Queen’s Park Book Festival 2023: Zadie Smith, class and conflict

Queen’s Park Book Festival 2023: Zadie Smith, class and conflict

by Suswati Basu
Queen’s Park Book Festival 2023
Queen’s Park Book Festival 2023

On one of the rare sunny days this summer, the 2023 Queen’s Park Book Festival returned to the London park, hailing literary voices from across the spectrum over two days. The festival celebrates the literary arts in all its forms, and has featured authors, poets, journalists, actors, directors, and artists from all over the world. This year’s headliners included the likes of British novelist Sebastian Faulks and the award-winning writer Zadie Smith. Making the most of the area’s literary history, it platforms a diverse range of local voices and underrepresented groups.

Read: Queen’s Park Book Festival 2022: Ghosts, grief, and gaia with authors across the UK

What is the Queen’s Park Book Festival?

Queen’s Park Book Festival is a celebration of the literary arts in the heart of leafy London. Authors, poets, actors, journalists and artists gather for a weekend of events in Queen’s Park, surrounded by Victorian houses. The festival is is a non-profit organisation with a commitment to engaging the local community and residents. It is run in association with the Queen’s Park Area Residents Association. It will be the fifth year it has been running, having begun in 2018.

Prominent authors like Robert Harris, Andrew O'Hagan, Ben Macintyre, Elif Shafak, Tessa Hadley, John Lanchester, Guy Gunaratne, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Jonathan Coe, Philip Hensher, Howard Jacobson, Eleanor Catton, and Bernardine Evaristo have graced the festival with their presence. This event exalts the world of literary arts in all its dimensions. Esteemed directors Stephen Frears and Nicholas Hytner, along with acclaimed actors Simon Russell Beale and Reece Shearsmith, have also been part of the festival's illustrious guest list.

A distinctive feature of the festival is the Queen's Park Community Tent, situated on the festival grounds. This unique space serves as a haven for a diverse array of local writers, offering them a platform to showcase their creations to the public, free of charge. The Community Tent was specifically established to uplift local voices and empower underrepresented segments of the community. A cherished festival venue, it has previously showcased the talents of local refugees, senior citizens, young poets, and emerging authors.

Zadie Smith on new book The Fraud and the complexity of Victorian England

Zadie Smith on her new book The Fraud at the Queen’s Park Book Festival 2023.

Renowned author Zadie Smith delves into the complexities of history, politics, and human relationships in her latest novel The Fraud, exploring the lives of real historical figures and the complex interplay of their motivations. In a captivating conversation with journalist Clark, the headliner discussed the challenges and inspirations behind her novel, which brings to life the story of the Tichborne Claimant and his unlikely supporter, Andrew Bogle.

Set against the backdrop of Victorian England, Smith’s novel brings together a host of characters and events, shedding light on the vibrant intellectual and social atmosphere of the era. The Tichborne Claimant, a man who falsely claimed to be a long-lost aristocrat, and his steadfast supporter, the Jamaican Andrew Bogle, take centre stage as Smith delves into their lives, motivations, and the larger societal forces at play.

“In the transcript, ​you’ve ​got ​three ​years ​almost ​of ​a ​Jamaican ​man ​telling ​you ​about ​his ​life, ​his ​past, ​also ​this ​situation. ​I ​thought ​that’s ​amazing. ​That’s ​amazing ​that ​he ​was ​there ​and ​also ​that ​he ​became ​so ​famous. ​So ​Andrew ​Bogle ​and ​the Tichborne Claimant ​became ​like ​national ​heroes.”

Zadie Smith, The Fraud Author

The novel explores the concept of truth, which is not always straightforward or easy to decipher. Smith deftly portrays the complexities of human experiences and perspectives, underscoring the limitations of understanding each other’s truths due to individual subjectivity. She draws parallels to the present day, emphasising the importance of acknowledging the imperfections of our collective efforts to create meaningful change.

