I want to reflect on this month so far. Not really reflect, but process. Process the feelings of elation, uncertainty, disappointment and hope. I want to be hopeful that things are changing.
You see I grew up in a world where people who participated in the arts, literature, or in general, anything creative did not look like me. Often, I was the only one, or one of a handful, but never a majority. When you learn to accept that way of existing it really starts to colour your view of the world. You operate in the singular and not as part of something much bigger. This shapes you as a person. Starts to silence you. You learn to accept microaggressions because it is easier than calling them out. You do it because you’re the only one and you don’t have the energy to fight the entire world.
You learn to roll with the punches. Acceptance becomes your modus operandi.
You learn to understand you will never be ‘Lady Macbeth’ even if you were born to play her because a casting director will never be able to challenge his idea of what Lady Macbeth looks like.
You learn that even if you write like Auden, because you grew up on a council estate, your poetry will always be classed as urban and hard.
You learn that you won’t win that comedy award, because the majority male voting panel just doesn’t see women as funny.
So, you move on to other things (even if it hurts). You learn that the world doesn’t see you how you see yourself on the inside (brilliant, innovative, worldly, a fucking star!).
But if you are lucky enough, you will break free of those bondages and learn to let go of what you were once told. You will learn to make your own art and learn to understand and trust your own voice, your own unique view of the world. You will learn to write your own definition of who you are as an artist, as a person, as a citizen of something much bigger.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to realise that I was not the only one. In fact, there were hundreds of thousands of us dotted about who were growing up thinking we were alone. But we were never alone, we just were not connected. Not yet.
I am writer based in Edinburgh. While living in the Scottish capital, I have met people who share similar experiences with me, past and present, of not belonging. These experiences have helped us grow as artists. It has shaped how we approach stories, the colours we use in paintings, the timbre of our voices. I have also met many people doing the work to ensure we aren’t left alone! People bringing whole communities together and helping others find their voice.
I recently attended the Momentum conference held by Creative Scotland at the start of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. One of the delegates, Jael Richardson, said something that was so utterly profound. I could not believe that it took me thirty-years of living before someone ever asked it aloud:
“What has framed us as readers and how has that shaped us as writers?”
Growing up I did not read stories that featured people like me. People from immigrant families. People with parents that had no university education. People who understood that home did not necessarily come with citizenship or a passport. This led me to believe that maybe these stories were not stories worth telling. So, like many people, I pined after stories that were not truly authentic to my being.
Eventually, I freed myself from this understanding of the world. I now write stories that matter to me first and foremost. I now actively seek out writers, as a reader, that challenge my preconceived ideas of what is a story worth telling.
For many people, we can only really shake off these shackles of colonialism or implicit biases by seeing, reading and experiencing art that is authentic to our own experiences. We are the leads of our own lives, so it is important to have that represented in art whatever the form.
During the 2019 festival season, 80% of the events I have seen so far have featured BAME and people of colour in lead roles. 50% of those events featured entirely BAME or people of colour. That is amazing. Not just amazing, fucking brilliant! I have seen writers and theatre makers discuss trauma, racism and microaggressions. But I have also seen them explore love, desire, humour, empathy and the boring stuff. It reminds me how multifaceted we are as humans and how as people of colour we have so much to speak about. Much of my viewing wouldn’t have happened if not for the brilliant work of Jess Brough’s Fringe of Colour . So to Jess I say thank you!
Inspired by the work of Fringe of Colour, I want to end this piece by highlighting people of colour near and far doing exceptional work — I hope readers that you spend time learning about these amazing people and champion them:
- Nadine Aisha Jassat, Readers of Colour
- Jael Richardson, The FOLD
- Jesse Brough, Resisting Whiteness (and Fringe of Colour)
- Alycia Pirmohamed and Jay G Ying, The Scottish BAME Writers Network
- Alycia Pirmohamed and Hannah Lavery, BAME Writers Group
- Gerald Richards, Super Power Agency
- Sha Nazir, BHP Comics
- Marjorie Lofti Gill, Open Book
- Pauline Jeremie, Middleground
- Salma Ibrahim, Literary Natives
These are just a fraction of people out there doing great things. But knowing that their work exists, helps me to know that I am no longer a singular but part of a much larger community of people. I am grateful that those just finding their voices will have the opportunity to join such groups and initiatives and challenge the idea that only certain stories are worth telling.
A correction has been made to an earlier version of this article to distinguish The Scottish BAME Writers Network from one its many initiatives: The BAME Writers Group.