In January of this year, the poet Roger Robinson, whom I’ve known since we were on the same poetry circuit in the nineties, won the UK’s most prestigious poetry prize, the T S Eliot Award for Poetry for his latest poetry collection, A Portable Paradise. He is the first black British person to win it, the second black man to win it, and the fourth person of colour to win the Prize since its inception in 1993. I was overjoyed at his success, in some ways mirroring my own Booker Prize win last year, as both of us have been treading the boards of literature for decades and these awards have suddenly brought our writings to the fore. Roger’s poetry collection is exactly the kind of book we need out there as British society is forced to register the prevailing inequalities on these shores through the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Roger’s poems range from the tragedy of Grenfell Tower to the premature birth of his son. Through sharing his interior self as an individual black British man with Caribbean origins, we connect to his humanity and appreciate his vulnerabilities, vision, experiences, sensitivities and points of view. When America went up in flames at the murder of George Floyd, it was the tip of the poisonous iceberg of systemic racism and police brutality rooted in the historic de-humanisation of African-Americans. If we time-travel all the way back to the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade, history shows us that racism as an ideology was developed to justify the trade in Africans to the New World. If Africans were regarded as only semi-human, more ape than man, actually, then putting them to work like beasts of burden for no pay for centuries, couldn’t be considered a moral crime. Sadly, we live with the legacy of this ideology today, buried deep, or perhaps not so deeply, inside the psyche of those who perpetuate a racist status quo.
Like Roger, I am passionate about broadening the narrative of who we are in Britain. In my novel Girl, Woman, Other, the twelve interconnected primarily black womxn are aged 19 to 93 and span a range of sexualities, classes, cultural backgrounds, occupations and family relationships. My motto has long been to put presence into absence and black British women in particular tell me that they feel “seen” by this novel, while all kinds of other people have told me that they’ve gained insight into some of our life stories and experiences in this country, and also empathise with the characters, and even relate to them.
It’s really brought home to me the way in which literature can connect us to each other and foster and express our shared humanity. Our experiences in this country might be specific, but through art we can interrogate universal truths about what it means to be human. This is why it’s so important for our arts, culture and society to be inclusive of everyone. It has always been so easy for Brits to feel morally superior in the face of the scale of America’s globally amplified racial dramas, and to ignore our very own iniquities, which tend to be more perniciously subtle, but which are no less pervasive.
One consequence of this current “second-wave” Black Lives Matter movement is an unprecedented degree of public soul-searching by white people here in the UK, who express a desire to read books by black authors in order to educate themselves. If intention is followed by action, then engaging with some of the recent titles by black British authors will surely have a transformative effect on the reader. I recommend Sensuous Knowledge by Minna Salami, which offers a radical revisioning of feminism through an Africanist perspective; No Win Race by Derek Bardowell, about race and sport; Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch, explores race, identity and belonging; Afropean: Notes From Black Europe is by Johny Pitts, who takes us on his travels across black Europe over ten years; Black, Listed, by Jeffrey Boakye is a witty lexical exploration of black British culture; Taking up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto For Change is a series of essays edited by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi, about the experiences of women of colour in majority white universities; and Forced Out by Kevin Maxwell, is a hot-off-the-press and shocking account of his career as a black, gay police detective in the UK police force. There are some more books, although together they still constitute a tiny percentage of the market.
Unfortunately, novels are currently lagging behind non-fiction. My Booker win and the success of a handful of others shouldn’t be taken to mean that the battle is won. Far from it. Each year, novels published by black British writers barely enter double figures. It is a longstanding problem. We know that people who read fiction are more empathetic because they are well-practised in stepping into the shoes of fictional characters who are different from themselves. This is not to say that novelists write to educate people, but we do accept that this might be a byproduct of our creative endeavours. As novelists, we envision the intimate realities of our characters, try to capture the essence of who they are, test their inner strength through which they grow and transform during the course of the story. The best writers create characters from a place of compassion and insight, because we are all multi-faceted beings with strengths and weaknesses and everything in between.
Fiction is therefore an incredibly effective way of delving into human psychology and behaviour and thereby deepens our understanding of each other. How sad and troubling, then, that we’re not seeing more novels that speak to our demographic realities. Conversely, fiction that adheres to stereotypes of blackness or which play out the well-worn tropes of suffering and victimhood are not useful. We are not here to be pitied, problematised, pathologised. Literature has the power to accentuate our humanness and transcend perceived differences, especially in the face of assumptions based on stereotypes, which for black men in public spaces is that they are dangerous criminals, probably muggers, regardless of all visual evidence declaring otherwise.
It goes without saying that the industry needs to publish more novels from our communities and at this stage it really shouldn’t need diversity campaigns to do so. Nor should the industry ask us what to do any more, to sit on diversity panels with other people of colour talking to an audience of people of colour – none of whom can change the industry from the outside. I’ve been on these panels for some twenty years and I’m not doing any more. The economic, cultural, creative and moral argument for diversity was won a long time ago. It’s blindingly obvious that literature’s gatekeepers are the ones to change their culture of exclusion, and many of us are fed up of being asked for solutions to systemic racism when we are not the perpetrators of it.
We’re open to conversations, but why are they always so one-sided? It’s rather like someone shutting the door in your face and then asking you to peer through the letterbox in order to explain to them why you feel left out and to tell them what they can do about it. Any action plan worth its salt needs to offer practical steps to ensure the industry reflects our society, without resorting to tokenism. Putting out a feel-good press release or tweet that promises a change that is never delivered is not good enough. And we’ve had enough of the culture of one-seat-at-the-table, the lone voice struggling to be heard. Top-down inclusion and true integration, from the boardroom to the basement, is the only way to go.
For the few black men who do publish, and to be honest, most are not receiving the attention of their female counterparts right now, well, we need to celebrate their achievements and make sure their art does not go unsung. Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez is a good place to start: an infectiously exuberant and daring coming-of-age novel about a young, black, gay man who flees his community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Black Country to make his way in London. From veterans such as myself and Roger Robinson, to the new kids on the block, like Paul Mendez, let’s make our literary culture one that foregrounds the stories of all its citizens. Good literature – from everyone by everyone for everyone – should be the guiding principle for the industry.