Bradford’s arts-led renaissance: Northern Soul chats to Syima Aslam, the woman behind Bradford Literature Festival
When Syima Aslam first discussed creating a literature festival in Bradford, her daughter’s response was telling. “A literature festival in Bradford? Mum, really?”
Such good-natured scepticism was shared by others. A book festival was possible, but a literature festival was somehow too ‘high-brow’ for Bradford.
Aslam strongly disagreed, and four years later – and with Bradford’s Literature Festival a rising star of the UK’s literary scene – any doubts have been laid to rest.
The woman who created the festival equivalent of a best-seller is proud of what she has achieved. “This is my dream job,” she says. “But it is a 24-7 thing, and you have to be really passionate to put in the time and effort it needs to create something from scratch and sustain it.”
It is testament to Aslam’s talents that building the festival doesn’t seem to have been that difficult. The first event was a two-day affair in September 2014. Plans were scaled-up and a ten-day event, in May 2015, attracted some 9,500 visitors. In 2016, numbers more than trebled to 32,500. This year’s event, which took place between June 30 and July 12, attracted more than 50,000 visitors. Speakers included Ben Okri, Jeanette Winterson, Germaine Greer and Joanna Trollope, and the diverse array of topics included feminism, Dr Who, King Arthur, and the British Empire.
Aslam first had the idea of a literary festival in 2013. Having moved to Bradford, she saw the economic regeneration and could feel the city’s potential. She felt that the rest of the UK needed to see what was happening in Bradford. A lover of books, she also wanted to celebrate the city’s literary heritage. “I felt that what Bradford needed was a cultural regeneration to go alongside the physical regeneration that we were having.”
The literary festival Aslam envisioned would be different. Events would be intellectually stimulating but also inclusive, fun and diverse, catering to the city’s broad mix of ethnicities and nationalities, not to mention younger generations. “I do this because I am passionate about books,” she says. “I’m passionate about creating change for the city. I’m passionate about the fact that I want children to engage with reading.”
The festival is genuinely inclusive. Events are free for children, those receiving welfare benefits, asylum seekers or refugees, those in full-time education, and the over 65s. An outreach programme sees authors visiting schools and communities.
Success is measured by visitors and by also attracting people who might not otherwise attend a book reading. “It was really important for me that this was a festival that engaged with people who would not normally engage with festivals. The children who really need to come to a literature festival, get excited about books and see the authors who are going to excite them are the children who might never normally get taken.”
Bradford’s Literature Festival has thrived partly because it is different and due to the city’s diversity, enterprise and energy. Last year, Peter Florence, founder and director of the Hay Festival, described Bradford’s festival as one of the top three most inspirational festivals in the country. Praise indeed from the man who drew the literary festival blueprint.
The festival’s roots lay in Dina, a small town in Pakistan. Born in the UK, Aslam’s early years were divided between Halifax, where her father worked, and a village near this bustling commercial Punjab town where they visited. Regular trips to Dina’s bookshop was a necessity, and Aslam became hooked on reading.
Having moved permanently to England in 1982, she excelled at school and studied economics and business finance at Brunel University. Course placements were arranged with an inward investment agency in West London and at advertising agencies and in market research. A good impression was evidently made and upon graduating in 1996, Aslam was asked to run the Hounslow Initiative.
Invaluable experience of the private sector was also gained while working in Bristol and Leeds with the likes of Audi and CallCredit. After moving to Bradford and helping set up and run a restaurant, she developed plans for a literature festival with Irna Qureshi.
“In a way, it feels like every job has been perfect in leading up to this,” she says.
Attracting partners has been vital. In 2014, the University of Bradford, Bradford Council, and Arts Council England were supporters. The following year, Provident Financial Group, the doorstep lender, became lead sponsor.
This year’s festival again delivered an economic shot in the city’s arm and supported Bradford’s reputation as a dynamic, diverse city moving forward. Visitors from as far afield as the US and Canada left the festival impressed by the city’s architecture, and the vibrancy and warmth of its community.
Aslam’s ambitions for the festival are clear. “I would like that when people think about Bradford, they think about literature and they think about the literature festival and that is their association.”
Authors of the calibre of Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison are on her wish list of future speakers. Attracting such international literary stars may be ambitious, but as past events show, Syima Aslam does have a track record in proving the doubters wrong.
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