Read: Truth is stranger than autofiction: examples like Bret Easton Ellis

One of the notable aspects of Smith’s narrative is her ability to seamlessly blend historical facts with imaginative storytelling as she said “there’s ​very ​little ​that’s ​made ​up ​in ​this ​novel.” She meticulously researched the era, drawing from UCL’s comprehensive database of Caribbean plantations and historical records. This attention to detail allows readers to immerse themselves in the world she brings to life, including the hope plantation where Bogle’s story unfolds.

Throughout the conversation, Smith addresses the role of writers and artists in shaping historical narratives and inspiring change. She recognises that while their contributions are important, they must also acknowledge the limitations of their perspectives, adding that we ​need ​compromises, ​”because ​it’s ​not ​the ​same ​world ​that ​you’re ​looking ​at.” Smith draws parallels between the Victorian era and the present day, where a diverse range of imperfect individuals must work together to bring about societal transformations.

Queen's Park Book Festival 2023, Zadie Smith Autograph in her new The Fraud
Zadie Smith’s autograph in my copy of her new book The Fraud. Credit: Suswati Basu.

Smith’s portrayal of historical figures like Charles Dickens underscores the complexity of their personalities and beliefs. She recognises both their contributions and their shortcomings, reaffirmed the importance of understanding the multifaceted nature of individuals who played pivotal roles in history.

“So ​the ​tragedy ​and ​comedy ​of ​our ​lives ​is ​that ​we ​have ​to ​have ​a ​shared ​social ​reality ​inside ​these flesh ​cages, ​where ​who ​knows ​what ​is ​happening ​inside ​here?”

Zadie Smith, The Fraud Author

Intriguingly, Smith’s novel underlines the concept of mass movements driven by emotion rather than rationality. Just as the Tichborne case became a symbol of the working class’s desire to challenge the established order, Smith suggests that meaningful change often stems from the efforts of imperfect individuals uniting for a common cause. She added: “The ​tragedy ​of ​these ​people ​is ​trying ​to ​understand, ​trying ​to ​make ​political ​movements in ​solidarity ​with ​these ​gaps ​of ​experience.” This sentiment is particularly relevant in today’s world, where collaborative action is necessary to address pressing global issues.

Navigating class, confidence and privilege with Polly Toynbee

Similarly, Polly Toynbee talked about her own interplay between class consciousness and self-confidence. While for generations Toynbee’s ancestors have been committed left-wingers, they could never claim to be working-class, settling instead for the prosperous worlds of academia and journalism. The Benn family have a long history of public radicalism, and Tony Benn famously renounced his peerage. In this event the veteran Guardian journalist and Melissa Benn talked about the enduring power of social class in modern Britain, and how it works for – and against – those who call for social change. They spoke about Toynbee’s new book An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals.

Polly Toynbee talks about new memoir An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals at the Queen’s Park Book Festival 2023.

Toynbee, who has won numerous awards including a National Press Award and the Orwell Prize for Journalism, spoke about her memories of staying in lavish bedrooms while confined to a modest camp bed beside her cousin highlighted the notion of not being “posh enough.” Toynbee points out the paradox that even the very rich and the very poor often perceive themselves as more middling, leading to a skewed sense of their own class status.

“There ​was ​my ​much ​posher ​cousin. ​So ​when ​I ​went ​to ​stay ​with ​her, ​she’d ​be ​in ​a ​lovely ​fall ​post ​to ​bed ​and ​I’d ​be ​in ​a ​camp ​bed ​beside ​her.”

Polly Toynbee, An Uneasy Inheritance Author

Benn astutely notes how certain class configurations afford second chances that others might not receive. Toynbee’s transition from private school to a pioneer comprehensive school showcases the societal tensions surrounding education and class. The transformative power of education becomes evident as Holland Park embraced her, paving the way for an Oxford scholarship and her eventual success in leftist journalism.

The author’s background wasn’t without its share of challenges, including grappling with her family’s history of alcoholism. She brings to light the complex interplay between class privilege and personal struggles, tracing the history of alcoholism through generations of her family.

