by Micah Yongo Follow @micahyongo
To say Peter Kalu is talented would be an understatement. He started writing as part of the Moss Side Write black writers’ workshop and is now the author of several published novels, film scripts and award winning theatre productions. Along with coordinating the annual Black and Asian Writer’s Conference he also supports the development of young writers from minority backgrounds through his work with Commonword. I recently had the chance to pick his brains about a number of topics including the book industry, the need for more diversity in the arts, and the challenges facing writers of colour in the UK today.
MY: You’re a poet, playwright, novelist, artistic director and also chief executive of Commonword. Does it ever get confusing wearing all these hats? And how did the last of these roles, your work with Commonword, first begin?
PK: I guess I am a writer. I began with poetry and I always return to poetry. I think I have evolved an approach which is to muse, muddle and sift, throw ideas around and consider moments, people, emotions, keep it all up in the air until it crystallises or suggests itself in a certain form – poem, play, short story etc.
The other labels are job labels. I never set out to be Artistic Director or Chief Executive. It was a case of, ‘if not me, who?’ I am blessed and cursed with good numeracy and logical reasoning skills, so the financial element of budgeting etc. and the report writing elements of running an arts organisation, which other artists might – wisely – run from, I took on when someone was needed.
MY: How did your journey toward writing start? Were there added challenges as a person of colour?
PK: I was born into a political family. My mother was Danish, my father Nigerian. I spent my tender years on marches campaigning against the Biafra-Nigeria war and its atrocities (I have a photo of one such occasion where I look about 8 years old!). My father carried a loudspeaker and somehow had an (unofficial) base at the British Council in Manchester for all of this. The trauma of that time still reverberates through the family. I grew up aware of Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power movement, of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, and of the Danish liberal philosophy of education and the sense of social interconnectedness.
I never considered myself a writer, though I loved reading and writing as a kid. Only when I read Maya Angelou and Alice Walker did I consider that perhaps I could write something fiction-wise that was worthwhile, that could make a contribution, however small, too. I started out as a poet, awed and inspired by the great Lemn Sissay, who was kicking around in Manchester at the time, and gradually tried out a number of other forms: plays, novels, short stories. When we began, the performance of poetry/the spoken word was held in very low esteem. The oral tradition/orality was seen as a baser form of art. That has changed now, of course. But publishing poetry in print suffered then and still suffers now from a lack of recognition of black talent. There have been some initiatives (e.g. The Complete Works and Commonword’s Advanced Poets Workshops series, Peepal Tree’s Inscribe programme) that have helped progress. But it’s been hard going.
As for the challenges in progressing as a person of colour; I would confine my answer to publishing. I’ve recently done a lot of development work and writing in the area of Children and Young Adult (CYA novels). I’m about to get two Young Adult novels published by HopeRoad Publishing.
There is an irony in the UK mainstream publishing world being centred in hyper-diverse London, and yet so few YA books featuring black characters get published in the UK. The industry in this way transmits a ludicrous idea of a snow white England. This chronic, perhaps subconscious nostalgia for a white England is reflected in mainstream publishers’ wilful ignoring of the diversity around them in London. They suffer from a day to day amnesia of Britain’s long-standing multiplicity. They need to adjust their vision.
Of course these publishers argue that they are merely reflecting the will and preferences of the general, British readership and they do their best if ‘black’ writing of sufficient quality comes to them. This ‘best’ of course has implications at the editorial and marketing stages: no black characters to feature on the cover of the book; no mention of ‘blackness’ in the blurb on the back cover of a YA book; no culturally black references or language in the opening pages of the book; black characters never reflect on their ‘blackness’ nor ever form an alliance with any other black character to oppose racism (my black reworking of feminism’s Bechdel test!).
My novel, The Silent Striker, breaks all these taboos. Its main character, Marcus, is black, and the complexity of blackness – its multiplicity – is embraced. Marcus has other black friends of differing origins – black, white and everything in between – the team that features in the story is a teenage ‘United Nations’ of footballers. The influence of racism on black teen lives is not shirked but investigated un-squeamishly. In a similar way, the alliances made, the mixed relationships that exist, the friendships that rise above this hardship also feature. All this while the writing remains (I hope) graceful, compassionate and entertaining!
MY: You’ve been involved in organising The Black and Asian Writer’s Conference for eight years now. Are some of the taboos you mention part of what inspired this project? How did it come about?
PK: I think it was a quickening of the UK literary black consciousness movement and an alignment not only with issues over in South Africa – campaigns against the apartheid regime – but also the USA black writing movement (Maya Angelou, Alice Walker) and the star-burst brilliance of Linton Kwesi Johnson, plus the facilitating infrastructure provided by the now mostly defunct black writing development posts – Suzi Miller was the black writing development worker in Sheffield, Lemn Sissay was her equivalent in Manchester.
When I succeeded as Cultureword’s development worker in 1992, I kept hearing about a Black Writers’ Conference in Sheffield some years before and wanted to revive it. The first conference I organised (i.e., the second Black Writer’s Conference overall) was in Cheetham Hill, Manchester at the Black Resource Centre on Cheetham Hill Road: it later became a McDonald’s for a while and is now, I believe, dilapidated.
It took place on January 30th, early 1990s. We produced a three-ply two-sided A4 flyer for it and I remember Steve Pope of X Press came down and I signed the contract on my first novel Lick Shot there. Workshops were run by Maya Chowdhry and Jack Mapanje.
