Quaint. A word that would usually put me off a bookshop, but I had some time to spare while waiting for a friend and decided to venture in. I’ve become one of those people who buys most of her books online – the majority from Amazon: I know, but I’m young and skint. The first thing that struck me was the complete lack of books with anyone who wasn’t white on the cover. That might not have been unexpected in the middle of the Lake District, for example, but this shop was in the middle of London, a city with an ethnic minority population of over 55%. Big publishers based here only have to walk out of their front door to see the multi-culturalism that is London – What’s their excuse?
I made a decision about a year ago to only buy books by black authors or by underappreciated women (except for reference books – which white men seem to have a monopoly over. Maybe being white gives you an automatic qualification to make whatever you say true.) The lack of books by black people upset me. The three books I saw which were by black authors, were Malorie Blackman, Bali Rai and Zadie Smith – 3 very popular names. The names surrounding them were names I had never heard of before. I had to do a quick Wiki search for some of them and came to the conclusion that they were white. It occurred to me that these small book shops didn’t have a motive to show books by ‘unpopular’ black writers, or books with black protagonists. I did some research and found that bigger bookstores did a Black History Month showcase) but apart from that had a ‘World Books’ section which consisted mainly of Danish crime novels.
Is this the future of books by black writers? To be pigeon-holed into a corner no-one goes into? Clearly black people read books too, is it too much to ask to see books by black people for black people?
I’ve worked in publishing for the past 3 years and have fortunately worked with people in the industry who strive to publish more women and black writers. Yet the state of the publishing world still surprises. Most publishing organisations are white led, they have no reason to have more than ‘one black author on their books’ (This was said to a friend of mine by a fairly big publisher). The blatant racism that is conveyed through which books are published is alarming. You only have to look at the way Muslim women are portrayed in book covers – veiled and over looking water – to know that this ‘saving the Muslim women’ trope doesn’t really help. There exist, publishers that run solely for the purpose of publishing work by black writers and do them justice. Peepal tree press is one of them, but their presence in their mainstream market is lacking.
The state of the book industry is almost worse when it comes to children’s fiction. I remember being in the school library (a fairly big library in a private school and looking for books that mentioned or discussed race. I picked up Darren Shan to start with, thinking it said Darren Shah. Upon realising that it wasn’t a book by a black writer who would possibly mentioned things I could relate to, I put it back down and finally found Malorie Blackman. Being starved of books from black writers I read the Noughts and Crosses Trilogy cover to cover (unfortunately due to the library not having enough copies, I read them backwards!) I found Bali Rai, and finally I found a book that talked about issues I knew. I didn’t have to read through books and books where the protagonists would have boyfriend problems. Their first day of school didn’t mean they encountered weird looks and racist remarks about headscarves.
It made sense when I was a kid. Why would white people want to read about brown kids??! What I didn’t think about at that age, was that I was being forced to read about things I had no idea about or even interest in. I was being forced to relate to the experience of my white classmates who I had little in common with. This world where the characters were never racially abused or attacked, where they didn’t have to constantly defend or explain their religion was something I began to idealise. I began wishing I was white. Just so I could fit in. Maybe if I’d had more books that related to me I wouldn’t have been a child that had a difficult relationship with her skin.
I almost gave up when I watched the Harry Potter series (I read the books first of course) and found that Sirius black wasn’t dark skinned. My favourite characters were the Patel twins, who for some reason featured more in the books than the films. Both the Patel girls functioned as a reminder that brown girls could feature in mainstream stories. I didn’t even care back then that they were minor characters.
As an adult the problem continues, but as children there is nothing to keep them reading, if they can’t find themselves reflected in any book.
In a time where black authors are told by big reputable publishing companies that their story of migration from the African continent to the UK has already been done and that they ‘have already filled their quota’ what can we do to increase diversity in books?