Catherine Ashton’s diplomatic triumphs amidst gender bias and global crises

In the annals of diplomatic history, few figures stand out as boldly as Catherine Ashton, whose illustrious career as a trailblazing diplomat defied not only gender biases but also navigated through some of the world’s most complex crises. From her tenure as the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ashton emerged as a true champion of international diplomacy, deftly handling challenges and driving change against the odds.

Catherine Ashton talks about key moments from her book And Then What? at the Queen’s Park Book Festival 2023.

Her journey was fraught with gender bias, a fact she confronted head-on. Amid whispers that she was a woman ill-suited for the role, the And Then What? Inside Stories of 21st-Century Diplomacy author proved that such archaic beliefs were not only baseless but also detrimental to progress. She recalled how she was subjected to snide remarks, media skepticism, and political gossip simply due to her gender. Journalists even went so far as to criticise her for wearing a watch, deeming her unfit for her demanding role. Undeterred, Ashton persevered, showing that gender should never be a barrier to accomplishing complex tasks on the global stage.

“We ​all ​knew ​what ​we ​thought ​Harry ​Potter ​would ​look ​like, ​or ​your ​favourite ​characters ​would ​be. ​And ​the ​decision ​to ​create ​this ​kind ​of ​foreign ​policy ​​chief ​job ​had ​been ​around ​for ​a ​long ​time. ​So ​lots ​of ​people ​had ​read ​the ​book ​and ​had ​an ​idea ​in ​their ​mind ​what ​the ​person ​would ​look ​like, ​and ​it ​wasn’t ​me.”

Catherine Ashton, And Then What? Author

Upon becoming High Representative, she faced the monumental task of creating the European Union’s External Action Service, a diplomatic entity crucial for effective foreign policy coordination. Her tenacity was put to the test as she confronted crises that ranged from the devastating earthquake in Haiti to the unfolding Arab Spring in Tunisia.

Read: Best books in August 2023: recommendations

One of Ashton’s most remarkable achievements was her instrumental role in facilitating the groundbreaking Brussels Agreement, a diplomatic breakthrough that aimed to stabilise the volatile Western Balkans region. Her approach defied sceptics who believed no solution was possible between Serbia and Kosovo. By bringing together two prime ministers who had never met, she sought to improve the lives of people living in strife-torn areas. With patience, courage, and over 149 hours of discussions, Ashton managed to lay the groundwork for the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, setting the stage for potential peace and stability.

“The ​Ukrainians ​won’t ​give ​up. ​​And ​it’s ​hard ​to ​see ​how ​the ​Russians ​will ​give ​up ​under ​Putin.”

Catherine Ashton, And Then What? Author

Ashton’s insight into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivations shed light on his transactional mindset and his determination to protect what he perceived as “his own interests equals Russia’s interests.” She stressed that any resolution in Ukraine would require a long-term commitment, noting that wars eventually come to an end but that the Ukrainians must be prepared for all possible scenarios.

Read: HistFest 2023: historians remind us that our past is more important than ever

As the situation in Ukraine remains precarious, Ashton’s insights offer a sobering reminder that conflicts can endure for years, challenging the international community’s patience and resolve. She underscores the importance of maintaining international support for Ukraine amidst changing political landscapes, even as crucial elections approach. Ashton’s wisdom serves as a beacon of hope for those navigating the turbulent waters of global diplomacy.

Exploring the complexity of writing violence, love and maternal relationships in Nigeria

In a thought-provoking conversation, authors Ayòbámi Adébáyò and Stephen Buoro delved into the challenges of portraying violence, love and complex maternal relationships in their respective novels both set in different parts of Nigeria. Their insights provided a deep look into the intricacies of storytelling, shedding light on the delicate balance between narrative impact and reader engagement.

Read: Booker Prize 2023 longlist: 13 fresh books on our startling reality

Adébáyò’s novel, the Booker Prize-nominated A Spell of Good Things, intricately weaves an overarching sense of violence throughout the narrative, reflecting the impact of external forces on the lives of her characters. She showcased the subtleties of violence that may not be immediately apparent but reverberate through the characters’ experiences. One example is a character who loses his job—a seemingly mundane event that sets off a chain of events with far-reaching consequences.

