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Ted Hodgkinson: "Literature can take us into lives we might think are far from our own"

Ted Hodgkinson curates the eclectic literary and spoken word programme at the Southbank Centre. He talks to Sophie Haydock about this year’s London Literature Festival and its special guests Tom Hanks and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and shares his belief that literature can not only show our shared humanity but spread joy

  • The theme for this year’s London Literature Festival, which takes place from 13 October – 1 November, is World on the Brink – how does that manifest in the programme?
    It manifests throughout it in ways that are playful and provocative, for readers of all ages and literary genres. There are specially commissioned stories by David Mitchell, the Icelandic author Sjón and others, imagining the world a century from now; as well as readings from internationally renowned poets including Claudia Rankine and Joy Harjo reflecting on the state of the world today; debates for readers of Young Adult literature exploring, for instance, the parallels between dystopian fiction and the present; and storytelling workshops for younger readers that invite them to write a letter sealed in a time capsule to the future. We have over 30 writers from the north taking part across the festival, as part of our year-long Nordic Matters series, coming from traditions that have long been attuned to the ebb and flow of the natural world. And, of course, politically focused talks with speakers who have played major roles in the ongoing story of a World on the Brink, not least Hillary Rodham Clinton.

    How do you persuade such exceptional stars of the literary and political worlds, and Hollywood – Philip Pullman, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Tom Hanks – to attend?
    This is my third year leading the literature programming and I’m really pleased that a combination of passion for certain authors, and a little persistence, is paying off. In the case of Philip Pullman, I’ve been a devoted reader for years, but last year he invited me to visit him at home in Oxfordshire, which was like visiting a magical realm, and over tea we got talking about the new trilogy. I was rather excited, though I tried to sip my tea calmly, and suggested he might reveal it with us at London Literature Festival. Really, it’s all about building trust, not just with the author, but with all the people who support them. And when it comes to enticing stars like Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tom Hanks, it also certainly helps them to feel in good company that our literature season across the year has featured some era-defining authors and essential political thinkers, from John le Carré to Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith to Naomi Klein.

    Can literature succeed in pulling us back from that brink, do you think? In what ways can it succeed in spreading joy in the world?
    In a time when tribal loyalties are on the rise, when we risk seeing the world in terms of “Us” and “Them” and retreating into our separate social-media bubbles, literature can take us into lives we might think are far from our own, and in the same breath, show us our shared humanity. As an art-form, literature is inherently democratic, thriving most off conflict and contradiction, so that a single sentence may contain many opposing views. Reading in that sense is a radical act in which the limits of our empathy are continuously challenged. The joys of a writer’s sensibility and style can turn the contradictions of ourselves, and the world, into an irresistible journey of discovery.

    Tom Hanks will be reading from his debut short story collection Uncommon Type on November 1. What do you make of his short story style? Will it stand the test of time?
    Given his often avuncular on-screen incarnations, it’s perhaps not surprising to find that these stories have a conversational tone and witty sensibility to them. There are traces of roles he has played in many films running through them too, and perhaps my favourite in the collection is Alan Bean Plus Four (first published in the New Yorker), which combines slapstick humour with moments of unexpected lyricism; it lifts off from similar territory as Apollo 13, as it charts the makeshift voyage of four friends to the moon. It certainly stands up to rereading, and might draw more readers into the orbit of short stories.

    There is an emphasis on female writers at this year’s festival – do you think there’s an issue with representation in this area?
    Part of the reason we wanted to celebrate women writers in the festival, is that when it comes to the Nordic writers, the younger generation tends to be led by talented women, such as Niviaq Korneliussen, Dorthe Nors and Hanne Ørstavik. So in other words, we wanted to bring over the best writers from the region, who also happen to be women. These same writers often explore the challenges that women face in daily life, take for instance Dorthe Nors whose writing shows us the rich inner lives of women in stories where their external choices are limited. So these writers are reflecting back wider issues in their supposedly utopian Nordic societies, and to me an international audience hearing those stories is certainly part of the remedy. When it comes to hearing about the broader challenges that women face in the world, surely few have more experience than Hillary Rodham Clinton. And few have written more incisively about those challenges, and the situation of Hillary herself, than Rebecca Solnit. Along with a reading of Sylvia Plath’s letters, I’m thrilled that the festival places the voices of women writers centre stage.

