Friday, 12 December 2014

An Xmas message

Words And Women is enormously proud of all it has achieved this year. There have been many firsts: our first anthology (shortlisted for a Saboteur Award), our first short film (directed by Jean Hogg), our first garden festival with specially commissioned art works from Katy Armes and Clare Jarrett, our first reading event in Cambridge (thanks to Anthea Morrison and Leigh Chambers for organising), our first Arts Council England grant for four special commissions about women and place (mentored by W&W and poet Hannah Walker and theatre director Adina Levay). We held a Women’s Day event which was so busy we had to turn people away at the door. We’ve appeared at Wymondham Words, the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, and Sound & Vision. We brought the celebrated authors Meg Rosoff and Jane Harris to Norwich to read and talk about their work. We ran writing workshops for girls at the Hewett School, Norwich. We launched our second prose competition for women writers in the East of England and are currently judging the entries with novelist Sarah Ridgard. All this achieved with a lot of hard work, limited resources, and plenty of in kind support from The Forum Norwich, Unthank Books and the Writers’ Centre Norwich. Also we have had considerable input from women writers, musicians and artists and other good sorts who have given up their time to take part in our events, help run them and publicise them (special thanks to Guinevere Glasfurd-Brown here for her brilliant tweeting). We have two wonderful new interns: Isabelle King and Meghan Douglass-Ellis. Blog posts have been written for us. Cakes have been baked for us. Thank you!
We have learnt a lot. By saying YES to practically everything this year we’ve discovered what we’re good at and what not, what we should do more of and what we should never do again! We are slowly learning what it is that women writers in this region want from us and what we realistically can offer them. We are planning our 2015 activities carefully with all this in mind. Please keep visiting this blog for our news. The next item to be posted will be early January when we will announce the results of our prose competition. Who will win first prize?
Until then we wish you a merry Christmas and all the very best for the New Year.
Bel and Lynnex

Monday, 1 December 2014

What’s it all ‘About?’

Isabelle King reviews a Words And Women workshop for the Arts Council supported project 'About'. 

On a characteristically cold November day, a Saturday to be precise, I ventured to The Curve in The Forum, Norwich, and took up a single seat out of the one hundred and twenty that made up the auditorium.
But there was no audience. No performers in the wings. No presentation materials on view. Seven women took the stage, eight if you include myself, all seated around a table armed with pens, paper and laptops. No, this was not an ambiguous production. This was a Words And Women workshop for the ‘About’ project.
As the new Marketing Assistant for Words And Women, I was lucky enough to sit in and listen to this, the third in a series of three workshops, where I found out what ‘About’ is, well... about!
The project, supported by funding from Arts Council England, was launched by way of an open competition in August this year. Women from the East of England were invited to submit a proposal for a short text of 4,000 words or half an hour long which would explore the life of one woman and her relationship to place. The woman could be famous or non, contemporary or historical, fictional or factual. The place had to be within the East of England. The primary aim of the project - to create a text which can lend itself to the page and to performance.
Twelve promising runners-up were chosen to take part in The Tough Room, a workshop tutored by poet Hannah Walker, and the four winners - Jenny Ayres, Lilie Ferrari, Tess Little and Thea Smiley - are receiving ongoing mentoring for their pieces through workshops and on-line tuition. Belona Greenwood and Lynne Bryan of Words And Women, Hannah, and Adina Levay, Director of Norwich’s Chalk Circle Theatre Company, are the mentors. Adina will also take the completed texts and direct them for the stage. The results will be on show during Words And Women’s International Women’s Day event, Sunday 8th March, at The Fusion Digital Gallery, The Forum, Norwich.
The workshop I attended gave me a really exciting insight into what audiences can expect on the 8th March. What struck me most was the variety of the work being developed. Two are based in Norwich, one on the Bungay Straight, and one in Knebworth. Three are historical and one contemporary. The women explored range from regional rebel Jane Sellars, hung in Norwich 1631, to the fiery alter ego of an 1880’s prostitute.
It was also fascinating to learn how the writers are dealing with one particularly challenging aspect of the ‘About’ project; the fact that they are writing for both page and stage. One of the most unique things about the project is that the pieces are written to translate to both forms. But how does writing for prose with a view to performance affect the process?
Actress and playwright, Jenny Ayres, finds it easiest to write specifically with performance in mind. Her piece explores the voices of the Hertfordshire railway women of World War Two in which she incorporates the theatrical device of a chorus to comment on the action that takes place. Jenny will think about how the work translates to the page later on in the writing process and has been looking at short stories by Janice Galloway and Helen Simpson which mimic scripts as a possible way forward.
Thea Smiley however, has found it stifling to write with theatricality in mind. Her piece follows the journey of a recently bereaved woman who annually takes a particular walk along a hazardous road for reasons which only become clear as the text progresses.
Thea explained at the workshop how initially she felt more comfortable with forgetting the audience and writing solely in prose as she finds the form more freeing. When she read it out loud however, it was interesting to discover how the piece transcended. We heard, not just a detailed account of one woman’s experience told in first person, but a powerfully intimate monologue. 
Though each writer seems to have a different process, all four firmly agreed on one point - how refreshing it is to write invigorating and un-apologetically raw roles for women which actresses can really get their teeth stuck into.
The workshop came to a close with Adina  talking about her plans to develop the texts into performance. She explained that sets would be entirely minimal, directing the main focus to the actresses themselves.
This certainly resonates with the project’s concept. I felt similarly about the room in which we sat. It could have been just another auditorium were it not for the women who occupied it, discussing and debating writing, altogether making their ‘About’ a very exciting one.

