Brixton BookJam back home at Hootananny

As Brixton BookJam gets back on track after lockdowns, Iona Cleave caught up with founder Zelda Rhiando to talk about the now decade-old event which fuses local and global influences across literature, music and performance

Zelda Rhiando

Zelda Rhiando is most of the force behind the non-profit literary event that has now been running for more than ten years.

The concept is simple: an unpredictable, eclectic mix of, mostly, writers, but also poets and musicians – some well-known and some completely new. Each has a five-minute slot.

“For the audiences, it feels long enough to get engrossed in the story, but the right amount of time to move on and become engrossed in a different story,” says Zelda. 

In terms of the selection of writers, “it’s not so much about locality, but about a spread of voices,” explains Zelda, and the inclusion of “seldom heard voices”.

At its heart, the event is about “making it a level playing field for writers … to give people equal access to publishing and to audiences.”

Alex Wheatle, the Bard of Brixton, was among the authors at the first event in 2012.

This October’s line-up includes:  Mik Artistik, Ned Beauman, Graham Buchan, Kwaku Osei-Afrifa, Zelda Rhiando, C J Schuler, Deserter and more. 

What’s different as BookJam hits its tenth year?

“It hasn’t changed that much … it’s probably one of the few things in Brixton that hasn’t,” Zelda says laughing. 

“It could be laziness to be fair, but I think generally it seems to work quite nicely for people.

“They like it, the writers like it, it’s a sustainable event. That’s the point of it, everybody gets something back.”

Brixton BookJam logo

Authors have a space to share their work or sell it at the small bookshop the organisers set up without taking a cut, while the audience listens for free.

A rotating crew of people help to make it happen, as well as long-term support from Hootananny on Effra Road, which hosts the event.

Over lockdown, the event moved online, which offered an opportunity to do something different, says Zelda. “We were not constrained by geography anymore.” 

One event simultaneously featured writers from Mombasa, Cape Town, and Denmark – but it was missing a vital element of the BookJam’s magic – the atmosphere of a live audience.

“It’s trickier for the writers to not have that sense of seeing the reaction of people live,” says Zelda.

There’s another dynamic at play too at in-person events, which makes the evening rather special.

Writers of all levels of success, young or old, can talk together, share ideas or learn from one another.

And, what’s Brixton’s role in all of this? “Could it just be a BookJam rather than a Brixton BookJam?” Zelda asks out-loud.

“I think there will always be a really strong local element, and that will always be what drives it, and giving back to that community.

“Brixton’s the kind of place that thrives on outside influences, and that’s quite an important part of it too.” 

The next BookJam starts at 8pm sharp on Monday 3 October at Hootananny.

“It can get crazy busy” so the organisers encourage you to arrive earlier. Doors open at 7.30pm.

Brixton BookJam

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