The sadness, exhaustion, anger and frustration that have been expressed by Black people across social media this week have, of course, been felt for centuries.
But, by living so much through our screens right now, observing video footage, scrolling through reposted statements and infographics, many of us have paid attention in a way we should have done long before. The murder of George Floyd has made it clear that, despite the feeling that everything is supposed to have changed as a result of Covid-19, so much has stayed the same. Floyd’s killing has had particular resonance for us in the UK too, where it has highlighted the realities of systemic racism and the particular impact this has for Black people and people of colour.
Literature has a role to play in bringing communities together, and we are listening to how we can do this better. Black writing is integral to British literature, but continues to be marginalised and underrepresented.
This week, Literature on Lockdown has gathered opportunities for Black voices to be heard, platforms for the amplification of Black writers’ voices, and reading lists around race and racism. Though there has been anxiety, anger and a feeling of paralysis this week under lockdown, there have also been fundraisers, support from public figures, and reminders not to let the importance of this issue disappear beneath the next news cycle.
You will be familiar with much of what we present here. We can’t offer you a fresh perspective on these, but we can navigate our way through the material, looking for self-education and challenge, try to keep our minds open and to absorb the wealth of information, and the huge variety of stories, made available thanks to the work these writers, presenters, publishers and archivists have put in.
First, some recent events that have been recorded and archived online. In March, UK poet Rachel Long, founder of the Octavia Poetry Collective, interviewed US writer Morgan Parker for Granta. Parker discusses her depression, her experiences growing up in a mostly white area, how this fed into her memoir Who Put This Song On?, and how the worldview and psychology these experiences gave her led to her developing the craft and technique she applies to her poetry-writing.
On 31 May, poets and artists including Mandla Rae, Isaiah Hull, Saf Elsenossi, and Damani Dennisur, performed at Our City Speaks with Manchester City of Literature. Originally streamed online, the showcase is still available to watch. Events coming up in the next few days include the OWN IT! Online Festival – a week-long arts festival from 8-14 June, featuring writers such as Derek Owusu, Courttia Newland, and JJ Bola.
Silver Press will host Revolution Is Not a One-Time Event, a discussion on state violence and abolition feminism between Che Gossett, Ru Kaur, Lola Olufemi and Amrit Wilson, chaired by Akwugo Emejulu, on 9 June. Silver Press are the publishers of Audre Lorde’s collection of essays and poetry Your Silence Will Not Protect You: those wanting to witness the power of Lorde as a live reader of her poetry can watch this video, filmed two months before her death in 1992.
REWRITE, a community organisation formed to support and champion Black women and female writers of colour, are hosting multiple creative writing courses online, from short 45-minute exercises to month-long classes for beginners and experienced writers. Spread the Word – who annually run the London Writers Awards to provide mentoring to writers from minority backgrounds – have set up a series of free online writing courses, including a course on life writing with Colin Grant, the author, historian, and Associate Fellow in the Centre for Caribbean Studies. Peepal Tree Press, meanwhile, continue to run Inscribe, a writer-development programme aimed at writers of African and Asian descent who produce fiction, non-fiction or poetry, co-directed by Kadija George and Dorothea Smartt.
Several competitions that aim to amplify the voices of Black writers have upcoming deadlines. Publishing house Faber and the Andlyn Literary Agency have partnered for the FAB Prize, which aims to give opportunities to unpublished BAME children’s fiction writers and illustrators; the competition deadline is 15 June. The Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award gives a prize of $2000 to an emerging writer, for a crime story or extract from a crime novel, as a grant to support their career development. The deadline has been extended to 22 June. More details can be found on the Sisters in Crime website.
Writers looking for opportunities and exposure can also find them from The Willowherb Review, which is looking for previously unpublished non-fiction – as well as some fiction and poetry – from writers of colour on nature, place and environment; Pallina Press’s journal Poetry Birmingham is offering free critiques for five previously unpublished Black and Asian working class poets. For both publications, submissions are open until 30 June. Hashtag BLAK, a new publishing house showcasing adult and young adult fiction by under-represented voices, is open for submissions until 31 July this year. Split Lip Magazine – “a voice-driven literary journal with a pop culture twist” – is opening free submissions to Black writers in all genres in June, and again from August until the end of the year.
This section collects together recent platforms offered to Black writers – prizes and shortlists, organisations, or readings lists that promote their work.
The Brunel International African Poetry Prize was recently awarded to Rabha Ashry, an Egyptian writer based in Chicago. A selection of her work is available on the prize website, as is information on the African Poetry Book Fund, which partners with Brunel University for the prize. This year’s Desmond Elliott Prize has an all-Black shortlist, the novelists are Abi Daré, Okechukwu Nzelu and Derek Owusu. Prize judge Preti Taneja has written on the shortlist for the Guardian; the winner will be announced on 2 July.