Isabelle King is the Marketing Assistant for Words And Women. She's worked as an actress in theatre, film and radio in the UK and abroad; a career in which she has predominantly been seen in various Shakespearian guises. She's the founder of literary event Books Talk Back, which is hosted in London and Norwich, including at The British Library with support from The Eccles Centre. Isabelle's creative writing has been short-listed for the Ideastap/Writers' Centre Norwich national fiction competition and she also writes and produces arts journalism pieces for Future Radio. 

Saturday, 22 November 2014

An Interview with Rosie Sherwood

'Tree' (c) Rosie Sherwood
Words and Women spoke today with book artist and publisher Rosie Sherwood, who has an exciting new project up on Kickstarter. Rosie is from London, takes photographs using toilet-roll tubes, and can fold an origami bird in less than two minutes – blindfolded. Rosie talked to us about crowd funding and the future of publishing, and explained her new book, a hybrid of short story, photography, comics and poetry. Rosie’s work can be found at Tate Library and Archive, Chelsea College of Art and Design, The Poetry Library, and The National Gallery of Scotland. Her arts journal Elbow Room is sold in bookshops across the country, including Foyles and the bookartbookshop.

W&W: Hi Rosie. Tell us a little about your work as an artist.

Rosie: My work as an artist is driven by my desire to tell stories. Storytelling and art have been at the heart of my life for as long as I can remember, and the two have become intrinsically linked. Valuing that relationship pushed me beyond my photography degree to a more multi-disciplined approach, incorporating sculpture, text, the comic book, book art and more. Immersing myself in book art over the last two years – including studying for my MA at Camberwell – really unlocked the way I approach my art. Artists’ books – books which have been wholly or primarily conceived of by the artist and produced as an original work of art – offer not only a whole new way of approaching form, sequence and narrative, but also a different way of disseminating work through book fairs. This hands on, affordable, and democratic way of making, producing and selling my art is proving to be something I love.

W&W: You also head up a publishing company. How did that begin?

Rosie: I founded As Yet Untitled Publishing during my MA, a micro press through which to produce my own books and an arts journal, Elbow Room. The idea for Elbow Room was born in a tiny bookshop in Adelaide, Australia, which was selling handmade zines. The work on sale was fantastic but also indicative of something that has always frustrated me as an artist: the idea that different art forms must sit separately, on different shelves in different sections of the bookshop. This division seems to run counter to the way the arts truly evolve. I have always been equally inspired by film or music as I am by photography or literature. I wanted to create a journal that offers a space for a wide community of artists, celebrating art in all guises under the one title. We have been running successfully for two years now, so the idea seems to be working.
'Pinhole' (c) Rosie Sherwood

W&W: The Ellentree is your latest book. You’ve put it on Kickstarter and it’s raised  almost seven hundred pounds in less than a week. Can you tell us what it’s about?

