Courttia Newland on Finding the Way: Voice and the Writer of Colour

Courttia Newland grants us special access into his manifesto of exploring fictional voice and celebrating self-expression in the work of British writers of colour.

Keynote speech sponsored by The Royal Literary Fund at the inaugural Bare Lit Festival

Courttia NewlandIt could be argued that when a child is born, it has a voice. Of course, it’s nothing as complex and distinctive as the language that develops later in life, but their first communication with adults and other human beings comes when they learn that crying brings food, comfort, perhaps a change of clothing. They learn that using this voice promotes interaction in the form of meeting their needs, or even simple entertainment. It’s also said that parents have the ability to define and separate their child’s voice from others. They may not be able to tell their baby’s cry from that of other children in a crowded room, but there is a certain cadence, a recognisable sound to an individual child’s voice. If you listen closely, or indeed you are a parent yourself, you can hear it. Babies don’t all sound the same. What’s interesting to me, as I watch my own children grow, is that their voice develops along with their bodies, but that basic sound – one which is distinctly theirs – forever remains. Although many things change about the way they speak as they mature, there’s something eternally recognisable to the ear, something that lasts.

While it can take from birth to at least eighteen months for that voice to articulate itself as spoken words, from at least eight weeks, even while a child is inside the womb, it begins to develop hearing. From that point on, it is listening, collating. The voice that will become its own develops best in a world that is rich in sounds and sights, full of consistent exposure to the speech and language of others.

A written voice is the same. There is a certain rhythm to the way the words fall onto the page, a way of putting sentences together that’s just yours, handed over at birth, as much a part of your make up as your personality. In many ways that stubbornly can’t be changed, even if you wanted to. I’m sure all writers have had the experience of hearing repeated lines in our head, and putting them on the page only to go: ‘Oh. That’s not the way I imagined it would sound.’ Al Alvarez is wise to caution, ‘The authentic voice may not be the one you want to hear.’[1] Khaled Hosseini has the best way of articulating this I could find. He says: ‘Everyone is an ocean inside. Every individual walking the street. Everyone is a universe of thoughts, and insights, and feelings. But every person is crippled in his or her own way by our inability to truly present ourselves to the world.’[2]

The smart writer will take this as given, work with what they have; edit and hone, yes. Try to change to emulate others, or re-voice, no. It is your voice, and to work against it is to work against yourself. It is the ultimate mark of who you are, and most importantly, it’s often most apparent to yourself.

Bare Lit Baby

Photo by Wasi Daniju

Like the baby that is growing, learning, finding their speech, this voice is affected by sociological impact and education in the form of schooling, but also by reading. The voice expands as it’s fed. I’m of the mind that as long as the diet is varied, there’s nothing the writer can imbibe that stunts its ability to become greater than it was, to propel itself upwards, and outwards, and claim its rightful place amongst the others that surround it. If the sustenance is too poor, the voice loses power. Too rich, and it becomes bloated and cumbersome. Each extreme denies the ability to stand upright without faltering. A balanced intake helps provide balanced stature.

The very idea of voice is a somewhat contested literary concept, described as ‘overrated’[3] or ‘not the point’[4] on the one hand, to ‘the deepest possible reflection of who you are’[5] on the other. Authors have spent many hours and thousands, possibly millions of words trying to unpick the nebulous properties of a fictional component everyone speaks about, and has an opinion on, but can’t quite grasp. To me, the denial of something so fundamental to human endeavour is akin to the denial of air. Voice holds the whole thing together. It’s literary dark matter. You can have your plot, and characters, you can have your description and dialogue. You can even have a fantastic way with language, what Alvarez calls ‘high-style’[6]. Without voice, these things fall to the earth, inert and useless, without life. Voice is the invisible connective energy; it binds ever shifting fictional components, moving about and through them. And of course, voice is not a ‘silent medium’[7], otherwise we’d never have the internal voice. When we read books, we hear words spoken in our minds; if that voice was silent, reading would not be possible. The writer’s voice exists to be heard, internally or otherwise. In fact, the most certain indication I have that my natural leaning is towards fiction, was the knowledge that as far back as I can recall I possessed an internal narrator. My unseen author described every single thing I did, from the most dramatic to the mundane, and was unmistakably my voice. I was either a latent author, or suffering from childhood dementia.

