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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Mayer

Elif Shafak and Sandi Toksvig on friendship and Primadonna Festival

Two of my favourite women talk about each other, books, storytelling, campaigning, challenges and joy.

Elif on Sandi:

It’s the smile you notice before anything else, and the energy. People are said to light up a room, but Sandi is capable of illuminating an entire theatre. I remember attending one of the first-ever meetings of the Women’s Equality Party, more than 400 people crammed into Conway Hall in central London, and her presence on stage was extraordinary. I watched the young women sitting near me and they were completely enthralled.

Sandi knows she is a funny woman, a brilliant comedian, and a wonderful storyteller, but her real superpower is to effortlessly inspire and empower others, especially those who have been treated as ’the Other'. I noticed this when we first met and spent time together in Istanbul, and I have witnessed this phenomenon in private and public throughout the years after I moved to the UK. It meant a lot to me that she supported this move. As a public figure, she does so many things to make the world a better place, co-founding the Women’s Equality Party, and helping to set up the amazing Primadonna Festival, which is one of my all-time favourite festivals, and speaking out on human rights issues, as well as standing up for LGBTQ rights.

I also love the way she appreciates and treasures the seemingly small blessings in life—the beauty of a tree, the magic of a song, the taste of lovingly baked homemade cookies, nothing is insignificant. In an effortless way, but hugely valuable to me and her other friends, she spreads optimism and resilience, and also inspires us to keep going with our own activism.

Sandi is sunshine. She is a beautiful human being full of kindness and wisdom. I often wish we lived on the same street or two houseboats on the river, side by side. I have long admired her bravery and we are in tune in our instincts too. Both of us see this as a dangerous moment in history, so many rights and protections are under threat and marginalised people are victimised, all of which means we cannot remain silent on core human rights issues and this is a crucial moment in history for global sisterhood.

Sandi on Elif:

I’m pretty sure that books brought us together. Both of us love books, write them and devour them, and even before I co-founded Primadonna Festival and she attended its 2019 debut, we had hung out together at other festivals.

I do recall my first impressions of her—tall and elegant, smiling down at me. I remember hoping there were chairs nearby as I thought I’d never hear everything she said in her soft-spoken voice which emanated so far above me. Already I knew enough about her to be aware that you don’t want to miss a word she says. She is one of the wisest of women, also funny and kind.

Elif, of course, is from Turkey. Indeed, on one occasion we had breakfast together in Istanbul. In this case, the meeting occurred because I was interviewing her for Radio 4, but we took pleasure from the brief encounter despite it being recorded. When Elif was applying to move to the UK, I encouraged her, not only for the selfish pleasure of having this lovely woman settle here, but because she is such a literary treasure that frankly the UK should have applied to her with a request to stay.

Elif is best known as the author of novels, vivid, passionate, poetic stories of outsiders and hidden histories. However, the same sensibilities that enable her to write with such understanding of other lives also animate her activism. In this area, she and I share many goals, to defuse polarisation, build real and meaningful inclusivity and to fight the scourges of hatred, prejudice and populism that are finding so much purchase everywhere right now. As soon as I co-founded the Women’s Equality Party, she expressed her support and has offered practical assistance and excellent advice. It was the same with Primadonna. When I helped to launch it, she immediately jumped on board, emailing to ask what she could do. The festival is not just a few days of pure joy—the world as it should be for one weekend, as we say—but a form of activism too. The bunch of women who set up Primadonna wanted to create a festival not only for old festival hands like ourselves, but others who had never attended festivals or spoken or performed at them. We wanted to open up publishing too, to ensure a much wider range of stories is told, a much wider range of voices brought to the public. Primadonna Festival has already transformed lives. It’s very exciting.

I often wish Elif and I lived round the corner from each other. Sadly we mostly see each other at some event or other. At that first Primadonna, we danced backstage. (Well, she danced, and I clapped.) The last time I saw her was at Somerset House for a gathering of good people who wanted to save the planet or other excellent notion. She appeared round a corner, smiled and hugged me. We went and found some chairs so I could delight in her every word.

Words, pictures & film clips ©Catherine Mayer 2023 apart from photograph of Sandi Toksvig and Adjoa Andoh at Primadonna Festival which is @Leo Cackett Studios for Primadonna.

Information on this year's BRILLIANT Primadonna Festival, 29-30 July 2023

Film clips below: Elif dances backstage at Primadonna, Sandi drives a steam engine at Primadonna


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