For those who have not yet immersed themselves in Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, a serialisation of the novel has recently started on BBC Radio 4; and for those looking for brilliant work by more Black womxn writers, this recent list that Evaristo compiled for International Women’s Day features fiction, poetry and essays by writers including Candice Carty-Williams, Emma Dabiri, and Jay Bernard. The list was launched as part of the Bristol Literary Takeover, spearheaded by Words of Colour, a creative communications agency that works to “reshape the single narrative misrepresenting culturally diverse communities”. Those looking to support the gal-dem Collective, featured on the list, can find more information on membership at the gal-dem website. Jacaranda Books, a Black-owned publishing house, have begun Twenty in 2020, an initiative to publish twenty titles by Black British authors in a single year, a first for any UK publishing house. #Twentyin2020 titles already released include books by Njambi McGrath, Berni Sorga-Millwood, and Maame Blue, with more still to come.
Further resources for readers promoting Black writing are available from many organisations including The Brown Bookshelf, “designed to push awareness of the myriad Black voices writing for young readers”; Tàta Storytime, a YouTube channel for children featuring actors reading picture books by authors of African, Caribbean and African-American heritage; Literary Natives, a platform that connects aspiring writers of colour to the publishing industry; and Breaking New Ground, a resource by Speaking Volumes, BookTrust and Pop Up Projects, supported by Arts Council England, featuring over 100 contemporary British writers and illustrators of colour across all genres.
While many reading lists have sprung up recently – offering platforms for Black writers and directions for white readers – many authors and literary websites have been putting these out for years. Book Riot put out a list of Black-authored historical romance novels, as well as African fantasy novels; The Root’s 2015 list of 20 Black Poets You Should Know and Love features titans of twentieth century literature such as Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, as well as more recent names like Saeed Jones; Sara Collins, author of the Costa Prize-winning historical novel The Confessions of Frannie Langton, published a list on Electric Literature last year, 7 Novels About Black People in Love.
Last month, Johny Pitts won the Jhalak Prize for his non-fiction book Afropean, which explores the lives, communities, and the many different identities, of Black Europeans. An extract from the book is featured online here, while the team behind the Jhalak Prize recently tweeted a list of books that are “UK-centric, because we are here trying to dismantle white supremacy in Britain.”
One of the authors featured on the Jhalak Prize’s reading list is Afua Hirsch. She has contributed an article to the Guardian, “The racism that killed George Floyd was built in Britain”, stating: “This is not just ‘horrible stuff that happens in America’. Black people know we need to dismantle the same system here.”
Author Reni Eddo-Lodge won the Jhalak Prize in 2018 for her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, which has appeared on many lists as a resource for white readers to use to educate themselves. Her podcast About Race, from that same year, features interviews with figures in anti-racist activism in the UK, including Diane Abbott and Ra’ed Khan, to explore the history of race in the UK and how it leads to our society and its politics now.
2018 was also the year of the Windrush scandal. Poems in Granta by Vahni Capildeo reflect on the events, while Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, head of editorial at the aforementioned gal-dem magazine, edited the collection Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children.
“War to Windrush” is also one of the subject guides made available by the Black Cultural Archives, which collects information about the history of Black lives in the UK, which presents a historical overview, objects from their archives, and a bibliography to guide readers further in their research. A list of subject guides – covering the Black Women’s Movement, the arts and more – can also be found on their website, as can a list PDF of Black Publishing Presence in the UK, looking especially at “the variety and popularity of Black publishing and press that exploded in the 1960s and 1970s”. Further archive material of race and racism in the UK – covering subjects including deaths in custody, the impact of the “war on terror” on Black British lives, and racial violence – can be found online through the Institute of Race Relations.
Over the past week, social media has seen a lot of sharing of quotations, statements and guides on white supremacy and the implicit ways in which it manifests in our lives. Many of these – not always credited – come from Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy, which combines a workbook guide with personal stories and historical contexts, to help readers recognise and work against white supremacy and unconscious bias.
In the US, the online literary journal LitHub has curated a list, "Readings on Racism, White Supremacy, and Police Violence in America": selecting essays that are “historical, personal, political” and which “explore what it means to be Black in a country founded in white supremacy and racial injustice”. Here in the UK, Aimée Felone, co-founder of the children’s publishing house Knights Of and its corresponding London bookshop, Round Table Books, has put together a list of anti-racist books for all children and teenagers, including books by Ibram X. Kendi, Malorie Blackman, and Tiffany Jewell. In her article, Felone reminds us that the books are to “start conversations”, and reading is not a replacement for action: “It is our responsibility to be active in the face of injustice,” she writes. “Hold yourself accountable and educate a new generation.”