Interview: Stella Duffy excited about lesbian festival

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Katherine Knowles

“The York Lesbian Arts Festival is fantastic!” enthuses patron Stella Duffy, whose popular novels include Calendar Girls, which recently came 5th in the International Big Gay Read Poll.

“I’ve been every year and it’s a hell of an event. All the well-known dyke writers turn up, and it gets a little over the top.

“Taxi drivers in York know it’s us by now, and it’s mostly dykes that come to the festival so when you get in a cab and say you want the race course they know, and they can be curious, asking about lesbian things.”

Stella thinks the festival is important for all sorts of reasons.

“There’s been a real movement in the last ten years I think towards seeing gay culture as clubbing and that scene.

“I’m keen to remember that one of the most useful things for me as a young not-really-sure-how-to-be-a-lesbian lesbian was reading novels.

“I think now we – God it sounds awful to say it – I suppose the older generation of writer have a responsibility to show younger people what it’s all about.”

Something of a veteran on the art’s scene, the UK’s largest festival of lesbian arts has settled comfortably into a well-tested format.

On Saturday 27th there’s the book festival which takes place at York racecourse.

Writers such as Val McDermid, Rhona Cameron, and Sarah Waters will be reading from and discussing their work.

There are plays, films, an open mike slot, and plenty of food and drink stalls to keep everyone entertained and happy.

In the evening the action moves to Club Diva, where DJs Sadie Lee, Claud Cunningham, Ad Astra and Emma will be keeping everyone dancing until 2am.

On the Sunday, street performances and sing-alongs continue the party spirit.

“The event feels like a safe place for women to talk about things, and that’s really important,” explains Stella.

“For some people it’s like coming out again every year. But that makes the festival sound really serious.

“Really, of all the reader events I do, and I love doing reader events, this is the one where I know if I go I’ll have a good time.

“The street party on the Sunday is a lovely event – it’s very inclusive and it’s good that there’s a sense of it being out in the community.

“It’s not often that women have a chance to take back the streets. I think it’s great. I’m more involved with the book festival day though.”

Stella explains that for her, university that was the big time for reading.

“My parents had a book shelf and it had some Dickens and probably some Readers Digest, I don’t know what, there were books, but not a lot of them.

“And I grew up in a small town in New Zealand where the library wasn’t that good either. So when I went to university I suddenly found all these books.

“The ones that really influenced me were Margaret Atwood’s Edible Woman and probably even more, Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time.

“It changed my life. It was ground breaking. It really played with the form. In fact, it’s exciting how both women played with form as much as content.

“And they wrote about women protagonists. Unless you were reading a Danielle Steele or a Jackie Collins, there was an assumption that you needed a male protagonist in a novel to be taken seriously.

“I think these writers have an under-acknowledged role in our ability as writers now to put women centre-stage.”

As well as literary talks and discussions, part of the festival programme includes a debate about the relevance of having a specifically lesbian arts festival.

Does it unnecessarily pigeonhole artists to define them by their sexual orientation?

“I do engage in the debate about whether we need a specifically lesbian arts festival at all,” says Stella.

“I do wonder whether we live in a culture where we need it. Though we do have a crisis of male literacy. So maybe we need to do anything we can to encourage people to read any writers at all really.

“If men won’t read books by women, and studies show that they don’t, they’re excluding themselves from half the books written – maybe even more than half since there are a lot of women writers.

“Men are welcome at the event – either as guests of women or if they let the organisers know they’re coming.

“I’d personally like to see more straight people coming to the festival too. Being in a gay ghetto isn’t for me.

“I do understand that for some people it’s a safe haven, though and I wouldn’t want to take that away from them so it’s a complicated issue.”

The organisers have come up with a door policy to try to keep this spirit alive – we’ve reprinted it below. Basically if you want to come to the festival you can. Just let the organisers know if you’re male, or find yourself a female friend to go with.

“The thing is, we go out to straight people such a lot and they never come in to us, so I wish more straight people would come.

“Then again, I really want people to think that we’re not interesting because we’re gay, we’re just interesting.

“I’m not sure how that fits with a specifically lesbian arts festival. So yes, I defiantly engage in the debate!”

More information can be found on the YLAF website.

Please note the following door policy:

Every year women comment on the uniqueness of this event. While we want to keep it unique, we do not want to exclude people who are sometimes barred from or made unwelcome at lesbian events.

For this reason we felt we should clarify our policy. We welcome women festival-goers and their male friends including:

lesbian and bi women;

transsexual women (MTFs, pre-op and post-op);

transsexual men (FTMs);

intersexed people;

women who have not ‘come out’;

heterosexual women;

men attending as guests of women.

Men planning to attend on their own are asked to email one of the organisers first to introduce themselves.

There are exceptions to this policy as some events are women-only.

At YLAF 2007, the club night, workshops and walks are women-only (transsexual women are welcome, as are intersexed and FTM people who have links to the women’s community).