This weekend, while the U.S. was combusting, I was in Berlin, attending a British Council seminar on diversity.
Now in the UK, we occasionally have these events – panel sessions, readings etc that are supposed to celebrate diversity. The problem is, the panels are usually not very diverse, or rather they are diverse in every aspect, except race. Upon seeing the authors that were going to be speaking at this event, I decided that I had to attend. That and it’s Berlin. I wanted to meet up with writers of colour from Berlin.
I arrived slightly late, (thanks to EasyJet) and walked into a conversation about diversity in publishing. It was great, an all BAME panel talking about the British publishing scene. All of them bringing in a different point of view. Such nuance in the conversations. Nuance I rarely see in the UK. They all spoke with ease. Spoke of institutionalised racism, of their journeys and their experiences of trying to step away from issue based narratives. I’d arrived 15 minutes ago and already I knew this was going to be a great weekend. It struck me that there are writers in the UK that would benefit from this. We have a National Black and Asian Writers Conference and BareLit exists in London but diversity tends to just be a word people throw around when they want their funding renewed. We are ‘token’. And the writers on the panel weren’t afraid to bring that up.
Of course, the first thing I had done, after hooking up to the wifi and tweeting, was do a headcount around the room. The audience, aside from panellists/speakers and CongoMuse and myself, they were all white. I was confused. No, a bit peeved. I started wondering where the Berlin PoC were. After speaking to people it turns out that there’s a tendency to bundle all PoC in Berlin as people who don’t want to engage. Now I know that’s not true. I was told that PoC writers in Berlin don’t exist in the same way they do in Manchester or London. And that there were a lot of Turkish Writers but that their community don’t engage with others. Now, where have we heard that before? Of course the solution to the ‘lack of engagement from Turkish writers in Berlin’ seems easy, to just bring Turkish authors to get involved. It’s a suggestion I made, who knows if it will be followed up.
I tried to ignore the lack of writers of colour in the audience but it did make me wonder what a seminar on diversity would achieve if no ‘diverse’ people were in the audience. I guess the question is not just about diversity, it’s about inclusivity. Surely, if I’m being told that a particular group of people don’t engage it is the task of the organisers to engage them and become more inclusive? Or maybe I’m asking for too much.
The panels I sat in on and of course tweeted about were incredible. I know of most of the authors and it was an absolute joy to listen to them talk about their experiences in the publishing world. More often than not, as writers we tend to keep to ourselves and stay within our little circles. Writing can be an incredibly isolating experience and hearing from other writers, learning from them and sharing tips is one way to make us more social. It goes without saying that the conversations I had with these authors were invaluable. Most probably I wouldn’t be able to have them in the UK, not because the UK isn’t progressive enough, but because any event which showcased all these authors would be packed with fans and I wouldn’t get a chance to connect with them.
The authors/writers that spoke were (and if you don’t know them, google them please):
Bernadine Everisto – Now I’ve known of Bernadine for a long time. Sat in a workshop ran by her coordinated by Peepal Tree Press. It’s safe to say that if I could choose a mentor and creative writing teacher, it’d be her.
Malika Booker – I’ve worked with Malika before and every time I hear her poetry and the way she reads I fall in love all over again. She even performed her poetry on stage with the band 3Women. (watch her perform here). Her input into teaching creative writing and anecdotes added to the age old debate – can creative writing be taught, and should it.
Nikesh Shukla – If you haven’t heard of The Good Immigrant I highly suggest you find a copy and read it asap. Also check out his other projects, they’re usually woke and creatively gripping.
Irenosen Okojie – Irenosen’s book Speak Gigantular is a book I wish was available when I began writing. When I first began writing I couldn’t find books by black and Asian writers that explored ‘out-there’ and experimental themes. Irenosen, does just that.
Hari Kunzru – Hari, ex-pat living in the States, led a workshop on diversity. He took us through the history of the terms used to describe people of colour. From multiculturalism to diversity, I really feel like I have a good enough background to understand the political mindset of the UK when these terms/schemes were being introduced.
Catherine Johnson – I’ve been bumping into Catherine for a couple of years now. She is constantly telling children that ‘we exist’. Something that unfortunately we need to keep hearing. Her novels place people of colour in history. We exist and have exited for a while now.
Sharon Dodua Otoo – Sharon is all of us when we write. ‘I write so that I can laugh’. She is killing it in Germany, winning a major German-language writing award. For me, Sharon confirmed that writers of colour do exist in berlin and in fact they are just as politically aware as writers in the UK.
There was a point when an interviewer asked Nikesh a question about his writing and it suddenly became very uncomfortable in the room. ‘Do you remember a time when you were white?’ Maybe it was a language thing, or maybe he simply misunderstood. Either way it made for some difficult viewing. It brought up the idea that people of colour are other, we aren’t ‘normal’ (whatever that means). That white is the norm and this is accepted. A narrative that keeps people of colour from being published, that gives publishers the ability to turn around and say ‘well, you, and your work are too niche for us’. It is the very narrative that made it necessary for conversations about diversity to exist. It led us to panels featuring all BAME writers. It’s why I travelled to Berlin in the first place. To move away from the universality of whiteness. Talk about awkward silences.
There are a few things I learned in Berlin while attending this literature seminar. Most importantly, the need for more writers of colour to exist and speak on panels. The writers made an important point, one so nuanced it is often forgotten; there is a need for complex writers to exist, writers of colour that contradict each other, that go against each other. This is illustrated so well in the essay collection The Good Immigrant. We have to keep reminding people not all people of colour are the same, not all people of colour believe the same thing. We are all different and have differing opinions. One does not speak for all. This last point we need to reiterate and repeat until panels and conferences realise that having one person of colour on a panel is not enough.