Saturday 30th March. Picture for yourself nearly 20 women and two men, aged from about 15 to 70, in an airless, windowless, side-room in Coventry city’s main library. Outside is is a beautiful spring day. Inside we are talking about HerStory – why women write and do they get a fair deal?
The poet, Emilie Lauren Jones compered, and I was on the panel with two poets, Sarah Leavelsey, and Malka Al-Haddad who is originally from Iraq. It was all part of the Positive Images Festival 2019, in Coventry – the nominated City of Culture for 2021. There was plenty of audience participation.
First of all we discussed whether women get the recognition they deserve. Why it is that awards seem to go to books where the protagonist is male, even if the author is female. Is it because female readers will read about male or female characters, but male readers prefer a male protagonist? Why does the gender bias also seem to apply in regard to the author’s sex? For example, the Bronte sisters had to write under men’s names in the nineteenth century just to get published. But more recently, J.K. Rowling chose to conceal her sex when publishing the Harry Potter books (and her more recent books for adults). On the other hand, many men writing romances (for Mills and Boon, for example) will adopt a female pen name. We could all agree that, for many reasons, women writers have not always had the recognition they deserve – though the last Man Booker prize went to Anna Burns for Milkman, which, despite the title, had a female protagonist.
Later we discussed how we decided what to write about. For Malka this was very much her experiences as a refugee, asylum seeker, and campaigner for human rights. Sarah and I drew on more prosaic experiences, listening to those around us and mixing real experience with imagination. For us, getting the voices to sound authentic was important and could influence whether we wrote in the first, third, or even second person. For Malka, the message was the important inspiration for her poetry, which perhaps made her writing more personal. For all of us, making the people in our novels or poems believable, especially our female characters, was very important, and that means drawing on personal experiences – though in my case at least, the experiences get shared around various characters as I am not comfortable writing anything too easily identifiable with me or those around me.
Finally, we talked about our habits as readers, and I find I am not the only one who likes reading in the bath. (Warning – don’t try this with a Kindle). All of us on the panel, and the audience, agreed that reading, as well as being a joy in itself, was important preparation for a writer. A sentiment which led nicely into the time allotted to selling our books.
You may not have been there but, if you are interested to find out more about the panelists and their work, here are the links to our websites or other social media:
Sarah Leavesley http://sarah-james.co.uk
Malka Al-Haddad: amazon.co.uk/Birds-Without-Sky-Poems-Exile
And my links: Links to my books and social media