Why we're launching Primadonna, the inclusive literary festival that will make our world a better place

Catherine Mayer
The Primadonna Festival contingent, left to right: Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, Joanna Baker, Catherine Riley, Athena Stevens, Sioned Wiliam, Sabeena Akhtar, Catherine Mayer, Shona Abhyankar, Jane Dyball and Lisa Milton

The only way to build a better future is to imagine that future. I’d always envisaged a democracy that worked for everyone by representing the whole population, so four years ago I co-founded the Women’s Equality Party. Now I’m collaborating with 16 great women, including my WE co-founder Sandi Toksvig, and two titans of festivals, Jude Kelly and  Joanna Baker , to create the Primadonna Festival, a riotous three-day event that, as the name implies, tilts the balance in favour of work by and about women.

It’s the festival of brilliant writing that we always wanted to attend—fresh, inclusive, aimed at bringing forward new and emerging voices alongside famous names and, above all, ridiculously good fun. 

Today we’re excited to be unveiling our launch line-up for the inaugural festival, which takes place from 30 August to 1 September in Suffolk. There will be bands, DJs, dancing, comedy, poetry, film, kids’ and family events, delicious food and drink and, at the beating, vibrant core, great books and inspiring authors.

Among confirmed writers who leave me speechless with awe are John BoyneJoanna CannonGuy Gunaratne, Sophie HannahKilling Eve’s evil genius Luke JenningsAdele ParksAngela Saini, Kate Williams, Sarah Winman and Elif Shafak

Elif has written 12 novels, and will take to the stage at Primadonna to introduce a writer who might otherwise find it hard to break into the festival circuit. We are programming a number of such pairings: Primadonna co-founder and award-winning novelist Kit de Waal will introduce and interview emerging talent Ely Percy about their debut novel Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz - one of many ways the festival seeks to model the world we want to see, rather than the one that exists.

Elif Shafak, who has written 12 novels, will appear at the Primadonna festival Credit: Jay Williams

Festivals tend to reflect the wider publishing ecosystem, which itself reflects wider realities in assigning the greatest value to work by and about white men. A recent study found that books by women are priced on average 45 per cent lower than books by men. Another study identified a gender earnings gap that negatively affected female writers by 25 per cent.

When I wrote my first book, I was urged by my agent to collect cover quotes from men to offset the disadvantage of my being female. Some women go further, using gender neutral or male pen names, or in the case of JK Rowling aka Robert Galbraith, both. There’s good reason to do this. Not only are men less likely to buy books by or about women, books by women are statistically less likely to be reviewed, coverage they do get is often hideously reductive, and they are underrepresented in literary awards.

Last year, as a judge for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I got a glimpse of the wealth of women’s writing that never comes to wider public attention - brilliant works that the world would be a poorer place without. That’s the thing about inequality: it’s not just bad for women. It’s bad for everyone.

Kit de Waal is one of Primadonna's co-founders Credit: Sarah Lee

Writers of colour, gender minorities, creators from poorer backgrounds or facing other structural barriers may never break through to get published at all. Two “Primadonnas”, as we festival co-founders collectively term ourselves, have already set up platforms to promote some of them. Kit turned to the crowdfunder Unbound to finance an anthology of working class writers, Common People, while Sabeena Akhtar used it to publish Cut From the Same Cloth, a collection of essays by hijab-wearing Muslim women. A third Primadonna, Athena Stevens, recently became the first actress in a wheelchair to be nominated for an Offie.

Their experiences and insights are helping to pave the way for new and aspiring creators to get exposure for their work and connect with key figures in the industry: Primadonnas include award-winning book publicists, top publishers and agents, who will be on hand to hold 'advice surgeries'.

We’re also delighted to be joined by key industry figures including Julia Kingsford, Lennie Goodings, Sharmaine Lovegrove, Helen Thomas and Jo Unwin. Plus there’s Make Sioned Laugh: an opportunity for comedians and comedy writers to come up to the microphone and perform their work for Primadonna co-founder and BBC Radio 4’s Commissioner of Comedy, Sioned Wiliam.

None of this matters unless the festival is accessible to as wide and diverse an audience as possible. Thanks to co-founder Jane Dyball and her partner, Andy Corrigan from rock band the Mekons, who are supplying the venue and deferring payment for technical and other support, we’re able to price tickets lower than for similar events, and we are also providing some free tickets, shuttle services and a fee to all participants.

Many big-name authors are waiving their fees and yesterday we landed our first sponsor—a man—who is paying for the onsite toilets. More glamorous sponsorship opportunities remain open.

Primadonna came about because Jane, who was about to leave a big job in the music industry, asked me, quite diffidently, whether there might be appetite for a new book festival. I shouted “yes” before she finished her sentence. My excitement was about more than the chance to create a great book festival—we’re creating the chance to spend the weekend in a better world.