Behind the scenes at Charleston’s Small Wonder festival

Marina Warner
Marina Warner

The Small Wonder short story festival is at Charleston from September 27 to October 1.

No festival can stand still and this year’s celebration of the short story, now in its 14th year, not only breaks new ground but chimes perfectly with the tempo of our times, reflecting such major preoccupations as identity and immigration.

As final preparations were under way for this unique literary event, I met the two women behind the programme, artistic director Diana Reich and programmer Tanya Andrews. Both are internationalists: Diana was director of English PEN for a number of years and Tanya was deputy director for literature at the British Council.

This year’s programme will combine an element of surprise and unpredictability, explained Diana, with a strong showing of well known writers – including Penelope Lively (the 2017 recipient of the Charleston-Bede’s Award for a Lifetime’s Excellence in Short Fiction). Alongside the familiar names are others who are less well-known, including those from the Caribbean, among them writer and human rights activist Helen Klonaris, the British Council International Writer in Residence at Small Wonder. This ground-breaking project, co-ordinated by Tanya, is now in its third year.

The speakers come at today’s preoccupations from many different perspectives.

Immigration and refugees, both historic and current, are the threads running through the festival. One of last year’s most popular events was Refugee Tales, modelled on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and the second volume communicates the plight of asylum seekers who find themselves indefinitely detained. Their stories will be told by prize-winning writer Marina Warner, who has a long-standing track record of speaking on behalf of the dispossessed, and Neel Mukherjee, author of A State of Freedom. They will be in conversation with Anna Pincus, who has worked for Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group for ten years (Sept 30).

Reflecting on the cantankerous nature of the British will be Kit de Waal and David Constantine, who have contributed to the Comma Press anthology of stories looking at British protest down the ages. Kit de Waal’s story takes place during the Smethwick campaign. A prize-winning short story writer, her debut novel My Name is Leon won this year’s Kerry Group Irish Book of the Year. Writer, poet and translator David Constantine’s story is Rivers of Blood, which depicts the Oxford march springing from Enoch Powell’s speech (Wednesday, September 27).

What it means to be British is discussed by award-winning writer Nikesh Shukla, author of The Good Immigrant, with spoken word artist Salena Godden and barrister Afua Hirsch (Sept 29).

The international flavour of this year’s Small Wonder, says Tanya, reflects the debate currently under way that the publishing industry is not looking enough at the question of identity and dispossession. It is only the pioneering independent publishing houses such as Comma Press which are taking on the issues.

This is a festival that promises to be provocative and thought-provoking as well as fun and enlightening. There is an expanded writing and reading element with workshops supported by the Booker Prize Foundation and reading groups in partnership with New Writing South and Lewes Short Story Club.

For the full programme and tickets click here visit or call 01323 815150. There is a shuttle bus from Lewes train station to and from every event.

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