Writer of the Month: Clare Ramsaran

Tell me about you, as an artist. How do you define art? What art do you make?
Good question!

I think of art as a way for the artist to express something of themselves, the communities they identify with, or of their imagination. I see art as a dialogue across time, geography, identity and experience.

My primary creative outlet is as a writer – I write fiction, poetry, non-fiction. The content comes ahead of the form for me. I also love taking photographs, and in September will take my first ever *complete* beginners art course.

You’ve recently taken on the role of facilitating Identity. What have you enjoyed most about being part of Identity? How do you feel facilitating aids your personal development as a writer?

I feel privileged to see the great writing that comes out of the group. I’m inspired by the risks people take with their writing and with the painful content they sometimes cover. I enjoy meeting the writers who come along and giving and facilitating feedback that helps them develop their writing. We often bring snacks to the group; I think we all enjoy those!
Facilitating the group helps me to focus on the craft elements of writing, it gives me (and hopefully writers) a strong sense of a writing community. I love facilitating Identity, but also worry that it takes me away from my own writing. I’m learning to manage the shift in my role (I used to be a member of Identity) and finding new ways back into my own writing.

You’re currently working on your first novel. What prompted you to start working on this piece? What has been your greatest obstacle thus far in the writing process and how have you overcome it?

My novel is inspired by family history. My father told me a story about how as a young immigrant, of the ‘Windrush generation’, he was racially harassed by a group of Teddy Boys in 1950’s London. When he’d got away from them, one ran after him. Not to beat him up – as he feared, but to offer to buy his stylish jacket from him (He’d bought it by mail order from the US, while still living in Guyana).
I wrote it up as a short story which wouldn’t let go of me, and by the time I came to do my MFA in Creative Writing, it became my thesis and then the draft of my novel.

My greatest obstacle to writing is my constant battle to prioritise my writing over other aspects of my life. The support I get from people at Commonword and other friends and writing communities is invaluable to me in terms of my writing process. It’s like we’re all training for a marathon and encouraging each other to keep going.

Recently your short memoir, The New ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ was published in Who We Are Now, an anthology of women’s writing about Brexit. What inspired you to write about this particular aspect of your life? What advice would you give to writers interested in writing memoirs?

I was living in the USA when the Brexit vote happened and, shortly after returning, attended a writing workshop for creative writing responses to Brexit. I reflected on how discrimination against immigrants has had an impact on my own family in the past and linked this to events now – this became ‘The New ‘Us’ and Them’.

In terms of people writing memoir, I encourage them to read widely and find memoirs that they find fascinating, to pick and choose which parts of their lives to tell us about (hint: other people are less interested in your life than you are!). And lastly, just because something is true, doesn’t make it sound authentic on the page. You still have to work at it, and craft it as much as you would with other genres.

Back when you were living in the States, you were a contributor to Mixed Remixed Festival. What motivated you to get involved in the festival? How do you feel the festival contributes to a wider dialogue around representation in the creative industries?

It’s such a great festival! It highlights the mixed-race experience through literature and film.

I heard about Mixed Remixed through my writing community, VONA, and first went along in 2014. It was an amazing experience; everyone was so welcoming and warm and it’s a lovely to feel part of a community like that, even for a day or so.

I was motivated by a mixture of wanting to be around other mixed heritage people with the bonus that there was a writing focus, and, I was interested in visiting Los Angeles, where it was held.

The festival allows artists to showcase their work, to meet and inspire each other, buy books, have conversations. Approximately 700 people attend, and this is a good statistic to quote to publishers who are reported as saying that there’s no market for creative work by mixed race people (on the basis that the demographic for each different ‘mix’ is too low).

You’ve been a writer at Commonword for several years and appeared in our anthology, Suitcase Book of Love Poems. What is your best memory of your time with us and what have you learnt about yourself as a writer?

I have lots of best memories with Commonword: coming along to the writers’ groups, the process of having my poetry published in the anthology, and the Commonword Conference last year, to name but a few.

I’ve learned that although writing is a solitary endeavour, I can’t do it on my own.

The anthology taught me about the business side of things – writing a biography, signing a contract – it made it feel more professional, more serious and I think it helped me to take myself more seriously as a writer.

What’s next for you in your writing career?

