Syima Aslam: changing lives with literature

Syima Aslam

Dots speaker Syima Aslam is the managing director and artistic director of the Bradford Literature Festival. Bringing together literature from around the world, the festival has grown rapidly since since it started in 2014; last year over 200 events were held across 10 days.

We spoke with Syima about the inspiration for the festival, and why she believes that literature has the power to unite and educate communities.

What was the inspiration for the Bradford Literature Festival?

Bradford Literature Festival (BLF) was formed in 2014 with the aim of creating a truly international festival that would become a destination for people from all over the UK and abroad. Bradford has a fantastically diverse population; reflecting the richness of these communities, drawn from so many different countries, was a key inspiration. BLF is committed to bringing guests from around the world to Bradford and showcasing the heritage and landscape of Bradford to the world.

The other key inspiration for the festival was my own love of reading and a belief that education has the power to change people’s lives. Bradford has one of the youngest and fastest growing populations in the country and by 2020 we will be the youngest city in Europe. I wanted to get children excited about reading as, without literacy, every part of the curriculum is a closed book. I felt the festival could play a crucial role in highlighting the importance of language and literacy and the role it plays in enabling children and young people from all backgrounds to realise their potential.

How challenging is it to bring together such a diverse range of literature?

I don’t find it hugely challenging but I think that’s because my own heritage is a mixture of UK and Pakistani culture. Combining cultures is something that I have been doing all my life and feels very natural to me, and literature is a massive part of any culture. I think most of us are interested in the world and the only way you can learn about how different countries think is through reading their literature.

How can literature unite communities?

Coming together through a shared love of words and stories can be a very powerful thing. Literature does something that nothing else in the world can really do; it opens your eyes to ideas, places, feelings and people that you might never otherwise experience. You can travel the globe, through time and space, across continents and oceans, all from the comfort of your living room. Literature allows us to dream; it can fill people with ambitions and aspirations that can potentially change their lives, and it reminds those who have everything that not everybody in the world is as lucky. Literature removes the other; it allows us to learn about people and to empathise with them, regardless of difference. In my view, it is literature that enables us to realise that the common denominator is humanity.

What is your biggest achievement to date?

I am really proud of the fantastic growth the festival has seen from a 2-day event in 2014 to a 10-day festival with more than 50,000 attendees in 2017. Getting the backing to turn a dream into this reality has been amazing. I think for me personally creating the consensus with my sponsors – Provident Financial Group, Arts Council England, the University of Bradford and Bradford Council – that the festival should be free for, and actively seek to engage with, people who are economically disadvantaged and to run a free schools programme is hugely satisfying.

Are there any Dots speakers that you’re particularly looking forward to hearing?

I am particularly looking forward to hearing Amanda Azeez speak as we both share a passion for improving the lives and futures of children and young people, and as BLF expands its charity initiatives, the NSPCC is a fantastic organisation to look up to.

Get your ticket to Dots to hear more from Syima, as well as the other fantastic speakers, on Friday 29th September.