Rosie: The Ellentree is a short fantasy story. It follows Evelyn, a young man with an eye of red and purple who walks in two worlds. One is our own; the other a world he has no name or explanation for. He slips between the two uncontrolled and unwilling. To find his way back to our reality, Evelyn is pursuing a trail of fallen leaves from a mystical tree. He must find the rumoured Ellentree, or be lost forever. The narrative is told in alternating chapters, switching between Evelyn and a young woman who keeps encountering him in our world, perhaps the only person to see and remember him.

W&W: Where did The Ellentree come from? What gave you the idea?

Rosie: The idea for The Ellentree could be seen as starting in two places at two different times. The first, my grandparents’ garden one summer, many, many years ago. I was bored and for reasons I cannot now remember, I started making white origami birds that I hung from their apple tree. Those birds never quite left me, and I continued taking the occasional photograph that included origami birds.

The second and perhaps more definitive starting point for the story came in the summer of 2009. I was reading a book about writer Neil Gaiman. It was here that I first came across the 24-hour comic book challenge. Started by Scott McCloud and Stephen R Bissette as a creative exercise, the challenge is to create an entirely new 24-page comic that is written, drawn and inked in 24 continuous hours. I decided to give the challenge a try and though I technically failed (I don’t really draw so it was never going to work) the idea of Evelyn and the Ellentree was born.

After that the story, the photography and the origami all fell into place, and I started to work on what has eventually become the book currently on Kickstarter.

W&W: Why choose crowd funding?

Rosie: I am drawn to crowd funding for the same reason I like artists’ book fairs and comic conventions. At its heart crowd funding is about a community built around a common interest, in this case art. It is about people talking to each other, engaging with and supporting artists. The arts are in huge financial trouble around the world as governments cut their funding budgets. Governments seem to think the arts are a luxury we cannot afford and do not need. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We need art in all forms to help us grow and change, learn and question. We need it to help us dream. This is something governments should be helping to build; yet they are not.

So into the breach steps crowd funding, allowing artists to break from traditional funding bodies, side-step governments all together and appeal directly to the public, the community, the crowd. At a time when artists are struggling, people are reaching into their pockets and spending what little they might have on the development of the arts. This is an extraordinary thing that should be celebrated. It is everything I love and hope for in the art world. It is community taking on the old-fashioned role of arts patron and it is pure magic.

When I completed The Ellentree it wasn’t so much a choice as an obvious step to take the plunge and put it up on Kickstarter. I truly want to make this book as a crowd-funded piece, and I hope people will want to help me do that.

W&W: There are a lot of different art forms and genres involved in The Ellentree. How do they come together to shape the book?

Rosie: The Ellentree is a lot of things at once. I have cherry-picked my way through the forms and genres I am working with, taking elements I am inspired by and feel compliment each other. The layout of a poem coupled with the narrative of a short story. Photographs because I feel the history of photography as an art believed to tell the truth (the medium’s greatest lie) lends something to the story. Photographing the surreal installations of origami as a way of bringing visual scope to the fantasy genre. The way we read word and images, the white space and the page as parts of the sequential narrative structure of the comic book. These things come together, shaping the book’s content, yet they hang together because it is a book.

W&W: What do you think will draw people to this book? And what will they take away from it?

Rosie: I hope people will connect with the book in multiple ways, even in the same reading. For some people, it might be theoretical. You might be drawn to questions of photography in comics, photography as narrative, seeing is believing. You might be drawn to the visual art.

But there’s also an emotional content for me. I read a brilliant analogy by musician and writer Amanda Palmer recently. She said all artists use themselves in their work, throwing their lives and emotions into the blender of their creative process. How recognisable they are in the completed work depends on how high they turn the blender on. By the end any semblance to self in your work might be undetectable to even your closest friends.