I’ve put my novel aside for now. I’ve started writing about ‘coming out’ as a teenager and am feeling lots of energy with that piece so I’m going to keep working on that to see where it goes. I did a reading in August at Levenshulme Pride and really enjoyed that. I’d like to do more readings.

I’m planning to run a day-long writing workshop with Commonword in the Autumn and would love to run more writing workshops in the future.

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

You can find out more about my work here and here. You can also follow me on twitter here.

Sum up your experience thus far in one word

Serendipitous.

Writer of the Month: Michelle Green

michelle green

 

Tell me about you, as an artist. How do you define art? What art do you make?

Without art I become ill, and I don’t mean that in a precious sense but in an entirely visceral way. I have finally realised that it is a healthcare essential for me – both as audience and maker. It is a survival strategy, one that was taught to me first by my parents and grandma.

All art is storytelling, whether that story arrives in a paperback or as a pulse in the chest, whether it is a narrative story or a visual story of the colour blue.

I make short fiction, poetry, live literature/performance stuff, and, increasingly, unconventional maps. (Because maps are stories too.)

You’ll be working with us on our newest publication, Indivisible – an anthology of work by writers with invisible disabilities. What excites you most about this project?

That the invisible is being made visible! When our conditions and symptoms are invisible to the unaccustomed eye, the barriers we face are also invisible. The arts world is built around a burnout model that relies heavily on adrenaline abuse, among other things, which is incredibly ableist (and classist and – oh don’t get me started). Writers with many kinds of disabilities are often immediately excluded not on the basis of skill or experience or talent but because we simply cannot plug the gaps in poorly designed schedules with our bodies.

In terms of the anthology, I don’t assume that any of the writers will address disability explicitly in their work, but I am very interested to see how that unique set of experiences might inform their aesthetic or approach, the flavours of what they create. It feels like the right time for this work to step out.

You’re currently working on TransBareAll’s 10th Anniversary book. What have you enjoyed about the process thus far?

TBA was founded ten years ago as a practical antidote to the shame that the mainstream world wants to see in us: we create events for trans and non-binary people to support health and wellbeing, and enable us to spend time together in environments that are affirming and positive. We regularly include creative workshops in our events, so I’m very conscious of the wellspring of talent and experience in our community. As co-editor I will be working closely with contributing artists and writers as they develop their submissions – there is so much that is possible, and I’m thrilled to imagine what we can make together!

I’m conscious of having just passed the 86th anniversary of the Nazi book burnings that specifically targeted the Institute of Sex Research, a library of progressive documentation and research on trans and queer lives. The effects of those book burnings are felt today; lots of people seem to feel that trans is a brand new thing that didn’t exist until about 20 years ago – that’s what happens when the visible evidence of a people’s existence is wiped out. Violent invisibility. We are living in increasingly hostile and intolerant times in which trans people – along with immigrants, refugees and disabled people – are being systematically demonised and targeted, so to be making a book, of all things, right now, feels not just celebratory but necessary.

You’ve been a writer at Commonword for many years and appeared in a selection of our anthologies. What is your best memory of your time with us and what have you learnt about yourself as a writer?

There are many, but one of the dearest has to be appearing onstage at the launch of my Crocus chapbook with support from the great, late Dike Omeje. What an honour that was.

I’ve learned that I’m the kind of writer who needs community, specifically the community of other curious artists. A room of one’s own is definitely excellent, don’t get me wrong, but only if it can be balanced with community.

Earlier this year, you were a speaker at Mathrubhumi International Festival Of Letters 2019. What did you find most enjoyable about your time there? What do you feel your insights contributed to the discussions?

There were incredible writers and artists and storytellers and documentary filmmakers from all over the world, so I fully pushed myself into a massive health crash just so I could listen and take part and absorb as much as possible. There was a lot that I loved, but two things that jump out are that it was entirely plastic-free – UK festivals, step up your game – and that there was a series of relaxed conversation events threaded through the whole weekend that involved speakers talking about why they read. The idea was that we all read for different reasons, and that understanding these reasons can help us all read better.  It was amazing to be in such a book-loving environment where reading is cherished and respected. Kerala as a state has 100% literacy and let me tell you the on-site bookshop was doing a HOT trade!

