Whose Reality Are We Reflecting?

In Amazing Grace, one of my favourite childhood picture books, Grace, a black girl, is told that she can’t play Peter Pan because he is a white boy!

No adult has ever told the (multiracial) nursery class that Peter Pan can only be white. But it is the only thing they have seen. Despite securing the audition for the role, Grace even starts to doubt it herself.

Eventually, Grace’s Nanny takes her to a ballet to see a black ballerina and gives her the “you can do anything” pep talk. Grace, of course, gets the role of Peter Pan. On the night of the play, Grace GIVES IT TO DEM. She kills the role of Peter Pan in the play like none of the other kids could- they even apologise for saying she couldn’t do it right.

I talk a lot about my status of Book Aunty. I find and buy books every year for kids (at request of their parents).

Nurturing younger readers brings a serious joy to my life. It helps me feel closer to my late godmother, I’ve talked about it before (she bought me books, I buy them books). It brings me joy to see these kids with their noses in books, for them to be excited because the book they wanted has finally been added to their collection, to hear them talk about their favourite characters and authors.

I was born twenty-five years ago. My parents struggled to find books for my childhood library that included black people; the parents of these kids are going through the exact same struggle.

Black kids who should be able to see themselves and the people around them reflected in the books they read.

This week, a study by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) showed that in 2017, about 4% of children’s books published contained BAME characters. Only 1% of the books had a BAME protagonist. All of this, despite BAME children making up 32% of the children in compulsory education.

There were 9115 children’s titles published in Britain. That means that 391 books published for children have Characters of Colour present, that 91 books have Protagonists of Colour.

Am I surprised? No.

Am I disappointed. Yes… still.

I’ve been disappointed for years. First as a child, and now as an adult.

I wish I still had the application essay that helped me secure a place at Kingston University to study Publishing. I can’t recall the exact words, but I know the sentiment hasn’t changed.

Children are being failed.

Children are smart, smarter than we give them credit for.

They are intuitive, can pick up on cues. They listen in on “grown up” conversations. They watch the news. They look at the world presented to them in real life, on the page and on the big, small and tiny screens.

They don’t need to be told something explicitly to get the message.

And they are not colour-blind.

They see discrimination just as clearly as we do- even if they might not have the vocabulary to express what they are seeing and experiencing. And it affects them deeply. On a psychological level- the basis of their ego, their self-image, their worth in society.

Somehow, I guess I just didn’t think it was that bad.

After all, I always manage to find the books for the kids that aren’t just “issue” books for kids. A lot of books featuring black characters often do tackle the delicate way to explain racism and discrimination to children, there’s less black kids just doing “normal” kid things. Imagine being a child where the only characters that look like you are experiencing racism when you, yourself are also dealing with racism in your life.

Please, where is the escapism (something a lot of us value about reading) in that?

When I look at the titles I have purchased, they fall in to one of two categories: Books I remember from my own childhood and  American imports. This industry can’t just rely on Americans to do the work, nor can it rely on nostalgia- this country has to support and represent its new, home-grown talent.

There are so many nuances in the BAME British experience that America will never address because it doesn’t have them. Imagine hearing that BAME authors are not even attempting to get published initially in the UK but are instead exporting their stories because they are being told that there is no market for what they are writing!?

The Publishing industry in the UK needs to be braver. To be smarter. To do better.

We already know how. We’ve discussed it enough.

The time has come to match words with action.

Below are some people I know of who are doing more than talking, if you know any more, please add them in the comments below:

This is Book Love – a multi-cultural, multi-lingual pop-up (and online) book store.
Booktrust – The UK’s largest children’s reading charity.
Knights Of – A new children’s publisher team who decided to do the DAMN THING themselves. Originators of the #BooksMadeBetter campaign.
Alanna Max – An indie children’s publisher with naturally inclusive children’s stories.
Inclusive Minds – publishing collective committed to changing the face of children’s books.
Spread The Word – London based writers development agency devoted to the new writers of all backgrounds living in the capital, hosts of the annual London Short Story Prize.
Commonword – Manchester based, writers development agency that has been open since 1977.
The Good Literary Agency – the team behind best-selling, award-winning collection of the British BAME Experience The Good Immigrant working to supporting homegrown writing talent.
Mediadiversified – giving a platform to BAME Brits and founded the Bare Lit Festival, which amplifies the voices of writers of colour.
BAME in Publishing – a networking opportunity held every month for BAME people trying to get into publishing and those of us who have finally gotten our feet through the door.