In making The Ellentree, I had the blender set on high for a very long time, but the story still has seeds of my experience. Evelyn’s search for The Ellentree, the world he slips into, even the young woman who sees and recognises him – these were all ways I found to talk about depression, and to celebrate the freedom creativity offers.

I hope above all that the idea of the Ellentree as a wish granting, mystical entity, and Evelyn’s search for hope, will grab people’s imaginations.

W&W: So with seven years in the making, this project must have travelled a lot. Whereabouts did you take the photographs?

'You' (c) Rosie Sherwood
Rosie: Many of the photographs are taken on Hampstead Heath in the heart of London. That was my stomping ground and studio for many years. Some are taken in Devon, on the beaches and even on Dartmoor while trying to avoid the wild ponies. One of them was taken in the West Yard of Camden Market on New Year's morning.

W&W: Tell us about your writing process.

Rosie: I always knew this would be a visual book and so the writing and photography happened alongside each other. It became a symbiotic process, whereby each sentence I wrote or photo I took inspired or demanded the next stage of the story. I didn’t want the text to simply explain the photographs or the images to solely work as illustrations. The aim with The Ellentree is to tell the story of Evelyn’s search in two mediums, written and visual, and so it was important to work through creating the story in both forms.

W&W: Origami birds make up the leaves of the Ellentree. How many origami birds do you think you’ve folded?

Rosie: I have probably folded nearly two thousand birds. The first lot got wet and mangled in the snow. The second I gave away, imagining the book was complete, only to realise it wasn’t and having to start making them all over again.

W&W: Do you have a record speed?

Rosie: A family friend got me to make one blindfolded one Christmas. I could do it in less than two minutes.

W&W: Tell us how Kickstarter works.

Rosie: Kickstarter works on an all or nothing funding model. Artists pitch a project on the site, complete with description, video and budget, and then they have a set period of time, in most cases a month, to try and raise the funds. During this time interest and support of the project will hopefully grow, developing a passion and community around a project.

What I like about Kickstarter is that its all or nothing method protects both the artist and those supporting. You pledge money to the project, and it will only be taken if the artist raises enough to actually complete the work. This keeps people spending their money safe, be it £5 or £500. As an artist you are also safe in the knowledge that you won’t have to struggle to complete a project with a fraction of the funds you needed.

The more people pledge, the more excited people are about the project, the better the artist’s chances are of actually being able to complete it. Artists on Kickstarter need people to pledge and then help spread the word in the hopes that everyone, artists and supporters, can see the project realised.

W&W: What kinds of rewards do you have for people who donate?

Rosie: I think people imagine they need to have lots of money to support a Kickstarter but that’s not true. I have rewards from £5 that include a specially designed hand-written thank you card, a download of an original song written for the book and a hand-folded origami bird.

I also have the book itself, limited edition posters, canvas totebags, and limited edition signed photographs. Hopefully there is something for everyone.

I am hoping to find myself making another few hundred origami birds in December to send out to all the wonderful people who have supported The Ellentree.

W&W: How much money do you hope to make, and what will it be used for?

Rosie: The target for The Ellentree on Kickstarer is £10,000, which seems like a lot of money until you imagine that it could come from pledges of £10 or £20 from hundreds of people. Most of the money will go to printing and binding it as professionally and beautifully as possible through Ditto Press. The small amount left will be used for distribution, from artists’ book fairs to bookshops and collections around the globe.

W&W: Artists’ books pay attention to the book as a physical object, as well as the story contained inside. Do you see the recent rise of artists’ books as a counter to ebooks?

Rosie: I have attended a number of conferences over the last few years that have dedicated a lot of time to questioning the rise of the artists’ book. Why now? What’s happening? What is the future of the book going? Is the artists’ book an answer to the death knell sounded by the ebook?

