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.

 

Archive Spotlight Item 21: Marshall’s Big Score (c.1979)

Marshall's Big Score Cover

Marshall's Big Score Cover

1976: One hot summer night in a gay bar in Liverpool, Martin, a white gay man from Stockport, meets Marshall, a black West African sailor. They drink, dance and fall in love – fast.  Marshall’s Big Score chronicles the ups and downs of their relationship over the course of three years. The book is by John Gowling, who was a member of the Commonword group Northern Gay Writers.

You get a really strong sense of what Manchester and urban life in England was like in in the late Seventies.  Martin, Marshall and the people around them lead incredibly precarious working-class lives; low-paid jobs, dangerous jobs, poor housing and an array of characters in desperate need of health and social care. But there is also the excitement of gay bars and clubs that stay open late where you can enjoy yourself and easily pick someone up for the night. This is an era of relative freedom before the AIDS crisis of the Eighties.

Here’s a playlist of the songs mentioned in the book, a soundtrack to Martin’s life and a nice little reminder of how inseparable black culture is from gay/queer culture.

 

Martin is the narrator of the story, so we see the world entirely through his white perspective. He  touches upon the racism that Marshall faces at work, but seems unable or unwilling to take any responsibility for the racism he might experience on the gay scene, or even within his relationship to a white man. Martin muses upon the homophobia black men face on the scene, he fails to consider that black gay men experience may experience more than one kind of oppression:

Perhaps the discrimination that was around Britain in general terms was working the other way for gay people; perhaps we all had too much prejudice laid on us about being gay to afford dabbling in racial and traditional differences.

Two thirds of a page are dedicated to Martin’s thoughts about prejudice, but apart from that, there is little pontification. The characters and their lives aren’t very well-fleshed out, not even Martin’s. You meet his parents briefly, but it’s unclear whether Martin is out to his parents. There is no outward hostility; just a resignation that their wayward son hasn’t settled down and got a proper job. There are occasions where Martin’s humour and frustration punches through, but they are rare and brief.  It’s hard to get a sense of what the characters are really like; they don’t really possess characteristics. They are too busy in the moment; either struggling to get by or completely immersed in their passions. There is a lot of potential here!

Heena

Review: flowers like blue glass

Review of flowers like blue glass

Dr Martin Kratz

 

Martin De Mello’s introduction to fukudapero’s new collection flowers like blue glass suggests that the poems in this book have the capacity to challenge our ‘habits of mind’. A particular challenge is extended to minds habituated to certain kinds of translation: either those in which source language and English appear dutifully arranged side by side, or those where the source language is nowhere to be seen, the poems appearing as if they’d been written in English in the first place.

fukudapero’s ‘dualingual poetry’ is perhaps not technically translation all. In this collection, Japanese and English do sometimes run in parallel, yes, but they also mirror, follow and shadow each other; they sit inverted, askew, even at cross-purposes. It might be difficult to work out what the precise relationship between one text and the other really is, except that the poetry does give the reader a clue: ‘all relationships are tilted’. In the end, it doesn’t matter. This is a lesson in how two languages can be brought together beyond staid binaries.

Or to be more precise, the ‘quiet protest’ this poetry stages goes against these binaries; against notions of how languages should behave with each other; how they should appear, or where, on the page; against the idea of a ‘line purer than mid-winter mackerel’ (the line in question being cut through by the page crease), while apparently also being for the same idea in the carefully balanced, minimal phrasings. Any convention that privileges English as a target language in translation is promptly knocked on the head by a sudden excursion into Arabic, or the refusal to translate at all.

The poems in flowers like blue glass don’t say more than they have to. Or they say things in more than one way—which is where the poet’s experience as artist and filmmaker come into it. These are poems of ‘quiet protest’ but also quiet as protest in an audibly and visually noisy world. The empty space on the page is always in play, perhaps even as a third (or fourth) language, the language of the ‘unheard’. Somewhere between the world’s sensory, technical and emotional clutter, poetry like fukudapero’s carves out the terms by which it wants itself to be understood and from where it can listen: not by delineating fixed territories of engagement, but by being on the move, precisely in order to avoid having these certainties imposed. ‘if we are | taken as a chair’, he writes, ‘we will be sat on, if we are taken as a table we will be set, if taken as | a spoon we will be bent. so we must pretend we are none of them.’

CC Archives Blog: Dipping a toe into the archive

Commonword was part of my life before I even knew that it existed.  In the early 2000s, I started to explore Manchester’s spoken word scene without realising that many of the poets and writers that I had seen perform were part of Commonword at some stage or another.

Dike Omeje c. 2006
Michelle Green c. 2006

Almost two decades later, and I find myself working on its archive.  I’ve been cataloguing the items, going through old recordings, trying to work out who’s who. I’ve been in touch with some of the writers involved in the 1980s and 1990s to try to piece together the history of the organisation.

Commonword came out of the adult literacy movement in the late 1970s and was part of the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers. It is one of only a handful of Fed organisations set up around that time that still exists due of its ability to adapt, change and continue meeting the needs of marginalised writers.

Writing by working class people about working class life, writing without pretention. Writing by school children. Writing by women who have experienced domestic violence. Then there are the Black writers. So many of them. Not all from London either. Their number put notions of multiculturalism and inclusivity to shame. Makes you wonder why a lot of arts organisations find it so hard to commission and meet their diversity quotas.

Some things really haven’t changed. In the box of photos, in a torn envelope, there is a reel-to-reel tape called Get Out More. It was put together by Northern Gay Writers, a group that came out of Commonword before the first Gay Pride took place in Manchester. It’s from 1987.  I don’t know what’s on it yet, but there is something comforting and familiar about a bunch of queers getting together to make a recording. Things like this were a staple listening in my twenties. Some of those people are doing the same thing now. I’m hoping it will be shambolic.  I can’t wait to find out.

Some things have changed. Gay people can get married and we have more Black and Asian people in the media, and more women in public life. But most of them white. And a lot of those fundamental problems are still there. These archives are a measure of progress not just within publishing but in society as a whole. I’m hoping to look at some of these in future blog posts.

As part of the archive project, we’re holding a series of reminiscence sessions for writers who were part of Commonword in the 1980s and 1990s which will take place in Spring 2019.

Watch this space for venues, dates and times.

 

For more information about the Commonword Community Archives Project, email heena@cultureword.org.uk