with space and the environment.

The theme of space and the environment continued into the second talk, where the likes of In Space, Resolve and The Record Shop came together to respond to London’s changing landscapes in a talk called ‘Reimagining spaces’. Like Tottenham, many London spaces are constantly at the mercy of gentrification — the poorest people often being displaced from communities and support networks that they know to make way for unrecognisable transformations. How do we make space in a city that’s closing in? Solutions ranged from actualising safe spaces within the context of a constantly-shifting landscape, while others suggested disrupting existing spaces as a form of intervention. These safe spaces can manifest in the form of recording studios, pop-up exhibitions, like-minded people forming collectives or even a designed process.

The final talk of the day, ‘Fros, Rows & Prose’, saw writer Emma Dabiri in conversation with Ruth Sutoyé and Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff about black women’s hair. The panel began by discussing how the pejorative language used to talk about black hair is often sets it up as deviant and time-consuming. Emma Dabiri read extracts from her new book, ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ that deconstruct this harmful but persistent rhetoric. Ruth Sutoyé’s short film ‘Reign’ was also screened during the talk: a colourful and empowering ode to Black British women who have chosen to wear their hair bald. These media enabled the panel to further their discussion: everything from their relationships with their texture, black salon experiences, the co-opting of the natural hair movement to hair typing as a hierarchical system. The talk left us with this: it’s not the hair that’s the problem, it’s the system in which it exists.

All in all, the final day of the literature festival made way for valuable conversations about community, identity and space in a shifting landscape.