There are organisations out there that are trying to rectify this uneven representation of diverse characters in children’s fiction. At the moment there is only one organisation in the UK that is dedicated to finding and publishing diverse children’s fictions, Commonword. Through their Diversity Writing for Children Prize which is in its 3rd year, they support diverse writers and diverse children fiction. Deadline for submissions is the 1st of September. More details can be found here: www.ihaveadream.org.uk
Afshan Lodhi is of Indian/Pakistani descent. Though she has spent the majority of her life in Manchester and only 4 years in London, she calls herself a Southerner. She is a freelancer which means she has many different titles and none at the same time. She writes plays, prose, performance pieces and occasionally passive aggressive Tumblr posts. She has worked with Z-Arts, Manchester Lit Festival, Commonword & Cultureword,The Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, Dog Horn Publishing, Young Enigma, Edinburgh Free Fringe Festival, Polari and one day hopes to take over the world.
Follow her on Twitter @ashlodhi or visit her website, one she never updates at www.afshanlodhi.com
Just a few weeks ago Windrush Square packed out a sea of black bodies in the sun to lay witness to the opening of the new Black Cultural Archives heritage centre. It’s return to Brixton felt both necessary and radical as the bid for black space, history and narrative has been increasingly quashed in recent decades. However the choice to reopen with an exhibition titled ‘Re-imagine: Black Women in Britain‘ offered a poignant statement about what our futures must and might mean.
A week later I managed to get in to see the exhibition and I was inspired as it delved into the rich and radical history of black women in this country from the Roman era to the social and political activists over the last three decades. Some faces were familiar from Olive Morris to Amy Ashwood Garvey to Doreen Lawrence whilst others provided new reminders. This journey not only highlighted the powerful stories of inspiring women but reclaimed the silence that violently historically holds them hostage. I left the exhibition tearful and empowered recalling the black women who we daily owe immense gratitude to, who have challenged and resisted and existed in spite of the systems of oppression that continue to structure black life in the UK as collateral and marginal, as unhuman.
It has been a year since I first launched The Body Narratives and the journey into and through this project has been unexpected. With readers and contributors from all over the world, it has grown in new and bigger ways at each stage. The decision to relaunch it this August, however, as a space committed to the narratives and work of Women of Colour in the UK has been a deliberate one.
Earlier this year we hosted our first exhibition and series of workshops exploring the relationship between identity and body image, which has now resulted in our very own arts and events producing collective A Different Mirror. The response was overwhelming as Women of Colour of all ages laid claim to the need for us to have the room to document and share our stories in a way that not only keeps them alive but facilitates healing and transformation. In a city let alone a country that has so few avenues for Women of Colour who bear the brunt of austerity and inequality to own their bodies and experiences, taking up space on our own terms feels rightly radical. Even more so, it is this work together in shared sorority, in love that enables us to find ourselves most human even when the world tells us otherwise.
The Body Narratives is now a project wholly committed to documenting, curating and archiving Women of Colour in the UK’s narratives and work, encouraging healing and reclamation particularly through the arts. Whilst we will always continue to support and showcase the work of super bad Women of Colour all over the world just doing all kinds of brilliance, as a British South Asian politically black queer woman, I return to the place I know myself and those I encounter are desperately trying to find home in. This space – this reclaimed space (physical and digital) is our way of saying ‘we are here’ and we hope that you too will say this with us: we. are. here.
Are you really going to miss out on this wonderful opportunity to a participate in a free poetry and public art workshop to reclaim your stories and voice with Khairani Barokka? You don’t need to be an artist or poet, and this session is particularly open to Women of Colour with disabilities. Join us on the 19th of July at South Kilburn Studios and register by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org
And if you can’t make the workshop, definitely join us for an inspiring evening of poetry and performance art show that challenges how and what stories Women of Colour with disabilities tell. Buy your tickets now:
The Body Narratives is re-launching in August as the UK digital hub for Women of Colour’s narratives, experiences and work. We are expanding our content and are now looking for columnists, feature writers and reviewers to join our team.
We will provide you with the unique opportunities, a chance to share your views, and feedback and support from TBN editorial team. Currently, positions are unpaid.
Head over to The Body Narratives for more information.
Feel free to browse our archive of wonderful posts here before the launch!
We are excited to announce we will be hosting artist and poet Khairani Barokkaduring her visit to London on the 19th of July at South Kilburn Studios for both an exclusive workshop and a solo-poetry show.
