Arifa Akbar is a journalist, critic and columnist. She is also the curator of ‘M-Fest’, a Muslim festival of books and ideas launching at King’s Place, London, in September 2017. She is a regular newspaper reviewer on Sky News, and reviews books for the FT.
She is the former literary editor of The Independent, where she worked from 2001 until 2016 as a reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk. She has judged the Orwell Prize 2013, the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014 and the British Bookseller Industry Award 2016, and she is the lead judge for Aesthetica Magazine’s short story competition for the third year in 2016.
Arifa has chaired author interviews at the London Literature Festival, Bath Literature Festival, Bradford Literature Festival, Foyles and Asia House, among others. She is on the advisory committee for EnglishPEN’s writing in translation programme.
What was the last book you read?
Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante, along with her children’s book The Beach At Night which is a dark, frightening and lovely story about loss and friendship. I’m so pleased about the backlash over that ‘investigation’ and expose of her real identity. No-one wants to know.
And what did you read it on?
My sofa, physical book in hand, complete with coffee spillages and chocolate smudges. I am a Luddite when it comes to any form of electronic reading. I don’t own an e-reader. The only time I used one was when I needed to review a book that was only available electronically. A friend lent me a very fancy, very expensive, e-reading device overnight. I had to bring it to the office the next day shame-faced because I hadn’t been able to switch it on.
What’s next on your reading list?
Ken Clarke’s memoir, Kind of Blue! Because I’m interviewing him, along with Nick Clegg, for the Dulwich Book Festival this weekend. Political memoirs are not my usual bedtime reading but given the developments on Brexit, and the US presidential elections, I’m finding it all very relevant (but I wish there was a little more dishing of the dirt in both Clegg’s and Clarke’s books!).
Which writer would you have loved to have met – and why?
Emily Bronte, though she might have been too shy or gruff for a meaningful conversation. Wuthering Heights is a book I have loved since the age of 16, and I find her intriguing as a person as well as an author.
What are you watching right now on TV?
Strictly Come Dancing. Ore should win, 100 percent. I don’t even mind that he cries every week. As far as my view on Ed Balls. Let’s not even start.
What TV series are you obsessing over right now?
First Dates. I normally hate schmaltzy shows about finding romance, but this one always moves me. The people on it reveal their vulnerabilities.
Tell us what you/your company does in 20 words or fewer?
M-Fest, the literary festival I curate, is challenging stereotypes around Muslims. Wasafiri, the magazine I work for, is bringing new international fiction to light. Is that 20 words?
What is the single biggest challenge facing the publishing industry right now?
Lack of diversity is definitely up there.
What is the one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out in publishing today?
Learn to speed read.
Which imprints do you most admire – and why?
Daring ones like Oneworld that take risks with their lists, and have diversity on it too, without any hint of tokenism. I was so thrilled when Marlon James won last year and they had been publishing him for years. I remember they sent me his second book about a slave woman and I was bowled over by it. I have yet to read Paul Beatty’s book but I’m looking forward to it.
Does the publishing industry understand technology?
Yes, or at least, more than I do.
Which is your favourite bookshop or ebookstore – and why?
The big Waterstones in Piccadilly because it’s huge and it’s got a 5th floor restaurant with great views across London.
What guilty pleasure do you have from the world of fiction?
Jackie Collins. I hate how some in the industry look down on fiction of this ilk. Jackie Collins’s books are filled with strong “kickass” women who happen to have great hair and nails, and they’re real page-turners. What’s wrong a well-written bonk-buster?
Which great novel have you tried to read – but failed?
I pretended to read Pride and Prejudice at university.