The New Danger

The New Danger

Even as recently as the 1980’s, it was said that Black footballers weren’t as skilled at the beautiful game as their white counterparts; some even went as far as to claim Black people were unable to play as well because of inherent flaws in their make-up – genetic or otherwise, I never could tell. These claims were made despite the presence of athletes like Garth Crooks and later, of John Barnes, both of whom had to endure having bananas thrown onto the pitch whenever they played, often by supporters of their own teams. The naysayers also neglected to mention Arthur Warton and Walter Tull, who had played for national teams in the mid-1880’s and and 1900’s respectively, and were the first Black professional footballers the world had seen.

In this first half of the millennium it would seem ludicrous to think that literature penned by Black writers might be seen in a similar fashion – especially with the successes of Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and Ben Okri. Many would argue that these are the exceptions that prove the rule, that class plays a major part in their acceptance, and that diverse genres – sci-fi, romance, experimental fiction, thrillers and even crime – are relatively poor pickings for Black British writers. Some would say that that’s because Black writers are not sufficiently talented; others, like myself, that the issue is publishing and promotion of these authors, not quality. Of course, either of these views are difficult to prove without firm evidence . The fact of the matter is, without a frank discussion of the varied perspectives that includes honest input from experienced Black writers working within the industry, we’ll never get close to the truth.

Because for every Zadie Smith there’s a Precious Williams; for every Andrea Levy there’s an Yvvette Edwards; for every Ben Okri there’s a Chris Abani, and for every Mike Gayle there’s an Alex Wheatle. Heard of these writers? Some, but not all? I suggest you do your research before making any claims to know Black British writing, what we’re capable of and what we’re about. Listen to our experiences before making comments about the reasons why we might not be as lauded, test the waters to see if the playing field is as level as it is claimed. All these writers are valid, all their voices are necessary, of that there is no doubt. But if the argument is to begin with the assumption that Black writing is crippled by inability, as it was once claimed about Black footballers, then we haven’t moved very far from attitudes expressed in the 1800 and 1900’s after all.

N.B. – This post is written in response to comments made regarding two articles, one by Catherine Johnson in the Guardian:

The other by Alex Wheatle in the Independent:

In both articles I found the general public response unsettling to say the least. If this is truly how the majority readership see writing by people of colour than we have further to go than I ever believed.

~ by courttianewland on 09/12/2011.

5 Responses to “The New Danger”

  1. Some years ago I once sent my manuscript to a publisher. It was a story set in Tottenham, a story I felt, captured what is like living in the area. After about six weeks later, the publisher called me and said they loved the story but wanted me to ‘adjust’ the characters, especially the black characters. I asked why. They said that the black female character was well written and so forth, but, and get this – England was not ready to handle strong black female characters, and also, I should not have the black characters in any shape or form, attacking any of the white characters. Whether verbally or physically. That really put me off writing for some time. Then I was ‘amazed’ when I read the book by Kathryn Stockett – The Help, a story set in the south, in the 60s which featured a white female character and two black female characters. I should add for those who have not read the book (or seen the film) the black females are servants and the white female is a journalist who wants to write a book on what it is like being a servant to a white family. Although the book was a success it was also controversial as the author is white and writes the black voices in what African Americans would call ‘Ebonics’. Also one of the black female characters Minny, besides hating her job, also dislikes white people. What I found annoying other than a white author telling someone else’s story is that Stockett is allowed to get with not only ‘filtering’ and cleansing these characters and their experiences but she also gets away with creating a black character who is allowed to show her contempt for the people she believes oppresses her. And yet we (potential black author) cannot do that.

    It would also be good if authors like you, put your comments on the Guardian blog as I think that is one of the problems, we hardly respond to any of these things!!

    Many thanks

  2. An interesting and worrying post, Courttia. I’ve only just got my first book deal, so don’t have firsthand experience of prejudice in the industry, but I have been told plenty of time that as a general rule, men/boys won’t read books by women/girls. That’s just a fact. My writer name is C.J. Flood as a result. But boys likely won’t pick up my first book because the narrator is a girl! Surrounded by boys and men, but a girl none the less.

