Rescuing poetry from the edge of extinction

As anyone who maybe trying to follow British politics can certainly attest; a lot can happen in two years. At the last instalment of Poetry International, our long-running biennial festival, the National Poetry Library launched their Endangered Poetry Project in an attempt to preserve the poetry of languages on the verge of dying out. Fast forward two years and that same project has manifested into an anthology, Poems from the Edge of Extinction, which was officially launched at Poetry International 2019.

Political upheaval, climate breakdown, genocide, war, the enduring impact of colonialism; these are just some of the many things which can see a language come under threat, and face potential extinction. This groundbreaking anthology, edited by National Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe, brings together poets from each continent to both highlight the pressure their languages are placed under in an increasingly globalised world, and celebrate their work as poets and activists.

Ahead of the book’s launch event, and 2019’s Poetry International, we caught up with Chris McCabe to understand more about the initial project, and how it evolved into the publication of Poems from the Edge of Extinction.


Southbank Centre: So Chris, what initially prompted the Endangered Poetry Project?

Chris McCabe: The project was in response to the reports by linguists that half the world's languages could be lost by the end of the century. This set us thinking about what this meant for poetry, and if we could play about in collecting, sharing and even activating interest in the poetry cultures inherent in these languages.


Was an anthology always the natural outcome of the Endangered Poetry Project?

This wasn't the aim to begin with. We first of all set about collecting poems for the library, and focussing our 2017 Poetry International around this theme. In the summer of 2018 we asked artist Mary Kuper to create new artworks in response to some of the European poems we have collected, which led to the Language Shift exhibition at the National Poetry Library. It was only when Emma Green, a commission editor from Chambers, got in touch with the proposal for manifesting the project as a book, that we realised that we had the makings for a great anthology.


Lost languages MUSIC


Was there ever a point at which your work began to cross over from compiling an anthology to becoming a kind of endangered language poetry detectorist?

The work of editing the anthology might be my biggest undertaking of literary detection! The process involved deep research across collections, the internet and the SOAS Endangered Languages Archive, trying to find leads to endangered languages in which their poetry culture had been documented. My proudest moment as editor of this book was persevering with my attempt to find a poem in Patua, the critically endangered language of Macau in China, and eventually receiving a comment from Miguel S Fernandes on Facebook, who told me he was the last person writing poetry in that language.


The Endangered Poetry project asked for people to submit their poems, were there any languages you were surprised to receive poetry in?

I was particularly surprised to find a poem submitted in Kristang, a Portugese-influenced, Creole language spoken in Malaysia. Even better to find that this poem by Martha Fernandez was a love poem to the Kristang language itself, in which she writes 'I know you ... Today you are a part of me'. I'm so pleased to have included this poem in the book.


You mentioned Miguel S Fernandes as being the only poet writing in Patua; presumably there are others too who are now the only person writing poetry in their language. What does it mean to share one of their poems out to a wider audience?

Yes, another example is John Smelcer, who writes in the Alaskan, Ahtna language. Smelcer is thirty years younger than the next fluent speaker, and has made it his work to document the language, creating dictionaries and teaching words form Ahtna on YouTube. It is an honour for me to have been in contact with poets like this, who have spent their lives as activists for the language they care about so deeply, and to be able to make a contribution to sharing their work with more readers.


It’s an honour to have been in contact with poets who have spent their lives as activists for the language they care about so deeply, and to be able to make a contribution to sharing their work with more readers.
Chris McCabe


How did you decide on which poems and languages, from the many received, to feature in the anthology?

As with any editing project I had to draw on my lifetime's experience as a reader of poetry to inform my decisions, yet this book is particularly unique in that in some cases there was only one documented poem to draw on from a particular language. In these instances my decision wasn't about assessing 'literary merit' in the sense we are taught at western universities, but to present this language and poetic culture as a window into a kind of verbal art that might be very different from what readers of poetry anthologies are used to.


How much would these poems lose in translation to languages that are more widely spoken across the globe; be it English, Spanish, Mandarin or French?

I never see translation as a form of loss, but as a gift given to us by the world's translators. We all gain from every new translation, which is a unique work of art in its own right.




The anthology Poems from the Edge of Extinction, edited by Chris McCabe is available to buy now, from the Southbank Centre Shop.

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And, if you know a poem in an endangered language, you can still contribute to the Endangered Poetry Project

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Africa Utopia returns for 2019

Yep, Africa Utopia is back, returning for a seventh year in a new collaboration with Indaba X. Get yourself down to Southbank Centre for a weekend of performance, talks and thought-provoking events which explore how Africa and its diaspora shape the way we think about art, culture, gender, race, sexuality, fashion, activism and society.

Joining us to celebrate the culture of the second largest continent are a host of familiar names including Akala, Ozwald Boateng, Femi Kuti, Denise Lewis, Nathalie Emmanuel, Bethann Hardison, Noel Clarke, Chineke! Orchestra and many more. And, here are just a few of the festival highlights to look out for.

Femi Kuti with Talib Kweli & Akala: Afrika Shrine Alive

Friday 13 Sep  |  7pm  |  Royal Festival Hall

A building with a sign 'Welcome to the New Africa Shrine'

Be immersed in the energy of Nigeria’s boastiest venue as Femi Kuti’s New Africa Shine relocates to Royal Festival Hall. Expect an atmospheric, energetic night that’s part musical performance, part spiritual experience featuring Akala, Talib Kweli and the man himself, Femi Kuti.

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Chibundu Onuzo: 1991

Friday 13 Sep  |  7.30pm  |  Queen Elizabeth Hall

Author of The Spider King’s Daughter and Welcome to Lagos, Chibundu Onuzo returns to Southbank Centre her autobiographical show featuring narrative, music, song and dance. Featuring a live band, choir, and a healthy dose of West African rhythm, 1991 takes us on a journey from Lagos to London, spanning two military dictatorships, one internet revolution, two boarding schools and five grandmothers.