I delivered a performance lecture about disability aesthetics in fiction and poetry. It was the only event out of hundreds that was explicitly referencing disability, so I think it was a welcome addition – certainly something that the festival director, Sabin Iqbal, was really keen on including as he said it’s something that often gets overlooked in Indian festivals (so not too different to the UK in that respect). It was a winding tale of workarounds in form, tracing my own exploration as I create stories in whichever ways my body will let me. I think of myself primarily as a writer, but there are times when – due to my condition – I lose language, or sight, or cognition. It’s frustrating as hell, and leads to the increased illness I mentioned above, so I’m now exploring ways of navigating that creatively. This has led to the visual image, digital mark-making, and, funnily enough, back to spoken word. I’m increasingly finding it hard to separate one art form from another in my practice, so I’m letting them play together more.

You’ve been volunteering on our archives project for the past year. What prompted you to get involved? What do you hope people get out of the archive?

I hope that people get solace and inspiration and fire in the belly from seeing that radical and political publishing is not only the realm of flash-in-the-pan zines. That it has history, and memory. Commonword has been creating from the heart with a strength and longevity that has finally brought it all the way to the fine whisky anniversary of 40! I wanted to get involved because Commonword was my first creative port of call when I arrived in Manchester almost 20 years ago, and it has remained a central touchstone in my development as a writer. Across the city and far beyond it has nurtured such an incredible array of work from many of my literary heroes. The archive is not only a history, but also a resource, and I know Heena will be developing it into something that can inspire Manchester artists and writers for years to come.

What’s next for you in your writing career?

Well, as I mentioned above, I am finding it harder to separate the art forms and so my next collection of short fiction will be published in some hybrid form. I’m working with an astonishingly good team of collaborators to figure out what that might look like, so nothing is nailed down yet – but there is, on a post-it note in my office, something about an arcade machine that dispenses stories and only accepts shingle. Hmm, possible future of publishing?

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

www.michellegreen.co.uk

Sum up your experience thus far in one word

Yes.

Writer of the Month: Vijay Medtia

Tell me something interesting about yourself – I’ve heard you’re skilled at horse riding. What got you into writing?

A well-trained horse is a beautiful animal and a pleasure to ride, although my skills are a little rusty lately. I have varied interests, but I don’t wish this to read like a dating profile.

As regards writing, there are many reasons. An early interest in literature and storytelling. I wasn’t however one of those people who wanted to write from a young age, that came later. I also felt that I wanted more of a challenge from this life, something more creative and satisfying. Writing is all this and more. You learn new things about the craft and yourself, daily. To create a piece of artistic work is very rewarding on so many different levels.

 

Your debut crime novel, The Missing Husband is out this month. What were your inspirations for telling this particular story?

I had an idea about creating an Indian private detective, who would solve difficult cases, set in India. This is Abhay Chauhan’s first case, and hopefully more novels will follow. Chauhan is thirty-four, single and nowhere near rich. He drives a Hindustan Contessa and carries a Glock semi-automatic pistol. He works the mean streets of Mumbai, trying his best to help people in trouble.

I liked this starting point for the novel. He is tough but fair and everything is underlined with humour. I don’t wish to write grim novels; the world is already grim enough. My regular visits to India also inspire me to write about the country and its people. I found this the perfect setting for the novel.

 

Your novel revives the typical detective novel by placing all the action in Mumbai. What do you hope this communicates to readers? What changes do you think the publishing industry needs to undergo to dismantle limited representations of people of colour in crime fiction?

There are only a handful of Asian crime writers across the globe. I’m hoping the readers will want to read something different. I wanted to write about an Indian detective, in Mumbai set against the background of a new world, culture and customs.

As regards the publishing industry, I’d like them to take greater risks. Not to be so concerned about sales and accounts people. They need to invest in POC writers, because there are some brilliant writers out there. Unfortunately, they can’t seem to get past the gatekeepers.

It would be great if more POC became literary agents. The publishing industry needs to recruit POC at all levels but definitely at the submission editor levels to begin with. They could also recruit people early by going to schools and universities. For most BAME people the concept for working in the publishing industry appears like working on the moon.

It would also be great if the industry supported literary prizes aimed at BAME writers and give greater exposure. The Jhalak Prize has done a good job to bring some awareness.