    I had a conversation with some writer friends recently about certain (white) men at the top of the industry, and all the attention their books get, sometimes just for being good, unextraordinary books. We tried to think up women who were upheld in the same way, and struggled to say the least. One writer admitted feeling almost embarrassed to be a woman writing women’s experience, as if somewhere inside herself she actually thought it was less worthy. Very messed up.

    No one wanted to talk publicly about the thing because it would always look like the bitters. But I think you’re right, without honest input from experienced writers working in the industry it’ll be awful hard to get to the bottom of the matter. Almost as hard as believing that somehow women/black writers are simply not as good at writing as white men.

    Anyway, I’m off to look up the writers you mentioned.

  3. I read both articles and prepared a comment however, I was so incensed I felt it was better that I didn’t start writing what I felt about this topic. We all know what one of the underlying reasons is or another reason could be that the elite that own the large publishing companies or judge the book prizes do not understand the lives of black people in the UK. Rather than complain I feel it is better to take action to make our own changes. As writers we can support each other and purchase books by other black writers. We have access to Amazon and do not have to rely on the little black section in mainstream bookshops.

  4. Good article Courttia but with one big problem. The black British authors you’ve used as examples of black British authors not enjoying success actually are very successful. While they are not quite household names Precious Williams, Yvette Edwards, Chris Abani and Alex Wheatle have had far more success than the average author of any race. When Precious Williams’s book came out every time I switched on the TV or opened a newspaper, she was there and her book was published by Penguin if I remember correctly. Yvette Edwards did not get much publicity but she was nominated for the Booker award unless I am greatly mistaken. Chris Abani is actually based in the States and a US citizen and he’s won major awards there and is very successful. Alex Wheatle does not get the level of publicity that he deserves I will agree with you there but I still consider him to be a success as well.

    How can you class black authors who get nominated for the Booker or get their memoir picked up by a major publisher as not being successful or promoted? Your article therefore would have been stronger if you’d used examples of black British authors who truly have been marginalized or almost ignored. Writers like Gemma Weekes, Peter Akinti and Chioma Okereke. Instead the writers you’ve referred to have careers those of us who are aspiring authors can only dream of!

    • I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here.

      The point of the articles I’ve cited is that Black British writers, although successful, are not being promoted as well as white writers, who cover the same topics. The point of my response was that a lot of the comments made by the general public regarding both articles said this is a question of quality, or sour grapes on the part of the authors who wrote those pieces. I referred to the authors I named to prove that this is clearly not the case; lack of promotion was the problem, not lack of success. I even say that! If you compare these authors with the people I named as their peers, and also to someone like Stephen Kelman (who I have no problem with), I think it’s obvious that there’s a disparity between their media promotion (radio, broadsheets, festivals and the like) and any of the people I’ve mentioned in comparison. Even you admit as much, some of the time.

      Being published by a corporate publisher, or being nominated for a major award, does not negate the problem; in the cases I cited, it compounds it. What I was saying was, why isn’t Precious Williams given as much column inches as Zadie? Why wasn’t Yvvette Edwards reviewed in every broadsheet paper, even after securing a Booker nomination? Chris Abani is a friend of mine, who lived in London BEFORE he moved to the States, and actually published his short story ‘Becoming Abigail’ in my Penguin anthology of new Black writing back in 2000 – the subsequent novella of the same name went on to win acclaim and awards in the States after he left the UK bemoaning the industry, as he couldn’t get a single book published. Alex Wheatle has an MBE and still doesn’t get invited to literary festivals. So again, I don’t see the problem with what I said.

      As well, I’m not sure why you feel the need to offer your own examples, two of whom are friends of mine, one published by Jonathan Cape, one nominated for a South Bank award, the other published by Virago. What possible difference is offered by these examples? In fact, they only serve to clarify my point – these authors are under-promoted as a whole, despite being successfully published.

      What you’ve actually written as far as I could see, reinforces what I’m say about the relentless need to question our adequacy rather than actually listen to the points being made – even while you admit I have a point. By trying to insinuate that my argument is flawed without looking at the actual argument itself you willfully disengage from what us writers are saying, and actually do more towards stopping anyone from making headway, together, as lovers of good writing – if indeed, that’s what you are.

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