Farhana Shaikh talks to us about The Asian Writer Festival


The Asian Writer Festival is on 21 October at the Royal Asiatic Society in London. This year marks its tenth birthday and the festival will showcase the live contents of The Asian Writer‘s website in a live format. But how did it all begin and who is it for? Founder and editor of The Asian Writer, Farhana Shaikh told us more…

My love for books started from a young age, and I always knew I wanted to be a writer. Publishing was my chance to work with books and earn a living and so I went off to study Publishing with English at university. I wrote while starting a family, but I was desperate to read about the experiences of writers who looked like me, and when I didn’t find them in the mainstream I set up The Asian Writer.

After three years I realised that so many writers who were contacting me felt invisible, and that they had no chance of getting published. I had the publishing background and confidence to dip my toe in the water so I set-up small press, Dahlia Publishing to publish regional and diverse writing.

Small press publishing is tough because you’re always conscious of the fact that there’s so much you can do, but that there’s not enough time or money to make everything you want happen. I’ve learnt to work in small, quiet ways, with the aim of making a real difference to the writers I choose to work with.

One of these ways is through The Asian Writer Short Story Prize which recognises the best emerging writers and publishes their work in an anthology. For many writers it’s their first experience of being acknowledged for their writing talent. Having your work taken seriously by an editor can be a massive confidence boost, and it hasn’t surprised me that writers shortlisted for our prize have gone on to do wonderful things.

This year, I was lucky enough to attend Mahsuda Snaith’s book launch, and felt a burst of pride as she stood and signed copies of her book in our local Waterstones. I couldn’t help but reminisce the first time I had read her work when she submitted it to our inaugural competition. I recently discovered through a piece in Mslexia, that Snaith submitted to over 300 competitions previously.

The Asian Writer continues to work and publish new and emerging voices and I’m sure many of them will go on to achieve mainstream success. A recent addition to our online platform has been the development of a free online course, which is a sort of ‘no-excuses’ chance to kick-start a writing career. I didn’t know what to expect when I set up the course, but the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Some have claimed it’s been life-changing which always takes me back and keeps me motivated.

Spread the Word’s Writing the Future report (2015) was damning and highlighted the lack of diversity in the publishing industry but since then very little has changed. For all the talk and activism around trying to change things it’s depressing and exhausting to realise that little action has been taken. Last year, Robyn Travis was identified by the Guardian as the sole black male debut novelist published in 2016. That’s a terrifying statistic and reflects how far behind the industry is.

It’s not all grim news however. The Bookseller reports today (29 September) that submissions from Black and Asian Minority Ethnic writers are on the up. This doesn’t surprise me. As someone who works closely with up and coming Asian writers, I know the talent is out there. I’m one of those lucky people who gets the chance to see work in its early development, and discover a new voice. This latest news is very much welcome and definitely a step in the right direction. Now we need publishers to be prepared to take risk on these new talents.

There’s lots that needs to happen before Asian writers are given the much needed recognition they deserve. But ultimately, writers must focus on the stories they wish to tell, and allow themselves the time and headspace to write them. The Asian Writer Festival which is a culmination of ten years work will celebrate their voices, honour their experiences as well as give new writers an opportunity to find support and inspiration within a knowledgeable community.

Be a part of it – book your ticket and view the full festival programme here. You can find out more about what the Asian Writer does here!