Virago Press: Balancing purpose and profit in feminist publishing?

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Virago Press (established 1972) was the first commercial publisher in Britain to popularise the market category of ‘women’s writing’. Since the mid-70s Virago has brought a wide range of feminist fiction and non-fiction to readers, ranging over books inspired by the politics of the Women’s Liberation Movement, forgotten ‘classics’ by authors like Sylvia Townsend Warner, Rebecca West and Stevie Smith and new works by rising literary stars such as Angela Carter, Pat Barker and Sarah Waters, among others. 

If you are a fan of women’s writing, many Virago books probably sit on your shelves. As you turn their pages, have you ever questioned how the company became one of the most successful publishing brands of the late twentieth century? Have you ever wondered about the challenges Virago faced, as a feminist publisher, when they attempted to marry a political commitment to publishing books by women, with the financial need to run a profitable and sustainable company? 

Join D-M Withers for a workshop that will delve into the history of Virago of the late 70s, a time when the company was on the cusp of significant, mass-market success. Drawing on archive materials relating to the Modern Classics and other, less celebrated Virago titles like Bombers and Mash (1980) by Raynes Minns, we will explore how Virago diversified its publishing strategies at this stage in order to reach new readers and generate profit. This workshop will also consider why the relationship between Virago and the feminist movement was, sometimes, marked by tensions and misunderstanding through consideration of the publication of Half the Sky: Introduction to Women’s Studies by Bristol Women’s Study Group (1979). 

When? Saturday 21 March 2020

What time? 2pm – 4pm

Where? Spike Island Associate Space

Tickets: Free but booking essential – you will not be able to attend unless you have registered 

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Helen Lewis: Difficult Women

(in partnership with Bristol Festival of Ideas)

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Helen Lewis credit Urszula Soltys

Well-behaved women don’t make history: difficult women do. Helen Lewis argues that feminism’s success is down to complicated, contradictory, imperfect women, who fought each other as well as fighting for equal rights. Too many of these pioneers have been forgotten in our modern search for feel-good, inspirational heroines. It’s time to reclaim the history of feminism as a history of difficult women.

Helen Lewis talks about the working-class suffragettes who advocated bombings and arson; the princess who discovered why so many women were having bad sex; and the pioneer of the refuge movement who became a men’s rights activist. Find out about the ‘striker in a sari’ who terrified Margaret Thatcher; the wronged Victorian wife who definitely wasn’t sleeping with the prime minister; and the lesbian politician who outraged the country. Taking the story up to the present with the twenty-first century campaign for abortion services, Helen reveals the unvarnished – and unfinished – history of women’s rights. She talks about why the feminist movement has succeeded and what it should do next with Sarah Ditum.

Image credit: Urszula Soltys

When? Thursday 26 March 2020

What time? 19:00 – 20:00

Where? Waterstones, Union Street

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Bristol Women’s Literature Festival LAUNCH PARTY!!!!

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Launch Party montage

Join Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, Comma Press and a host of local poets for our launch party celebrating women’s writing at Spike Island. 

The evening kicks off with a panel discussion on women’s writing and the future of Europe, featuring contributing authors to Comma Press’ Europa 28. Eleanor Pender will be joined by Janne Teller and Karolina Ramqvist to discuss their writing, Europe, and cross border solidarity.

After a short interval to top up on drinks, the evening will take a poetic turn with performances from leading Bristol-based poets Malaika Kegode, Shagufta Iqbal, and Rebecca Kosick. 

It’s the perfect way to kick off a long weekend of Bristol-based literary events celebrating women’s writing and history. 

When: Friday 27 March 2020

What time: Doors 6.30pm, kick off at 7pm sharp, close 9pm

Where: Spike Island Cafe

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Hadley Freeman: House of Glass

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Hadley Freeman byline picture.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 24/5/2013

When Hadley Freeman found a shoebox filled with her French grandmother’s treasured belongings, it started a decade-long quest to find out their haunting significance and to dig deep into the extraordinary lives of her grandmother, Sala, and her three siblings, Henri, Jacques and Alex Glass. The search takes Hadley from Picasso’s archives in Paris to a secret room in a farmhouse in Auvergne to Long Island and to Auschwitz.  

Hadley Freeman will be in conversation with Jenny Lacey.

Image credit: Linda Nylind, the Guardian Newspaper

When? Saturday 28 March 2020

What time? 11.30am – 12.30pm

Where? Watershed, Waterside 3

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Writing the news

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Write the news montage

From MeToo and Together for Yes, to the impact of austerity on women’s lives and the roles of women in the political landscape – women journalists have been digging deep into the stories and political movements that shape the world women live in. 

This panel discussion brings together some of the UK’s leading journalists to discuss the role journalists have in explaining the world we live in, representing the feminist movement, the importance of intersectionality and diverse voices, as well as exposing the backlash against progressive politics. Journalist, broadcaster and filmmaker Bidisha is joined by Coco Khan (The Guardian, The Good Immigrant, It’s Not About the Burqa), Anoosh Chakelian (New Statesman) and Nandini Archer (openDemocracy) to discuss the feminist fightback in the 4th Wave. 