These fundamental questions are part of the general discussions concerning ‘what is fiction?’ that writers from a multitude of backgrounds tussle with every day. It’s the universal nature of the job, so to speak; the stark brick wall we all reach, either climbing with abandon, or standing back to ponder awhile. If you’re anything like me it’s an interesting experiment to pick your way through a number of reflections and nod vigorously, or frown and shake your head, only to be hit with that pounding realisation: ‘Oh (insert expletive here) they’re not talking about me! They’re talking about their voice, their language, their style. They’re talking about a certain type of literature and for the most part our work is exempt.’

This isn’t always true, of course, but there are worryingly few exceptions. For the writer of colour the question of voice becomes even more acute because the timbre of our collective voice differs significantly from that considered the norm. This is long documented, so I won’t bore you with stats, quotes, or anecdotes. Everyone from Richard Wright’s 1937 Blueprint for Negro Writing to Kavita Bhanot’s 2015 Decolonise not Diversify (the unmentionable D word banned by Sam) – has made attempts to address this problem, which for me is, at its most basic, a question of voice. Which voices are allowed freedom of artistic expression, and which are not? Or, as I like to think of it, which undergo, ‘expression under siege’.

That phrasing may rankle, so let me say quickly that because our free expression faces obstacles, doesn’t mean we should adopt a corresponding siege mentality. What I find exciting about the current creative landscape is our ability to fill our bookshelves with a wide range of global and historical influences that enhance our collective voice. When Ben Okri warns against narrow reading he’s right, but this should not mean we should become prescriptive in favour of any form of narrative over another. The enhancement of our own voice comes not just from listening to others, but listening to ourselves. In doing so, I think it might be wise to reiterate Alvarez; ‘The authentic voice may not be the one you want to hear.’ Prizes, esteemed publication and notoriety do not make one voice more authentic than another. We have so much to say, in so many ways, and while there might be a preference for a certain tone and language and subject matter from those who do not speak as we do, that doesn’t mean we should adopt such tastes. The curious writer will make themselves aware of what is favoured, that’s essential; but they will also seek out what favours themselves, and others like them. Following this, they will write accordingly.

The richness and versatility possessed by the writer of colour is very apparent when we look at who’s writing, their concerns, and the manner in which they say things; their voice. And it’s truthful to say that the richness and versatility of opportunity doesn’t always match their endeavours. That isn’t acceptable, although it can be accepted so we may continue to write. Some writers decide that to gain attention, they should deliver what their audience – and by this I mean the industry as well as readers – expect to see on the shelves. That’s inevitable, and valid, an expressive choice as much as works striving to do opposite. But I do question whether works that give the industry what it wants are indeed a no-holds barred expression of voice, or similar to a neat ventriloquist’s trick? Only the artists themselves can truly know. What I’m arguing for here is tricky, because it addresses the writers’ most fundamental and rudimentary dilemma, once removed from the page and all its highs and lows; that of remuneration. How it may be gained, or lost.

By concentrating on voice, turning our focus towards that which manifests itself despite ourselves – the sound of the way we speak, the things that concern us most, the language we use – I believe in the possibility of stepping away from the often misplaced judgements of those who struggle to understand our meaning, to find our own sense of what’s right. This may, or may not win financial rewards. We will only know if we try, but I would urge the writer of colour not to care. I see the concentration on our own voice less as a wall built to keep others out, and more of the necessity of the artist. To go out into the world and to be open to external influences is one part of the process. To bring it all back to pick through what suits best, so you say what you mean is another part, and writers of colour are no less discerning in this area. This is good.

Voice is our birthright, but it also needs context. As the baby’s voice and dialect develops from the language is absorbs, the writer of colour contextualises their voice by listening to others like them. ‘Like them’ isn’t always specific to race, gender, sexuality and physicality, but sometimes it is. There’s nothing simpler than that. There’s a certain joy that comes from standing in the centre of a crowded space and hearing a voice that reminds you of your own. That speaks the truths you express inside yourself and struggle to articulate. Those who find the writer of colours voice off-kilter, or strange, know this. Perhaps that’s why they struggle to hear outside their own timbre. For us, the act of listening to those who sound like us is of utmost importance, even if we don’t like what they say. In a climate where hearing those voices is not normalised, and in fact, normalisation arrives from the lack of hearing ourselves speak, we can work hard to become what I call, ‘conscious listeners’.