If you would like to read the CLPE report for yourself, it is available to download in full here.

Issa Employee

To be honest y’all, it’s been a madness.

On my return from Trinidad for Latoya’s wedding, we got stranded in St. Lucia. I wanted to fight the pilot, because the day after my return, I was supposed to attend an second interview (for a job where I had my first interview literally days before flying out)… but luckily for me, we were only stuck for under two days and the company were very understanding of my situation.

Roll around Friday 6th . I’m actually acclimatised somewhat to the English temperature again, and I’m trying to commit to drinking as much water here as I did overseas.

Knees weak, arms are sweaty, no vomit on my sweater already (mom’s spaghetti). Quick 40 minute train trip that I’m hoping to memorise because wow, could you imagine a transport so quick and easy? I’m wearing a pencil skirt, my skin is still caribbean soft and my hair- well, mum did my hair because I was feeling lazy last night and wanted a little babying (I’m an adult…).

Great bit of banter with the girls in the reception room who loosen me up with Harry Potter because let’s all be real- Dumbledore did not YELL “Harry, did you put your name in the goblet?”, he said it calmly. I believe it’s even italicised there? I’ll have to do a re-read- but that’s not the point.

So then there’s a test. It’s something I actually can do with a bit of confidence (after having done many such tests in many such undocumented interviews july was a very busy month) and I have a half an hour. Fix an AI sheet. Come up with a marketing strategy. Thank you social media marketing internship- I have my interviewers laughing and relaxed and I answer questions with a sort of authority I wasn’t quite sure I had. I meet more people on the team! Swelling with hope here, I mean, why else would they have me meet so many people on the team if not to gauge if we’d work well? After some handshakes I’m reassured that I’ll know the employment tea by early next week.
As I leave I check my watch, I arrived about ten minutes before the interview. The test was 30 minutes. The Q&A… an hour?! Again, I’m hoping its good news. I check in with my parents, because they asked and then I head off to catch up with a friend.

Checking my email for a shopping order, in the Westfield Costa, deciding on whether or not I’ll get that blueberry muffin with the medium hot chocolate or nah… it arrives. Letter from my interviewer. ISSA JOB OFFER. Mate. I almost fell down my knees were like jelly. Big beaming smile on my face as I send screenshot to the family chat on whatsapp because literally we’ve all been talking about this job for the better part of a month. I decide I deserve the hot chocolate and the blueberry muffin and get to snag one of those comfy chairs overlooking the window while I wait for my friend to show up.

I’ve told her I got news but I wanted to say it in person. I am buzzing like a swarm of bees, literally can not sit still for the life of me. When she sits down with me, her order on a tray, taking in this ultralightbeam smile on my face she asks about the news. And I tell her. And she says- I knew that’s what it was. I’m so happy for you!!!

I am low-key dying. Congratulations from the famalam start coming through as news spreads through the pumpkin vine family gossip network. I post not so cryptically on twitter because I want to share the news, but I still don’t believe its real? I’m just glad it’s finally happened. Wow. Your girl’s employed and in the industry she’s been trying to break into for about 3 years (incl. the year of MA studies for this industry).

It’s really starting to sink in!

I start next Tuesday!

6 lessons from 6 weeks

So… I have just finished a six-week internship. It is in fact, my first day off.

I had lovely co-workers, an easy commute and got paid! *Cha-ching!*

There was a lot of admin. Scanning. Printing. Filing. Binders. There was one point where I was dreaming about excel spreadsheets and my fingers were stained with highlighter ink- but, it’s something I look at and laugh…

There have been a few things I’ve learned. Truly learned to be true- about myself, during my placement. Things that you usually hear and don’t take to heart, but you realise to be true later on.