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Concrete Lates: Jay Mitta, ZULI, Bonaventure, Okzharp

Friday 13 Sep  |  10pm  |  Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer

Jay Mitta
Jay Mitta

On Friday night, join us ‘til late for a special Africa Utopia edition of our club night. Behind the decks you’ll find Jay Mitta; core producer from Dar Es Salaam's Sisso Studios and innovator of the Singeli genre. Joining Mitta are experimental club producer ZULI from Cairo, Swiss-Congolese creator Bonaventure and Hyperdub producer Okzharp from South Africa.

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Sport: The Power and Price of Protest

Saturday 14 Sep  |  1pm  |  Purcell Room

Sport: The Power and Price of Protest
Osi Umenyiora

In a special panel talk chaired by gold medal winning Olympian and former Sports Personality of the Year, Denise Lewis, we explore the complexities, possibilities and personal cost of protest in sport. Joining Lewis for the discussion – framed by NFL star Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the US national anthem – are two-time Super Bowl champion turned BBC pundit, Osi Umenyiora, and former French international footballer, Louis Saha.

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History: Memory and Consciousness

Sat 14 Sep  |  2.45pm  |  Queen Elizabeth Hall

Akala Olusoga: Striking the Empire

What is the importance of preserving cultural history? How is what was taken during slavery and empire retraced? Do our memories of the past affect our collective consciousness? These questions and more are addressed by a special panel featuring Akala, Angelina Osbourne, David Killingray and Professor Abosede George, and chaired by Ed Emeka Keazor.

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Letters Live

Sat 14 Sep 2019  |  7pm  |  Royal Festival Hall

Letters Live

On Saturday evening join us to experience the enduring power of literary correspondence. Inspired by Shaun Usher’s international best-selling Letters of Note series and Simon Garfield’s To the Letter great performers read remarkable letters from down the centuries and around the world.

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These are just a handful of events taking place at Africa Utopia, which features talks, debates, performance, fashion, film, workshops and much more across the weekend. Why not take a look at what else is taking place at Southbank Centre as part of the festival, including a number of free events.

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Southbank Centre's Book Podcast: American Dreams in the time of Trump

American Dreams in the time of Trump by Southbank Centre's Book Podcast

In a special edition of Southbank Centre’s Book Podcast, introduced by Head of Literature and Spoken Word Ted Hodgkinson, we bring together the thoughts and insights of an array of acclaimed American authors, all of whom joined us for the 2018 London Literature Festival and a strand of events ahead of the United States’ midterm elections.

Over the course of this episode you’ll hear from leading novelists Marilynne Robinson and Salman Rushdie, author and professor, Sarah Churchwell, and poet Terrance Hayes on the construct and constraint of modern America under Donald Trump, and the historical currents that brought us here. You’ll even hear a few anecdotes about personal encounters with the 45th president of the United States. 


There’s anger everywhere we look. If anger is a form of heartbreak, it just makes the person a bit more human as opposed to something you can kill… we shouldn’t eliminate or destroy an enemy because that might not be the best way to fix it.
Terrance Hayes, poet, on humanising the political divide

The show must go on(line)

Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social channels.

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As a charity, we rely on ticket sales for a huge chunk of our income. But now they’ve stopped. And it's a huge worry to us, and the people we work with. In difficult times, we all need the escape of art and culture; it can inspire and unite us. So please – if you can afford to – consider a donation to the Southbank Centre today, to help us be there for you in the future.


Subscribe to Southbank Centre's Book Podcast via your preferred podcast provider to enjoy more interviews and insights from well-known names, including Anna Burns, Khaled Hosseini and Matt Haig.

Six things... Emmy the Great learned from visiting China

You might know Emmy the Great as a singer-songwriter but for the China Changing Festival she is bringing us a show that is a bit different.

It’s about her first trip to China and how it led her to fall into the currents of fate, and is told through music and storytelling. She is joined on stage by Dfu who, as well as being Emmy’s friend, is a musician and DJ, and founder of the Thank You Bar, a centre of music in the south-east port city of Xiamen.

Ahead of her appearance on Saturday 6 October we asked Emmy to tell us six things she learned during her month in the People’s Republic of China and this is what she told us...

I don’t speak Mandarin

Embarking on my first trip to China last year, I was quite confident that I would communicate easily and fluently with everyone around me, because I studied Mandarin in primary school. It turns out that there is very little you can do in practical terms when all you know is a song called ‘Little Children Let’s Learn Mandarin’. I was also sure that the fact that I spoke Cantonese until I was eleven would be helpful, but it was a hindrance. Mandarin is dependent on four tones, and my ten-tone Cantonese accent mangled all my sentences until they were unrecognisable hybrids of the two dialects – just sounds, essentially.

Necessity is a powerful motivator, so there were a few essential phrases that I learned quickly. I’m embarrassed to tell you that these were, “I don’t drink milk, do you have soy?” and “Can you charge my phone? It’s Apple.”

The week that I returned home, my phone ran out of battery on my way to a meeting, and I had to duck into the nearest shop to ask them to charge it. As it happened, it was a Chinese herbal shop, and the boss lady spoke only Mandarin. She was impressed, both with my ability to ask her about my phone, and my lovely song about children.

There is such a thing as Destiny

There is a force in Chinese folk religion called yuanfen, and it’s a kind of karma-based synchronicity. It is responsible for bringing people together and for parting them.

After I found out about yuanfen, it followed me around Xiamen, where I was based in China. I became used to amazing coincidences and chance meetings, and began enjoying the flow of them as if I had surrendered myself to a current. It is this sense of magic and freedom that I think of most when I think of that time.

