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The Page is White: Panel Discussion

12 November 15 words: Abii Soul
At Five Leaves' Bookshop, Kadija George and Farhana Shaikh spoke about black and Asian writers, and the confines of their literary stereotypes
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On Monday I attended an event.

To me this is a special sentence because; 1 - it was Monday, 2 - it was foggy and 3 - like John Mulaney, I love to cancel plans. However, I braved the short walk to the Five Leaves Bookshop and I’m glad I did.

The event was about black and Asian writers and the exposure (or lack thereof) of these writers and their work in mainstream media.

The online description of the event was one of the many reasons I chose to attend, specifically the opening sentence ‘After a short period of grace, it appears that black and Asian writers are struggling…’ For as long as I have known, anything written by a non-white author has been labelled according to race. The fact that I have grown up hearing the term ‘black writing’ has taught me that my writing is somehow separate to that of my classmates and, as that term has never gone away, I do wonder when this period of grace was.

Upon arrival, I wasn’t overly surprised at the turnout. Sure, I would have liked to see the place teeming with people because this issue is close to my heart, but it wasn’t a shock that there were perhaps only fifteen chairs filled when the introduction began.

After the initial pleasantries, we were graced with an anecdote from Henderson Mullin of Writing East Midlands about his entry into the ‘writing game’. He spoke of how he’d entered a writing competition, purposely displayed as many of the stereotypical traits of a ‘black writer’ he could and consequently won. This is a great case study for one the points that was heavily discussed.

The dichotomy of us and them – who are they?

We’re taught to seek validation at the same time that we’re taught A is for Apple. Entering a writing competition is passing on work that you have thrown your soul into for appraisal by a group of unknown individuals, ultimately resulting in validation or rejection. Henderson’s choice shows that allowing your voice to be shaped by the ideals of others can result in the validation that many seek. In this case, he prescribed to the ideals of the they and it panned out. But was his work authentic?

Although us and them became the ‘poster point’ of the evening it was interspersed with the pertinent questions; what is authenticity (with relation to non-white writers), and just what does diversity really mean?

Farhana Shaikh (who runs Leicester Writes) spoke of some of the misconceptions about ‘Asian writing’ and how some individuals are quick to dismiss it because of their own assumptions. For example, the idea that arranged marriage is the only theme for Asian writers. Ridiculous! But when juxtaposed with the idea of authenticity as defined by the mysterious they it actually makes sense. Surely authentic Asian writing is something (be it poem, novel or song) written by a person of Asian origin? Sadly, it isn’t so simple when a select few individuals choose how a word is defined.

This trajectory led us to diversity. The point was made that if an organisation wants to be diverse it will be. It really isn’t difficult. Half-hearted rebuttals were provided, such as; it’s difficult to find black and Asian writers who want to engage, they rarely volunteer. But of course, when an organisation requires a token staff member, they’re easily sourced. Kadija George (editor of the Penguin Book of New Black Writing) answered questions on tokenism and nepotism within the industry and how that affected her career progression, she relived experiences that many of the attendees could relate to (myself included).

I left the event ever so slightly deflated. I’d hoped we’d be given more opportunity to pose questions to the Kadija and Farhana, drawing on their experiences and seeing what wisdom they could offer the room full of new, emerging and professional writers. Thankfully they were both brimming with anecdotes and examples, which certainly answered many of my unasked questions.

The room was filled with a consensus that we had been hoping to hear something new. We all found it clear who they are, and most of the attendees agreed that we aren’t on their agenda. So why are we still fighting for a five-minute slot at the tail-end of a meeting?

Let’s ignore the pervasive they and just do. Let’s go out and do with our usual heart and vigour and mist the glass ceiling with our breath as we circulate our literature amongst ourselves and those who wish to listen.

It’s difficult to summarise an event like this because the discussion transcends the event. But I’d like to end with a sentence from Kadija George.

I’d love to see this same event with a different conversation!

The Page is White panel discussion took place on Monday 2 November

Five Leaves Bookshop website

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