What are these things?

  1. Having 18 hours of my day (sleep, commute & work, respectively) already accounted for has made me plan my days better. I learned to make the most of my “spare time”. I struggled keeping to my bullet journal before, but then… I as the weeks progressed, it was much easier to bring structure into my life. Also the fact that I had something to do during the day made the few rejection emails that I got for permanent work, that much easier to deal with.
  2. I read so much. So, so much, during my commute. Literally blazing through books, but still enjoying them immensely. Usually, I like to start a book and devour it in one sitting. I guess its similar to binge-watching? This starting and stopping (due to changes, lunch breaks etc.) made it feel like I was anticipating the story progression more which made the experience better for me.
  3. I love sleep! This is not a surprise. But I really love sleep. Sometimes I used sleep as something to do when there’s nothing else to do, like a mini-escape from all the things I did in the day. Par example, I love a midday nap. Getting through the day linked through to the next thing I learned.
  4. There is so much tea drinking in the office environment. I’m a big fan of tea. Even though I’m on a green tea kick right now, drinking breakfast tea 3-4 times a day? I was buzzing! Hard! Also tried two new types of tea (Earl and Lady Grey). I can see why Picard drank that tea! I will be trying a wider variety.
  5. Food markets are amazing! I’m a millennial or whatever, so like, finding joy in food and beverages is something my generation is supposed to do a lot right?
  6. Sometimes, work emails are about baby bracelets, baking shows, restaurant recommendations, recipes or helping someone in the office win a contest online. And that’s fine!

Very short Update!

I am a graduate!

I graduated today!

12 months are validated as I dressed up, walked across the stage, got my handshake and collected written proof that I had completed my degree in front of my family, my friends and their families and friends.

This is one of the better pictures my mum took (she has problems focusing for some reason).

Thank you to Kingston University, all my lecturers and all the friends I’d made along the way to reaching this goal!

EDIT: 27/01/2017!

ANOTHER ONE! Travelled all the way down to Brighton. My brother is also a graduate!2017-01-27 13.29.57

 

Stretched thin: A learning curve

It’s summer term.

Well, it would be the summer term, if I was still taking classes.

I’ve learned about my limits. I’ve learned about prioritising. I’ve learned about self care.

So, after the Easter break, I had an overloaded schedule. I was travelling and working almost every single day of the week… and I was not coping well. What exactly was taking up my time?

  • Researching and writing assignments for my MA.
  • Attending the final few days of lectures.
  • Working 3-4 days a week at my university on a charity campaign.
  • Interning 3 days a week at a company in North London.
  • Babysitting after these various classes and jobs.
  • Looking for & applying post grad jobs and internships.
  • Trying to squeeze socialising into the few hours I had to spare.

I don’t want to complain about it, because I signed up for all of this. I was stubborn. I refused to reach out for help, or prioritise properly out of pride, and to be honest I suffered for it- but damn, did I learn.

Basically… I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating right. I only had one working hand and, to be honest, I’m still working on rehydrating myself because despite all of the above, I was still trying to act like I could handle it. Like I wasn’t struggling. Like I had the time to go out with friends and attend events because to present anything other than the image perfection (even if I was failing to juggle everything) was something I could not do.

I need to be able to understand that while I can do so many things at once, doesn’t mean that I should– especially when I’m trying to perform at a high standard. Because I’m still recovering from a burn out. So I need to learn how to say “No.” Which funnily enough was one of the things we were taught on the course, clearly it has taken a while to sink in.

I need to be able to ask for help. Suffering in silence is not cool, it doesn’t make me stronger- only tired. Despite my broken hand, I was still trying to perform as though I had both hands at my disposal. And never actually able to reach those goals, which had me feeling down because I knew people who had situations that I saw as “harder” than mine continuing to do great things- and I’m terribly self-critizing. And I’ve not been able to break the habit of comparing myself to others just yet.