I think there is probably some truth to artists’ books being a counter to ebooks. We enjoy the handmade, unique quality of artists’ books just as we enjoy craft fairs and independent shops. However I also believe that something more complicated is going on. There are book artists’ working with the ebook as an extension to the book form. There are also publishers, mainstream and independent, producing beautiful paper books, such as Visual Editions' The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and Jonathan Safran Foers' Tree of Codes. I believe the ebook has the potential to become simply a different way of making a book, with its own intrinsic narrative qualities, rather than a replacement for the book as we know it today. In doing so it might also free (or force) the paper book to try something new. If as a result of this process people gain a rekindled love affair for beautifully produced books then I, as a book artist and indie publisher, will obviously be thrilled.
Rosie Sherwood

W&W: What can people expect from The Ellentree once it’s published? Tell us about your dream object.

Rosie: My dream object. That’s an excellent question. My dream object is a book that feels nice to hold. A book where the images and colours stop you in your tracks. A book that people enjoy reading, and want to keep on their shelves when they are done.

I also really want to make the edges of the pages colourful.

W&W: Sounds beautiful. Good luck.

To watch Rosie’s Kickstarter video and donate, follow this link:

Rosie Sherwood is a multidisciplinary artist, independent publisher and scholar with an MA in Book Arts from Camberwell College of Art. She is a visiting lecturer, has been published in the Arts Library Journal, and recently had her first solo exhibition at the bookartbookshop. Her work is collected by Tate Library and Archive, Chelsea College of Art and Design, The Poetry Library and The National Gallery of Scotland.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A success story!

Guinevere Glasfurd who runs Words & Women’s Twitter feed has had some wonderful news. Lisa Highton of Two Roads publishers has acquired the UK rights to Guin’s debut novel The Words In My Hands.

Set in the 17th century Dutch Republic the novel tells the story of Helena Jans van der Strom, a Dutch servant girl, her relationship with René Descartes and their daughter – a story hidden at the time, and almost entirely lost from history since. 

Highton says: “Helena is one of the most fully-formed and believable characters I’ve come across in some time – a true feminist protagonist and woman in love. Her determination to educate herself and her joy in words and writing is a thing of wonder and heroism. From the little that is on record of Helena’s life Guinevere has fashioned an inspiring and moving story of an extraordinary woman.” 

Two Roads will publish The Words In My Hands in hardback in early 2016. 

Guinevere Glasfurd was awarded a place on Writers' Centre Norwich Escalator programme in 2012. She has an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction), and her short fiction has been published in Mslexia, The Scotsman and in an anthology from the National Galleries of Scotland. She received a grant from Arts Council England to write and research The Words in My Hand and recently won TLC's Pen Factor Award.  

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Thank you to our volunteers

We’d like to introduce you to Isabelle King our new Marketing Assistant.

Isabelle has worked as an actress in theatre, film and radio in the UK and abroad; a career in which she has predominantly been seen in various Shakespearian guises. 

She is the founder of literary event Books Talk Back which is hosted in London and Norwich, including at The British Library with support from The Eccles Centre. Isabelle's creative writing has been short-listed for the Ideastap/Writers' Centre Norwich national fiction competition and she also writes and produces arts journalism pieces for Future Radio.

We’d also like to say a big thank you to Guinevere Glasfurd-Brown who has run our Twitter feed brilliantly and uncomplainingly for the past year!

Guinevere lives on the edge of the Fens, near Cambridge. In 2012, she was one of ten writers mentored by the Escalator Programme for new writers at Writers' Centre Norwich, and  was awarded a grant from Arts Council England to write her first novel, The Words In My Hand.
The Words In My Hand is a novel about love, learning and loss, set against the backdrop of the Scientific Revolution in Holland, and tells of the hidden love between Helena Jans van der Strom, a maid, and French philosopher, René Descartes. The novel was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2014 and won The Literary Consultancy's Pen Factor competition  2014.
Guin’s stories have appeared in Mslexia and The Scotsman, and in a collection published by the National Galleries of Scotland. She can  be followed on twitter at @guingb


Words And Women is organised and run voluntarily by writers Lynne Bryan and Bel Greenwood. Bel and Lynne rely on the good will and support of women like Isabelle and Guin, also family and friends and many others, for helping to put on Words And Women events and generally keep the show on the road!

