Lisa Matthews tells us about the festival she co-founded with Julia in 1998…
ProudWords was a northeast-based creative writing festival created for and delivered by LGBTQI people that ran for ten years from 1998. It was a unique queer presence in the creative terrain of the UK and it all came out of a drink I had with Julia after she had been to Glasgow for the day.
For some reason, Julia and I were meeting in Northumbria University’s student union bar (neither of us were students) and Julia had just got back from Scotland where she had been leading some writing workshop as part of the wider “Glasgay” festival.
I was early for our meeting and distinctly remember Julia dashing in with more than the usual spring in her step. She was excited and full of energy over the queer writing space she’d been a part of and was taken by how comfortable she had felt to work without the worry of having to “out” herself in a creative space full of strangers (other LGBTQI people will know only too well how this feels). As we put the world to rights she happened to remark how amazing it would be to have a whole lot of queer writing workshops to choose from all in one place. Just as casually I replied that we should put some on then. Both of us were working freelance and leading workshops by then, and Julia’s writing career was taking off.
So we went to Northern Arts who gave us a tiny grant and we arranged a weekend of queer writing workshops. In the early days Julia and I were joined by writers Barry Stone and Brighid Morrigan and the four of us put on the first festival – on a shoestring and with a lot of good will and support from others in the community. It was all a bit chaotic but the workshops numbers spoke for themselves. It was a huge success and New Writing North and Live Theatre backed us from the get-go, helping with admin and bookings.
ProudWords was always serious about writing and literature being something for everyone, not just the literary elite or established writing scenes. Both Julia and I resisted more traditional models for festival planning and with her handling the talent and me the databases, we made a strangely effective team. Then that team extended. Mary Lowe worked on a voluntary basis as our administrator/programmer, then a committee came and with more funding we were able to pay our workers and expand the festival.
By the end of its 10-year run ProudWords had transformed from a discreet weekend project to a year-long programme of LGBTQI writing events & activities, all with a huge week-long festival in the north east at its heart. It was, and still is, utterly unique.
Big names, big audiences and community support all contributed to ProudWords success: Sarah Waters, Alan Hollinghurst, Peter Tatchell, Jackie Kay, Patrick Gale and many wore wonderful writers and LGBTQI activists stood shoulder-to-shoulder with local queer people interested in books, writing, reading, words and language. Everyone was welcome and sometimes it felt like everybody came. We filled theatres and venues.
ProudWords is one of my proudest achievements as a writer and as an LGBTQI-identified woman and working together so closely with Julia meant she and I became great friends. Maya Angelou said: “I have learned that people will forget what you said, and they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel” and Julia had a knack for putting people at ease. I learned a lot from her and still miss her terribly.