I was supposed to write an album in Xiamen, but after I discovered yuanfen, I gave up going to my studio and traipsed around the city all day, following my curiosity and searching for new people to bump into, in case they changed my life. This approach to work, which I previously would have called ‘skiving’, ended up being amazing for songwriting. My adventures around Xiamen were more valuable than time spent inside alone, and the songs wrote themselves around the experiences I had.

The marriage market is lucrative

My month in China was spent on Gulangyu Island, which is mysterious and architecturally unique. Every day, hundreds of engaged couples travel from all over China to take their pre-wedding photos, which they will display at their ceremonies. They disembark on Gulangyu every morning in their full wedding outfits, the brides in white chiffon and red Chinese silk, cradling their skirts like nets full of fish.

I would sit opposite the popular photo spots, and watch as the make-up artists sent them out to the photographers, mesmerised by the endless procession of couples. It got me thinking about relationships in China, and eventually this train of thought led me to a professional matchmaker. He told me that I could pay him to find a husband, and, if I paid more, this husband could come with property. Sadly, I declined this excellent opportunity, but not before my friend worked out that his company made 49 million yuan (around £5.5 million) a month.

My favourite song is cheesy

The Moon Represents My Heart - Teresa Teng

Having grown up in the West, I am used to being alone with my interests in Chinese popular culture. There’s a song by the Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng called The Moon Represents My Heart, and I have always listened to it in private, most often when I am feeling sad and want to luxuriate in that sadness. When I first arrived on Gulangyu Island, and was wandering around feeling alien and unfamiliar, I heard this song on a busker’s penny whistle, and was comforted, thinking that my song was watching over me.

I would hear that song every day, and everywhere, for the entire trip. It came from busker, hummed from the mouths of tourists, over the speakers in restaurants...At my final show, I asked Fei Fei, a Xiamen R&B singer, if she would sing it with me. She was horrified. “It’s really cheesy,” she said. It turned out that The Moon Represents My Heart is sort of like China’s Hallelujah  – overdone and out-of-bounds for any reputable musician.

I still really like the song.

China is a land of contrasts

My friend Rob, who I met on Chinese Bumble, wrote an article about how Chinese surrealist fiction doesn’t work anymore – it just doesn’t compare with the oddness of reality. So Chinese surrealist writers are resorting to hyper-factualism instead, writing faithful accounts of real events.

I did notice absurdities in China, but even more I noticed contrast. I’d walk past a luxury hotel, then on the next street a sewage worker would emerge from an open manhole with no protective gear on. I’d sit in one of Xiamen’s many branches of Starbucks, surrounded by urbanised, hyper-connected young people on their laptops, then leave through a park built for elderly people, where they played mahjong all day on bright plastic stools. The young people belonged to China’s millennials – a generation of only children who are growing up in a booming economy. The elderly people had lived through the Cultural Revolution.

All around us was dust from construction – Xiamen is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Yet the past was still alive, observing the changes as they went by. In Xiamen, I saw a culture that was old and new at the same time. I wondered how it felt to be on either side of that gap, and if there was any hope of the two perspectives meeting.

Life can change quickly

Before I went to China, a journalist asked me what I expected, and I glibly answered, 'It will change my life'.

I had assumed that I would click instantly in China, because I’m a half-Chinese woman who was born in Hong Kong.

In fact, China is such a vast, unknowable entity that I was initially overwhelmed and unable to connect. I realised that there were significant differences between the cultures in British Hong Kong in the 80s, and China today, and that I would not find a catch-all solution to my questions about heritage and identity.

But for all its unfamiliarity, there were still resonances. Eastern philosophy and spirituality felt natural to me, as did the emphasis on family. The discovery of yuanfen, and the adventures I had in chase of it, taught me that sometimes you don’t know where you’re heading – and that could reap rewards. A trip to a temple for the Goddess of Mercy also proved important. I learned to be open, and to enjoy the sense of being lost.

By the time I left, I had gotten used to the idea that there may never be an exact answer to the question of who I am. Sometimes, I realised, there are no exact answers. After the trip, however, I unexpectedly discovered that I was fluent in Cantonese again. The immersion in Chinese language had somehow triggered the part of my brain where I kept it locked up. A few months later, I found myself in Hong Kong, in search of language, and the lost rituals and behaviours of my childhood. So my life has changed, after all, through a series of events that began in China, or maybe before. My show is about that – the infinite chain of actions, people and random meetings that lead you where you need to go.


Emmy the Great with Dfu takes place on Saturday 6 October as part of the China Changing Festival. Tickets are on sale now.

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Kung-fu meets fantasy: Who is Chinese author Jin Yong?

Jin Yong is the most widely read Chinese author alive. In his novels he creates worlds of battle and war, of chivalry and love, of magic and conquests.

Born in 1924, he started his career as a journalist and in 1959 he founded the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao. Around the same time he was working on his first novel, The Book and the Sword. It would become a key work in the wuxia genre of Chinese fiction, which combines traditional martial arts with adventure.

The complexity of Jin Yong’s kung-fu fantasy world is perhaps why A Hero Reborn has only recently been translated into English, almost 60 years after it was first serialised in the Hong Kong Commercial Daily

A Hero Reborn: the Work of Jin Yong

A Hero Reborn is the first book in The Condor Trilogy. Jin Yong’s trilogy is amongst his most famous works and was turned into the wildly successful television show The Legend of the Condor Heroes. Here’s the theme tune for the much loved 1980s version starring Felix Wong and Barbara Yung.

射鵰英雄傳 – 重溫《鐵血丹心》片頭

And here is a trailer for the 2017 revival.

