Embrace the unknown at City of Literature 2021

The Book Hive in Norwich

The National Centre for Writing has announced the line-up for City of Literature 2021 at Norfolk & Norwich Festival - Credit: Bob Pike

Embrace the unknown, the unusual and the unexpected at this year’s City of Literature Festival from the National Centre for Writing, says programme director Peggy Hughes. 

National Centre for Writing programme director Peggy Hughes 

National Centre for Writing programme director Peggy Hughes - Credit: National Centre for Writing

From Tombland to St Julians Alley, King Street to Elm Hill, the streets of Norwich are enchanted with literary magic. In 2012, our Fine City’s unique appreciation of the vitality and joy of storytelling culminated in Norwich becoming England’s first UNESCO City of Literature – a legacy that continues to blossom and evolve with each year. 

While the vibrancy of Norwich’s literary scene has been tempered by the pandemic, its bookshops, libraries and arts foundations continue to play an integral role in colouring the culture and identity of our urban environment. And Norwich’s proud literary heritage is never better exhibited than at the National Centre for Writing’s City of Literature Festival, which takes place as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival on 17–30 May.  

“Norwich is a great place to be for readers, writers and anyone interested in literature,” says National Centre for Writing programme director Peggy Hughes. “City of Literature explores what it means to have such an exciting literary heritage – and celebrates an equally exciting present and future.” 

In response to the pandemic, last year’s Norfolk & Norwich Festival was cancelled and the National Centre for Writing’s events were repurposed into written commissions, workshops and podcasts. However, this year’s festival is going ahead “no matter what”, with the City of Literature programme inviting the public to experiment with the unknown, the unusual and the unexpected. 

“We would normally have about 25 events across the final weekend of Norfolk & Norwich Festival,” Peggy explains. “But this year, we've got seven amazing experiments in writing instead. The idea that underpins the whole programme is for writers to take risks with their work that they might not otherwise have been able to take. 

“We've produced a festival that could have gone ahead no matter what. We wanted to celebrate these writers and bring people together around brilliant work, so for us it was always a case of making that happen.” 

The majority of the pieces are available digitally and can be accessed anywhere in the world. 

“As much as we love bringing people into a physical space together, it's been interesting to take this work and share it more widely,” Peggy says. “But we do have two in-person events.” 

The first in-person event is Provenance by Ayòbámi Adébáyò – an immersive installation involving a triptych of screens and a live actor telling the story of the sacred ibeji artefact on its journey from Nigeria to present-day Norwich. 

Ayòbámi Adébáyò

Ayòbámi Adébáyò's Provenance will tell the story of the sacred ibeji artefact on its journey from Nigeria to present-day Norwich - Credit: Canongate

The event will take place within the historic Dragon Hall, a 15th century medieval building on King Street which is home to the National Centre for Writing. A conversation between Ayòbámi and UEA’s Jean McNeil will also be broadcast online on 29 May. 

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The piece forms part of an ambitious project titled Future and Form. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of UEA’s Creative Writing Masters and funded by Arts Council England, Future and Form offers fellowships to writers and pairs them with creative technology partners to explore the future of writing.  

“It will be a very special experience,” Peggy says. “Ayòbámi’s first novel, Stay With Me, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, so we are very excited about Provenance.” 

Another event that can be enjoyed in person is Page Against the Machine on 29 May. In partnership with the Book Hive, the public are invited to Plantation Garden on Earlham Road to read together outside.   

“Reading is a solitary activity, but there's something special about being in a space reading together, talking about what you're reading just for the love of it – especially after the year we've just had being so distant from one another,” Peggy says. 

“It's so unusual to just be together while reading. You hear these authors speak about their books, but there isn't time in the context of a festival to actually read them. So, this year, we thought we could have people safely reading together in the beautiful Plantation Garden. Simply bring a book, a blanket and a picnic.” 

The free event is fully booked, but if you didn’t snap up your tickets in time, Peggy encourages you to post a photo of where you are and what you are reading to social media with the hashtag #CityofLit21.  

One of the festival’s ground-breaking digital events is titled The Group – a three-part play from theatre-maker Jack McNamara and composer Angharad Davies. The play unfolds in the palm of your hand in real-time via WhatsApp. The digital event will take place from May 28–30 blending theatre, literature and music.  

“WhatsApp has been such a useful, important space for people during the pandemic, especially for setting up groups to help the local community,” Peggy says. “This piece will explore WhatsApp as a space for storytelling – really stretching what theatre and technology can do.” 

Another remarkable online event is Tombland from filmmaker, poet and performer Jay Bernard and sound designer and DJ Mwen.  

Filmmaker, poet and performer Jay Bernard

Filmmaker, poet and performer Jay Bernard has collaborated with sound designer and DJ Mwen on a project called Tombland - Credit: Joshua Virasami

“Jay and Mwen have been exploring Dragon Hall and the weight of its history in the Great Hall,” Peggy says. “The result is part jam session, part sketchbook, part EP, and these fragments combine to create a game in which you can re-mix the sounds the artists created.” 

Looking Large and Small, from nature writer Jessica J. Lee and UEA graduate Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, is a beautiful illustrated guide to the seasons, and Weather With You invites three writers – Abir Mukherjee, Kerri ní Dochartaigh and Derek Owusu – to reflect on the strangeness of the year we have experienced.  

UEA graduate Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

UEA graduate Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has produced a beautiful illustrated guide to the seasons called Looking Large and Small with nature writer Jessica J. Lee - Credit: National Centre for Writing

Weather With You explores what it would mean to think about the year as having an atmospheric pressure, as well as a political and a social one. It makes for a really wonderful and interesting intersection of ideas, which will also be accompanied by a podcast with each of the writers.” 

Finally, this year’s Harriet Martineau Lecture will be delivered on 30 May by Ellah P. Wakatama, editor-at-large at Canongate Books. “Ellah is an amazing editor and literary critic – she's an absolute force of nature,” Peggy says. “During lockdown, Ellah has been thinking about reading as an act of resistance.” 

Filmmaker and poet Julianknxx will deliver a visual score to accompany the lecture, which can be accessed online.   

All events at City of Literature 2021 are free and available to book now.  

“We're pleased to be working with Norfolk & Norwich Festival again,” Peggy adds. “And we’re very excited to see everybody!” 

City of Literature is a Norfolk & Norwich Festival and National Centre for Writing presentation, programmed by the National Centre for Writing. 

For more information, please visit nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/cityoflit-21 or to book visit nnfestival.org.uk