It’s taken me a while to write this, to turn something huge into words that make sense. I think I’ve done an ok job of it.
Last week, I spent an entire weekend in a hotel full of lesbian/bi/trans/queer women. A whole weekend. All together and talking and listening and laughing and sharing and asking and dancing and crying. It was no coincidence, of course. This was the first ever DIVA Literary Festival, and I went with my friend, Megan, who I met on the internet long before either of us were out. We’ve both been on quite the journey since we first started talking all that time ago, and if either of us had known then that we’d end up doing this, I think we would have laughed.
The weekend kicked off with the DIVA Literary Awards: black-tie, fancy dinner, lots of joyous applause, magic, some really beautiful outfits (including mine!). The winners were from an incredible and talented field of nominees, and there were some beautiful acceptance speeches. After a long week at work, and a slightly stressful drive up from London, we ended up leaving before the dancing started, though we heard it was extraordinary (I’m a bit sad we missed it, because I love to dance when I get going, but also I was so so tired).
The festival itself, on Saturday and Sunday, was glorious: varied and interesting and great fun. I got myself into lots of conversations, and employed my best fake-it-till-you-make-it approach to being confident, which worked pretty well. Here’s my Saturday twitter thread for what I got up to in all the sessions – listing it out here doesn’t make especially coherent reading, but the programme was varied and, often, led by questions and comments from the audience, which made everything feel very welcoming and comfortable. Val McDermid’s session was brilliant – she’s blindingly clever, funny and warm, and I spent the whole hour in enraptured delight: I could listen to her for much longer. I read my first of hers in September, having seen that she would be here this weekend, and wanting to be prepared – daunted by choice, I asked my friend where to start, and ended up reading The Distant Echo in two days – and I’m really glad I did. All the other sessions I went to were interesting and warming and engaging and empowering by turns, and I felt like I made good choices. One of them was Books For The Digital Generation, which ended up being a tiny group, and an absolutely lovely discussion of how we encourage young people (and ourselves!) to read. The Saturday Night Salon, a showcase of comedy, poetry and music, was so varied and moving and fun, and a really nice touch to include it in the weekend.
Whereas Saturday was mostly fun, Sunday was both fun and extremely emotional (here’s my twitter thread). After a panel about new authors, and one on particular challenges of publishing lesbian fiction, we settled in for In Conversation With Stella Duffy, hosted by Wendy Meakin. Stella read from London Lies Beneath and I was struck, as always, by the way she really performs when she reads – I’ve been to a lot of book events and I’ve never seen anyone read like this. I didn’t film much of it, but here’s a little snippet. If I was emotional before this session – thinking about how warm and open the whole weekend was, and how happy I was to talk to people I had never met because I felt so safe – that’s nothing compared to how I felt by the end of it. Stella spoke about how all of us being there for the festival was a political act, about how there’s more we can do, about Fun Palaces, and so much more. Hearing Stella speak is always wonderful – she’s so passionate and energising and she makes me want to be better and do better. But it was when she said that she’s always scared, but does things anyway, in spite of it, I cried (it was that really dramatic crying where you just have a silent tear from each eye). I was far from the only one.
And for the rest of the day, I felt on the edge of tears constantly. Looking back, I’m surprised it took me so long. It was a big deal of a weekend. We were all together, sharing something huge, and there was this real atmosphere of friendliness and sharing that is rare in such a big group of people. I made a conscious effort to introduce myself to people, but it wasn’t hard, because everyone was delightful. And it was just so bloody great to hear so many people referring to wives and girlfriends and partners (without being cagey about pronouns), and children and adopting and everything, and none of these being the most interesting thing about any of us. It made me feel so warm.
That weekend affirmed me in a lot of ways, and I’m already excited for next year!