Birmingham Book Festival sets out every year to cultivate the city with one statement standing out above the rest: ‘We want to hear everybody’s voice’. Not a traditionally literary city, it is sometimes difficult to track down more writer orientated events in Birmingham, and this is what the festival seeks to change. They do not simply want renowned authors to make their voices heard, but to encourage everyday people to engage with words as well. One of their newest events, Tell Me on a Sunday falls exactly into this calibre. Cat Weatherill, an internationally acclaimed story teller and author, is the curator for the monthly afternoon where she not only exhibits her own dramatic talents but invites ‘ordinary guys and girls’ to take the stage with her. The event states ‘We know you have a story in you’, and anyone is encouraged to ‘conjure a memory’ and ‘embellish it’, with the charming result that each story truly does appear ‘with truth at their heart’. The IKON Gallery is the perfect setting for this, since its emphasis on unconventional art, such as film and installation, invites works from all kinds of contemporary artists around Birmingham who these writers could easily be categorised as.
On the 19th February, performers and friends alike gathered in the IKON café for the event’s debut. The café is an intimate setting where a ‘Story Supper’ was to start the evening. Tables were moved around and pushed together so that storytellers and listeners were able to meet and greet each other. A sense of a writers’ community was created over the first glass of wine and, as Weatherill excitedly repeated, ‘cake!’ This was not only a networking opportunity for any aspiring writer, but a way of breaking down boundaries between storytellers and audience; it seemed that the guests that appeared onstage were not so much performing but sharing, as should be the nature of storytelling.
Each week is based around a specific theme listed on Tell Me on a Sunday’s website, and this one was ‘Off The Beaten Track’. This was evidently open to creative interpretation, and the result was a wonderful variety of stories tied no matter how loosely to the title. One that stood out was ‘Bruised Blondes’, told by local writer Gavin Young, which portrayed the long journey of the heart to find the one ‘that fits’. As Young put it, ‘the heart knows what it wants’, and he depicted this by describing the ‘sat nav’ heart that led him across the world (from South Africa to the UK no less) to find the right girl.
One advantage that Birmingham arguably has over other Book Festivals across the UK is the cultural diversity that the city houses. People from all over the world now inhabit the huge urban landscape, and this really added to the wealth of variation amongst the stories. We were treated to storytellers from South Africa (on the part of Young and Kate Lowe, an ‘erstwhile lunatic and gardener’), Brazil, the USA and even India, told by organiser of the Midlands Literary Edge Festival, Peter Chant. His, he explained, was a story of being ‘On the Beaten Track’ which described his family’s journey to their new home is Wolverhampton all the way from the Punjab. Aside from the sickness suffered by his sister on the boat, arguably the most harrowing part of the journey was when the children were confronted with unfamiliar food; they were well and truly far from home when the French idea of curry was salt and pepper. It was easy to feel joy too when we learnt that Chant’s family arrived in Wolverhampton to enormous quantities of traditional Punjab bread; the café never felt like more of an appropriate setting, since culture was inexplicably based around food and for each ethnic origin; indeed, ‘food means home’.
Tell Me on a Sunday is an excellent opportunity to see the breadth of literary talent that Birmingham has to boast. It is a free event, though it is recommended that people try to book in advance, and there are three afternoons still remaining. The next will be on the 25th March, and its theme will be ‘Hope and Glory’.
Words by Becca Inglis