《射雕英雄传》片尾曲MV The Legend of the Condor Heroes - Ending Music

As part of our China Changing Festival Talks Pass, we were thrilled to host a panel discussion all about the works of Jin Yong.

Ahead of the event we invited our panellists to tell us a bit about their experiences with Jin Yong’s work and what it means to them.

Paul Engles

Paul is the editor of the English translation of A Hero Reborn. He has been an editor at MacLehose Press since 2011 and was involved in the acquisition of the series by the press in 2013. He is currently editing the translation of the second book in the series, A Bond Undone, by Gigi Chang.

“My favourite work by Jin Yong is definitely The Condor Trilogy – which is a good thing as I will be working on it for another few years yet! My favourite character is Huang Rong, because she has an answer for everything and anything and is not overawed by anyone. For me, Jin Yong is a master storyteller who makes this time and place in history come alive like no other writer. China in the 13th century sounds like an amazing place – I wish I could travel up The Grand Canal from that time.”

Dee Lo

Dee Lo is a British-born Chinese DJ who grew up watching TVB’s adaptations of Jin Yong’s books.

“Jin Yong is a very talented writer. His stories are extremely enthralling. He has written so many stories that have captured the hearts of the Chinese people. He has had a great influence on Chinese culture and many of the character names and martial art styles are still referenced today. My favourite character is from The Legend of the Condor Heroes series, Huang Rong. She is smart, quick-witted and very talented. She also has a playful side.”

Amy Ng

Amy Ng is a playwright who views the work of Jin Yong as one of her many influences and points of inspiration. He was her portal to martial arts, Chinese history, Taoism, Buddhism, popular spirituality, Chinese metaphysics, mathematics, chess, music and the I-Ching.

“I first read Jin Yong when I was nine. I was already a great reader of English books – a consequence of growing up in a British colony (Hong Kong). But my father was desperate to get me reading Chinese novels, and forced me to read a chapter of Jin Yong’s Condors every evening. I was furious. I knew I would hate it – I was determined to hate it. But from the very first pages, I was gripped. By the time we came to the part about the pyramids of skulls (end of the first volume), I gave in and read the rest of the Condor books in a weekend.

“Jin Yong taught me about complexity of character. Most of his characters (especially the later novels) are flawed, struggle with enormous temptations, and are neither wholly evil nor wholly good. Identities and allegiances are fluid. Appearances conflict with reality.”


The Festival Talks Pass, just £20, includes a whole day of talks on Sun 7 Oct. Explore and discover a broad range of topics, from Jin Yong to Chinese sci-fi and from feminism to climate change.

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China Changing Festival, which took place in October 2018, featured four days of dance, theatre, music, talks, free and family events exploring contemporary Chinese art, culture and identity.

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Eight great events to catch at October 2018’s China Changing Festival

Eight (八) is a most auspicious number in Chinese, so it seems appropriate for us to pull out eight must-see events as the final instalment of our China Changing Festival approaches.

The idea of the festival is to showcase some of the brilliantly innovative contemporary art and performance from China, as well as its creative connection with the UK. It features visual arts, music, dance and plenty of debate and conversation – including plenty of free events.

Emmy the Great with Dfu

Emmy The Great - Paper Forest (In The Afterglow of Rapture)

The acclaimed singer-songwriter presents a show combining performance and music, telling the story of her first visit to China. Although Emmy is half-Chinese, she was surprised every day by the country she discovered.

In this show she is joined by Dfu, a musician, sound artist and practising Buddhist from the city of Xiamen, where he runs Thank You Cafe. This event is a great chance to hear about contemporary China from a figure at the centre of music culture and someone trying to understand a culture she both is and is not a part of.

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Ken Cheng: Best Dad Ever

Ken Cheng at Chortle's Fast Fringe

Cheng puts his unusual childhood growing up in Britain with Chinese parents at the heart of Best Dad Ever, which was a sell-out at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. He was studying maths at Cambridge University when he decided to pack it in for a career playing online poker, so Cheng is not short of real life material.

I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change.
Ken’s award-winning Funniest Joke of the Edinburgh Fringe

In this very, very funny show, he explores his complicated relationship with his parents – and his obsession with toy lambs.

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Cloud Show

Cloud Show

The finale of China Changing Festival is a spectacular performance, curated by Academy Award-winning costume designer Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

Through costumes created by up-and-coming fashion designers, music, film and narration, we explore themes of identity, migration and environment, from the point of view of London’s young citizens. And it’s all free! Don’t miss our Cloud Video Installation as well as free fashion workshops curated by Mei-Hui Liu.

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The Injustice to Tou O

Injustice of Tou O

Discover the story of Tou O, an abandoned child, a widow and finally a wreaker of vengeance. In this famous play, dating back to the 13th century, corrupt officials wrongly convict Tou O of murder and as she faces execution she puts three curses on the town where she will die.

This influential work is brought to life with film, live music and a cast of 10 performers including award-winning Ding Yiteng, who also wrote and directs the show. Born in 1991, he has twice been nominated for the Most Promising Young Chinese Theatre Artist of the Year (2015 and 2016).

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'Ink' - Dance Short

Contemporary dance infused with hip-hop moves become an embodiment of Chinese calligraphy in this politically inspired piece. It is set in a place where writers can find themselves banned, their reputations hanging on the testimony of friends – or enemies. And yet the word retains its explosive power.

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Wen Hui’s RED


Red Detachment of Women, a ballet from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, is choreographer Wen Hui’s starting point as she builds up a critical panorama of the tumultuous period in this mixed-media performance. RED acts as a live documentary, with the physical bodies on stage telling the story through dance and movement, accompanying videos and archival footage. Featuring people who were directly involved or affected by the original piece, this autopsy of a 20th century ballet becomes a living and lived archive.