Bare Lit 2016 Audience‘Conscious listening’ is the study of literature for us, created by us. It is a working knowledge of the fiction, poetry, films and plays that come before us, exist alongside us, and might emerge in the future. There’s nothing to fear about being knowledgeable about your artistic peers. No shame. In fact, it can bring great strength. Writers of colour should not exist in a vocal vacuum; we should not be attuned only to the sound of ourselves. Read works deemed as classics by all means, but claim some classics among writers who are also like us. There’s a rich history of writers who have tried to make sense of their particular existence on this planet, just as we attempt make sense of ours. Be conscious who they are. If that means seeking out the gems in British writing of colour, then we should do so as part of our ongoing process of betterment.

This act of self-reflective awareness is nothing new to the writer, whoever they may be. Be aware of what you’re seeing. Hearing. Tasting. Touching. Thinking. It’s nothing to go a step further, to think about what we’re reading. Am I reading that which I am? No? Why? Can I find it? No? Why? How do I go about doing so? Find out. And so on. The writer of colour cannot become complacent in these matters. If we are conscious in our art, we can become so in our listening. The formalisation of our voice depends on this for survival. We cannot allow it to go unappeased.

Conscious listening is not a momentary process. We do not engage in the act as an amateur writer and discard it when we are deemed professional by our ability to win remuneration. It should continue throughout our writing practice, even when we are elderly professors of the form, win prizes, judge prizes, write treatise, give speeches. The awareness that a writer has stopped conscious listening comes when they make pronouncements about the state of our literature we know full well to be incorrect. We nod, make polite noise. If we’re in close proximity, we might offer some kernel of correction, a morsel of example which proves we are listening, while they are not. There is no ego. We are sharing information. The writer might nod, make polite noises. They might continue saying what they said before. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is our own recognition of the importance of listening to our peers. We must have faith in the knowledge it will serve us well.

Our voice is formed by literatures of the world, but let the world mean the world, let it include us. There is no one that can stop that from happening but us. Are we reading the works of our respective Diasporas? Of others, to find connections? Are we reading the works of writers who share our own space, physically and literally? If so, good. If not, this should be rectified. Let our worth be defined, not by what others think of us, but by what we think of ourselves. Let us value the cultural currency of a language defined by us.

It’s a necessity that the writer of colour remains in constant dialogue with our respective communities; and I mean to emphasise that in the plural. We know we’re not homogenous; neither are our concerns. Writers are shaped by where they have come from, but also where they may go. It happened to me, five books into my journey, reading at Busboys and Poets, in Washington D.C. I was lucky enough to be sharing a stage with the Ethiopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu. We’d had a great, full house audience. I’d read a story called Spiderman. During the Q&A, a young woman asked me whether I’d based the story on the Caribbean’s Anansi fables. I hadn’t actually, and said something like, ‘but I wish I’d been smart enough to think of that.’ Afterwards, we spoke. She thanked me for not putting her down, which shocked me a bit because I saw no reason to. I honestly thought she’d made a good suggestion.

Some point afterwards I began to think about the relationship we writers have with our audiences, and how this lady came to believe that she might be put down by an author for speaking her mind. I told the story to other writers; most notably the Jamaican novelist Olive Senior, who told me a reader pointed out to her that she always wrote about white cars; she looked at her work, and there they were, unnoticed by the author. I thought about what I’d written in my story. Was it possible that I may have sub-consciously written an Anansi inspired story all along? Like my speaking voice, had it grown without effort on my part? And now I had been made aware of the possibility, what could I do to further nurture, shape and channel that voice in order to attain more power, more effect?

I decided to honour the gift this unknown woman had granted me and pursue her suggestion with conscious awareness. I wrote at least three further stories and one film script using the Anansi myth as a motif, all with London settings, including my last novel. It was a great way to enhance my voice by opening up a new channel; one which changed my register, but didn’t alter my tone.

Many of us know the Anansi myth as one of the great African diaspora connectors. He appears under numerous titles; Elegba, Eleggua, Esu, Sebek, Brer Rabbit, and so on. He wears many guises; the old man, the spider, the young mixed-race man, and of course the wily rabbit. He’s a trickster figure, although sometimes it is he who is tricked. Most interestingly, he’s synonymous with skill and wisdom in speech – in one particular origin tale he becomes the God of all stories. Anansi’s corresponding Gods, that of Nigeria’s Elegba and Ancient Kemet’s Sebek, are known as ‘openers of the way’, guardians of the roads and doors in this world. They are teachers, bringers of inspiration. Each stands in the crossroad between the human and the divine. Indeed, the crossroads is a potent symbol of their powers; in some quarters it’s believed the legendary Blues singer Robert Johnson met not the devil, but Elegba in such a place. If that was the case, Johnson may not have sold his soul, as the story goes; rather, he might have been granted an epiphany of epic proportions, one that was to grant him the gift of the perfect Blues, forever etching his name into the history books.

