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

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

Commonword announces renewed NPO status 2018-2022

Commonword announces the wonderful news that its bid to receive funding under the Arts Council of England’s National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) programme has been successful. We, at Commonword, thank Arts Council England for continuing to support our work.

Julia Davis, Commonword’s Chair says: “”We are delighted with this news which will underpin our continued commitment to new writers. We look forward to developing our creative programme of workshops, digital innovation, conferences and cross sector partnerships.”

Commonword’s Chief Executive, Pete Kalu states: “This represents a ringing endorsement of our diversity and innovation focused approach to literature development and specifically our five strand plan to help more new writers become successful over the coming years.”

 

Those five strands are:

  1. Black Digital + Creative Texts:

Commonword will foster BAME writers pioneering innovative e-based fiction such as twitter platfomed fiction; flash fiction multimedia stories involving sound, visuals and text; games which have text as a central element; geo-interactive stories – utilising smart phone geo-positioning technologies to tell stories specific to black places.  The programme will include Digital Creative Labs, Workshops, Showcasings, Masterclasses and visiting artists.

  1. Advanced Black Fiction Focus

We have become one of the UK’s leading movers, shakers and change-makers in the field of Diversity and Children and Young Adult (CYA) Fiction.  We intend to maintain that progress while  leading  again in supplementary areas including in black crime fiction and black scifi fiction where there is a growing movement of black writers and critics.  Our programme will include workshops, seminars, conferences, and masterclasses.

  1. Spoken Word

Responding to demand, particularly from new and refugee writers to help them develop live, text centred, performance we have grown a strong presence in developing monologue and performed poetry, particularly via our Women In The Spotlight programme. The work often forms the starting point for the writers to experiment with other more two dimensional text based forms such as the short story and longer fiction. We will intensify and broaden the scope of our work in this area.

  1. Biennial Black Writers Conference

We have brought people together and caused major shifts in the creative writing fields via our much lauded Black writers conference.  Outputs have ranged from quarter million pound AHRC funded research projects (Mediating Marginalities: Lancaster University) to new publishing houses (HopeRoad) to radical change in the mainstream publishing industry (Diversity Writing For Children agenda went mainstream). The Conferences will continue to push game-changing voices, technologies and critical analyses of literature and the literature industry.

  1. Biennial Festival of Firsts

We will provide place and time for new writers including young writers, to learn their craft, showcase their work and grow to success. We will provide workshops and performance opportunities for new writers throughout the year including via our Superheroes of Slam format so spoken word artists can network, learn from one another and showcase their work. These initiatives will be brought together and supplemented via our biennial Festival of Firsts. This Festival will celebrate innovation of art form as well as new writers and will include immersive novel readings, Who Wrote What (4 new writers read 4 scripts. But who wrote which script?), the showcasing of digital creatives, Audio Booth & Peep Show events and sign language stories.

 

We look forward to joining with all our partners, collaborators, sponsors and participants in making this programme happen. Given the backing also of other North based literature organisations by Arts Council England, the North looks set to have a thriving literature scene for the next five years.

 

More about the Arts Council England’s NPO decisions can be found here.

 

 

 

SHORTLIST: Diversity Writing for Children Prize 2016

Shortlisted entries for the 2016 Commonword Diversity Writing for Children Prize are:

Star Burn by Magda Knight

The Ghosts and Jamal by Bridget Blankley

Jed Zed Black by Roopa Farooki

The Monster Orphanage by Rohan Agalwatta

A Very Modern Covern by Manon Olegasagarem

To read the entries, click on the titles.

The winner will be declared on the 11th of October at Chapter One Bookshop. Details to follow

For more details, please go to http://www.ihaveadream.org.uk/

Women in the Spotlight Arvon Residential

About Women in the Spotlight:
Women in the Spotlight (WITS) is a theatre development programme for women who want to write for and/or perform on the stage. This project will culminate in a group of queer women and BAME women having their short plays staged at a Manchester theatre and also them having the opportunity to confidently perform their own work within an established arts venue.