Belongg Online Literature Festival: What Does Literature Have to Do with Diversity, Inclusion?

Literature helps us feel our way into the lives of others in a world where no two people are the same.

The Belongg Online Literature Festival is on from July 3-6, 2020. For more information, visit belongglitfest.com.

Across the world, hundreds of millions of people face identity-based discrimination linked to their gender, sexuality, race, caste, religion, or disability. As studies in history, anthropology, and even the cognitive sciences show, such discrimination has persisted for thousands of years for various social, political, and evolutionary reasons.

What’s more, reminders seem to be everywhere. The first half of 2020 has brought us face-to-face with various forms of identity-based discrimination: the contentious issue of the CAA-NRC has highlighted religious faultlines in India, the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota has sparked a resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the outbreak of COVID-19 has exposed racist attitudes, communal prejudice and collective indifference towards people from India’s Northeast and the country’s migrant labourers respectively.

While all of these have garnered significant public attention as ‘events,’ they are symptomatic of deep-rooted structures of discrimination that mark our everyday lives. They reveal themselves in, among other things, our refusal to rent property to Muslims, the use of racist pejoratives and our visible discomfort with ceding public space to transgender people.

It is against this backdrop that Belongg, a social venture, seeks to bring discrimination-free services and experiences to people who face prejudice or bias for reasons of identity, including gender, sexuality, race, caste, religion, and ability. Belongg runs platforms for services such as inclusive rental housing, inclusive mental health, and even research focused on inclusion. However, more foundationally, we focus on fostering inclusive communities by bringing together a wide range of people from different walks of life.

Inclusive literature and the arts more generally play a significant role in fostering such communities. With this belief, the Belongg Book Club & Library hosts literary conversations with authors whose works explore identity, diversity and inclusion.

We have also been seeding a network of inclusive libraries and cultural spaces across India where such dialogues can be cultivated. Now, we are organising the inaugural edition of the Belongg Online Literature Festival, or BOLF – a one-of-a-kind virtual literary festival focused on diversity and inclusion – in partnership with  The Wire.

While putting together such a festival was always part of our plan, the need to host it virtually was prompted by the COVID-19 lockdown, which has, somewhat unexpectedly, allowed us to nurture a global community of thinkers. The BOLF will take place between 3rd and 6th July 2020 and feature 30+ interactive online sessions with 75+ speakers from both India and abroad who write, illustrate, translate and publish at the intersection of identity and (non)belonging in English, Hindi, Urdu, or any other languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent.

Belongg’s investment in foregrounding inclusive literature begs the question: Why literature? What is the relationship between literature and diversity, inclusion, even social justice? While any straightforward answer risks disingenuity, we regard empathy, which literature has the potential to engender, as an integral even if complex part of our humanity. As Bernadine Evaristo, best known for her Booker Prize-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other, recently reminded us, literature has the ability to “connect us to each other and foster and express our shared humanity.” In her essay about the importance of inclusive publishing, she emphasises the interrelation between literature and empathy, even going so far as to say that people who read fiction are more empathetic because they are “well-practised in stepping into the shoes of fictional characters who are different from themselves.”

While there is little consensus among scholars of empathy on what exactly it means to be empathetic, the etymology of the word might give us a clue. The word ‘empathy’ is the English translation of the German word Einfühlung, which literally means ‘feeling-in.’ Literature, then, helps us feel our way into the lives of others in a world where no two people are the same.

But does reading about the lives of others involve the acquisition of complete and accurate knowledge about them? Would not such narratives of mastery flatten lived differences and reify existing structures of power? Here, we follow the lead of Carolyn Pedwell who, in her book Affective Relations, says that empathy as affective translation does not eliminate conflict, understood as contact between the familiar and the ‘foreign,’ for it is in one’s openness to being affected by that which one encounters as ‘foreign’ that the transformative potential of empathy can be found. It is in this space, opened up by literature, between me and not-me – me and more-than-me – that empathy takes root.

At the Belongg Online Literature Festival, we hope to highlight the efforts of literary artists who have held such spaces open during difficult periods of extreme hate and polarisation. By putting them in conversation with each other, we aim to (re)imagine coalitions for a new world, thinking across and beyond borders of identities, nations, disciplines and genres. Another critical goal of Belongg’s initiative is to not just preach to the ‘converted’ but to invite others who are curious–or perhaps even biased–into such conversations. As some of our previous meetups and conversations have shown us, while such dialogue can be challenging or uncomfortable at first, it is well worth the effort.

Put simply, we need to maintain an expansive view of community and solidarity, to keep sight of the more-than-me that makes me possible. Aided by the love of books, we invite everyone into the House of Belongg.

Manjari Sahay is the Book Club & Library Associate and Nirat Bhatnagar is the Founder of Belongg.

The Wire is partnering Belongg for the Belongg Online Literature Festival