In conversation with Syima Aslam - RSA Journal - RSA

In conversation with Syima Aslam

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  • Arts and culture

Self-confessed ‘insane geek’ Syima Aslam speaks to Andy Haldane about how cultural activity can build stronger communities and drive economic growth.

If you can solve Bradford, you can solve the UK.

Syima Aslam

Andy Haldane: I’m interested in your background prior to founding the Bradford Literature Festival (BLF). Why Bradford? And what drew you to art and culture and literature? 

Syima Aslam: I’ve always been hugely interested in reading and books, mainly fairy tales and fantasy. I’m all about the escapism, maybe because I’m an only child, and so books were my companions a lot of the time. But what really cemented my interest in terms of arts and culture and how that led to the Bradford Literature Festival was that I’m a second-generation migrant to this country. My parents were first generation, and anybody who knows anything about people migrating into a country knows that most people have this myth of return that they’re always going to go back home.  

I spent the early years of my life literally going back ‘home’. My mother went to Pakistan when she was pregnant, and I was born there. I came back to the UK when I was four months, went back when I was a year and a half, came back when I was two and a half. I went to nursery, then went back to Pakistan when I was five years old, and that was meant to be for good. Then, at eight years old, lo and behold, we were back in the UK.  

When I finally came to the UK for good, I had lost all my English. My mother was told, “It doesn’t matter where you live. Just live in one place, so she can actually get a consistent education.” I grew up in Halifax, which had (and still has) the grammar school system. We also had family friends who told her, “She needs to pass the 11+,” so my mother very single-mindedly was then determined that this was going to happen. She made it clear that I was going to pass my 11+ “or else”. I have no idea what the “or else” was, but for her, that translated to taking me to the library once a week! 

All of that really influenced me in terms of setting up the BLF. I was so lucky I had that push. I had somebody who understood the importance of reading. I have a very simplistic belief that education has the power to change lives and that literacy is the absolute foundation stone of that.

Haldane: I think you’ve already started to answer my second question, which is, where did the idea for the BLF come from and how did you make the idea a reality? 

Aslam: My first job was in inward investment and regeneration in London, and that was really interesting from the point of view of, not only, what makes an area attractive for companies to invest in, but also how do you retain companies? The last piece of work that I did before I set up the festival was looking at long-term strategies for the further education college in Bradford, and the thing that I was really struck by was that Bradford is the UK’s youngest city and one of its most diverse. 

Doing that piece of work allowed me to get to know the city in a way that I might not otherwise have experienced. Not only was I able to see where Bradford was from a regeneration point of view, but also doing the work in the education sector made me realise that a lot of that population growth is coming from certain areas of the city, and most of those areas have schools that were not doing terribly well. 

I was also looking at the jobs of the future that had been predicted by the West Yorkshire economic partnership, and I was just really struck by the fact that these kids were never going to have the education attainment which meant they would get those jobs.  

I felt very strongly that, when certain communities are seen as ‘problematic’, this is how you end up with race riots (like the July 2001 Bradford race riots) and communities not working together. With over 150 languages spoken in Bradford and all the successive migrations from the Jewish German to the Eastern European, I felt you could perhaps create something that would change narratives and bring people together. 

But the key driver for me was around children and young people. During my second year at grammar school, I did really badly in my maths. My mum went to my parents’ evening, and she doesn’t speak English, so with the aid of a translator she said to my maths teacher, “Does she need a tutor?”, and he said, “No, it’s fine. I’ll give her some extra lessons.” He was a lovely gentleman, Mr Hudley, and then he said something that stayed with me all my life. He said, “If you weren’t intelligent, you wouldn’t be here. If you don’t understand, it’s because we’re not teaching you in the right way.” 

I look back at that, and I think, how many children fall between the cracks because they’re told they’re not intelligent when, really, they’re just not being taught in the right way?  