    Is literature exclusive? What more can be done to encourage diverse voices?
    It can be, so we try and make sure that we include a truly diverse range of voices in the festival, and everything we do. One project which I think is a great example of this is Wall of Dreams. We collaborated with Danish poet Morten Sondergaard and a number of refugee groups in London and across Europe to gather the dreams and aspirations of migrants and refugees, and project hundreds of them in light on the across the Royal Festival Hall. It’s literally about shining a light on voices that aren’t usually heard, or perhaps aren’t as associated with literary festivals. We feature a diverse range of authors across the festival, with one particular highlight being a showcase of 10 of the most internationally in-demand Black and Asian poets in the UK, in collaboration with The Complete Works, a national organisation that has played a key role in raising the level of diversity in major British presses from less than 1% to 14% over the last 10 years. Working with these kinds of collaborators and giving a platform to exciting voices, and in the process showing the appetite for their work, will hopefully be a catalyst for these percentages climbing further still.

    How do current political events impact on literature, and how deeply are those repercussions felt?
    Current political events have a profound bearing on literature, and though the repercussions are not always felt in ways that are expected, literature can in turn have a bearing on how we see those events. In other words, the political climate inevitably influences the imaginative climate. In some cases literary responses are direct and become ways of deepening our understanding of political and cultural divisions. To give examples of two writers taking part in the festival: Claudia Rankine’s groundbreaking Citizen articulates the experience of racial inequality in America with great lyrical precision, and Ali Smith’s recent Man Booker shortlisted novel Autumn captures the fevered aftermath of the referendum result, and was published especially quickly to react to the political moment. But literature also allows us to refract the enormity of political events through an imaginative, or fantastical lens, as you find in Philip Pullman’s new trilogy The Book of Dust. In Pullman’s parallel world we glimpse the great political problems of our time – from climate change to rising inequality – transposed by the author’s epic imagination so that we might see them afresh.

    Who are you most excited about seeing speak, personally, and why?
    One writer I’m particularly excited about having at the festival is Niviaq Korneliussen, a wildly talented young author from Greenland. Through playful humour and a restless inventiveness, her writing captures the experiences of young people in her homeland, and in the process shortens the distance between us and the far north. She features in the first ever anthology of Nordic short stories (The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North) published by Pushkin Press to coincide with the festival, which I’ve edited along with the Icelandic author Sjón, and I’m delighted that her debut novel will be published by Virago next year. Before it comes out, you can see her at the festival in one of her first UK appearances at our Young Adult Literature Weekender.

    Tell us about Nordic Matters? Why is the spotlight, this year, on Nordic art and culture?
    Southbank Centre was chosen to host Nordic Matters, a year-long exploration of Nordic art and culture in 2017, and in London Literature Festival we wanted celebrate the riches of the literature of the north and focus on our relationship to the natural world, which is something writers from the north often tend to have a heightened awareness of. I’m delighted that the festival sees the publication of the first collection of Nordic short stories, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat, with 18 authors from across the region showcasing an array of literary styles and stories that challenge our notions of the north. We have celebrated crime noir writers like Kati Hiekkapelto and writers who have come to define Nordic literature in recent years such as Karl Ove Knausgård, but we also wanted to show the worlds that exist beyond those renowned strengths. The Nordic short story is a crucible in which the strains of ancient mythic traditions are fused with tales of everyday life, creating some of the most exciting literature being written anywhere in the world.

    Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival runs until 1 November. For the full programme and to book tickets please visit