Centring Black narratives

Hannah Azieb Pool talks to TCP about launching Tottenham Literature Festival

Hannah Azieb Pool, Artistic Director of Bernie Grant Arts Centre
Credit: Luchia Robinson

By Luchia Robinson

‘The festival that should have always been here’ is how Hannah Azieb Pool, Artistic Director and CEO of the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, wants people to describe Tottenham Literature Festival.  

The festival, which launches next month (1–9th November) is for anybody with a love for words; but there is a clear emphasis on centring black writers and artists.  

“It’s a celebration and an interrogation of the black experience through literature, in all its forms,” said Hannah.  

“One of the inspirations for this festival was the fact that, I know from my own experience that mainstream literature festivals are often very white, and very middle class, and they often have quite an exclusive feel, as opposed to an inclusive feel.  

“It’s very difficult for Black authors to get on main stages, and if they are programmed at all, they are often programmed in tents far, far away.”  

The vision for Tottenham Literature Festival is to change this energy and feeling, bringing black readers and authors to the centre of the mainstream.

“I want it to be a festival where black stories, experiences and voices are in the majority,” says Hannah.  

Poet, Lemn Sissay will open the festival with his one-man play, Something Dark, which depicts the story of his upbringing within the care system and the search for his family.  

Writer, producer and performer, Keisha Thompson, will also be bringing her solo theatre show, Man on the Moon, to the festival. Described by The Stage as ‘a poetic and eloquent piece of storytelling’, Man on the Moon portrays Keisha’s relationship with her father, through his books, letters and writings.  

Tottenham Literature Festival is part of Hannah’s long term plan of ensuring that the Bernie Grant Arts Centre meets its full potential, and becomes an internationally renowned venue.  

“I’m quite ambitious for the festival, even in its first year,” said Hannah.  

“The first year is about an identity and [proving] a need for the festival, and I think from then on, it’s then everybody else helping to build it.”  

“What I want is for the festival to be led and informed by the community– not just us.”  

The local community is an essential part of the festival, being the audiences of the talks, workshops, readings and performances, as well as the creators, the new authors and voices yet to be given a platform.  

“Local artists [and headliners] are on the same bill– I don’t think there’s necessarily a division, which all comes back to this idea of black voices being in the mainstream,” Hannah said.  

“I want it to feel as if we are all artists together, in this space.”  

There are three strands running throughout the festival’s programming, uniting the creatives involved: poetry and spoken word, black women writers, and representative children’s literature.  

A 2017 study conducted by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found that of 9,115 children’s books published in the UK that year, only 4% featured a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) character.  

Hannah said: “A big part of my whole artistic strategy is to bring children’s books that have black, central characters to life, so that our children can see themselves reflected on the page.”

Tottenham Literature Festival aims to provide an accessible platform for cross generational, literary content, where locals can feel a sense of ownership amongst the greater collective.  

“To me, the idea that nothing creative comes out of Tottenham is such a fallacy,” said Hannah.  

“I want Bernie Grant Arts Centre to be a home for all of that creativity.”