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Reflections on Bristol Ideas Sian Norris

Written by Sian Norris

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Sian Norris with panel, Festival of the Future City, 2017 on women building cities: left-to-right writer Sabrina Mahfouz, Caterina Turcu (UCL), Finn Mackay (UWE). (Jon Craig)

Sian Norris worked with Bristol Ideas on Festival of Ideas events as a writer and commentator. She launched the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival in 2013 with some small help from Bristol Ideas. This is an example of how Bristol Ideas worked: supported groups, funded them where possible, so that they could work on their creative project.

The first time I attended Bristol Festival of Ideas was after I retweeted one of their posts, which resulted in me winning a free ticket to an event of my choice. I chose to go to a talk by the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, thinking en route to Watershed what it would be like if she did her whole event in French and I didn’t understand a word of it. Turns out, I didn’t have to imagine. She spoke the whole time in French, although the chair was doing a good job on translating. But even if she had given the talk in RP English, I’m still not convinced I would have understood.

That was 2011. The same year, the Bristol Feminist Network and Bristol Fawcett Society co-hosted an event at the Cube called Where are the Women?, presenting research on the lack of female representation in the British cultural scene. A lack of female representation was not an issue, thankfully, for Bristol Ideas, which has always put equality and diversity at its heart. Irigaray was no token: the festival’s programme has always celebrated smart, feminist thinking, and it has platformed a wide range of female, LGBTIQ+, and Black and global majority speakers. More recently, in 2023, unlike far too many events which prefer to invite speakers who shout over Ukrainian people, the biennial Festival of the Future City platformed Ukrainian voices to discuss their experiences of the war.

It was Bristol Ideas’ commitment to representing women’s writing and thinking that led to our main partnership: the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival.

Fresh from the success of the Where are the Women? panel discussion, I was determined to stop complaining about the lack of women on the British cultural scene and take action to put women at the heart of Bristolian culture. The writer and broadcaster Bidisha suggested I set up a women’s literature festival. That’s exactly what I did.

The first programme, in 2013, brought together TV writers, feminist journalists, novelists and academics to discuss their work, the place of women in the literary scene, the history of women’s writing and the barriers to women in publishing. Debut novelists spoke alongside seasoned writers; lecturers delivered talks that put women back into the literary canon; and audiences could not get enough of the conversations we staged. That led to a second programme in 2015, then our biggest event yet in 2018, featuring panels on Young Adult writing, journalists and activists, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein… and a heart-stopping snowstorm that nearly led to all talks being called off, until panellists and audiences alike braved the sub-zero temperatures, driven by an enthusiasm for discovering women’s writing.

Sadly, the fourth festival, scheduled to start on 26 March 2020, had to be cancelled as the first Covid lockdown had been announced a few days before.

As the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival evolved from a naively embarked upon project to a sold-out feminist extravaganza, Bristol Ideas was always by our side. From providing practical advice and sharing contacts, to picking up the phone during some tearful moments to talk me through my anxieties, their team became my team – while never stepping on my toes or impinging on my creativity.

Then there was the financial help. After being turned down for Arts Council England funding, Bristol Ideas provided a grant that transformed the festival from amateur to professional, allowing us to pay speakers a fair fee. And when the Covid 19 pandemic stopped the 2020 programme from launching, they were there with more offers of help, practical advice, emotional support and, further down the line, offers of work and one-off partnerships throughout that difficult and discombobulating time.

Fairness has always been key. Unlike some of the bigger festivals, Bristol Ideas didn’t pay already-wealthy speakers a big bucks fee while sending lesser-known authors home with a free bottle of prosecco or a bouquet. The team committed to paying all panellists and chairs the same rate no matter their perceived ‘status’. Working with an event that put fairness and justice at its heart inspired me to always do the best job I could for them, whether chairing a panel, speaking on a panel, writing a book chapter or partnering as Bristol Women’s Literature Festival.

Throughout my time working alongside Bristol Ideas, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Val McDermid, Joanna Walsh, Katharine Angel, Rachel Holmes, Leslie Kern and many more. I’ve chaired panels featuring Katrine Marçal, Diana Souhami, Rosa Rankin-Gee, Thomas McMullen, Sabrina Mahfouz, Salena Godden, Finn Mackay and more. I’ve had the privilege to meet world-famous writers such as Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith and Andrew Davis. Drinks in the bar after a panel have turned into life-long friendships and led to new collaborations. And I will never forget the evening I took my dad to see the screening of High-Rise introduced by Will Self. I had no clue of quite how explicit the sex scenes would be, as I wished for the cinema floor to open up and swallow me whole.

So many memories and so many joyful times. But it was June 2023 and the launch of my book, Bodies Under Siege: How the Far-Right Attack on Reproductive Rights Went Global, that will be the happiest memory of my partnership with Bristol Ideas.

As soon as the book deal was confirmed, the team was determined to give me a launch to remember. An audience coming to hear me speak about abortion rights in the historic St George’s Bristol building delivered just that, followed by a panel discussion a week later with Paul Mason, Nick Lowles and Madhu Krishnan. The magic of that event, and the confidence and happiness I felt throughout the hourlong conversation, was the culmination of a 12-year working partnership built on trust and mutual support. The photos Bristol Ideas took from the audience glowed with a golden light: now it shines as a golden memory.

Sian Norris is an investigative journalist, writer and commentator with a long association with Festival of Ideas as a 159 chair and speaker. She founded Bristol Women’s Literature Festival and ran it for eight years. She is the author of Bodies Under Siege: How the Far–Right Attack on Reproductive Rights Went Global..

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

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