I need to feel comfortable unplugged. I spent almost every waking hour on the in front of a luminously bright screen, which did not help me get as much sleep as I needed. (I believe it has something to do with the blue screen?) I’ve recently downloaded a set off applications that mimic artificial light when the sun goes down- so that my brain knows the time to sleep is soon. I’ve even started to leave my laptop downstairs and my phone across the room instead of giving into temptation of accessing them when I’m frustrated by how long it’s taking for sleep to visit me.

I need to make time for myself, I need to take care of myself. It’s not normal to literally be crying over spilled milk  (in private, quietly and ashamed) because everything else has you so high strung that a small spill feels like the end of the world. In joining my council library, I’ve given myself access to thousands of books with no extra stress on my wallet, which has given me the opportunity to actually read for pleasure with no guilt, and I have never been more thankful.

And now, as my load has lightened, I honestly do not need to put myself through so much stress again in the year. Having this experience so close to the three months that I have to  work on my dissertation? I’m trying to find the silver lining. Kinda succeeding too.

 

Adulting and Auditing- Building Reader Communities

Apparently I do not sit through enough lectures on my course.

Why do I say this? Because on Wednesday I attended a panel on Building Reader Communities at Greenwich University. Unlike my regularly scheduled lectures, this event was held in the evening, and also… there was wine (a major plus).

Building Reader Communities? I thought it would be focusing on something like what the Royal Burough of Greenwich is doing to improve literacy rates in the council. But that’s what happens when you click attend to an Eventbrite event that you haven’t read the description of properly.

I was wrong. But pleasantly surprised.

In as little words as possible, this panel was hosted with people with experience in building a repertoire with consumers, heavily featuring recommended reads or acts, online fundraising campaigns and general fan interaction. I casually called it the “fandom conversation”.

The panel consisted of 4 (originally 5) people whose interaction with their communities in the physical and online world helped them in their endeavours. Our panelists were the Co-Directors of the Greenwich Book Festival, Auriol Bishop and Alex Pheby; Meike Ziervogel, novelist and founder of Peirene Press (they do translated “un-sellable” books); Alexis Kennedy, CEO of Interactive Fiction Studio Failbetter Games and Kate Russel, a tech reporter and author of Elite: Mostly Harmless, a novel based in the Elite Game World who attended via pre-recorded message.

We discussed the various ways that they have used their position in reader communities to promote their work and courses simply through interaction. Alexis Kennedy and Kate Russel both talked about crowdfunding and appealing to existing markets looking for new products- which were games based on literature, and literature based on games respectively. Meike Ziervogel was passionate about how publishers can do more for their authors in representing and creating a brand that communities are curious about, and therefore investigate.  Auriol Bishop and Alex Pheby focused on how they try and elevate new author’s voices, especially those of Greenwich Uni’s Creative Writing students during the Greenwich Book Festival.

From them, I have learned 5 basic tips about building a reading community from. Below,  in no particular order are these 5 tips for building a successfully engaged, enthusiastic community, with some quotes from the panelists as back up.


Unfortunately due to drinking wine and taking notes,these quotes cannot be properly credited, which does suck tremendously.


1. Be aware of the fact that community and audience are not the same. A community is more likely to enjoy your product if it is interactive, and audience implies passive consumption of your product.

“Audience is passive.”

2.  Be genuine and interact with your community. Don’t just peddle your wares, take note of what others are doing and give them feedback because they will be more likely to return the favour. Interaction can also lead to hiring from the community.

“Find something you love and show interest in the genuine community.”

3. Be regular and consistent. Have a regular appointment to post a blog feature, set a number of tweets that need to be produced a day. Anything that keeps you constantly active in the community can only help.

“Keep the show on the road or you might not be able to continue to do so.”

4. Be creative. Pair this with consistency, find new or perfect old ways to engage with your community and bring fresh perspectives to them. Do not wait for your genius to be discovered, trust your gut and write for the sake of writing [if you write], not to sell.

“Go and create!”

5. Hold your nerve. In what you believe and in what you like and what you know the community has been proven to like, sometimes this is where bigger corporations can fail.

“We’re good at knowing whats good.”