It’s still mostly the small independents however who are willing to take risks in investing in BAME writers. From the outside, this is how it feels to me.

Having said that, I feel a large responsibility still falls on the writer. If you work hard, listen to critical feedback and write a very good story, then your chances of publication will improve.

 

Your novel explores several themes including family, hope and betrayal. What approach did you take to making these themes feel original and enticing?

Someone has said that there are only thirty or so plot lines for stories, and they’ve all been done repeatedly over the centuries. Yet every individual has a different outlook, voice, attitude to a particular story. I’m bringing my individual voice, humour, and outlook to this novel. I’ve also started the novel with a multi-millionaire Fernandez family, who have their own set of terrifying problems. The private detective Abhay Chauhan will help to solve them.

 

You have been a writer at Commonword for many years and attended our Advanced Novelists group. What is your best memory from this time and what did you learn about yourself as a writer during those years?

A little nostalgia creeps in at the question. We were lucky at that time, and it wasn’t so long ago either. I was part of a good and talented set of writers. We bounced ideas of one another, down in that basement in the Quakers building. And we all more or less went on to succeed in our respective writing fields. We were dedicated, wrote regularly and were brave enough to submit our unfinished works for scrutiny. All the writers helped with their warm and critical feedback. They helped me to some extent with my first novel THE HOUSE OF SUBADAR.

It was published around that time by Arcadia Books, and was short-listed for The Glen Dimplex Literary Prize, Dublin.

Writing is a solitary business and it was great to have that camaraderie. Constructive feedback is important for your writing. It helps you to improve quicker. On your own, you may waste years thinking you’re on the right track when you’re not. I’m glad the Wednesday night Identity group still flourishes at Commonword.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring novelists when it comes to approaching publishers?

There is a treasure trove of golden advice on writing from all the past and present great writers. If you’re serious about writing, you will find it and read it.

There are no set rules as such, we’re not manufacturing cars but works of art! The basic rules however always apply. Work hard, write regularly, read widely, and gain constructive feedback. I’ll add that when you finish your draft, it’s worth investing in a good editor before sending out your work. Don’t take Rejection of your work personally, all it means is that you need to work harder. Perseverance will take you a long way.

 

What does the future hold for you in your writing career?

It’s an Exciting time ahead. I’m working on the next Abhay Chauhan novel, and I’m also tempted to write a good stand alone crime novel. This year I’m hoping to promote my work at more literary festivals in the U.K. and abroad.

A publisher in India is also interested in placing The Missing Husband to the large Indian market.

I was lucky to be invited to a university in Poland a few weeks ago, to sign advance copies of my new novel. I’ve written about the visit on my blog, vmedtia.blogspot.co.uk.

 

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

On my website: vijaymedtia.com

Blog: vmedtia.blogspot.co.uk

Twitter: vijaymedtia@twitter.com

The novel is available for pre-order at amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, WH Smith, and Foyles book store.

 

Sum up your experience thus far in one word

Perseverance.

Writer of the Month: Muli Amaye

Tell me something interesting about yourself. What got you into writing?

I have always made up stories. Even when I worked in offices and had to write official letters. I remember I temped at a place called ‘Our Dogs’ which was a newspaper all about dogs (go figure) and the boss asked me to respond to a complaint. I wrote a two-page missive about someone going AWOL and used so many metaphors and fictionalised scenarios that even while my boss was laughing he was showing me the door. I started writing seriously when I started my undergraduate degree at MMU and took a creative writing module. I found that all the stories I would tell my son at bedtime fed beautifully into stories on the page.

Your debut novel, A House with No Angels is out this month. What were your inspirations for telling this particular story?

I didn’t know this was the story I was going to tell. I first met my father in 1996 in Nigeria. He told me about arriving in Cardiff in 1950 and then moving to Manchester to complete his Masters in Civil Engineering. He said the communists sent him. That alone sparked my interest. I began my research looking for links between communism and Nigeria and Manchester and the story grew from there. I found information in the Labour Archives about the Pan African Congress in 1945 that took place in Manchester and all the photographs I looked at had African/Caribbean men and white British women. It made me curious as to why there were no African women in the pictures. I decided to insert them into the congress and into life in Manchester from the 1940s.

