Searching for the Canon of Black British Writing
Written by Pat Cumper for The Amplify Project | Black Writers in Their Own Words
I begin with a confession: there was a time when I thought that working in the arts was not important. I fell for the oft-advanced argument that money spent on the arts might be better spent on hospitals or schools or a range of other worthy endeavours. I am now convinced that the work I do, the work I enjoy, the work to which I am committed has huge value. Not only because of the people who do it or the work that they create but for one simple fact: we need to tell our stories, to listen to the stories others tell us, if we are to create a society built on mutual understanding. I know this sounds idealistic. Simplistic even. But at a time when we are fragmented, siloed and increasingly hostile to what we perceive as the other, telling our stories, listening to the stories of others is a potent way to calm fears, promote understanding and move forward.
I mean the widest possible definition of stories: from the immediacy of reported news through the columns and critiques of the commentariat, from the plays, poems and novels of the literary fraternity to the television shows and films, all these and more.
I always go back to a quote by Ben Okri:
“Beware the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.”
Stories are powerful things and how wonderful it is to be part of creating, or celebrating those that tell, stories that make our world more varied, more wise, more knowledgeable.
Which brings me to The Amplify Project.
The blunt truth is that it is almost impossible for a Black playwright to make a living. Yes, there are exceptions to prove the rule, but much of the produced writing has been for small spaces, small - often one man - shows, often telling stories of the Black experience in its narrowest sense, frequently with a focus on Black pain. This is a step up from when most of the Black plays produced were either written in the US or South Africa and I celebrate the productions of the work of Black British playwrights Inua Ellams, Roy Williams, Michaela Coel and most recently Winsome Pinnock at the National Theatre and beyond. And yes, there has been, often in response to the BLM and MeToo movements, more work, brilliant work by young playwrights. Here’s the thing: how do we celebrate what has been achieved so far and build audiences and careers for these writers for the future so that this momentum is not lost?
The discussions that led to setting up The Amplify Project began before the pandemic, before the summer of George Floyd, before the world assumed its current shape.
The co-creator of The Amplify Project, Pauline Walker, who has worked with a wide range of writers, saw similar patterns in the publishing industry as I did in theatre. Publishers saying they couldn’t find Black British writers, who felt that there wasn’t a sufficient market for the work they were receiving. We wanted a practical response to these concerns, one that we could shape ourselves and reflected our interests, as writers ourselves, in the lives, work and practice of Black British writers, not just when their latest book, play or programme came out but as thinkers and artists in their own right. So we set up the podcast and accompanying website.
Everything became more urgent as the pandemic hit and we became more politically and socially polarized as a nation. From supporting fellow artists, the idea crystallized into a search for the canon of Black British writing and claiming a place in the British literary landscape. We decided to speak to novelists and memoirists, poets and playwrights, screen writers and YA authors and ask them, among many others, the questions about when and how words and stories first came into their lives, how they create their work, how they survive, what does it mean to described as a Black writer and whether or not they accept that description.
The answers have so far been fascinating. We have found for example that the women we have spoken to take longer to claim the title of playwright, poet etc for themselves than the men have. We’ve found that words and stories, read or spoken, were hugely important, a major factor in significant relationships in their early lives, that many are proud of being Black but are wary of what the ramifications of accepting that as a category for their work means. We’ve spoken to writers at the beginning of their careers, some who have had the resilience to survive for decades, some who pair their writing with another career. All speak of their gratitude to have earned or been given the time to write, to think, to explore ideas, to create.
For both Pauline and I, it has thrown up a new challenge - we had to learn how to record and edit the podcast remotely by ourselves which I found oddly empowering. We are very grateful to Arts Council England for their funding to establish The Amplify Project and record the first season after our second, scaled down, application was successful. Similarly, we’re thankful to the many organisations who work with writers who offered The Amplify Project their immediate support when we explained our vision. We’re grateful to Hans De Kretser and his staff for putting together the website for the project at minimum cost, and for all the help, encouragement and support we’ve had from fellow writers and arts practitioners.
The urgency of supporting and celebrating our story tellers has increased. As the support generated by the response to Black Lives Matter and even MeToo wanes, it is important that we do not regress. As I said before, with Ben Okri’s warning taken to heart, we need to tell our stories and we need to listen to the story of others. What we at The Amplify Project are doing is amplifying the voices of those who, through their art and craft, are telling their stories. And for those who are not interested in learning about writers and their craft, I recommend downloading the episodes to hear what lives our writers have led. The more you listen, the clearer it will be that there is diversity within the Black British community, a diversity that connects their work and through them the listener to a wide, complex and vibrant world.
The Amplify Project | Black Writers in Their Own Words
Presented by Pat Cumper and Pauline Walker at https://theamplifyproject.co.uk and available to download on all your favourite podcast platforms.
The Amplify Project is an exciting new podcast series in which Black writers from the stage, page and screen tell hosts Pauline Walker and Pat Cumper about themselves, their work, and what inspires them.
Guests include Merky Books New Writer’s Prize winner Hafsa Zayyan, memoirist and biographer Colin Grant, playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero, author Alex Wheatle, novelist and journalist Diana Evans, and poets Nick Makoha and Rachel Long.
Released weekly on a Friday. Available on all your favourite podcast platforms; share, comment, like and subscribe.