Greenwich Book Festival is held during the 27th and 28th of May this year (2016).
Elite: Mostly Harmless Elite:Dangerous is available for sale on Amazon, Kate is working on the second instalment of the series.
Failbetter Games have just launched Fundbetter in order to crowdsource for the production of their smaller, narrative-drivenn games.
Peirine Press have recently announced a winner for their flash fiction online competition an will be publishing breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes in August (2016).

Halfway Through #DiverseDecember

Applying to my MA course I started my cover letter with this sentence:

I am a black girl who loves to read… and I’m also a black girl who has been let down by the industry that provides the majority of her entertainment.

The lack of racial diversity the entire industry is a big problem in my opinion. There are only so many books you can read searching for representation, eventually swearing off of books because they’re not for people like you. It’s alienating as a reader to be repeatedly shown you are unimportant and invisible in fictional worlds, especially if reading is an escape from those Real Life Problems™️.

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Source: TheDailyDoodles.com

We’ve been talking in lectures about the evolution of Publishing as a whole. As a Publisher, my job will be to acquire content, manipulate the content and attempt to make a profit. It sounds like a simple enough business model right? And despite this, there are still large audiences who are not being catered to.

This is where #DiverseDecember comes in. It’s now been officially over two weeks since I found out about this twitter campaign (I can’t believe it’s halfway done)… So I want to talk about the difference it has made in my To Read List and the importance of campaigns promoting diversity in Publishing like We Need Diverse Books, Diverse YA, Creative Access and  Inclusive Minds.

BAME Authors, like BAME students in a majority-white class, are pigeonholed and made the “go-to” spokesperson for their entire race and culture. Like, how stressful is that- carrying an entire race and culture on your shoulders? They’re criticized for writing  or talking too much about race and they’re criticized for not writing or talking enough about race.

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“What’s the Black POV on [topic]?” or “This race-thing again?”
 Marlon James recently said in an article for the Guardian Books that BAME writers, if they want to succeed have to pander to the views of publisher’s main consumers (middle class white women). Which then leads writers to fall into the trap of the single narrative that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned us of, in order to succeed. I’m talking acacia trees and sunsets, rastafarians, steel pans and lounging in hammocks, curries, arranged marriages and “mythical” religions, martial arts, “weird” delicacies and lotus blossoms… You see what I’m getting to right?

Like #ReadWomen2014, the hashtag is about promoting different kinds of reading. #ReadWomen2014 was about reading more books from female authors, because despite the fact that the majority of the industry audience and workers are female, the most celebrated writers are often men. For example, YA literature is full of female writers, and yet John Green has been labeled the savior or “crown prince” of the genre.

#DiverseDecember was started by bloggers Naomi Frisby and Dan Lipscomb with the aim to celebrate the work of BAME writers, encourage people to read diversely and to “spread the joy of stories”. The twitter page and hashtag is full of people recommending their favourite classic and contemporary authors of colour, authors and stories from around the globe, other campaigns promoting diversity in publishing and stories about BAME-centric literary projects like Nikesh Shula’s upcoming letter collection “The Good Immigrant” and the fact that Nosy Crow is currently accepting submissions from BAME authors. For someone who used to struggle finding particular authors, the hashtag is a god send. It is so wonderful to see people promoting books that they have loved and want to share with others.

The importance of hearing BAME voices in literature is for more than just having a wider selection of reading. It’s a positive affirmation of my Black-British existence. In my youth I often felt as though I didn’t really have a place in this country, or the one my parents immigrated from.  Learning of the history of your country, and finding out that the only way you are connected through it is through the effects of conquest in the name of Empire, is not the one. I’m sure that many BAME readers must have felt the same kind of disconnect, and campaigns like this only serve to bring us closer to each other and our dual-identities.

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Change doesn’t have to be completely radical, the Publishing Industry isn’t going to get diverse in the snap of our fingers. We can’t collect all seven Dragonballs and ask Shenron to grant our wish… Marketing doesn’t have to be a pushing tactic- it’s easier to pull in this case, as I’ve learned from the last guest speaker of the term- Sam Missingham (the queen of twitter).

The audience is here. We’re identifying ourselves as potential customers.