The crossroads are a great representation of the various directions a writer can go, faced with the sweet dilemma of a change in style, theme, or voice. Each side is equal. Going back may take you into the past, but you may uncover something you missed. Going right or left might cause you to feel you’ve veered too far from your starting point, but there’s always hope of discovering something new. In some ways, going forwards can feel the most exciting and dangerous – it’s good not to rush too quickly, or freeze up because of ‘the fear’. Writers deal with these problems every day, and so they know as well as I that these fights are ongoing, and victory is never assured. However, every win pushes us into rich territory no matter which road we take. Staying in the fight matters.

As an opener of the way, I’d like to suggest the friend I made in Washington D.C. has made me quite productive. I’d like to thank her one day, because every artist needs someone along the road that keeps them interesting. It can be easy as a writer of colour to grow territorial about our space, how it defines who we are. To want to shut our ears and eyes to what the world has to say, because after all, we face so much negativity. While I’m all for blocking the less positive aspects of outside forces, the work should breathe in order to allow what’s good for us to enter. We are privileged human beings, to be engaged with something we love so fiercely, and I believe we have a responsibility to make our fictional worlds true reflections of us, and of them – the people outside our windows. We fail if we are writer’s writing for other writers. To represent the worlds we hail from, this kaleidoscopic Britain, we must engage those we claim to speak for in meaningful, consistent dialogue.

A question that struck me quite early in my career was the resilience of my own voice. I’d write as many stories as I could, hand them to people and ask, ‘Does that sound like me?’ or ‘Does that sound like what I do?’ They might have thought it strange at the time, such an obvious question. I was worried, I suppose. I’d had a relatively successful debut novel. I was in the strange period that comes after when you’re not really sure what you did and why; while the last thing you’d want to do is recreate a carbon copy, if you could without mishap it’d be easier than starting from scratch. So you rely on the safety net of voice as a means of ensuring success. ‘If they liked that, they’ll love this.’ After all, if voice is the thing that entices someone to read, then a recognisable voice means guaranteed success, right?

It wasn’t long after when I started voraciously reading works I’d previously thought outside my comfort zone, and in doing so I began to encounter all of this really great stuff I liked. And as I began to experiment with the different forms and styles I began to imagine new people inhabiting my stories, different from those who came before. This was something I’d always tried, but dismissed as negative for a young writer in pursuit of ‘his voice.’ I suppose I had quite firm ideas of what ‘his voice’ meant. I’d sit myself down and say; ‘What am I?’ Young, Black, Working Class. ‘What should I write about?’ Young, Black, Working Class. And so I continued to feel bad, thrusting stories in the faces of anyone who’d read them, a pleading, puppy dog look in my eyes.

The stories, to be fair, weren’t paying much attention to all this. The stories were doing what stories do, what they wanted. I was too much of a purist, or perhaps too weak a character to try and whip them into shape. It was only when I gathered them all together and saw them as a whole that I had the thought coherently for the first time: ‘What if for me, there is no voice? What if there were only the voices of my characters?’

This is an artifice of sorts, it’s true, because as we’ve discussed your voice is your own and there’s nothing you can do about that. Quite often it will be recognisable to those who love you whatever tricks and ventriloquisms you perform. That’s perfectly fine. I’m not suggesting writers attempt to hide their voice. What I’m talking about is a free indirect approach to narrative that means the pursuit of your own as paramount is unnecessary. For me the practice of speaking as, or through my characters is far more exciting than speaking as myself, and in fact I feel the less people hear from me as an author in my fiction, the better. That’s not to say there are not great authors who are brilliant at maintaining a consistent voice. There’s much to admire about writers who can do this. Sometimes I’m wistful about doing it myself. But I quickly discovered that my own voice wants to bend itself around my characters like a vine, and when I stopped fighting this, which luckily came early on, I felt better for it, and wrote without restriction. I see this in many others too. Helen Oyeyemi has a knack for this type of writing, performing a neat little feint in every novel, whether narrated by a modern girl in London, or a historical African American teenager. She maintains her core themes, but her voice shifts in tone and language in order to better reflect the people she speaks of. It’s a handy trick, and immensely freeing.