So, the Bradford Literature Festival was, I suppose, set up as a social intervention. I felt that what children and young people needed to see was that they could go to a literature festival and be included. The other literature festivals I was going to had a very particular audience, and while they are great and are important and I love them, the people in those rooms are actually already engaged, while the people who need to be hearing those conversations aren’t there. The children and young people there have books. They’re growing up with books. Their parents are engaged and they’re taking them to these events. But the children who actually need to be turned on to these things, that provision isn’t there for them. 

Haldane: The first BLF took place in 2014. Can you tell me a bit about the BLF journey from there to 2023?

Aslam: I’m not from the arts and culture world. I had no idea about creating festivals; 2014 was a marker in the ground. It was two days, 25 events and about 900 attendees. Now we are one of the largest festivals in the country. In 2023 we ran 678 events and had 116,000 attendees.  

The festival has an educational programme because that’s a way to engage young people who wouldn’t normally be brought to a literature festival. It has an ethical ticketing policy because that’s how you bring in people who are socio-economically diverse. For me, that’s the most important thing. Over those nine years, we’ve had over 550,000 audience members from over 30 countries. Our audience diversity averages at 54%. Our artistic diversity averages at about 44%. We’ve had artists from more than 72 countries and over 210,000 children and young people attend. I know we’re seen as quite a business innovative disruptor in the culture sector, but, to me, most of the things that we do are just purely common sense. 

I have a very simplistic belief that education has the power to change lives and that literacy is the absolute foundation stone of that

Syima Aslam

Haldane: Having been to and spoken at the last couple of BLFs, I can absolutely attest to the vibrancy and the energy and the diversity of it, which is quite unlike anything else I have been to and a huge testament to what you’ve been able to achieve over nine years. Can you say a bit more about your focus on younger people and your education programme? Who are the kids that are coming and what are they getting from the festival? 

Aslam: We do work with schools year-round, but the education programme runs during the festival itself. The programme is an integral part of the festival and speaks to the same kinds of themes that the main festival is speaking to. In terms of the children who attend, so far, we’ve engaged with about 80% of the primary and secondary schools in Bradford and we also get schools from Kirklees, Leeds, Calderdale, South Yorkshire and London as well, and a lot of home educators. 

The idea for the education programme came from the fact that we run a stream of events during the festival which are free, and which run at the weekends to enable parents to attend with their children. I realised early on that, unless you’re really switched on to these things as parents, you’re probably not even going to know that there’s a literature festival taking place. For most of the people who we wanted to get to come to these things, a literature festival would not be a natural thing to go to; it wouldn’t be something that they would see as being for them. The education programme emerged from that. It was an intervention, if you like, a solution for how to make the children and young people who wouldn’t normally engage with these things aware of the festival. 

The key goal, in terms of that programme, is raising aspirations and literacy levels. The aspirations part comes very much from making sure young people are welcome at the main programme and are able to see people who look like themselves. 

Haldane: How does culture, and the BLF in particular, help in that big regeneration effort which is absolutely under way in Bradford now? 

Aslam: The festival has been a key part of Bradford moving forward, probably in ways that I certainly didn’t envisage when I first set it up. Over the last nine years I have seen tremendous shifts in the sector itself. Because BLF has been and is very ambitious, that actually helped to promote ambition in the culture sector in Bradford, which traditionally has been a little hesitant. 

Obviously, as with any cultural event, there is also the economic impact. I mentioned we’ve had visitors from over 30 countries; that means hotel nights and people spending on new restaurants and a change in terms of the image of the city. What’s been really lovely for us was that, when Bradford received the UK City of Culture accolade, the BLF was independently cited by a number of different newspapers and also awarding bodies as being one of the key reasons for Bradford to receive the award. BLF has been instrumental in showing what can be achieved in cities like Bradford. 