Your novel explores several important and powerful themes including Pan Africanism, mental health and Black womanhood. What approach did you take to making these themes accessible for a wide readership?

I wanted to tell a human story. I wanted to give people a glimpse into ordinary lives of women who work, struggle, politicise, mother, love and lose. I decided that telling individual stories of connected women would provide a platform for intergenerational exploration, the effects of politics on women particularly black or mixed women, and the way second and third generation negotiate the space that they occupy in Britain, personally and politically. By telling the stories of their hopes and desires and presenting their flaws, I hope that the little stories are ways of giving the bigger picture to a wider audience.

Your novel takes an original and refreshing approach to including a mixed race protagonist without playing on stereotypes of mixed race experiences. What do you hope this communicates to readers? What changes do you think the literature industry needs to undergo to dismantle limited representations of people of colour?

Being of mixed race and raised with the influence of one of those cultural spaces and not having access to the other, is an all too familiar happening. In AHWNA, I make reference to babies born during the second world war who were put into care, hidden away – think Delaney’s A Taste of Honey – and the problems attached to having a child of mixed heritage. My studies referenced the Tragic Mulatto, the mixed-race person who is sad or suicidal because they do not fit into either black or white society. I decided that Elizabeth, my mixed-race protagonist, was not going to entertain that trope, but would in fact define herself and her own personal issues.

It is about time that the industry took a large step back from ‘racesplaining’ how people of colour should be presented in literature. It is 2019 and we are no longer an anomaly on the page, we have shown that we are people, too. Imagine that! We are capable of defining our own lives in our own ways that do not have to include drugs, guns, gangs and killings. We no longer have to sit in the margins as though we are a bookend holding up the main story. We are our stories. We have the ability to tell a tale that is universal and that everyone can read and enjoy no matter their race, gender or any space they occupy in this world. The literature industry needs to stop trying to colonise our stories under the disguise of being inclusive and acknowledge that we have the right to tell our truths in our own ways.

You’ve completed a PhD in Creative Writing and you’re now working at the University of the West Indies. What advice and tips would you give to aspiring PhD candidates?

My PhD at Lancaster University did a number of things for me and my writing. It gave me space to explore both critically and analytically the subject I wanted to write about. I was asked recently, ‘What actually is a PhD in Creative Writing?’, by someone with a PhD in literature. I don’t want to point out the obvious here, but literature is creative writing… Every novel that is read and analysed is creative writing. I also pointed to the contents page of my bound PhD copy that I keep in my office and showed the one line that is my novel and the five chapters and all the subchapters that are my thesis! I am glad I did a PhD, not only for my own writing, but because I gained the skills needed in order to teach at a tertiary level and give the best advice to my students. Doing a Masters or a PhD in creative writing pushes you to fully consider where your writing sits in the canon and consider the boundaries you are pushing and why. Even for people who wish to write popular fiction as oppose to literary fiction, a degree in creative writing is a great route for ensuring your writing stands out from the crowd and gives you a full understanding of what it is you are doing and why.

You have been a writer at Commonword for many years and attended our Advanced Black Novelists group. What is your best memory from this time and what did you learn about yourself as a writer during those years?

I think one of my best memories from the Advanced Black Novelists group was my first visit. I didn’t know what to expect and as I sat in the basement confident with what I had presented because I’d been through a Masters in creative writing, my writing was brutally pulled to pieces. It was a very important learning experience that showed me the difference between a seminar room full of polite students and a room full of writers who demanded more. It also gave me a place to develop my ‘black’ writing without having to explain certain aspects of it to people without the black experience. It was a great place to explore and discover who I am as a writer. Over the years watching other people’s writing grow from the feedback they received and the support and encouragement we gave to each other was wonderful.

What advice would you give to aspiring novelists when it comes to approaching publishers and venues with their work?

Believe in what you have written. Also listen to the feedback you are given as you approach publishers and consider what that means, i.e. whether you will have to compromise yourself and your writing to make a fit. Choose carefully. See what else has been published by them and decide if your work is in line with their ethos.

What does the future hold for you in your writing career?