Britain is known for being made up of little pockets of worlds pressed up side by side. We grow comfortable in whichever meets our needs, often to our detriment. There are exciting worlds, often in the next neighbourhood, with languages new and sometimes strange. To grow complacent about their existence, to put our feet up and rest in one spot, does not aid discovery. It risks the danger of only telling one repeated story, even if that single story is about us.

Of course we must say what we wish. Of course, all stories are valid. There’s no one in this room that would have it any other way. And yet it’s quite a daunting task to speak up in a voice that’s long been denied. Sometimes it’s easier to say what the people who control the industry expect us to say. It’s easy to see why that has happened, but I believe that this year, more than for a long time, there has been a global recognition of the power to be found in using our voices to articulate exactly who we are, without restriction. This is happening for actors, and other filmmakers. This is happening in theatre, and it is happening in literature as I speak. It’s happening right now, this weekend. We have combined our voices collectively to create, and we must take that energy out of this room, back to our keyboards and our desks and bring it onto the page. We must.

We do our voices a major disservice if we hold back fearing disproval, even our own. We cannot judge ourselves by others’ standards, or we’ll be sitting in the same place another 20 years from now, having gained no further ground. We need not worry whether our perspectives are nationalist, or diasporic, because the nature of the place we live in means these views will always be in contention, and after all, isn’t literature the greatest country? It’s not that these are not important questions. It’s perhaps a case of these questions not being important right now. A more vital debate might, in fact, be closer at hand. One we should tackle first before we fret at notions of what collectively we might move like, act like, think like. That debate has to do with the limits of expression, and what we might achieve if the restraints, imposed by others, but also us, were removed and we allowed ourselves true freedom of expression. It has to do with listening to the sound of our own voices, of being with abandon, becoming used to the authentic sound of who we are.

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Photo by Wasi Daniju

If the marketplace doesn’t value an art form, it stifles its voice. It’s happened to UK music time and again. It happened to R&B. It happened to Hip Hop. To Jungle, Dubstep, UK Garage. It hasn’t happened to Grime, because Grime decided to take itself away from the industry and conform only to the authenticity of its own voice. It’s an interesting art form to watch, because although it’s been snubbed by the mainstream, it’s won global acceptance, respect, and has made a fair bit of money too.

We should look onto the street and schools and places of work that surround us and ask whether our voices are being used to tell their stories. Are we speaking of what we can see? If so, then we continue. If not, that’s still a good thing, for artists like us. Everyone’s in need of material. Every writer needs stories to tell, and we have millions. If we place the business of being a voice for those stories ahead of the business of literature, we’ll be the closest ever to expressing exactly who we are; the heroic, flawed, contradictory, wealthy, poor, educated, disenfranchised, disabled, sexually free people who make up the place we call home. We can become a voice for their challenges and their triumphs, or we can make fictions of our own. We can soar into the realms of abstract dimension, or we can land with a thump on the grit powdered concrete that lies outside this room. We can set stories in other lands, places of origin and complexity. The thing is we can do anything. As long as we use our voices without fear of judgement. It’s the only thing we have power over, the only thing that’s left, and the only thing that will save us. Our voice. Our language. Ourselves.

photo credits: Wasi Daniju

[1] Al Alvarez, ‘Finding a Voice’, in The Writer’s Voice, Second (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p. 29.

[2] Joe Fassler, ‘Even Khaled Hosseini Can’t Tell Stories as Effectively as He Wants To’, The Atlantic, 2013, Online edition [accessed 25 February 2016].

[3] D.W. Wilson, ‘On the Notoriously Overrated Powers of Voice in Fiction or How to Fail at Talking to Pretty Girls’, The White Review, 2011 [accessed 26 February 2016].

[4] Noah Berlatsky,  Voice” Isn’t the Point of Writing’, The Atlantic, 2014, Online edition [accessed 26 February 2016].

[5] Meg Rosoff ‘How to Write Fiction: Meg Rosoff on Finding Your Voice’, The Guardian (London, 18 October 2011), Online edition, section Books [accessed 26 February 2016].

[6] Al Alvarez, ‘Finding a Voice’, in The Writer’s Voice, Second (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p. 34.

[7] Wilson.


Courttia Newland is the author of seven works of fiction including his debut, The Scholar. His latest novel, The Gospel According to Cane, was published in 2013 and has been optioned by Cowboy Films. He was nominated for the Impac Dublin Literary Award and The Frank O’ Conner award, as well as numerous others. His short stories have appeared in many anthologies and broadcast on Radio 4. He is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing.

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