A Spell of Good Things author Ayòbámi Adébáyò and The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa writer Stephen Buoro.

Navigating intimate violence was a challenge Adébáyò confronted while writing her novel. She revealed that she initially avoided depicting these scenes, choosing instead to write from the perspective of an observer. However, she eventually recognised the necessity of conveying the authentic emotions of her characters. This required her to overcome her own hesitation and delve into the perspective of the victim, allowing readers to grasp the full depth of the story’s impact.

Buoro’s novel The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa tackles the theme of violence head-on, a necessity for Nigerian and African writers who grapple with the post-colonial legacy of their countries. He reiterated that violence is a recurring element in Nigerian society, stemming from the tumultuous transition from colonial rule to a post-colonial order. Buoro’s exploration of violence spans external events such as religious and political riots, as well as internal violence manifested through the internalised hatred perpetuated by historical injustices.

Read: Why children should learn the truth – Stolen History author Sathnam Sanghera

Buoro discussed his initial hesitation to write about such violence, attributing it to a lack of confidence and distance from the subject matter. He acknowledged that facing the harsh realities of his country’s history required maturity and introspection. He mentioned the importance of confronting these issues head-on to paint an honest and comprehensive picture of his society.

“Nigeria ​is ​a ​country ​that’s ​a ​composite ​of, ​like, ​510 ​countries ​that ​colonisers, ​forced ​to ​be ​together. ​And ​that ​process ​of ​transitioning ​from a ​colonial ​state ​order ​to ​a ​post ​colonial ​order ​comes ​with ​so ​much ​violence ​because ​the ​countries, ​the ​citizens, ​are ​all ​trying ​to ​develop ​love ​for ​each ​other ​and ​to ​be ​a ​nation.”

Stephen Buoro, The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa author

The discussion also turned to the portrayal of mothers in both authors’ works. Adébáyò’s novel presents a range of mothers, each navigating their unique challenges within Nigerian society. One mother, Rola, exemplifies the tensions between motherhood and societal expectations. Adébáyò delves into the complexities of these women, acknowledging their struggles while revealing their multifaceted roles and choices.

Read: What is motherhood really like? – Don’t Forget to Scream author Marianne Levy

Buoro’s portrayal of mothers in his novel exposes the struggles of mothers who strive to provide for their families within a society marked by inequality and hardships. He presented a nuanced view of mothers who embody strength, love, and sacrifice while contending with societal limitations. Adébáyò and Buoro demonstrated the power of literature to illuminate the complexities of human experiences, even amid challenges.

“She ​would ​become ​no ​one ​to ​herself ​if ​she ​was ​to ​become ​all ​that ​is ​expected ​of ​her. ​And ​I ​think ​that ​she’s ​come ​to ​a ​place ​where she’s ​still ​very ​interested ​in ​the ​children ​and ​involved ​with ​them, ​but ​she’s ​made ​peace ​with ​the ​fact ​that they’re ​going ​to ​find ​some ​fault ​in ​the ​way ​she ​mothered ​them ​at ​some ​point.”

Ayòbámi Adébáyò, A Spell of Good Things AUTHOR
Suswati Basu speaking from her wheelchair to author and journalist Misha Glenny about foreign politics as he signs books McMafia.
Suswati Basu speaking from her wheelchair to author and journalist Misha Glenny about foreign politics as he signs his book McMafia. Credit: Suswati Basu.

Throughout the festival, the voices of women emerged as a driving force, from the authors on stage to the subjects of their works. The discussions on gender biases, maternal relationships, and the experiences of women in various contexts highlighted the importance of amplifying women’s narratives and creating spaces where their stories can be heard and acknowledged.

As the curtains closed on this year’s Queen’s Park Book Festival, the echoes of these empowering conversations continue to reverberate. The festival’s success lies not only in its ability to bring authors and readers together but also in its capacity to foster meaningful discussions on the complexities of our world. It serves as a reminder that literature has the power to challenge, inspire, and spark change, ultimately shaping the way we perceive and engage with our shared humanity.

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