Sharmilla from Speaking Volumes talks about her ventures in literature

Speaking Volumes are producers of literary events that focus on international authors of color who perform their literature rather on stage – in very different fashion. Sharmilla and her partners have curated a great program with four authors from different directions of the world which they will be presenting in Berlin, 16 November at Lettrétage.

Julia Shimura: At Speaking Volumes, est. 2013, you are producers of literature who aim to bring international authors on stage in the UK. You have a network of 200 authors and more – most of them having an ethnic background, people of color. At what point did you and co-founder Sarah Sanders go independent? What was exactly the starting point?

Sharmilla Beezmohun: Speaking Volumes was actually founded in 2010. Sarah and I had met at International PEN, where we produced their annual five-day literature festival but, after two years, we decided that we wanted to organise our own events with a wider remit than the PEN Festival. From small beginnings, producing bespoke events for organisations such as The British Council, we then were awarded a grant in 2012 to work with the Southbank Centre to produce the UK tour of Poetry Parnassus, where one poet from each country in the world came to London to take part in events as part of the Cultural Olympiad. At this time Nick Chapman also joined Speaking Volumes and the three of us worked part-time to produce over 30 Poetry Parnassus UK events with 50+ poets over two weeks after the London events. It was a real baptism of fire! But it was also a huge success – and has been a real inspiration ever since for us, knowing that we can produce a wide variety of interesting events with a range of authors who may not be known to UK audiences, but who, via thoughtful curation and marketing, are able to draw in the crowds. From 2012, the three of us have continued to develop Speaking Volumes to what it is today.

Julia Shimura: “From page to screen, from words to music, from static books to active movement” – that’s what you promise in the announcing text for the upcoming event in Berlin in November. Your events usually exclusively focus on authors that rather perform their literature on stage in one way or the other.  Why that approach? Does it have something to do with the ethnic background of the performance – and therefore by trend neglected authors?

Copyright: Usha Harte

Sharmilla Beezmohun: Yes, it does have a lot to do with ‘neglected’ authors. Our events are about putting writers in the spotlight who may not usually get the chance to be there, whether that is because of inequalities of race, gender or class, or because they are not seen as part of the literary establishment. We also work with authors from abroad who may not be everyday names for UK audiences. More recently, we have been taking UK writers to other countries too. In each case, we put a lot of time and effort into creating bespoke events which suit both the writes and the audiences. For one writer, this might mean giving a talk in a school or library; for another, it may be a multi-media performance at a theatre or literary – or music – festival.

One example of the broad range of work we do is the Ranting Poetry tours we put on in 2015-16. Ranting poetry is really working-class, politically charged work that speaks against economic, social and racial inequality, which emerged in the 1980s as a response to the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her policies (although there is a centuries-old tradition of anti-establishment poetry). We worked with many of the poets from the 1980s whose names might have been forgotten, as well as with younger writers whose work comes out of that genre, to create events which were held all over the place – in pubs, at festivals, at spoken word nights and even at The British Library! They proved immensely popular, particularly as they resonate with British audiences in today’s political climate.

Julia Shimura: I see, I think that is maybe in line with what we at CROWD like to call “literary activism”. Am I going wrong in assuming that this means something to you as well?

Sharmilla Beezmohun: Absolutely! That is at the centre of everything we do.

Julia Shimura: Haha, good. Let me ask about an event series by Speaking Volumes in April this year called nothing less than „Writers of the World Unite! – A Festival of Literature and Social Change“ featuring diverse events like Caribbean Literature to Russian (contemporary & revolutionary) Literature: What was your experience with this event?

Sharmilla Beezmohun: The Writers of the World Unite Festival was the brainchild of an events producer at Waterstones bookshop, Mark Banting. He asked us, along with Little Atoms (an independent arts organisation which explores rationalism and free thinking), to help produce this festival, which took the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution – and the whole idea of ‘revolution’ – as its starting point. Each of us curated 3-4 events as part of the whole festival. For Speaking Volumes, that meant we were able to be diverse and imaginative – from exploring the history of Caribbean literature in an event which also featured the then Poet Laureate of Jamaica, Mervyn Morris, to working with young up-and-coming poets who proclaimed their poetry to people browsing in the bookshop; from hosting an event on graphic novels to curating a ‘cabaret’ evening of music, comedy and literature. It was great fun to hear our writers, but we were also delighted to be able to see the events curated by our partners, which covered topics ranging from feminism to Russian poetry! It was also great to work with a range of partners who each brought their expertise to the table to create something really new for London.

Copyright: Speaking Volumes

Julia Shimura: Another political question that is of interest now: What do you think about Brexit as politically interested organisers? Does it play any role in your work?

Sharmilla Beezmohun: Brexit plays a huge role in our work, as does anything which creates division and potentially feeds hatred and intolerance – we actively work to break down all barriers and to counteract any ideologies that support such thinking. Pre-Brexit, the inequality and lack of diversity within the UK publishing industry (in terms of class, race and gender) had been brought to light through a series of official reports and investigations, which many of us who have worked in this sector have been highlighting for years. So our work is twofold, aiming to change/challenge attitudes both within the industry and in society more generally.

In terms of Europe, we believe we can help to overcome the inequalities and intolerance that Brexit is opening up through greater partnerships across the continent. This forms the heart of our Breaking Ground project, which was funded by Arts Council England prior to the Brexit vote, but which has never seemed more necessary. Through this, we’re visiting Finland, Spain, Portugal and Lithuania as well as Germany, building up networks and audiences for British writers of colour – and, we hope, creating lasting friendships and open doors as a result.

Julia Shimura: Please tell me more about your plans on the upcoming event in Berlin in November. I have to admit that it is a great line-up you timbered, everyone an acknowledged author: Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo, Malaysian-born performance poetry queen Francesca Beard, poet Rishi Dastidar and artist-poet Caleb Femi who has been featured by Tate Modern. Wow. How come that it is exactly these four?

Sharmilla Beezmohun: Thank you! It’s great to hear that these writers have already created excitement! For this upcoming Lettretage event, we wanted to be as diverse as possible to show that, contrary to the image of Britain touted by many pro-Brexit commentators, the UK is a tolerant and multicultural society which can foster great creativity. Also, we’ve worked with these writers before and know that they can all deliver interesting and thought-provoking performances beyond the usual literature reading, something which completely fits with Lettretage’s autumn Con_Text programme, so it’s really great to be able to work imaginatively around that theme.

As well as the live performances by these four writers, who are all at key stages in their careers, we’ll be featuring short films by other British writers of colour too, to add to the atmosphere of the whole night … watch this space!

Speaking Volumes was set up by Sharmilla Beezmohun and Sarah Sanders after leaving PEN International in May 2010.

As the Literary Events Team at PEN, we designed, curated and produced events in eight countries including Jamaica, Mexico, Austria and UAE, as well as the Free the Word festival at Shakespeare’s Globe, Southbank Centre and Free Word. Our approach to global programming necessitated working with many partners including Bloomberg, the EU Culture Programme, Prince Claus Foundation, Icorn, Emirates Literature Festival and many others.

Sharmilla Beezmohun has worked in publishing since 1994. She has worked for Virago, Heinemann’s African and Caribbean Writers Series, Thomas Telford Publishers and the George Padmore Institute amongst others. She has been Deputy Editor of Wasafiri since 2005 and in 2010 her first novel, Echoes of a Green Land, was published in translation in Spain as Ecos de la Tierra Verde.

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