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The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: Bidisha and Gulwali Passarlay

Fran Slater is powerfully moved by an afternoon with Bidisha and refugee-turned-author Gulwali Passarlay.

If there’s a timelier event taking place at this year’s festival, I’ll eat all of the hats I have ever owned. Right in the middle of an era-defining humanitarian crisis, and with the refugee debate raging across the front pages on an almost daily basis, there couldn’t be a better time for a room full of people to gather and listen to the wise words of two people who know more about these issues than most.

Journalist, critic, and broadcaster Bidisha, who published Asylum and Exile in March of this year, was joined at the Cross Street Chapel by one of the most impressive guests I have ever seen at the festival. When listening to Gulwali Passarlay, whose memoir The Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey has just been released, you could easily mistake him for an experienced academic in his mid to late forties. He had a well-informed answer to every question asked, and he told parts of his traumatic story in an extremely measured and witty way. Beginning to read his book on the bus home from the event, I discovered that he was born in 1994. Anyone who still needs persuading of the bravery and determination of those who come here to seek asylum should spend ten minutes with this man.

As both Bidisha and Gulwali pointed out at the events inception, they were maybe preaching to the converted at this event. You’d assume, for the most part, that anyone attending a talk about Asylum and Exile was unlikely to be a big fan of Theresa May’s recent speeches. But that didn’t mean that there wasn’t an awful lot from the audience to learn from these two experts. Subjects ranged from the aftermath of the Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre investigation, to the debate on the use of upsetting imagery in newspapers, via a frank and honest assessment of immigration policies in our country and abroad. Even for someone who thinks of themselves as pretty well informed on the matter, there was a lot of new information. Much of it was disturbing and upsetting, but it was information that everyone needs to know.

It’s probably important to say, though, that this wasn’t an event that left the audience feeling despondent. In fact, the mere fact that there were so many people in that room, and so much passion about the subject, left the speakers and the audience with hope that things might be changing. And how could anyone be anything other than inspired and full of admiration after listening to Gulwali Passarlay for an hour and a half.

This was the Manchester Literature Festival at its very best.


Fran Slater is a Manchester-based writer and editor who is currently taking far too long to finish his first novel. Read his fiction, reviews, and poor attempts at blogging here.