In a personal essay, Salma Ibrahim discusses her experiences as a woman of colour in the London Literary scene and how she created Literary Natives to break the mould.
In the beginning, I wasn’t prepared for how lonely the business of writing a novel could be. I had to look inwardly for my subject matter and at the flawed society around me as if I was crouched behind a low brick wall. I had been writing my novel for a year or so when I started to notice how my sense of place in the world was changing. After work, I would go straight to my room to write and isolate myself from my family and friends. I couldn’t imagine myself accessing the literary scene.
With a desire to change this, I went online to look for events where I could meet other writers who I could relate to. I remember running down High Holborn to make it in time for a writing event fuelled with alcohol in a place where I felt out of place as a Somali hijab-wearing woman. I’ve been to writing workshops with people who couldn’t relate to who I was as a writer and my world view. Something had to change for writers of colour like me who didn’t want to fit the mould of what a writer should look like. I wanted to believe that there could be a place for us.
Ultimately, we’re here to emphasise the beauty of the journey and not the destination alone.
Events are important to us at Literary Natives for many reasons. They offer writers of colour a chance to come away from their desks and see themselves as part of something bigger; a movement, a cause, a camaraderie of writers celebrating the same victories and tackling the same obstacles. Diversity and inclusion initiatives have been extremely popular over the past couple of years, but what is the value of a diversity scheme run by the same institutions and elites who created the problems in the first place? What is achieved when the same gatekeepers of yesterday are deciding on the quotas and respectability of the writers of colour in the room?
Literary Natives vows to be different. We have worked with writers of colour across all levels of writing experience: from award-winning published authors, to unpublished writers navigating the difficulties of getting their work out there. We welcome writers who haven’t yet had the chance to put pen to paper and are simply looking for someone who will reassure them that their words matter. Ultimately, we’re here to emphasise the beauty of the journey and not the destination alone.
Ten months and six events later, I have learnt so much that I wish to pass on in the hopes of inspiring others on a similar path. I’ve learned that programming events doesn’t have to be complicated because people are drawn to places where they can simply have conversations and connect with others. I’ve also learned that reaching out to the local community is the most important part of marketing an event. It is no good just using a venue without interacting with the people who live around it. Local people need to be able to attend and feel a part of the process.
I have never felt more optimistic about our future. For 2019 we’re planning a whole calendar of workshops and events, exciting partnerships, community outreach projects, and we’ll also be sharing more job opportunities
The greatest learning curve for me has been learning how to be a better risk-taker. Sometimes, over thinking will only lead to fear and inadvertently blocking opportunities that would benefit my organisation and the people I work with. I have to be bolder whilst also recognising where there are gaps in my knowledge. Luckily I can always fill these gaps by picking up new skills along the way.
When I started Literary Natives I was only thinking about getting together a small group of writers to discuss writing on a monthly basis. Since then our growth has been unprecedented. I never imagined that in the same year we’d curate an exhibition at a museum and participate in the London Literature Festival. We’ve also recently launched our new website which features a jobs board of opportunities in publishing and writing.
I have never felt more optimistic about our future. For 2019 we’re planning a whole calendar of workshops and events, exciting partnerships, community outreach projects, and we’ll also be sharing more job opportunities and paid gigs for writers of colour from every corner of the industry. We want to develop our connections both online and offline and connect writers to places where their work will be valued. It’s going to take a lot of work and consistency, but I’m prepared for it.
Literary Natives is my labour of love. I’m so thankful that I get to wake up every day and work in this field. In the same breath I’ll never forget the sentiments of anger, curiosity, and injustice that drives my enquiry into the literary scene. All these feelings can drive change and shouldn’t be taken for granted. I constantly remind myself that it’s never about who I am as an individual and what I’m doing, it’s about the people and the cause. It has always been about the people. I’m looking forward to working with more organisations that are already doing transformative, radical work. We’ve got a lot of work to do.