When? Saturday 28 March 2020

What time? 14.00 – 15.30

Where? Watershed, Waterside 3

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Women writing today

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Women writing today montage

Join some of the most exciting writers working in the UK today as they discuss their creative practice, their literary inspirations, and their journey towards becoming writers. Women Writing Today is a chance for you to hear from some of your favourite authors, as well as discover new writers at the start of their careers. 

Chair Sarah LeFanu will be joined by Naomi Wood (Mrs Hemingway, The Hiding Game), debut author Rosanna Amaka (The Book of Echoes), Yvonne Battle-Felton (Remembered – longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2019) and Fiona Benson (Vertigo & Ghost – winner of Forward Prize 2018 and 2019). 

When? Saturday 28 March 2020

What time? 16.30 – 18.00

Where? Watershed, Waterside 3

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Viv Groskop Lifts us all UP!

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Journalist, writer and comedian Viv Groskop makes a welcome return to Bristol to talk about her new book: Lift As You Climb. 

Part self help guide, part master class in survival for life and work, Lift as You Climb examines what sisterhood looks like these days, asks what you can do to make things better for other women and considers how to do that without disadvantaging yourself. It’s the ultimate confidence bible for women who want to plan a career in a fast moving world, but without leaving anyone else behind. And it addresses one of the biggest issues women face in the workplace – how to be ambitious without losing your sense of self. It must be possible, right?

Image credit: Michael Sissons

When? Saturday 28 March 2020

What time? 19.00 – 20.00

Where? Watershed, Waterside 3

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Writing our lives

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Memoir montage

Are we living through the most exciting period of women’s memoir and auto-fiction writing? Women are turning to new forms of genre-bending writing to explore the body, motherhood, queer lives and sexuality, crafting narratives of women’s lives in essays, poems, fragments, biography and auto-fiction.

Professor Madhu Krishnan talks to Juliet Jacques (Trans: A Memoir), Olivia Sudjic (Sympathy; Exposure), Zeba Talkhani (My Past Is A Foreign Country) and Clover Stroud (The Wild Other; My Wild And Sleepless Nights) about why women are turning to new forms of memoir to explore and write our lives. 

When? Sunday 29 March 2020

What time? 11.30 – 13.00

Where? Watershed, Waterside 3

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Professor Helen Taylor: Why women read fiction

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Professor Helen Taylor makes a welcome return to Bristol Women’s Literature Festival to introduce her groundbreaking book on women reading fiction. She’ll explore with you how precious fiction is to British women readers, and how we draw on fiction to tell the stories of our own lives. She’ll ask the question: why and how do stories influence and shape our experiences of the world? And we’re sure you as an audience will have plenty of answers to share with her. 

Image credit: Derrick Price

When? Sunday 29 March 2020

What time? 14.00 – 15.00

Where? Watershed, Waterside 3

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Women in translation

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Women in translation montage 3

Why are fewer women than men being translated into English? What, if anything, is being done about it? And what might the value be for British readers of reading literature from abroad?

Literary translator Rosalind Harvey chairs a discussion on the gender disparity in translation with writers and translators Laia Jufresa (pictured; Umami, translated by Sophie Hughes), Olivia Hellewell (translation researcher and literary translator from the Slovene, including of Jela Krečič’s None Like Her and Goran Vojnović’s The Fig Tree), and Trifonia Melibea Obono (award-winning author of La Bastarda, the first ever book by a woman writer from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English, by Lawrence Schimel). We’ll touch on literary activism, what translation into English means both for writers from elsewhere and the literary scene in the UK, and why we all need stories from elsewhere.

When? Sunday 29 March 2020

What time? 16.00 – 17.30

Where? Watershed, Waterside 3

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Women writing the wild

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Writing the wild montage

This one’s for the lovers of nature and wild spaces. What role can literature play in engaging us with the natural world and raising awareness of the devastating effects of the climate crisis? How can spending time in the wild improve our mental and physical well-being? Why has nature writing traditionally been dominated by male voices? And what can we do as individuals to protect our beautiful, wild planet?

Dr Samantha Walton (Bath Spa University) talks to Isabel Hardman, (Natural Health Service; Why We Get The Wrong Politicians; The Spectator), Sara Maitland (Gossip from the Forest; How to be Alone), Lia Leendertz (The Almanac series), and Zakiya McKenzie (writer-in-residence for the Forestry Commission) in what is sure to be an illuminating and inspiring conversation.

When? Sunday 29 March 2020

What time? 18.00 – 19.30

Where? Watershed, Waterside 3

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Bristol Women’s Literature Festival is supported by Arts Council England and Bristol Festival of Ideas.

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Occasionally, speakers need to drop out at the last minute. If we receive enough notice, we’ll endeavour to find a replacement speaker. However, no refunds are provided for panel discussions when a speaker is absent.



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