That's What she said

interview

31st July 2017
Tallulah Harvey

I first came across For Books’ Sake at one of their women writers pub quizzes. I was invited by a very close friend of mine—who is also a literature graduate and fiercely passionate about feminist literature— to meet her new girlfriend. We both squealed for joy, somewhat distastefully in front of our respective partners, when we saw the sci-fi women writers category on the quiz sheet. I had never heard of For Books’ Sake before then, and purchased a copy of two of their poetry anthologies, wanting desperately to support such a necessary cause. I became, in the space of ten minutes, a For Books’ Sake groupie. 

For Books’ Sake champions female writers, empowering women to tell their stories and have their voices heard. It is a unfunded enterprise, powered by unpaid volunteers. They have an online community of over 20,000; run the biggest spoken word night in London for women, That’s What She Said; their poetry anthology FURIES raised thousands for Rape Crisis England & Wales; and they've collaborated with a long list of amazing organisations, including the LGBT Foundation, The Proud Trust, Womankind Worldwide, World Book Night, Thames Festival, London Rollergirls and many more.

I’ve been an avid spoken word fanatic for some time now, and lived in London for most of my life, and yet I'd never come across a spoken word night before that boasts only female performers, and one that is so well attended. To put it bluntly, I'd never come across a spoken word night with such a fantastic lineup. I expected it to be a small turnout of mostly friends of the performers, since I'd never heard of it before, and yet turning up fifteen minutes after doors opened I was met by glorious sea of bodies. How have I never come across this before?, I kept asking myself, this is everything I've ever wanted from a night out. I was just about able to find a stool and perch next to my friends, but every other seat was taken, and the back walls were thickly lined with people. Not that size matters. But I was elated to find so many other people who loved spoken word and, more importantly, wanted to hear what women writers had to say. There was such a great energy. 

I attended the last of their London based spoken word nights for the summer, with the wonderful Bridget Minamore and Joelle Taylor headlining (check these women out). It was a great mixture of performers. For Books’ Sake embraces a whole range of literary genres, it’s not just limited to Slam poetry. This particular night began with a theatrical piece, before moving through poetry and prose into the mesmerising music of folk singer Bity Booker, who described herself as ‘half Australian and half from another universe’, and sang us songs about the planet and all its creatures, in a voice that reminded me of Bjork and Joanna Newsom (two of my favs). We were also joined by the novelist Emily Morris, author of My Shitty Twenties, who shared her own experiences of single motherhood as a young woman, which rang with wit and truth, and was incredibly moving as well as hilariously funny. To shake things up even more, we had a guest speaker Otegha Uwagba, founder of Women Who and author of The Little Black Book, who told us about her own experiences as a woman in the work place, and gave advice to women about finding your strength and confidence in a male-centred industry. She drew upon her own work and from the writings of Roxane Gay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ashley C. Ford. I frantically took note of her wise words, and those of the incredible females she quoted. 

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My videographer, Rem Berger—who took the wonderful photos from the night, despite the badly lit venue—had never been to a spoken word night, other than Genesis Cinema’s poetry Slam tournament, and was blown away by how incredible and diverse the performers were. I myself was blown away by the night. I left feeling inspired, with renewed confidence in my own abilities, and almost missed by tube stop on the way home trying to write down scraps of poetry and prose.

Not only is That's What She Said a great place to see talented literary performers, for everyone and not just women, but provides a space for women to shout and scream their anger, their frustrations, their desires; a space without censorship, without objectification and without the dreaded “it must be her time of the month” quip. I think For Books’ Sake is doing some really important work, trying to eradicate the massive inequalities between gender in the publishing industry and within the literary canon. I was lucky enough to speak with founder and director, Jane Bradley, who told me about the evolution of her company.

 

Why did you decide to set up For Books’ Sake?

I set up For Books’ Sake in 2010 in response to institutionalised, systemic sexism in publishing, education and the media. Independent audits like the VIDA Count showed how books by women were not receiving the same amount of coverage as their male counterparts (despite women writing and selling more as authors, and buying and reading more as readers). Women weren’t being given the platform they needed by the mainstream media. So I initially established For Books’ Sake as an alternative to that; an online magazine with daily news, reviews and features, celebrating the work of established women writers and supporting those who might be at an earlier stage in their careers. 

As an online community developed around the site, it became obvious that there was much more to be done; the demand was there to provide real life ways for women writers to develop their writing craft, confidence and community. We started to explore ways we might be able to support women writers to connect with each other, faciliating that much-needed mutual validation, celebration and support. We wanted to provide opportunities for women writers of all levels and backgrounds to publish, perform and gain skills, self-belief and experience while reaching new audiences and readers with their work.

 

How do you go about supporting women writers? 

Through an ongoing collaboration with Write Like a Grrrl , we deliver creative writing workshops for women around the UK, with a particular focus on London, Edinburgh and Manchester (though we’ve also had workshops in Leeds, Liverpool, Folkestone, Brighton and Bristol). Through one-day intensives or six weekly sessions, we explore what stops women from writing and develop ways to blitz those obstacles, as well as giving a breakdown of essential fiction techniques like dialogue, characterisation, setting and editing. Follow-on courses teach the grrrls how to critique each other’s writing and work towards publication. We’ve had hundred of women take part in Write Like a Grrrl, with several winning prizes, setting up their own publishing projects (including 404 Ink and Salome magazine), signing with agents and securing publishing deals. Another partnership with Write Like a Grrrl is Grrrl Con, a weekend conference for women writers which we’ve so far delivered in Edinburgh (2016) and Manchester (2017). 

We also publish women writers in our print anthologies, most recently including FURIES, a poetry collection themed around women warriors which raised funds for Rape Crisis; and (RE)Sisters, a collection of young adult short stories focused on rebellion, revolution, empowerment and escape, as well as The Weekend Read, a free weekly short story published on Fridays and featuring authors like Patricia Duncker, Leone Ross and Kelly Link. 

Can you tell me a little more about That's What She Said and the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe? 

This August will be our first time taking our spoken word night That’s What She Said to Edinburgh Fringe. We’ll be there from 16th-26th August with a free, daily-showcase of incredible, incendiary poetry, performance, slam, spoken word and storytelling, written and performed entirely by women. 

Our headliners include Rosie Garland (‘one of the best performance poets in the UK’ - Apples & Snakes); crime fiction queen Denise Mina (twelve published novels, listed in the Crime Writers’ Association Hall of Fame); novelist Laura Dockrill; BBC Slam Champion Sophia Walker; acclaimed director Cheryl Martin; award-winning author Sabrina Mahfouz and so many more. 

As well as providing access to some of the most exciting established women writers around, we also want to provide a platform for more emerging writers and performers, so we’ve also got open mic sessions as part of every show, including some authors who’ll be giving their first ever performances on our That’s What She Said stage. 

It’s taken a lot of fundraising and work to get us to this stage and I can’t pretend I’m not a bit anxious about performing and compering every day for our 11-show run (more events than we usually do in a row) but we’ve got an amazing line-up that I’m so excited to be bringing to Fringe. 

 

What plans does For Books' Sake have for the future? 

We’ve got a digital programme called Kickstart Your Creative Heart starting in September 1st, developed in response to community feedback from women writers who wanted to attend our existing workshops and events but couldn’t because of distance. 

We’ll have a new short story collection coming out early in 2018, and hope to be able to bring That’s What She Said to a few new locations around the UK. We’re also exploring whether we can offer writing retreats, as that’s something lots of people have wanted, as well as how we can expand our remit to support genderqueer, gender fluid and other non-binary authors.

 

The photographer for this collection was Rem Berger www.remberger.eu