From Sathnam Sanghera — writer in residence at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival | Cheltenham Festivals

11 10 2009

There have been mutterings and complaints, in literary circles, that too few of the figures featured in the marketing material for The 2009 Times Cheltenham Literary Festival are actual writers. Comedians, yes. Presenters of Top Gear who happen to have a book out. But not enough people who live and breathe words for a living.

And on my first night here, finding myself trying to decide between seeing Jo Brand or Richard Hammond, it seemed like they had a point. But it must be remembered that festivals are just a reflection of what is happening in publishing, and celebrity titles give publishers the cash to gamble on literary work. Also, for every James Cracknell and Ben Fogel speaking here yesterday there was a Hermione Lee or Hilary Mantel.

Though, having said that, when it came down to it, I chose to see Shappi Khorsandi, that great literary figure perhaps best known for being the Iranian woman who is sometimes quite funny on Have I Got News For You. And I say “sometimes quite funny” because I’ve never liked her as much as I want to. She’s a fascinating figure but there’s something about her relentless need to make gags that makes her difficult to engage with. And, sure enough there were gags aplenty last night.

In the Town Hall to talk to an audience of about 700 about her book “A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English”, her account of adapting to London after fleeing from Tehran in the 1980s, she talked about confused identity (“I always feel English until someone asks me if I feel English… and then I feel Swedish”), giving her son an Irish-Iranian name (“I don’t know why they make you name your children when you’re so hormonal”), cultural misunderstandings at school (“I thought there was a line in the Lord’s Prayer that went “Halloween be thy name”), religion (“I thought we didn’t eat pig because pigs were cute”), her father’s desire to be a performer (“I wanted to be a doctor, but my father pushed me into comedy”) and Iran (“In Iran we advocate free speech, but you’re no longer free after you’ve spoken”). It went down well, but I nodded when, at one point, the host asked her: “Is there anything you won’t make a joke of?”

Fortunately Khorsandi became more appealing as the event morphed from standup gig to literary reading. Initially she seemed embarrassed by her own writing (“don’t ever write a book in first year of your child’s life”) but it subsequently transpired that she is dyslexic and finds reading-out difficult, and that her book is actually very good. We heard about her early impressions of England as a child (She initially wanted to call the book English People Smell of Milk), what it felt like translating news of the Revolution on Newsround to her mother as a six or seven year old, a beloved uncle being shot in the back in Iran as a 19 year old, an infant relative dying of measles. At one point she remarked, “I’m not very good at being serious out loud.” But she’s wrong. She very good at it, and being so makes her comedy more powerful.

Sathnam SangheraSathnam Sanghera is one of our three writers in residence at this year’s festival. Catch up with Sathnam Sanghera, Kapka Kassabova and Vesna Maric in event 282 on Sunday 18 October.

Sathnam’s latest book is The Boy with the Topknot published by Penguin.

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