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Citizens of Nowhere?

Eavesdrop on a British-Chinese family as they talk to each other in this innovative theatre piece written by Ming Ho, where the audience enjoy refreshments at a pop-up cafe, sitting adjacent to the actors and listening in on the action through headphones.

At its heart is a mother Linda Lo, and her conversation with her son, Jun Chi, and her daughter, Jane. Through their words, we get an insight into generational differences and cultural identities, as the characters grapple with what it means to be British Chinese, and if they are citizens of the world – or citizens of nowhere.

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China Changing Festival Talks Day Pass

On Sunday 7 October join us for a day of interesting panel talks and discussions on a wide range of topics affecting contemporary China.

There’s discussion about feminism; insights into the writer Jin Yong – sometimes described as ‘the Chinese JRR Tolkien’; a look at China’s role in tackling global warming; and an examination of contemporary sci-fi novels. Access to all these events is only by buying a day pass, so don’t miss out!

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China Changing Festival takes place from Thursday 4 – Sunday 7 October. There are many other events in the programme, for full listings visit the webpage.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in conversation with Reni Eddo-Lodge

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Reni Eddo-Lodge in Conversation by Southbank Centre: Think Aloud

Why have just one best-selling author on your stage when you can have two? As part of Women of the World 2018, the multi-award-winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie joined Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of the acclaimed Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, on our Royal Festival Hall stage for a very special talk event.

In this fascinating recording of their discussion, the pair explore pressing cultural issues from the time of recording – March 2018 – including blogging, social media and discussions on race.



There's a sense that, when being asked to talk about race, after you've written a book, you're supposed to have the answers, you're supposed to have the solution; and while you're having the solution, you're supposed to cater for the emotional needs of the people listening to you
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


The show must go on(line)

Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social channels.

follow us on Twitter
follow us on Facebook
follow us on Instagram

As a charity, we rely on ticket sales for a huge chunk of our income. But now they’ve stopped. And it's a huge worry to us, and the people we work with. We all need the escape of art and culture; it can inspire and unite us. So please – if you can afford to – consider a donation to the Southbank Centre today, to help us be there for you in the future.

Patrisse Cullors on Black Lives Matter, speaking out and Donald Trump

Seven years ago, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, three young women came together to form an active response to the systematic racism causing the deaths of so many African-Americans in the USA. The women were Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. Their message was simply Black Lives Matter.

On Friday 9 March, 2018 we welcomed one of these inspirational women to the Southbank Centre, as Patrisse Cullors joined us for WOW - Women of the World. Before she flew to London for the festival, we were lucky enough to speak with her about her life's journey as an activist and campaigner.

Though Black Lives Matter may have started with Patrisse Cullors and her friends and fellow campaigners Garza and Tometi; Cullors’ own advocacy did not begin with Black Lives Matter. Born and raised in 1980s Los Angeles, she commenced her journey as a campaigner whilst still a teenager, joining the Bus Riders Union. From there Cullors went on to work, as an activist, organiser and performance artist, within several communities including those segregated by racial and sexual prejudice and equality. As well as Black Lives Matter, she has co-founded several other activist and civil rights movements in the US, including Dignity and Power Now.

So what gave the sixteen-year-old Cullors the strength to take a stand and join a campaigning group, where does a young teenager find the strength to speak out? ‘I don’t know if see it as strength, so much as my duty, as part of growing up,’ counters Cullors. ‘Growing up marginalised there’s a necessity to fight for what you need, it always felt almost like survival. So, I don’t see it necessarily as a strength as much the qualities for survival. And that’s coming from a place of needing to change things, so that I could live in better conditions, so that my family could live in better conditions, and the people around me could.’

Growing up marginalised there’s a necessity to fight for what you need, it always felt almost like survival
Patrisse Cullors

Where did this sense of duty come from? Were there any key moments or incidents that inspired Cullors to take up that fight, initiating this push for survival, and for change? ‘I probably wouldn’t use the term inspired, because, I think the experiences that led me to act and organise things were deeply traumatic,’ Cullors explains.

‘Rather than inspired it’s something more clarifying. One of those experiences was my brother being arrested and brutally beaten by a sheriff’s department... this incident really became a marker for me, a clarifying moment around life, on the need for those of us who have been directly impacted by state violence to speak up and to speak out against it.’

The brutal treatment of her brother – along with accounts of friends and family who also suffered at the hands of the state – are detailed in When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, published by Cullors, and award-winning author Asha Bandele, earlier this year. The book also examines the severe socio-economic disadvantages handed to those born in black majority communities, like those which Cullors grew up in, and looks at the issues of inequality, diversity, oppression and racism and why they need to be actively addressed from the ground up.

It is both compelling and critical a read, one that will doubtless resonate with anyone who has suffered such oppression or fought against social disadvantage. But the challenge of any movement is to move those who are not directly affected. How can you bring these injustices to the eyes of the population these things don’t happen to?

‘Well, I think one way is writing a book. Putting it all down in one place, having people read chapter by chapter, what kind of life my family and I were living, and the ways in which we were treated – which is badly – by law enforcement and the impact it had on us. I mean you can’t deny somebody their stories, right, you know, you might be able to argue whether the police are bad or not, but you can’t argue with someone telling you that this is their experience. That is the way you’re able to enlighten people.’

You can’t argue with someone telling you that this is their experience. That’s the way you’re able to enlighten people.
Patrisse Cullors

There is no denying Cullors book is reaching people, an instant New York Times bestseller, it has, as the author highlights, struck a chord with audiences across race, across gender, and across age. ‘From people as young as 13, or 14 reading the book to as old as 80 or 90 reading the book, or listening to the audio book, it has been such a powerful tool for folk. I imagine it’s going to resonate with people who have had similar experience, and it definitely moves people who haven’t.’