We’re just waiting for someone to point us in the direction of something we would enjoy. Most of the time, its a close friend or relative- but what if it was direct from the source?

Imagine the profits.

Imagine the books (and apps, and events and the potential for other media tie-ins!).

Imagine the audience returning time and time again because they know you are serving up exactly what they’re looking for?

Yes, I’m thinking about #DiverseDecember from a Publishing Student point of view right now. But a year ago, when I had just graduated, all I wanted to do was read books for and about people who looked like me. As a consumer, I am grateful for this campaign because I’m finally seeing myself as part of the process, and part of the story.

“Literature as bright as the Moon”

Kamaria Press Logo

In my lectures, we are always talking about how those who work in the Publishing Industry are the “gate-keepers” of culture and the “taste-makers”. While boasting the title of The Industry most populated by women in comparison to other professions, there is still under-representation in terms of racial and ethnic diversity. It’s no longer difficult for me to find a book with a deeply complicated female lead, but as a reader and a lover of books, it is still disheartening to struggle so hard to find myself reflected physically and culturally in literature without having my identity as a black woman reduced to a cheap 2-D stereotype…

Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Kamaria Press, Grace-Emmanuelle Kabeya  (born of Congo and more widely travelled than anyone I’ve known) felt the same way. At twenty years of age she is already being the change she wants to see in the world, and please pardon my use of a tired cliché, but there is no other way to describe what she has achieved in the past year while still studying at University (she’s clearly saturated in that Black Girl Magic).

So what can I say about Kamaria Press?

Other than to compliment the name choice as though I would when introduced to a new baby. “Kamaria” means “As bright as the moon” in Swahili, and honestly its a surprise that with my book of African baby names, one of my future daughters hasn’t already been blessed with this parental dream. It is such a wonderful sentiment, especially during these dark times when my generation are truly coming to terms as to the hatred Blackness inspires in some people’s hearts.

The team collaboration of several young, black women from different parts of the African diaspora. As Viola Davis said, “the only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity”, Grace and everyone at Kamaria Press are extending the opportunity to writers whose voices and stories have been  ignored with claims of their life experiences being “unrealistic” or “un-relatable”.

Last Friday, Kamaria Press announced it’s arrival at a lively event in which Grace’s inspiration and goals for the Non-Profit Publishing house were explained to the attendees. I had never been so grateful to find an event invite on Twitter, and instantly invited friends on my course who I knew this would interest. It was our first group outing together and our first Launch Event. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we definitely came away inspired by the team and their achievements.

Not only are they taking on the role of a black-voice-amplifier, but Grace’s intentions for Kamaria Press go beyond uplifting the voices of African and Afro-Caribbean creative writers. All of the profit from the company’s first anthology of short stories (due this December) will go towards providing the children of a Zimbabwean school with the books they require to continue to the next grade, with plans to expand the project as the company grows. We were also serenaded by a singer-songwriter Dinachi who ensnared the room with two original songs and a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”.  It was clear that Kamaria Press’ launch event was not just about lifting themselves, but granting us all the chance to get our shine on.

I was sent back to my childhood, remembering Mary Hoffman’s “Amazing Grace” in which Grace, a young black girl is told that she cant play peter pan 1) because she’s a girl and 2) because she’s black. With some encouragement from her mother and grandmother, Grace regains her confidence and convinces others that her gender and race would not limit to what she could do. I was so shook remembering the feelings inspired by this book that when babysitting on Sunday night, I found a copy to share with my precious “Ghana Princess” Afiyah and she adored it as much as I had at her age.

Funnily enough the theme of Amazing Grace mimics the theme of what Grace’s mentor told us, and I may be paraphrasing here:”It’s not enough to have dreams. A dream is not reality. When you set yourself goals, then you know that you are working towards something real.”

In the past I had felt cheated as a reader, which is why I decided to enter Publishing, with companies like Kamaria Press on the rise, and my fellow black publishing students by my side (#squad) I know that I will not be a lone voice yelling into the abyss. And for that, I am glad.

Follow @Kamaria_Press on Twitter for more exciting updates!