We have received small grants for various projects but mainly cover our costs from any profit made through our prose competition, anthology sales, and Friends subscriptions. We like to make our events accessible to all which is why we don’t charge for most of our reading events, particularly our main event on International Women’s Day in Norwich. This year, however, we are hoping to raise some funds through a special reading featuring the celebrated writer Jane Harris. This reading takes place in Norwich on the 29th November. Tickets are £5. Please see the dedicated blog page ‘Jane Harris’ for more details. You can get a ticket for this reading and other benefits too if you become a Friend of Words And Women for £10. Please see the blog page ‘Friends’ for more details on the scheme. Your support will help us to continue promoting and celebrating women writers in the East of England.

Monday, 3 November 2014

A review of The Tough Room

Meghan Douglass-Eliss  is a young writer who was commended in our About competition. She and eleven other writers were awarded a place on The Tough Room workshop which was tutored by poet Hannah Walker and held at the Writers’ Centre Norwich last Monday. Here is Meghan’s review of the workshop, accompanied by photos taken on the day. More details about the commissioning competition, about our commended writers and four winners, can be found on our dedicated blog page ‘About comp’.

Hannah Walker & Deborah Arnander
“I imagine there are a whole array of women out there who have been writing for enjoyment since childhood, but have never taken the step towards casting their work into the abyss beyond the bedroom door; for me, entering the About competition was my first shuffle in this direction and winning a place on Hannah’s poetry workshop The Tough Room was a surprise boost. 

As a naturally introverted and shy person the first thing that hit me as I opened the door into the Writers’ Centre (which is the most adorable and friendly arts space I have ever been to) was a wave of warm relief: a room full of smiling women, their creative energy and lust for it hovering over them in a sort of beckoning halo. Here, I feel the need to point out how marvelous it was as a woman (sorry Gents) to have a group entirely composed of other women: I felt the atmosphere to be much softer and more inviting because of this. 
Sue Dean & Becky Demmen
The idea of the workshop was to build a relationship with one’s “inner critic”. As a newbie to the writing scene, and a total virgin to the concept of editing my work for publication I don’t believe I’d ever really given much thought to my inner critic. Going around the room, we all drew and explained our inner critics who mostly seemed to be a terrifying group of gigantic beasts lurking behind the beautiful women who so enthusiastically drew them; fears of not meeting expectations and being judged as “CRAP!” seem to manifest themselves as scrunched up papers on the floor, and long periods of writer’s block; meanwhile, I drew a little smiley face in the corner of the page with a flower stuck to its head.... I looked around me at these colourful confident women and wondered how dare these beasts be standing in the way of their creativity? Perhaps something I have yet to discover. 
Poppy Kleiser
Through the second part of the workshop where we began to critique each other’s work these beasts of literary abuse seemed to shrink away quite unnatural it is, at first, to nit pick at another writer’s work. However, once our trepidations melted away the result was a very constructive and inspiring look into the skill and inner voice that shapes writing from splattered paint on a canvas into a skilled and expressive portrait. For me, being around these women of such vast talent and ability has set ablaze the beacon of excitement for writing within me, and in doing so has cast away the anxiety and feelings of insufficiency that I used to associate with it. I feel so eager to develop my poetic voice, and must thank these fireworks of women for their inspiration to me! "

"My journey into the world of writing started before I can remember, I’ve always expressed myself through little stories and poems and I feel like it’s always been a part of me. I left school at 15 finding the rigid nature of the courses squashed my creative side, and have since been reading, writing and drawing in my own little secluded world. I’m starting now, to try and bring my work outside of my private head space and into the light."  - Meghan Douglass-Eliss

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Colour Bind: Part 3:

The final part of Claire Hynes' article on the lack of diversity in the UK publishing industry:

“In the introduction to her book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison asks: “What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be “universal” or “race-free?”

Catherine Johnson, who is of mixed Jamaican and Welsh parentage, has enjoyed a 20 year career writing books for young adults and scripts for film including the acclaimed Bullet Boy (2004), directed by Saul Dibb. Yet she struggles with the kind of emotional conflicts Morrison alludes to.

“As writers we are all scared and busy living in our own heads. I sometimes have a fear that a book is not going to do as well as I hoped because of the ethnicity of my protagonist. But then I think, maybe it’s simply the case that I’m not a good enough writer?”