There are two sides to the wider economic impact. There is the hard economic impact, in terms of what the festival creates, and then there is the future economic impact. The entire youth programme is free. The education programme that we provide for schools is free. The events for children and young people in the festival are free. Sixty per cent of our tickets during the festival, in terms of the ticketed programme, are offered for free. This creates future economic impact, which we can’t measure in that kind of hard way, but we get qualitative feedback about it. Teachers will tell us, “Well, this young person would never have considered university but now, they’re really interested.” Just the idea that we are planting a seed that actually then grows is so powerful. Without that kind of aspiration, without that kind of hope, we can’t create that future economic impact. 

Haldane: It seems to me you are talking about a ‘wide-angle’ view of what we mean by ‘regeneration’ because, of course, the BLF and, in time, ‘City of Culture’, will generate jobs and income and will attract business and people. But the wider role in social connections of various types, and in people with different backgrounds and beliefs finding common cause through culture strikes me as, particularly in this moment, important not just in Bradford but right across the world.

Aslam: Absolutely. I find it surprising that there aren’t more festivals like the BLF. The first day I started working on BLF full-time in March 2014 was also the day the first UKIP councillor was elected in Keighley. I find it interesting that the conversations that we are having are becoming increasingly more urgent rather than less. I don’t see some of these conversations happening in other spaces and it is really, really important that we have these conversations on a platform that is public and accessible to everyone. 

Haldane: You’ve seen tremendous success and growth over nine years, and the 2023 festival was a fantastic return after some difficult Covid years. Tell me what lies in store – without giving away too many secrets, of course – for your 10th birthday next year. 

Aslam: In a city like Bradford, it would be criminal not to be ambitious and to not be leading the way. We talk about the North–South divide, and we talk about how London is this natural hub for culture, but when you create things in places like Bradford, it creates a whole other level of hope and impact beyond something that will be in London. 

Somebody once said to me, “If you can solve Bradford, you can solve the UK.” I don’t know how completely true that is, but I certainly think that, if you can bring people together to create a solution to the challenges that a city like Bradford has, that solution is easily replicated in a variety of cities. 

In a city like Bradford, it would be criminal not to be ambitious and not to be leading the way.

Syima Aslam

Haldane: In a speech of yours in 2018 you said that the BLF team calls you an ‘insane geek’. First, I want to know what you meant by that. Second, does that help explain the richness and eclecticism that the festival embodies and has embodied under your leadership? 

Aslam: Yes, that is a quote of mine! I can’t quite remember what we were talking about, but I said to a member of my team, “Oh, that will make a brilliant event and that is so interesting,” and she said to me, “You would find watching paint dry interesting, you’re such a geek!” I’ve always described my head as a ‘butterfly head’ because I’m hugely interested in practically everything. I don’t see how you can build empathy otherwise. You have to be able to stand in lots of different spaces.  

Since then, I learned that I am neurodiverse and have attention deficit disorder, and I think that fits in perfectly with having a ‘butterfly head’ that’s interested in everything. One of my friends actually said, “Anybody who knows you really well knows that the festival is a mind map of your head!” I’m quite proud of being a geek. We need geeks in the world. 

Haldane: Can you use that vivid imagination of yours and the ‘insane geek’ in you to tell me a story of how things could be 20 or 25 years hence, of how the festival might be, how Bradford might be, and how the north of England might be when it comes to its culture offering? 

Aslam: My hope would be that, when we get to our 25- or 30-year anniversary, the North has connectivity, and that our country, which is so tiny compared with so many others, would have opened up its economic capacity in the North by creating better linkages. Not just across the North, but between the North and the South, because, when you look at cities like Bradford with that young population, it’s a tremendous economic powerhouse for the future.

My hope would be that we will have a better understanding of each other across communities, and that the North has stopped being the poor cousin of the South. That we understand that, to retain and actually strengthen and develop our economic position in the world, we need a connected country rather than a divided country, and that young people in the North and young people from poorer socio-economic backgrounds deserve the same chances – because that unlocks the potential for the entire country. 

Syima Aslam MBE is the Founder, CEO and Artistic Director of Bradford Literature Festival.

Andy Haldane is Chief Executive Officer at the RSA.

This article first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 4 2023.

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