I am writing. Constantly. I have another novel that was longlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize in 2014 and I’m about ready to go back to that and edit. I have a collection of short stories that I’m still working on and ideas for at least two more novels are lurking. I’m also writing a lot of poetry at the moment so who knows, that could also see the light of day some time soon. I will carry on teaching on the MFA in The UWI in Trinidad, it’s something I love and I find my students teach me as I teach them.

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

I have a website, that I’m trying really hard to keep up to date www.muliamaye.com. I have short stories published in various journals and magazines, but don’t look for them, they’ll be going in my collection! I’m on twitter @muliamaye (I’m worse at that than my website, but I’ll try harder)

Sum up your experience thus far in one word

Humbling

Writer of the Month: Elaine Okoro

Tell me about you, as an artist. How do you define art? What art do you make?

I connect to my writing through feelings – what touches me, ignites me, upset me. Emotions and passions as a human being, as a spiritual being. Self-expression that’s relatable and feeds into the human thread. I sometimes plant the seed and spark a fire. I make greeting cards for fun, but I would like to experiment and develop them using technology, textile art/designs and text. I’ve also revamped my trainers with African print!

We published your collection, Thoughts, Feelings and Lovers back in 1981. What inspired the collection? Do you think it has further creative potential and have you explored any avenues for this?

My experiences: what I had lived through, what I was living then. When I had to think, learn, and develop a format, I realised my poems were about the words and the title came through that process. What inspired the collection was Commonword back then and the tight-fisted collective of other female writers like Di Williams and Alisa Cox. It was a time when writers were viewed the equivalent to the geek groups of the technology world. We did performances in the upstairs of pubs when everyone wanted their chance to express themselves on the mic. No real format – just energy, enthusiasm, and booze!

Yes, I would like to explore using audio as a future development of the work, as another way to engage/re-engage to an audience in different way. Demographically, I’d like to reach a younger audience and beyond to introduce myself. With technology, anything is possible as there’s a wider audience globally who I can now tap into.

You were a writer at Commonword for many years and appear in a selection of our anthologies. What is your best memory from this time and what did you learn about yourself as a writer during those years?

Getting my work published was so exciting. I was buzzing, proud and on a high. Meeting different writers and bouncing around ideas.

I went to Ireland as a representative of Commonword as part of the Federation of Worker Writers. I felt inspired going to conferences and workshops. The intense arguments!  Grabbing opportunities, being nurtured and supported. Meeting, performing and seeing other writers: Jean Binta Breeze, Maya Angelou (thanks to Cathy Bolton), Ben Okri (Lumb Bank first ever Black writers’ week) and the late Maud Sulter (performed at Royal Festival hall London with her and several other writers). Caryl Phillips & Grace Nichols (at Lumb Bank) were also highlights, along with Edward Kamu Braithwaite – I got to see so many Black writers. It was an inspiring, pioneering time within and out of Commonword. So, so many memories. I learnt I have a gift that is naturally given, and that words are powerful. I can communicate what I verbally could not say. Commonword gave me strength to express myself through this way in the deepest darkest times and the lighter times.

I loved being involved in a Black women’s writer group called Blackscribe with Pauline Omoboye, Angi Weir, Millie Henry, Tina Tamsho-Thomas and later, we were joined by Nailah. The encouragement and support in these times inspired new groups and different directions.

Extracts from your Moving Manchester project (2011) interview with Corinne Fowler are included in Postcolonial Manchester: Diaspora Space and the Devolution of Literary Culture. What were your highlights of this project? How do you feel about its inclusion in the Postcolonial Manchester book?

I think the fact that cultural literacy is included, and a wide range of writing/writers is a record and legacy for the time. That it is important as inclusion of a diversity race showcasing our input, talent, craft.

What advice would you give to writers when it comes to approaching publishers and venues with their work?

Do your research; know what you want and what suits you. There is so much more out there to choose various paths. It can be challenging and exciting.  As for venues, sometimes you do not always get an opportunity to check out the venues beforehand, even the smallest consideration that makes you feel comfortable, relaxed, a stand, a sound check, jug of water can make a difference to your performance and how you connect to an audience.

What does the future hold for you in your writing career?

I have been apart from writing and audience, so to be re-awoken. To re-connect.

To re-establish? to re-create in a different format. To develop.

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

By contacting Commonword/Cultureword.

Sum up your experience thus far in one word

Spiritual.