As an activist and a campaigner it can be hard to look beyond the continuing fight and the challenges that lay ahead, but is it possible to see change happening? ‘I’ve seen a greater awareness, a consciousness shift,’ Cullors reflects. ‘I’ve seen conversations that couldn’t have happened a number of years ago, happening. And I’ve seen more and more effort going into trying to transform the world, so it is better for black people.’

I’ve seen a greater awareness, a consciousness shift… I’ve seen more and more effort going into trying to transform the world, so it is better for black people
Patrisse Cullors

When she was just sixteen years old Cullors came out as queer and moved out of her home in Valley. She went on to form close connections with other young, queer, woman who were dealing with the challenges of poverty and being Black and Brown in the USA. It’s no surprise therefore that Black Lives Matter has sought to incorporate those traditionally on the margins of black freedom movements, and has embraced intersectionality from the start in a way past black and civil rights movements often failed to do.

‘It’s complicated when some folks are myopic in how they are realising their movement and practicing inside their movements,’ suggests Cullors. ‘I think part of the challenge and the push for this movement is for groups across the board to continue to build off of the intersectional lens that we have so importantly uplifted.

‘[Black Lives Matter] are in connection and collaboration with multiple movements across the country and the globe, and I think that’s been the case since the very beginning. I think we have opened up the space for so many movements to be where they’re at today, and to shout out for where they’re at today.’

Patrisse Cullors, on stage at the Southbank Centre at WOW 2018

Black Lives Matter started on social media, begun by Garza’s Facebook post titled A Love Note to Black People, and cemented by Cullors deployment of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. But whilst the movement emphasises the good that social media can do, when it comes to convening audiences, should we be more concerned by the way it can be similarly used to harness negative and hateful ideologies?

‘I think that social media plays an interesting role across the world at this point, as a place where people can connect, and a place where people can amplify their stories and voices. But people can also amplify their hate and their bigotry. It therefore becomes complicated because we as people believe in the right to free speech.

‘But I also think social media and the people who are the administrators of social media should have to think about, in a better way, how to not give voice and amplification to hate that is purposeful, and that is about trying to get people harmed - and you can see that very clearly in people. It becomes really tricky, when you’re trying to filter this out, whilst also trying to allow people to have their constitutional rights.'

It is tricky [on social media] to filter out purposeful hate, whilst also trying to allow people to have their constitutional rights’
Patrisse Cullors

Of course it would be remiss to talk about social media without touching on one of its most prominent exponents. A year on from his inauguration, how is America feeling the effect of president Trump? Cullors doesn’t hold back, but remains typically focussed.

‘I mean he personifies the type of bigotry and hatred that exists at America’s underbelly, and he is now the President one of the most powerful countries in the world, so it is important that we are hell bent on defeating him, to an extent where he’s not able to win again. But we can’t let that be a distraction from the larger issue, that of US Government, and its historical lack of, or its historical neglect of black communities, no matter who the President is. So it is important to us, as we focus on Trump, that we also continue to look around us, look 360 degrees, at what’s happening in this country to the most marginalised.’

Donald Trump personifies the type of bigotry and hatred that exists at America’s underbelly, and he is now the President one of the most powerful countries in the world
Patrisse Cullors

Which brings us back to the subject of empowerment; and giving a voice to people who have previously been forced out to the margins. At the time of our conversation, the film Black Panther is drawing the crowds in UK cinemas, topping the box office charts for a third week in the row; an example perhaps of the consciousness shift Cullors alluded to earlier in our interview. Is it, we ask Cullors, much more than a film?

‘I think it’s brilliant, it’s powerful, it’s amazing. Wakanda is obviously a fictional place, but there’s a deep parallel right now with a non-fictional place – the US – and our work around Black Lives Matter is about uplifting the everyday superheroes that are black people, not just in the US, but across the globe.’

Empowering women, and inspiring everyday heroes has always been at the heart of WOW - Women of the World. As a platform it has been a catalyst for a huge amount of change, from the founding of the UK's Women's Equality Party to countless campaigns including UK Supports Yazidi Women and Girls, and Little Acts of Revolution. So, ahead of her own appearance at the festival, what advice does Cullors give to the next generation of women and young girls looking to stand up, action change and make a difference?

‘Stay focussed, and be present. I would say this is a long-haul fight and it feels really crucial and important right now, because it is, but take care of yourself. Make sure that you do the things that you need to do for your own health and your own wellness. And remember that there’s a generation just right above you that is doing work, and that will gladly support you.’



The show must go on(line)

Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social channels.

follow us on Twitter
follow us on Facebook
follow us on Instagram

As a charity, we rely on ticket sales for a huge chunk of our income. But now they’ve stopped. And it's a huge worry to us, and the people we work with. We all need the escape of art and culture; it can inspire and unite us. So please – if you can afford to – consider a donation to the Southbank Centre today, to help us be there for you in the future.

interview by Glen Wilson

Be inspired with women of colour at WOW

Intersectional feminism has gone from being a concept proposed by academic Kimberlé  Crenshaw back in 1989 to a term that, thanks to social media, is now in common parlance. But in case you’re still not sure. . . it’s a way of looking at oppression as influenced not just by gender, but also by race, health, ability, class, age, religion and other factors.

As WOW – Women of the World has a mission to look at how to make the world a better place for all women and girls, it is imperative that our programme embraces intersectionality. At WOW 2018 we’re proud to present our most inclusive programme to date, and in this blog post we’re highlighting some of the talented women of colour who appear.

