Born in Brighton to Caribbean parents, living in London, I have been writing since I could. I’ve run the gamut of painful rhyming couplets, existentialist teenage diaries and – er – true romance.
I’ve published some serious stuff, about equality and rights, as well as adult and children’s short stories through Hamish Hamilton, A and C Black and Pearsons, amongst others. I’m good at running workshops, talking to lots of people and training. I’m not good at seeing departure boards (or people I know) without my glasses or whistling. I’m represented by the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency.
I am a writer with privilege
I am a writer. I am a female writer. I am a middle-aged writer and a feminist writer. I am a black writer. I am a Black British writer. I am an English writer. I am a Brighton writer, a London writer, a writer of Trinidadian and Guyanese heritage.
I am a BME writer, a BAME writer, a privileged writer.
I would like to talk about my privilege.
I am one of a very small number of UK-based writers for young adults who do not identify as white. There are more being published – for instance, Muhammad Khan’s I Am Thunder is due out in January next year and the A Change is Gonna Come anthology showcases talented writers from diverse backgrounds who are quite rightly attracting attention from agents and publishers.
There are increasingly more initiatives targeting ‘BAME’ writers, so I think this is the moment to unpick why I am able to write and be published and other writers cannot. I want you to understand why I am privileged.
I am privileged because I grew up in an English-speaking household with a book-obsessed mother. My mother passed on Anne of Green Gables, Wind in the Willows, Pride and Prejudice and Heidi. She read books first so that we could discuss them together. She quotes Keats and Tennyson and as a teenager brought me to London to the British Museum and art exhibitions. My Italian stepdad took us to Italy most summers. I was eating polenta, sundried tomatoes and artichokes long before they hit English delis. I had seen Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Primavera in situ before I was eighteen. I am from a working class non-English family but my points of reference are white and middle class. It helps me fit in.
I am privileged because of my access to libraries. From the first library I was signed up to in Whitehawk, Brighton to the British Library in London, I’ve had access to librarians and books that have expanded my imagination and knowledge. Thanks to Haywards Heath Library I read my way through the Little House on the Prairie books, Paul Zindel, SE Hinton, Tolkien. School libraries offered up Arthur Ransome and PJ Travers. I know classic children’s books. It helps me fit in.
I am privileged because I was in the catchment area of a high-achieving school with teachers who never doubted my ability to achieve. It was a state school but one that attracted local affluent parents. People moved to be in our catchment area. English teachers such as Ms Clarke and Mr Jones encouraged me to read widely and told me that I could write well. I, like many people of Caribbean heritage my age, were the first generation to be born in the UK. We were not considered English but did not have the homeland identities of our parents. I struggled to find my identity in a society that was – and often still is – telling me I am lesser, that racism is imaginary and that all achievement is based on merit. Knowing that I could write and write well was a dormant seed, an embryo identity that I have continued to grow.
I am privileged because I have a degree in English and History of Art. I studied as a mature student with a grant to help offset costs. I was able to buy a house in Haywards Heath with parental support and sell it when I decided to settle in London. When I sold it, I paid for an MA in Creative Writing for Film and TV. It was £7000. It was an investment with uncertain returns. I did not have to justify it to anyone. I could just do it.
I am privileged because I came to London when it was possible to live here on a low salary. There were plenty of jobs around and I found my way into the voluntary sector. Before I came here, I had never met an out gay man or lesbian, a trans person, or, to be honest, many black people who weren’t related to me. My knowledge of disability was the medical model – we were close to Chailey Heritage residential school for disabled children. My work world enabled me to meet and understand the worlds of the people I want to write about. I have never felt that I am not allowed to create stories about someone who is different from me. I have no shame about asking willing respondents questions about navigating identities that are stigmatised and marginalised. I have a wide network of friends and acquaintances who tolerate my curiosity and trust me to do them justice.
I am privileged because I move between worlds. I have the white middle class conversations and the other conversations, the ones with other people of colour, where we openly share the pain and humiliation of racism. We can do it within an hour of meeting each other because we know that our experiences won’t be denied or explained off as something else. We cheerlead each other. We lift each other. Have white authors who want to write poc characters e ever been part of these conversations? Do they understand the backstory of their characters in the way that we would? When I wrote Bailey in Indigo Donut and Marlon in Orangeboy, I knew the conversations their parents would have had with them about being young black men in a society that still hums with negative stereotypes. Parents of black and mixed race and Muslim children will understand that too.
I am privileged because my agent, Caroline Sheldon, has nurtured me and has had faith in me. From the moment I sent her the first few chapters of Orangeboy, she told me it was special. But, as I have said before, only one editor was interested in my book. Emma Goldhawk was, at that time, on a short term contract and my book was her first acquisition – not the easiest of sales. I have no doubt that my book found the right home. It was championed from the beginning and, as a writer, I believe that Hachette continue to champion me now. I am, though, genuinely curious to know what put other publishers off? What happens to the other ‘own voices’ manuscripts that don’t land on the right desk? I hear about the importance of ‘own voices’ stories. I hear that we need more poc protagonists, more chances for more readers see themselves and their lives reflected, more books that seem attractive to boys. If they are written, who takes the risk and champions them? As writers of colour, we consider the different paths of ‘own voices’ books and those with poc characters written by white writers. Our perception is that the latter have higher advances and win more prizes. We may be wrong but only the publishing industry can answer that one. You have the facts and the figures. Be honest.
I am privileged because I do not pay the mortgage so I have breathing space to develop my writing. If required, I have enough money to pay expenses and claim back – or, in some cases, self-fund my own promotion. Not everyone has that option.
So why is this important?
Because if there is genuine commitment to promote diversity, there has to be honesty.
The government’s recent Race Disparity Audit is one of several reports over many years that outline the financial, employment and education experiences of different ethnic groups. If the few ‘BAME’ writers that are making it through are the small percentage with privilege – good state or private school educations, MAs in Creative Writing and access to expensive writing courses, family support for our writing, then the industry is being disingenuous. There must be investment in the step before, that finds strong, original voices and helps emerging writers to polish them.
Every time I go into schools, I am lifted by the wit, imagination and innovation of young people from diverse backgrounds. Is it only the ones with privilege that get to be writers?
Read Patrice’s previous post Understand. Support. Challenge.
Bailey is 17, mixed race, lives with his mum and dad in Hackney and spends all his time playing guitar or tending to his luscious ginger afro. Indigo is 17 and new to London, having grown up in the care system after being found by her mum’s dead body as a toddler. All Indigo wants is to know who she really is. When Bailey and Indigo meet at sixth form, sparks fly. But when Bailey becomes the target of a homeless man who seems to know more about Indigo than is normal, Bailey is forced to make a choice he should never have to make.
A story about falling in love and everyone’s need to belong.