“I think many publishers would love to find more black writers but it’s difficult to encourage the talent, and as a writer you need to have time and money to fail. I was lucky. I started out with a small independent publisher who sent me on courses and looked after me really well. That kind of hand-holding just doesn’t happen in the current climate.”

Johnson believes that there are less books by people of colour for young adults now than when she started her career: “I’ve definitely noticed a decline,” she said. “I look at the major young people’s literary festivals and it’s commonplace to find an all-white line up of writers.”

I did some research into this and discovered that the line-up of 47 events for the Edinburgh Book Festival this year features only one non-white writer, Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman.

Things were more hopeful in the 1990s, which was undoubtedly a time of increased confidence for black British women writers. African-American authors, most notably Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison had been championed by women’s publishing houses like Virago and The Women’s Press and sold books in there millions, but only after mainstream publishers expressed disinterest. Here was tangible proof that black stories could sell.

Meanwhile, novels about the black British experience were published by a grassroots publishing outfit called X-Press, established in 1992. Frustrated by the lack of black British books, X-Press founders Steve Pope and Dotun Adebayo decided to publish stories themselves. Their authors included an impressive number of women, among them Marcia Williams, Karlie Smith, Phyllis Blunt, Naomi Richards, Ijeoma Inyama, and Shed Campbell. The 1990s also saw the popularity, among black British women of a black literature reading events called The Write Thing. Hundreds, and in some cases thousands, would attend events to hear authors read and talk about their work. When African-American author Terri McMillan visited the UK to promote her novel Waiting To Exhale, she was met by an audience of 4,000 at Brixton Academy. So much for the well-worn myth that black people don’t read.

It was in this energetic climate that Sussex-born novelist Oonya Kempadoo first arrived on the literary scene. Kempadoo’s coming-of-age novel Buxton Spice, about a young girl’s sexual awakening in 1970s Guyana was published in 1998, following an auction between major publishing houses. The New York Times described the novel as “Superb and superbly written” and Kempadoo went on to be named as a Great Talent for the Twenty-First Century by the Orange Prize.
“Being reviewed as a woman and ethnic person I found myself exoticised. I didn’t have anything to compare that too, but it was not something that I felt comfortable with,” Kempadoo said.

Her second novel, Tide Running, written in the Caribbean vernacular of Tobago was, she said, more problematic. It was considered by publishers as more of “a black story” with a limited appeal.

“An agent told me that the French market wasn’t interested in a black male Caribbean story. The scale of the market was considered too small,” she said. Kempadoo’s most recent novel All Decent Animals set in Trinidad amid carnival was published last year.

Like Okojie, Kempadoo’s literary agent is Elise Dillsworth. “It’s a different dynamic to when I was agented and published at first. It was a very white male dominated world of business and literary discussion and I found it intimidating, unfair and unattractive.”

The UK publishing industry has since the 1990s launched various initiatives in order to encourage a more ethnically diverse workforce. Yet Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, said the results have been poor: “The industry tried to change but it didn’t have a material effect, certainly not at the middle management and upper management end. It got some people into the trade but you have to train people and promote people. Maybe it’s a long process and maybe the industry expected the spark to inflame,” he said.

But Jones has noticed encouraging signs of change. He cites the example of Random House digital account manager Crystal Mahey-Morgan, a former hip hop and spoken word promoter, who attracts non-traditional audiences to books through smart marketing.

“Digital speaks to a different sort of community. When we hold digital events we find that the audience is far more diverse than the typical publishing crowd. Publishing looks quite middle class white and posh in comparison, but the industry is changing from the ground up.

“If publishers aren’t finding audiences and publishing books which appeal, they are neglecting their responsibilities. The more culturally diverse we become, the more we can profit from a global digital platform.”

In The States African-American writers have invented the term ‘seg-book-gation’ to refer to the US industry practice of marketing books by black writers only to black readers, while similar books by white writers featuring predominantly African-American characters are marketed to a mass readership. I hope the changes Jones talks about will make this practice obsolete internationally.