We’re honoured that Patrisse Khan-Cullors joins us for Friday night’s event No More. She helped start a worldwide movement back in 2013 when she coined the Black Lives Matter hashtag and has some great advice for activists.

find out more

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at WOW 2017

WOW favourite Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (pictured above), author of Half of a Yellow Sun and We Should All Be Feminists, returns. She’s appearing in conversation with Reni Eddo-Lodge, who burst on to the scene last year with her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, in a conversation that covers race, gender, feminism and more. At the moment the event is returns only, but do keep an eye out in case more tickets go on sale.

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For those lucky enough to get weekend or day passes, the following events are included (if you missed out, please check our social media channels for coverage).

Melanie Eusebe

Friday has a focus on women at work and in businesses. You can hear Senegalese entrepreneur Mariéme Jamme, as part of Power, Purpose and Progress; and June Sarpong, Melanie Eusebe (pictured above), Deborah Williams and Shona Baijal, who appear together at a talk called Diversify. Also on Friday is our special event Code Switching, which looks whether Black women are forced to compromise to fit into the workplace and the impact this can have.

Reeta Mumbai

On Saturday, outspoken model Munroe Bergdorf, who hit headlines last year when L’Oreal dropped her for comments about white people’s racism, appears as part of Sweep Through the World. We’re asking the question ‘Desi Lesbians, Where are you?’ in an event chaired by Reeta Loi (pictured above), co-founder of Gaysians.

Also keep an eye out for Mother Tongues, a screening of Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s acclaimed film of poets working with their mothers to translate their work into their first language The screening is followed by a discussion with Victoria and poets from her film.

On Sunday you can see Laura Marks and Julie Siddiqi chairing We Stand Together, an event where Muslim and Jewish women speak out, or join the WOW Book Club for a discussion of Sister Outsider by Black lesbian poet and feminist writer Audre Lorde. There’s also the Power & Protest event looking at activism and disability, hosted by the Sisters of Frida collective, and LGBTQI+ Resilience with Black Pride UK, chaired by Black Pride UK co-founder Phyll Opoku-Gyimah.


There are plenty of free things to do if you missed out on a day pass. Search our website for details of events like the Women, Drumbeats and Self Care twerkshop; an interactive demonstration by Muslim Girls Fencing (pictured above); Scar, a film about violence against women in Rio de Janiero’s largest favela; a poetry reading with Momtaza Mehri; and Women for Refugee Women singing songs, to name just a few.


WOW – Women of the World 2018 takes place from Wednesday 7 – Sunday 11 March.

see the full listings

WOW 2018 would not be possible without its generous sponsors and supporters: Bloomberg, UBS, American International Group Inc (AIG) and The Chartered Insurance Institute.

Inspired by WOW? You can support the future of the festival by donating today.

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Antonythasan Jesuthasan: the remarkable story, from migrant to moviestar

Antonythasan Jesuthasan is not like other leading actors. And those few words are very much an understatement. At 15 he was a child soldier in Tamil Eelam. At 25 he was living as a refugee in Thailand. At 35 he was leading a double life as a noted Tamil author and a Parisian bellboy. And at 45 Jesuthasan was the lead actor in a film that would go onto win the Palme d’Or.

Dheepan, directed by Jacques Audiard, tells the story of three Tamil refugees forced to pretend to be a family in order to flee civil war-ravaged Sri Lanka and escape to France, in the hope of reconstructing their lives. It’s a story the man in the title role knew all too well. Like Dheepan, Jesuthasan had also fled war-torn Sri Lanka as a Tamil refugee. He too had found a passage to France, and he too had to eek out a new life from the very foot of Paris’ social ladder.

DHEEPAN- Official UK trailer - Out now on DVD, Blu-ray & digital

Jesuthasan's story begins in Sri Lanka where, as a teenager, he witnessed first hand the severity and brutality of the 1983 Black July attacks on Tamil people by factions of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority. ‘Sinhalese members of the Sri Lankan Army came to our village and executed people on our front yard, our sisters were raped and sexually assaulted by them. The [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] were resisting against these atrocities, and so I joined them with a great confidence; it was a time when, all over the world, lots of resistances were taking place, for emancipation from all kind of oppressions. By reading in newspapers about events in Vietnam, Palestine, Nicaragua, and the Indian Naxalites resistance, we were moved to believe in the armed resistance.’

When Jesuthasan joined the LTTE as a child soldier, he was becoming part of a guerilla group which resonated closely with his own beliefs. ‘Self-determination of socialist Tamil Eelam was my dream at that time. LTTE proclaimed that they were fighting for a socialist country and I took up that call, as I was dreaming of a socialist nation which would be free of cast, gender and religious differences.’

However, the LTTE grew quickly, and soon became the dominant opposition group in the Civil War that would engulf Sri Lanka for more than a quarter of a century. As the LTTE’s power base and influence grew, Jesuthasan sensed a shift in their focus. ‘The socialist discourse which they had previously claimed, turned into rhetoric of ethnocentric Tamil nationalism. The leadership of LTTE dismantled and destroyed all other alternative political factions with its weapon. I left the movement then, so did many others. All our dreams had been burned inside three years, but history has subsequently proven that my decision to leave at that movement was the right one.’

Leaving a group like the LTTE is not something one does easily. Jesuthasan’s decision to walk away from the organisation ensured that from that moment on his very existence in Sri Lanka would be under threat. And so in 1988 he left the country for Hong Kong - the only place it was possible for him to travel without a visa - and from there he moved onto Thailand. Here, under the auspices of the UN Refugee Agency, he would live as a refugee in a Bangkok suburb for a number of years. In 1993 the chance to move on to France, travelling on a fake passport, fell his way and he took it. Jesuthasan has lived in Paris ever since. ‘I love Paris a lot; this is the city that made me a famous writer and a world known actor, after I arrived here initially as a refugee.’


