An interview with Sabeena Akhtar about brand-new literature festival Primadonna

Network & Knowledge

Primadonna is a new and inclusive literature festival co-created by seventeen women from publishing and entertainment. Running from 30 August – 1 September in Suffolk, Primadonna presents a brilliant line up of events, with emphasis on platforming work by women and emerging new talent. Spread the Word’s Aliya Gulamani spoke to one of the ‘Primadonnas’ – Sabeena Akhtar to find out more…

Aliya: Hi Sabeena! Thanks so much for your time. Primadonna looks like an absolutely brilliant festival – and I love the concept behind it. 17 ‘Primadonnas’, including yourself, came together to form the festival, how did you all link up with each other?

Sabeena: Thank you, we’re working really hard to put together a truly memorable event! The Primadonnas came together out of a desire to create something fresh, equitable and exciting. As a group of women working across the arts and entertainment industries, whispers for the need of a festival spotlighting the work of women had been rife; so when Jane Dyball (former CEO of the MPA) kindly offered a venue, our one woman extraordinaire, Catherine Mayer signalled a call out! Many of us didn’t know each other, but came together out of both a sense of collective responsibility and utter excitement at the thought of attending such an event!

Aliya: I love how Primadonna has a strong centric female-focus as well as showcasing authors from diverse backgrounds, and I’m intrigued as to how you selected the first ever line up for the festival? Were there any specific qualities that you were looking for from the writers and performers?

Sabeena: You know, it’s funny- we often hear people say that they don’t know where to find authors from marginalised backgrounds, but we’ve had no such problem! Our remit was just brilliant writing and we’ve been so overwhelmed with the wealth of talent out there, that we’ve struggled to stick to our programming hours!

Aliya: The festival will run for three days – can you give a bit more detail as to what will happen over those three days and why everyone should go?

Sabeena: Where to begin? Over the festival weekend, patrons can expect the very best of books, music, comedy, locally sourced food and even massages! There will be open mic sessions, interviews, panels and round table events, so everyone has a chance to get stuck in and interact. We’re also fully accessible and family friendly with events for children and adults alike. Personally I’m really looking forward to letting my kids go off and have some fun whilst I sit in on some comedy and the sessions on men writing women and working class authors.

Aliya: I’ve also spotted the Primadonna Prize, which looks fab. Tell me more!

Sabeena: We’re really proud of the Prize. We wanted to use our industry contacts to create access for emerging writers. It’s an opportunity for a previously unpublished writer to gain a platform, win some money and, if they’d like- representation by the award winning Agent of the Year, Cathryn Summerhayes. Further details about the prize can be found here. We’ll also be announcing our awesome judging panel soon, so look out for that.

Aliya: There’s some detail on what’s coming up on the official website but of course, there’ll be some exciting announcements closer to the time. Are you able to share any spoilers or teasers?

Sabeena: Hmm I can’t reveal too much, but let’s just say, if you’re a dirty dancing fan you won’t want to miss this festival!!

Aliya: ‘Cut from the Same Cloth’ is a brilliant book that has been crowd-funded on Unbound, featuring a ground-breaking collection of essays written by British hijabis. You’ve written an essay for the book and will also be editing the book. Will you be talking about this at Primadonna?

Sabeena: Thank you! Cut From the Same Cloth will be published in 2020 and is a project really close to my heart. Whilst we haven’t scheduled a session about it in this years line up, I will be at the festival and happy to discuss the book. One of the things that makes Primadonna so unique is the networking opportunities we’re facilitating for writers. Festival goers will be able to mingle with and meet a whole host of authors, agents and more. Having said that, I’m not sure anyone would want to make a beeline towards me, when they’ll be writers such as Elif Shafak, Kit de Waal and Luke Jennings there!

Aliya: Wow, that sounds great! Whilst Primadonna sounds like a brilliant weekend of fun – what are the ultimate goals of the festival moving forward and what impact would you like it to have on the festival goers in the long run?

Sabeena: Ultimately, we’d like our festival goers to return home having had a fantastic weekend, discovered some new writers and come away feeling like they’ve been part of something special. Because from its inception, this project really has felt like something special. As a working class woman in the arts, I know too well that the imbalance of gender, race and class begins from who has a seat at the table and that’s why I’m so proud to be a founding Primadonna. For me at least, the impact is already being felt.

The Primadonna Festival will be at Laffits Hall, Suffolk IP14 6DT from 30 August-1 September 2019. Tickets are available to purchase here.

Published 18 June