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Moving Sideways

Occasionally, when we are interviewing one of the writers, I have the distracting sensation of meeting myself coming back the other way.   What they are saying is so familiar that I immediately begin to load what they are saying with my own experiences.  It takes a great deal of will power not to intrude with reminiscences of my own.  Let me give you an example.

Before any interview, we send the writer we’re going to be speaking with a set of questions. They are not prescriptive but they give the interview a shape so that we don’t wander off down too many rabbit holes, tempting as that might be.

We always ask, for example, about when a writer first encountered words and stories, how they feel if and when they are described as Black writers, and what are the best things about being who they are to give the podcast a beginning, middle and end.

Trish Cooke was the only writer that came back to us with an additional question.  She wanted to talk about why it was she had written for so many genres: plays and pantomimes for the stage, audio plays, children’s books, television scripts.  She’d also been an actor and a television presenter.  Why?

The answer in the end was simple.  Yet it resonated with me very deeply.  Each time she had bumped into an unbreakable glass ceiling, she had simply moved sideways. She had found another way to tell stories, to practice her craft, to use her considerable talent.

And that is what set me thinking.  I’ve had a long career writing for the stage and radio both in the Caribbean and here in the UK.  I’ve written short stories, a YA novel fictionalising my mother’s remarkable story. I’ve adapted the work of Toni Morrison, Marie NDiaye and Zora Neale Hurston and abridged the writing of other wonderful writers of colour: everyone from Sam Selvon through to Bernardine Evaristo and Hafsa Zayyan.  I’ve been terribly lucky.  But I’ve undertaken much of that work because there was no interest in my own original pieces.  My craft was in demand but my art, not so much.

Like Trish, I’ve moved about in order to keep writing. I’ve done half a dozen other jobs so I could have a life and raise my son but I always went back to full time writing.  I really wanted to talk about those pressures with her. I have all the usual doubts: perhaps my writing was just not good enough.  In theatre, for example, I had to be brave enough to ask myself why would anyone want to hear what a middle-aged, Caribbean-born, Cambridge-educated writer had to say when all the voices being lauded are relatively young and Black British?

Like Trish, I knew that I had, somewhere deep inside, a stubborn little voice that kept telling me ‘you can do this’ when nothing else in my world was.  Most writers I know have that voice when it isn’t being drowned out by self-doubt.  They have a story to tell and they want the world to listen.

By the by, do listen to Trish’s episode.  She is not only a wonderful storyteller but she is one of the people I would most love to see leading a venue or a major arts organisation.  She is ready for it.  Like me, like both of us at The Amplify Project, she wants to see our new voices, our young writers, our creative peers fly and wants to be the one who gives them the space and affirmation to do so.  We know that just being talented is not enough.

Would my life be different, would Trish’s life be different, if we were starting our careers as writers now?   There is no answer to the question, but every now and then it is worth ruminating on, I think.  If for no other reason than to be sure that my generation ensures that those coming after us don’t have such a steep hill to climb.

Now for a few wonderful things: even though I am very careful and don’t go out much because I have not had COVID so far and I intend to stay that way (I’ve just put guzu* on myself now, I bet).

I am aware that the paperback of Salena Godden’s Mrs. Death Misses Death is now out, that Leone Ross has begun writing her next novel, that Alex Wheatle’s new YA book Kemosha of the Caribbean has been well reviewed,  that Anthony Joseph’s latest concert sold out, and that Colin Grant’s story about his father’s weed selling is included in Radio 3’s The Essay.

And there’s the four days I spent with fabulous actors – in studio and down the line – as the plays for BBC Audio drama series about the Windrush generation, Faith, Hope and Glory, were recorded.  I count myself very lucky.

Is there more to do?  Absolutely.  As this first series of ten interviews comes to a close, we are already looking to the next.  We have more writers lined up for March and April and have been reaching out to screenwriters, novelists, poets, the lot.  We’re looking at ways of varying the podcasts, reaching out to a wider range of people who make their living crafting stories with words.

A year ago, we weren’t even sure we would get the funding to do the first series (thank you Arts Council England). Now with over a thousand downloads since launching last October and who knows how many listens, we’re planning our next move.  Wish us luck!

* guzu –  Jamaican word for bad luck or curse.  Can be used as either a noun or a verb.

Pat Cumper

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