“Eve and Mary Are Having Coffee” – Spoken word with Khairani Barokka
Saturday 19th July 2014 – 5:30pm – 7pm South Kilburn Studios
Jolt yourself awake. In its London Premiere, kicking off a tour of Europe and right before its Edinburgh Fringe World Premiere, Eve and Mary Are Having Coffee is a solo spoken word show unlike any you’ve seen or heard before, pushing the boundaries of poetry, performance art, and storytelling.
By 2013 Emerging Writers’ Festival International Writer-in-Residence Khairani Barokka, get ready to hear and see word-slings of womanism, irreverence, lack of penitence, Java the island, java the coffee (as imbibed by religious figures), anti-ableism, and slurpee drinks. You won’t have a date with a cup of joe like this again. Accessible for hearing-impaired audiences.
Let me tell you something: Art and Life Out Loud by Women of Colour of All Abilities (Including Flying and Teleportation)
Poetry and Public Art Workshop
Saturday 19th of July 2014 – South Kilburn Studios – 11am – 4pm
(Capped at 10 Workshop Participants)
As women of colour with disability, we live in box after box of others’ perceptions, assumptions, expectations, and stereotypes, and the weight of limited avenues to tell our own tales. This is your chance to tell the stories YOU want to tell about the gorgeous, complicated, hilarious, unique lives we live. You’ll sculpt your words in poetry and storytelling, and together, we’ll create a public art project for all abilities, exploring the ways we can represent our own selves, speak to our own truths, and take them to the streets.
Bring your: READINESS TO TELL YOUR TALE AND LISTEN . BRAIN . BODY . HEART . DREAMS . SCHOOL/WORK CHALLENGES. LOVE/SEX STORIES . CREATIVE JUICES . PREPAREDNESS FOR THE UNEXPECTED . COMMUNITY-MAKING COJONES.
To register your place, please contact email@example.com.
If you have a visual or hearing impairment please let us know to ensure we are able to fully cater for any needs you may have.
The workshop will be 5 hours with an hour break for lunch in between. Please bring your own lunch. We will provide light refreshments and snacks. If you have any dietary requirements please let us know beforehand.
Khairani Barokka (Okka) is an internationally-working artist, writer, and advocate with disability, whose poetry, fiction and nonfiction have been published in the US, Australia, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, and who has taken her innovative spoken word, performance art, disability and transdisciplinary workshops to India, Singapore, Malaysia, the US, Australia, and her native Indonesia. She has a masters from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, as a Tisch Departmental Fellow, and among her awards and honors was Emerging Writers Festival’s (AUS) Inaugural International Writer-In-Residence for 2013. This year, she presents the World Premiere of her hearing-impaired accessible solo show, “Eve and Mary Are Having Coffee”, at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as part of her first European tour@mailbykite
Check out her post for The Body Narratives.
Using film, visual art, dance and poetry, A Different Mirror provides a platform for Women of Colour artists to explore the conflicts about how we see ourselves versus how we are seen.
The 3 day exhibition and educational activities confront these crucial questions about the systems or structures that shape our relationship to our bodies and its connection to our identities. It holds up a mirror to see and know ourselves differently.
Exhibition Public Opening Times:
Saturday 26th April 2014 10 am – 5pm
Sunday 27th April 2014 12 pm – 5pm
Featuring works by: Indigo Williams, Lesley Asare, Sanaa Hamid, Nasreen Raja, Sarina Leah Mantle, Wasma Mansour, Uchenna Dance, Patricia Kaersenhout, and Ng’endo Mukii, Aowen Jin, Janine ‘j*9′ Francois, Clare Eluka, and Emerzy Corbin.
Reflections: Art as a Tool for Healing
Saturday 26th of April 2014
6:30pm – 8:30pm £7.50 (early bird £6.50)
This artist seminar explores the ways in which art can be used to heal and empower ourselves and others. It offers insight into different artistic mediums and how these artists have used their practices for reclamation and transformation.
Featuring a performance by writer Yrsa Daley-Ward, talks by Indigo Williams (poet) and Lesley Asare (visual and performance artist) of I Shape Beauty, and a panel discussion featuring Sharmila Chauhan, Aowen Jin, Vicki Igbokwe (Uchenna Dance) and Bola Agbaje.
Book your ticket here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/reflections-art-as-a-tool-for-healing-tickets-11083233249?ref=ebtnebtckt
Photos by Rowena Gordon Photography