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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Women’s Special: Meet the woman who brings words and ideas to life

With a degree in finance a corporate background, Syima Aslam used her business acumen to launch the award-winning Bradford Literature Festival providing an international platform for diverse writers.

Awarded an MBE in the Queen’s 2022 New Year’s Honours and an honorary doctorate from the University of Bradford for her contribution to literature, Syima Aslam is the woman who brings words and ideas to life in Bradford.

In 2014, alongside Irna Qureshi, Ms Aslam established the Bradford Literature Festival (BLF), world-renowned for its responsible approach to arts and culture and for introducing Yorkshire talent to a global audience. 

As part of Asian Standard’s International Women’s Day campaign that sees women being heavily featured across our titles for the entire month of March, we sat down with Ms Aslam about her love of reading, her background in business, and BLF’s responsible approach to arts and culture.

Syima Aslam co-founded Bradford Literature Festival in 2014.

An economics and business graduate, Ms Aslam has always preferred words and ideas over numbers and statistics. However, it was her business acumen and ‘know-how’ that allowed her to pursue her love of literature and make the BLF into what it is today. 

Ms Aslam’s earliest memories of reading stretch back to a little bookshop near her grandparent’s house in Dina, a small village in the Punjab region of Pakistan when she was a child. It was here where she would buy fairy tale stories and where her imagination would come alive. 

Born to first-generation migrant parents, Ms Aslam spent her early years split between Pakistan and West Yorkshire, before settling down in Halifax in 1982 and later moving to Bradford. Ms Aslam said: “Some of the earliest memories I have of reading come from my experiences in bookshops. 

“Next to my grandparents’ house in Pakistan there was a bookshop, and my ritual was that I would always buy a book every time I walked past. 

“There were these small fairy tale books that I used to read. By the time we left Pakistan, I had a collection of around 70 or 80. It is one of my everlasting regrets that my mum didn’t think to bring them with us when we came back to the UK.

“It got to the point where the man in the bookshop would laugh when he saw me coming as he knew I’d always buy a book.”

An educated woman, Ms Aslam’s mother also wanted her daughter to have an education, taking her to the nearest library every Saturday, “it was a routine until I went to university”, the founder of the festival said.

“If my mum hadn’t pushed me, I wouldn’t have taken myself to the library. I don’t know if my language would have approved in the kind of way that it did.” 

A bright and successful student, Ms Aslam passed the 11+ exam and attended Crossley Heath Grammar School in Halifax, where her confidence and drive to succeed was instilled in her by a maths teacher. 

The honorary doctor said: “I had a really lovely maths teacher in year nine. I did badly in maths in year seven and year eight and my mum was worried, as Asian parents want their children to do well in maths and science. 

In 2019, 70,000 people attended the festival.

“I remember my mum saying at parents’ evening how worried she was about my maths, and I will never forget what my teacher said to me. He said ‘if you weren’t intelligent, you wouldn’t be at this school. If you don’t understand, it is because we are not teaching you the right way.’

“His comment stuck and it inspired me. I got better with maths, but the most important thing was that he gave me confidence. 

“I translate this into my work with the festival and it is where the inspiration for the education programme comes from.”

Ms Aslam went on to study Economics and Business Finance at the prestigious Brunel University in London, graduating in 1996. Her first job in the business sector was as a communications manager at a West London agency before moving into the investment, automotive, data marketing and education sectors. 

It was this background in business and finance that helped Ms Aslam create the first BLF, eight years ago. The festival has grown from a two-day event in 2014 to a 10-day calendar full of diverse readings, entertainment, and performances. Due to the pandemic, the festival went fully digital in 2020 and had a mixture of live and digital events last year. 

Ms Aslam says that the inspiration to launch the festival comes from the desire to create something that would create a change in the city and that it would inspire people, raise aspirations, and increase literacy across the district. 

The drive to make a positive socio-economic change in Bradford coupled with nearly two decades worth of experience is what made BLF what it is today. The festival went from “an idea”, to an award-winning culture and art movement akin to the Hay Festival or the comedy Fringe Fest in Scotland. 

The literature fest also holds events for school children free of charge dotted around the year.

“The ambition was to create a world-leading literacy festival that is open and accessible for people who would not be able to engage in arts and culture”, Ms Aslam added.

The festival is free to children, people on benefits, people living in social housing, asylum seekers and refugees. “I don’t think you can talk about making meaningful social change and wanting children to engage with reading without giving people access.

“I’ve been really lucky that I see things from two sides. When I lived in Pakistan, I bought books and was given books but when we came to the UK, it was almost as if we were starting again. It is the experience that a lot of migrants faced, that there wasn’t money to buy books. 

“Without access to the library and the push from my mum, I might not have gone to university, and I might not do what I am doing now.

“I’m very aware of the different things that can create life chances. There are a lot of things that might not have been open to me because my mother doesn’t speak a lot of English. 

“As I got older and went to arts and culture events, I noticed that it is a very select audience. You typically need money to engage with these things. You need money to buy tickets to events and books.”

Bradford was chosen, over Halifax, Ms Aslam’s hometown, because of how easy it is for visitors from across the UK and internationally to visit. She said: “When you grow up in the way I did, you don’t think about geographical boundaries, so to me, we are the BLF, and we are based in Bradford, but it is for the entire region, and it is a national festival that everyone can come to.”

The festival not only brings an international spotlight to Bradford, but it serves as a launching pad for young creatives from across the region. The founders of Fox & Windmill, an up-and-coming publishing house for Northern South Asian writers, Habiba Desai and Sara Razzaq, met at the festival in 2016. 

In 2019, more than 70,000 people attended the festival, with 57% of the audience attending the festival with a free or discounted ticket. More than half (55%) of the audience identified themselves as Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic, and 55% of the audience reported incomes below the national average. 

Last year, the festival hosted 220 speakers across 100 sessions, with 50% of the events taking place digitally. Notable people speaking at the festival include Abdul Hakim Murad, Jeanette Wilson, Michael Rosen, A A Dhand, Anita Rani, Saima Mir, and Aamnah Rashman.

The date for Bradford Literature Festival 2022 has been set for 24 June to 3 July. Ms Aslam couldn’t say what is in store for the festival this year, but “more information is going to be released in the not too distance future.” 

Asian Standard wishes everyone a happy International Women’s Day 2022.

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