However, it may be more helpful to hear about how it’s grown since then from one of the first attendees: Manchester based poet and writer, Shamshad Khan.
Khan: It was exciting to be in a conference setting with so many accomplished writers of differing ethnic backgrounds.
As a new and relatively young writer the experience of travelling to another city to share ideas and hear speakers and passionate performances from other black writers was thrilling. There was a sense of urgency, anger, energy and commitment to an ongoing struggle to effect change in the practices of institutions and agencies. I had a sense that many of the older writers were frustrated that things in terms of race had not moved far or fast enough. There was a renewed commitment for action rather than talk, and a drive to make sure that by the time the next conference was due, things should have moved on significantly.
I had no idea back then that I would remain in the field of creative writing for years to come, or that I would be witness to so many more Black Writer’s Conferences and initiatives. Thankfully many things have moved on since those heated times. Many who attended have established successful professional careers as writers, academics and performers. The landscape nationally has changed, some of it due to the concerted efforts of agencies like Commonword and the drive of individual writers. Other changes have come as a result of new technologies, fashion, political world events and changing demographics.
The mood of more recent Black and Asian Writers’ Conferences has been celebratory, joyous and imbued with an assurance and ease of conviction. There is still far to go, but we are not fighting or even apparently struggling, we are walking confidently towards and within a changing world.
MY: It’s great to reflect on the changes that have come about since that first conference, as Shamshad mentions. Still, Chris Bryant and Julie Walters spoke recently of the need to continue encouraging more diversity in the arts. What do you feel still needs to be done to remove the barriers for those with minority backgrounds?
PK: In theatre and in publishing it is noticeable that the gatekeepers – the commission editors and the artistic directors – are mostly white. Until that changes, there will always be a deficit of imagination in those spheres to what Britain in all its hybridity of experiences now is, and the best way to reflect this hybridity in theatres and in books.
MY: There’s been some debate recently about the responsibility of writers from minority backgrounds to address ‘ethnic’ issues through their work. Do you feel it’s important for writers of colour to be representative, to write about things that perhaps others can’t? Or is this an unnecessary hindrance?
PK: This question looks at that movement from the individual to the collective. I think of an identity as like a signature, something that can instantly identify you. Maybe Ntozake Shange’s intro to her nappy edges poetry collection puts it best:
‘The tone. The lyric. Rhythm & cadence of the musician is a personal thing to you. You listen & learn the particular flow of a particular somebody.’
Which is not to say we have only one identity, perhaps we have many identities which we ‘perform’. In the UK and USA for sure, racism impacts on our identity and identities by modifying our behaviours and consuming time on our brain, distracting us, as Toni Morrison put it, and that will manifest itself in our writing one way or another, if we ‘go deep’ when we write. So, consciously or subconsciously, when we write well, we abide by CLR James’s exhortation to ‘bear witness to the times’. That said, racism is one of the biggest issues of the age, and a fuller understanding of its nature, its myriad and almost ineffable effects can maybe only be had by white people through immersion in the works of black authors.
MY: Finally, you’ve mentioned a few projects you’re working on (the CYA novels, the workshops etc.). Perhaps you could tell us a little more about them. When do they come out? And what else is ahead for you in 2015, how might people get involved?
PK: Of my Young Adult novels, Silent Striker is out in July, Being Me due out in September. My short story, Getting Home (The Proofreader’s Sigh) is published in Peepal Tree’s Black British short story collection Closure in October. On the development front, Manchester’s Cultureword continues its Advanced Fiction group and Advanced Poets group which meet monthly and you can find us on twitter @cultureword. We also have our young writers programme, Young Identity, which can be found at www.youngidentity.org.uk. Meanwhile, news about Peepal Tree’s fantastic Inscribe programme for UK black writers can be found at @INSCRIBEWriters.
Peter’s latest novel The Silent Striker is due for release with Hoperoad Publishing on July 2nd. You can follow him on Twitter @peterkalu and find out more about his work via his website, peterkalu.com. For further details on Commonword’s events and workshops visit www.cultureword.org.uk
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Micah Yongo writes about creativity, literature, culture and film. He is part of the Writers of Colour collective and has been published at mediadiversified.org. When he isn’t busy writing articles he can be found, with knuckle to chin, at his blog Thoughthouse or else working on his own fiction writing. Micah tweets as @micahyongo.
This feature was edited by Media Diversified’s Arts and Culture editor Tara John. To pitch an article, review or feature please contact Tara@mediadiversified.org
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One thought on “Interview: Peter Kalu on Black and Asian Writers Walking Confidently Within a Changing World”
Peter Kalu you describe me as “Kicking around manchester”. I was the first black literature development worker in the North of England based at Commonword where you attended as a member of the community. It is where I set up Cultureword. Cultureword (as part of Commonword) ran black literature conferences, Multi lingual poetry competitions (first in the North of England), workshops in schools libraries community centres and colleges. It is the same Cultureword and Commonword which you attended as a budding poet. Cultureword and Commonword encouraged and published both Shamshad and yourself and many more. We were friends. After I left you applied for my job and became a worker at Commonword and Cultureword where you remain to this day. You are Testament to the success of my time in a pioneering post. Well done my friend.