And whether I really am passé as a black British writer or not, I understand that writers of all hues can feel excluded or pigeon-holed. Perhaps I need to learn from the legacy of women who have pushed forwards with creative projects regardless. I’ve recently become a director and editor at an East-Anglian based publishing house called Gatehouse Press. I’ll make damn sure that the range of writers we support is broad.”

With many thanks to Claire Hynes and Mslexia for permission to publish this article on our blog. 

Claire was one of the 12 writers commended in our 'About' competition. Her short story In Her Hair has been published in the Bath Short Story Award anthology 2014 this month. Claire has a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from UEA, where she teaches creative writing to undergraduates. She is also a director and editor at Gatehouse Press. 

Friday, 31 October 2014

Colour Bind: Part 2

(c) Mark Tillie

What follows is a continuation of Claire Hyne's article which first appeared in September in Mslexia. Part 1 was posted here yesterday - see the previous entry - and the concluding part will be appear on this blog tomorrow evening.

“Matters of exclusion preoccupied black women immigrant writers of the twentieth century. For instance, Buchi Emecheta’s novel Second Class Citizen (1974) is the story of a resourceful Nigerian woman who endures countless setbacks in London, while  Joan Riley’s novel The Unbelonging (1985) tells of an 11 year old Jamaican girl’s sense of alienation in Britain. Decades later, the themes still resonate with me, although I am British born, and half of my family is white English and Irish.

However, no-one can deny the success of a few black British women novelists,
Malorie Blackman, Andrea Levy and Zadie Smith among them. The publishing industry was surely not then a wholly rotten place for women of colour? I wanted to talk to published black British women writers to find out about their experiences.

Six years ago, Irenosen Okojie, won a place on Flight, a Spread the World initiative, set up to support emerging London writers through mentoring.  Soon afterwards, she gave up her job as National Development Co-ordinator of performance poetry organisation, Apples and Snakes. Supported by her personal savings, she began to work full-time on her novel Butterfly Fish, set in modern London as well as Nigeria in both the 18th Century and 1950s.

Okojie, who was born in Nigeria and raised in Norfolk, tells me, “When you’ve finished the writing and think about the broader picture, you look at what’s on the bestseller list and what’s on the shelves and think: “That’s not my story”. There’s definitely a fear. Publishing feels like a colder land to enter. It feels so much more daunting and intimidating because so few black British women writers are part of it.

“I wondered whether there was space for my writing being a woman and a woman of colour. My writing is quite quirky and experimental and I worried that it wasn’t what was expected.”

Okojie was taken on by agent, Elise Dillsworth, one of the few black women working in UK publishing, and Butterfly Fish is to be published next June by Jacaranda, a small publishing company aimed at representing culturally diverse writing voices. But is it significant that this young British writing talent was not picked up by a major publishing house?

Perhaps so. Due to the lack of available statistics on the ethnic make up of published writers, I decided to carry out research of my own. I examined three of the biggest UK literary agencies: Curtis Brown, United Agents, and Peters, Fraser & Dunlop. I counted a grand total of 2,338 listed writers (it took a very long time). Around 55% of the writers were white men, 42% were white women and 3% were black or Asian. Black women comprised only 0.5% of the overall total. I was shocked.

According to Ellah Allfrey, one of the few senior black women working in the publishing industry and a former editor at Random House and Granta: “There’s no concerted effort to stop black British women getting published. However, there is a problem to do with how books are chosen and who chooses at the publishing stage.

“It’s simply easier to commission a story that you recognize. If everyone else in the acquisitions process is sitting around from a similar background, it’s more likely that certain stories will get through. If it’s a local, homegrown black British story which you, the publisher, aren’t familiar with, it’s more difficult.

“It’s also difficult for an acquiring editor who wants to be imaginative when they have to look at previous sales and look at what’s worked before. If you can’t answer the question: who is this writer like and who is the comparison, the selling of the book can be seen as more difficult, because the numbers aren’t there to prove that this particular book can work.

“But I actually believe that readers are more imaginative than the publishers, who are the gatekeepers, realise. We’ve all benefitted from the success of Zadie Smith and Bernardine Evaristo. Reading teaches us about ourselves and interesting stories are out there.” “