A collective voice for literature and languages in Scotland

Nyla Ahmad – Next Level Experience

In early 2020 I was announced as the inaugural awardee of the Literature Alliance Scotland Next Level award, a lifechanging programme which included mentorship, networking and so much more. Although the original programme was envisioned to be three months long, the effects of COVID have elongated my path. My programme now comes to close as 2020 does, and what a year it’s been.

Within two weeks of my LAS journey beginning, I had already received in depth presentation training from Cordelia Ditton, learning to build a better narrative, stand taller and speak louder. I also worked quickly with Jenny Kumar to establish my goals and received tailored support from the get-go. I found that my initial scope related heavily to my current job, not my future goals. The perspective shift from that first meeting, of looking further forward than I was accustomed to, was like a lightning bolt. By the end of my first session, we had agreed on tailored mentorship, library service shadowing and meetings to build industry connections. I had also outlined areas of interest, which were mainstreaming equality, diversity and inclusion practice, guidance on programming, building and managing relationships, and ensuring my career had industry longevity that builds steadily to leadership positions.

Although I had an idea of what sort of energy I wanted to bring to future roles, I had no specific idea of what that role might look like. I’m someone who will try anything once and can generally find something to love about any job I’ve had, so I’ve shied away from ascribing to a fixed position. I know I love speaking to people about books and wanted to maintain a strong ethos of mainstreaming equality practice and continuing to learn in this area but didn’t have a clear scope. After discussing my thoughts and feelings, LAS’ network expertise fed into the decision to go with Syima Aslam of the Bradford Literature Festival, who was the perfect fit.

Bradford Literature Festival is on the cutting edge and has a strong sense of community. It programmes boldly, bagging events like Ilhan Omar in conversation with Lowkey. I was so incredibly pleased that Syima agreed to be my mentor. My four sessions with Syima were divided into the topics I outlined with Jenny, but the first session was used to talk in depth about my current situation and future aspirations. Syima took the time to consider me holistically and all advice felt grounded in expertise, an understanding of industry but also an empathetic place. It is wonderful to talk to someone you feel on the same page as, who really takes the time to invest in your growth.

Due to Covid I was unable to shadow at the libraries we had selected, which were The Mitchell and North Ayrshire library. If I could summarise a core tenant of my practice, it’s that I believe everyone should have access to the life changing magic of books (to steal a phrase from my employers!), and it’s important to eradicate barriers to that access. Libraries encapsulate this sentiment so effectively and I have immense respect for these vital services. They are lifelines and I would not be where I am without them. Although I was unable to shadow in person, I was able to speak to professionals who work with and in libraries as part of my industry connections, so my knowledge of libraries has grown through the programme.

Through my industry connections, I’ve been able to speak to multiple industry professionals and ask burning questions. I’ve spoken to incredible Scottish figureheads and have spoken to people further afield such as Ted Hodgkinson of the Southbank Centre. The advice was varied, from considering a sales role in future, maybe spending some time in London and even some book recommendations. Many people stressed how important it was to consider organisations from a strategic level and doing so via a board position would be a brilliant next step. I attended an LAS board meeting to get a sense, then took this advice and joined the Glasgow Zine Library board this year. I am so glad I did, and I have learned so much already.

I also considered tangible goals and areas of interest to pursue in future. I decided to pursue any opportunity big or small to understand industry strategy better, so I put myself forward to be part of the organisational policy subgroup of Scottish Book Trust’s EDI Advisory Group. Previously I would have volunteered another EDI area where I felt stronger but chose to prioritise strategic learning.  I have also set the goal of putting myself forward for more chairing and speaking opportunities and have recently accepted invites from the Society of Young Publishers, Glasgow Women’s Library, Lighthouse books and the Society of Authors. This journey also made me want to pursue further professional opportunities in the field of comics, as I often found myself gushing about how much I love them. I have previously worked in comics retail, publishing and awards, so I am now looking for more professional comics work to do alongside my role at Scottish Book Trust. As the mentoring I received from LAS felt so tailored, I will be bringing that learning forward when planning for the next round of Emerging Programmers funding, a programme wherein blossoming event programmers organise an event for Book Week Scotland.

This programme allowed me to make connections I never thought I’d be able to, but it has also made me dig deeper when speaking to the industry professionals in my life that I admire. It has made me really appreciate the breadth of knowledge only a phone call away. It sounds silly but learning it’s ok to say ‘I think the work you do is incredible. Can I talk to you about it, and I’ll buy you a coffee when the world isn’t upside down?’ is a completely fine thing to do. It’s made me bolder when asking for advice or help. It’s made me more eager to meet opportunities and put myself out there. The experience of applying for something, even if you don’t get it, has its own value. Even though I knew this before, I was always hesitant to apply for things. I had decided that if I gave a bad interview it would mean I couldn’t change people’s opinions of me, and I’d be doomed forever. I’ve learned it’s ok to put yourself out there, because you either win or you learn, and there’s so much in the learning.

This programme has changed so much for me, in major and minor ways. I can feel the changes in how I hold myself, how I speak up now at events, how I no longer second guess myself before sending certain emails. I see it in my professional profile, with a new board position and mentorship programme under my belt. I see it in my circles, as I’ve expanded who I know and who I feel comfortable turning to. Although my programme draws to a close now, I know I’ll be feeling the effects of this incredible opportunity for years to come. I am so thankful to be part of the Scottish literary sector, and to have been given the opportunity to be nurtured by LAS.