Ross Fraser-Smith found an unpretentious nurturing of local talent in the return of the Hastings Literary Festival. 

This year’s Hastings Literary Festival boasted a wide variety of events, including publishing and writing workshops, panel discussions with local writing groups, conversations with respected British writers and poets, concluding with a heady performance by a singing nun who, in actual fact, was a bearded man. This diverse line-up had the effect of creating a warm, open and unpretentious event bringing together young local talent and established writers.

After the cancellation of last year’s festival, literary lovers were keen to return to the world of books and to share stories of lockdown. During a panel event representatives of five local writing groups discussed the unrealised creativity, endurance and care that the pandemic brought out.

Bexhill-born playwright and festival patron David Hare, in conversation with Nicholas Hytner, former Artistic Director of the National Theatre, spoke about his experiences on the London stage in the 1970s and ‘80s, his ideal theatre and his relationships with actors and other playwrights. His argument that established writers could share a space with emerging talent was supported by two young poets from the Hastings Young Writers group performing their work immediately beforehand. 

Jessica Mookerjee at Hastings Literary Festival
CREDIT: Helen Drake

Priding itself on nurturing talent, the festival launched the Dateline Hastings: 23-09-21  bringing together new voices in poetry and prose through the annual Hastings Writing Competition. This prize offers twelve writers the chance to workshop their submission with experienced editors, helping unrepresented writers to publication. Inspired by topical writing such as Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet and Olivia Laing’s Crudo, the anthology suggests creative responses to global events since April 2021. Organiser Wayne Herbert said “we know how excited they are about taking part in a unique project that reflects what they see around them right now.” 

The festival also included a passionate reading from the Refugee Tales IV anthology by award-winning British journalist Bidisha. As part of a series of books telling the perilous stories of displaced people through the voices of British writers, it explores themes of migration, communication, cultural exchange and story-telling. Many left this talk enraged, demonstrating the power of the work, its timeliness and the emotional sensitivity of the subject. Concluding with musical performances, and the afore-mentioned nun-in-drag act, the Hastings Literary Festival shone a vital light on the creative life of Hastings and St Leonards, showing that literature relies as much on community as it does on the individual imagination.

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