I wasn't a born artist, I was a child of war. War and the injustice which were imposed on my people inspired me and pushed me forwards.

Does he still consider himself to be a refugee? ‘Who wishes to be a refugee? Nobody wishes to inflict upon themselves the identity of a refugee, or an outsider. I consider Paris to be my home, but the French government keeps me as a refugee. Me considering Paris as my home bothers Madame Marine Le Pen; it is a big problem to her.’

Whilst Jesuthasan’s status as a resident remains locked in a status of flux; his life in France has seen him gradually gravitate back towards long-held passions, and the search for a means through which to tell important stories. He is something of a natural artist; whilst a member of the LTTE he wrote and acted in street dramas on the liberation of the Tamil people, which the organisation would deliver in local villages. But despite these early steps into the arts in his teens, to forge a career in literature or acting remained far from his thoughts.

‘I wasn't a born artist, I was a child of war. War and the injustice which were imposed on my people inspired and pushed me forward in the first instance. I never considered Literature as a means to earn money. I studied until tenth grade, and the only language I can speak and write is Tamil. My knowledge of literature is also pretty small. But I always liked to resist, and I would always like to talk about the subjects others were reluctant to talk about. My stories are a medium by which to express my stance.’

With barely a handful of small film roles behind him, Jesuthasan initially auditioned for a minor part in Dheepan. But just weeks before the scheduled start of shooting Audiard learned of the actor’s backstory, and, after rushing him through classes took a chance on the inexperienced actor, casting him in the lead role. An incredibly bold move but, with the film going onto win the Miami Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize as well as the Palme d’Or, one that ultimately paid off.


Who wishes to be a refugee? Nobody wishes to inflict upon themselves the identity as a refugee, or an outsider.

So after the success of Dheepan, and with the film roles that have followed it, does Jesuthasan now consider himself to be an actor? ‘Above everything I like to be identified as a left activist. To achieve, and to be identified as such I have needed to work hard, and to have lost a lot’.

And work hard he has. It was only in the late 1990s that Jesuthasan, encouraged by friends in the Revolutionary Communist Organization, first began to document his thoughts and experiences. Under the pseudonym Shobasakthi, he wrote short stories, essays and plays based on his experiences during the Sri Lankan Civil War, publishing his first novel Gorilla in 2001. But the transition from refugee to writer to actor was neither swift nor smooth. For more than two decades, right up to being cast in the role of Dheepan by Audiard, Jesuthasan trod a very ordinary life, earning a living as, amongst other things, a shelf-stacker, dishwasher and street-sweeper.

‘It was hard, surviving with these lowly jobs. The time to stand up with my own theories and experiences didn’t arrive at my doorstep; I had to work hard to pull it towards me, so I could tell my stories’.

When I ask Jesuthasan whether the success of Dheepan has changed or altered his life, or expectations, it is the escape from the stress which these many jobs placed on his mind and body which he moves to acknowledge first. ‘I have been emancipated; rescued from the torment of becoming disabled, mentally and physically, from being squeezed and sucked in the name of work at supermarkets and restaurant kitchens’.

But he is aware too, as any left activist would be, of the wider impact of the film’s success, and what it has meant not just for him, but for the people whose stories and voices he has long strived to represent. ‘After the success of Dheepan prominent French directors have begun to give roles to Tamils in their movies; many other faces have now made their debut in French cinema’.


When I was working on Dheepan I fully submitted myself over to the great artist, director Jacques Audiard, and as a result I didn’t feel any tension or worry.

It is understandably difficult for anyone seeing Dheepan, and knowing Jesuthasan’s own history to avoid drawing parallels between the life of the actor and that of his character. But simply being able to resonate with a life, doesn’t mean portraying it comes easily. ‘Yes, I was able to understand the screenplay clearly, since Dheepan and I had endured similar experiences. But Dheepan's mindset and mine are not the same at all; completely different from each other. Dheepan was a creation of the director, not me, and so I had to work hard to bring this created character through on screen. I had to keep my own emotions in control; losing that control would’ve been dangerous for the art’.

Though Jesuthasan had acted before Dheepan, this was by far his biggest role to date, his first title role, so how does it feel to make that step up, and to do so with a director as accomplished and revered as Audiard? 

‘It felt really normal. If I had worked with a debut director then I think I would have felt greater pressure - after Dheepan, when I played two further lead roles, I had that sort of a pressure. But when I was working on Dheepan I fully submitted myself over to the great artist, director Jacques Audiard, and as a result I didn’t feel any tension or worry. I was happy, but worked very hard.’

Hard work, and a willingness to work hard to earn the right to tell his stories are evidently significant cogs in the machinery of Jesuthasan’s character. He is a man who is under no illusions of the struggles and fights an increasingly global community must face in order to make themselves heard. He is a leading man unlike any other, so what does being a man mean to him?

‘We are in the era of globalisation and the time of refugees, it’s a context which pushes me, and many of us, to the very edge of slavery. The establishment, laws, and the justice system have invented means to keep us as slaves forever. It is by standing up to this we find some sort of meaning for our very existence’.


interview by Glen Wilson

Migrant to Moviestar: Dheepan’s Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a special screening of excerpts from the film Dheepan with contextual discussion from Jesuthasan took place in Royal Festival Hall as part of 2017's Being A Man festival. 



The show must go on(line)

Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social channels.

follow us on Twitter
follow us on Facebook
follow us on Instagram

As a charity, we rely on ticket sales for a huge chunk of our income. But now they’ve stopped. And it's a huge worry to us, and the people we work with. We all need the escape of art and culture; it can inspire and unite us. So please – if you can afford to – consider a donation to the Southbank Centre today, to help us be there for you in the future.