A Bluffer's Guide to the 2017 London Literature Festival

Tuesday, October 17, 2017 - 12:12

Ahead of the 2017 London Literature Festival, Ted Hodgkinson, our Senior Programmer for Literature and Spoken Word, offers an insight to the festival and its programme, and offers tips on how to get the most out of it.

What is London Literature Festival?

London Literature Festival is a celebration of literature in all its forms; poetry, spoken word, novels, non-fiction. And it’s also a celebration of the power of the imagination and the way that words and literature can help us reimagine the world around us.

When and where does it take place?

This is the 11th year of London Literature Festival which again takes place here at Southbank Centre, its home since it began. This years event runs from 13 October to 1 November.

Is the London Literature Festival just for adults?

No, the festival is very much for all ages. There are parts of the festival that are more focussed on adult audiences, but in the half-term week we really wanted there to be events for families and young people. So there is Laura Dockerill reading a really funny book called My Mum’s Growing Down, which is about her mum’s obsession with yoga. And there’s the Children’s Laureate Lauren Child,a s well as a really exciting array of Nordic children’s authors coming to talk about their particular style of storytelling.

Also, completely free and open to the public there are storytelling workshops in The Clore Ballroom, plus a project exploring what the world will look like in a hundred years, which invites you to come in and write your own time capsule story to the future - and hopefully a world in which people will be able to open the time capsule and read it - which is a really lovely, hopeful, family project.

171027_L5FR_Lauren Child
Children's Laureate, Lauren Child

How big is the London Literature Festival?

There are in the region of 200 events across the festival; it’s the biggest festival we’ve ever done. It opens with Poetry International, which is a celebration of poetry from all over the world. The festival features a whole strand of Nordic activity, with Nordic writers taking part in the festival as part of Southbank Centre’s year-long Nordic Matters celebration. There’s an expanded programme of children’s events happening for the half-term week, and we also have the Young Adult Literature Weekender closing the festival with a really lively and energetic exploration of young adult literature.

Is there a theme to this year’s London Literature Festival?

The main theme across London Literature Festival is ‘world on the brink’. We wanted to look frankly at the great challenges the world is facing at the moment, and also explore the potential for reimagining it. Earlier this month Margaret Atwood spoke in the Royal Festival Hall and apologised for her fiction being so accurate about the present, but she also went onto say that if you can envisage a future and act accordingly, and believe that it might happen, and even vote accordingly, then you can change things. That sentiment speaks particularly aptly about how we view literature; as a space in which we can reimagine where we live now and where we might be going in the future.

Are there any parts of the festival in which the theme is particularly prevalent?

In Poetry International we’re picking up the timely legacy of a festival which was created at the height of the Cold War to try and reach across cultural and political divides. We want to build on that legacy and hear from poets from far-flung corners of the globe, who occupy very different perspectives and positions in the world. We have Claudia Rankine who’s writing about race and racism in America, we have Joy Harjo who speaks about Native American situations in the US, we have poets from China, Yang Lian, we have poets from the Caribbean, from India, from Iraqi-Kurdistan, such as Choman Hardi who writes so brilliantly about the particular trials and challenges that women face in that part of the world. So this year’s Poetry International is really trying to pick up the principles of its founding, whereby poetry, in the words of Ted Hughes, was to be cherished as ‘a universal space in which we can all hope to meet’.

Poetry is a way of translating what it means to be human and seeing human lives in really close contextual terms, so that once you’ve read a poem about what it means to be a woman in Iraqi-Kurdistan it’s not possible to forget that when you look at the headlines and the news coming from that region.

171015_L3FR_Yang Lian
Chinese poet, Yang Lian

That sounds quite heavy

Perhaps, but though one of the key things for us within the festival is to really explore this theme of ‘world on the brink’, we also recognise that in a world on the brink you can always have more joy, and so we want there to be a lot of space for delighting in the joys and pleasures of language, and that’s key to the programme.

What form do the London Literature Festival events take?

There is a real spectrum. Sometimes there are live readings, where you have poets and actors reading works, so Sylvia Plath’s letters being read by a group of poets; Nelson Mandela’s memoirs being read by actors and writers and states-people. Then there are ‘in conversation’ events where you hear from often more celebrated names, people like Philip Pullman, Karl Ove Knausgaard, or Hillary Rodham Clinton talking very candidly about their work.

There are panel discussions, so in Poetry International and ‘world on the brink’ we’ll explore topics like climate change, or migration in a lively debate format with a chair and a moderator guiding the discussion. There are also workshops, so you can do a workshop with amazing world-renowned poets like Anne Carson who’ll teach you about collaboration, and there’s a workshop on Chinese poetry if you want to brush up on that. And there are a whole range of interesting things for young people too, so there are storytelling workshops and there are things which are really fun, playful, interactive; just really about the joys of language.

Beyond the bigger names, who should I look out for?

One of the key things for us at Southbank Centre, is making sure that we are always bringing forward the stars of next year and the year after. So, in the Nordic strand we have writers like Athena Farrokhzad, a kind of Swedish-Iranian Claudia Rankine, who’s writing about race, about marginality, and about being in a position that doesn’t feel comfortable in Swedish society as an outsider. She’s incredibly incisive and extraordinarily exact and crystalline in her language. She’s written a book called White Light and many more will be coming in translation in the future, and so I think when we look back at this festival we’ll think ‘yes, we had Athena Farrokhzad here that year and we were very lucky to have her’.

There are others as well, people like Jonas Hassen Khemiri, also Swedish - not to show too much favouritsim to the Swedes - and he’s a really funny, playful, irreverent writer who uses form in an interesting way, whilst writing about things which are very close to home. Such as his novel about the suicide of a friend, which really pieces together the life of that friend, and who he was before his death.

Looking further across the programme, there’s an illustrator called Sav Akyuz who I think is really great and deserving of a broader audience. And, one of the key people to highlight, is Niviaq Korneliussen, a queer Greenlandic writer who writes about sexual identity and gender fluidity in ways that are irresistibly funny and very progressive, in a style that’s disarmingly frank and challenges the formality of the novel in a way that’s really refreshing. She’s someone who is not yet fully published in English so again, as with Farrokhzad, we’re ahead of the curve, and I think in years to come we’ll hear a lot more about her as someone who has totally changed our conception of what life is like in the far north.

Niviaq Korneliussen
Greenlandic writer, Niviaq Korneliussen

How can I get the most out of the London Literature Festival?

A really good thing to do is to get one of the wristband tickets which give you access to multiple events. So if you buy a wristband ticket for Poetry International you get access to an incredible array of events; you can see world class poets like Anne Carson, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Choman Hardi, and Yang Lian and you can hear them all talking about different themes and subjects. That’s quite a rare opportunity, one in which you get quite a lot of poet for your buck.

Similarly, if you’re curious and interested in Nordic literature, maybe you’ve read some Knausgaard but you want to find out more, on the festival’s middle weekend you can get into six or so events a day, which we think is pretty decent value. And again, for the Young Adult Literature Weekender, with a wristband ticket, you’ll get to discover loads of writers you might not have previously heard of.


London Literature Festival takes place at Southbank Centre annually, as too do Poetry International and our Young Adult Literature Weekender.

see the full festival programme
read more on Poetry International
read more on Young Adult Literature Weekender