Tag Archives: Ifeoma Onyefulu

Love’s Bright Syllable: Speaking of Justice in BAME Literature

You who set free love’s bright syllable

from behind history’s iron door

that those who choose to take heed

may stride toward the sky

from “Voice” by John Agard

 

In the last post before Christmas, a package arrived for me from Newcastle.  It was a book of poems, The Mighty Stream: Poems in Celebration of Martin Luther King edited by Carolyn Forché and Jackie Kay (Bloodaxe 2017) that came along with a thank-you for my work on the “Diverse Voices? Curating a National History of Children’s Books” symposium in November.  Both the symposium and the poetry collection I received were part of Newcastle’s “Freedom City” project, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s visit to the city to receive an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University just months before he was assassinated.

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The idea of commemorating such an event is a good one, especially with events and publications that speak not only about the past, but about the present and future.  The Mighty Stream includes poems that discuss King’s life, but also the life and death of Trayvon Martin.  Lauren Alleyne’s “Martin Luther King Jr Mourns Trayvon Martin” includes the lines, “For you, gone one, I dreamed/ justice—her scales tipped/ away from your extinction” (187).  Our “Diverse Voices?” symposium looked at the past, through archival work, but also pointed out the work that needed to continue—in publishing, in archiving, in prize-giving.  Both book and symposium also discussed the need for everyone—everyone—to use their own voice to call out injustice.  John Agard’s poem “Voice,” quoted at the beginning of this blog (and on page 47 of The Mighty Stream), is the optimistic and hopeful counterpart to Ifeoma Onyefulu’s comment at the symposium, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”  Calling out injustice is one piece of the puzzle, but unless (as Gandhi put it), “your words become your actions, your actions become your habits” then words are not enough.

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Brahmachari continues the Levenson family saga with a twelve-year-old girl finding her voice–and sharing it with the world.

One of the authors at the symposium in November, Sita Brahmachari, recently published a book that puts Gandhi’s ideas into practice.  Tender Earth (Macmillan 2017) forms the latest book of her fictional Levenson family’s history, but it is also a story of justice born out of (often painful) experience.  Brahmachari’s earlier books, Artichoke Hearts (Macmillan 2011) and Jasmine Skies (Macmillan 2012) focused on the eldest Levenson girl, Mira, as she finds out who she is through art and travel.  Both these journeys of discovery involve Mira’s family in important ways; art is a gift of Mira’s Nana Josie, and Mira travels to India to stay with her mother’s side of the family and learn about her heritage.  Family also plays an important role in Tender Earth, about the youngest Levenson sister Laila, but Brahmachari’s novel expands the definition of family to include a wider group of people.  Indeed, the book begins with two trees—a traditional family tree, and Laila’s “Friend Tree”.  Her friend tree comes first, indicating its central role in the novel.

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Laila’s friend and family trees give her a place on this tender earth that is both local and global.

Friends are perhaps central to Laila because her family is breaking up, not in a negative way but in the normal course of things.  Her sister Mira is going to Glasgow to study art at university; her brother Krish has also departed, to the Lake District to live with Nana Kath.  Laila feels uncertain about her place in the family, as indicated by her new choice of “bedroom”—a couch on the liminal space of a stair landing, “a seat . . . like it’s a waiting room” (253) as one person comments.  At first, it seems old friendships are also breaking up.  Laila’s best friend Kez won’t come over anymore because she is in a wheelchair and Laila’s house is difficult for her to access—but Kez has also arranged to be placed in a different tutor group than Laila, a move that Laila sees as a betrayal. But being thrown onto her own resources necessitates Laila’s growth.  She makes a new friend, Pari, whose parents are Iraqi refugees, and meets her Nana Josie’s old friends Hope and Simon.  Simon gives Laila her deceased Nana’s “Protest Book” which lists a lifetime of social justice marches and activities.  These new friendships, a visit from Laila’s Indian cousin Janu, who is going around the world barefoot to raise money for his charity, and a sympathetic teacher’s gift of the biography of Malala Yousafzai, all work together to point out a direction for Laila.  She sees that what she’s been “waiting for” in her liminal space was a purpose, an identity.

Laila brings her new and old selves together by organizing her first protest.  When Laila’s friend Kez’s grandmother goes to visit the grave of her Kindertransport husband, it has been spray-painted with a swastika along with several other graves in the Jewish cemetery.  Laila witnesses the way the desecration of the graves devastates Kez’s family, and decides to mount a candlelight protest.  Her thought process is recorded by Brahmachari:

“Everything kaleidoscopes through my mind.  Those men’s faces on the tube, mocking Janu with their chanting, the hateful words in Pari’s lift, what her parents had to go through, Bubbe and Stan arriving as children, Grandad Kit marching on Cable Street against the fascism growing in the city, Bubbe’s tears at the refugee children on the news, at Stan’s grave . . . what if . . . what if no one can tell when they’re actually living in a time that’s losing its heart?  What if that’s why evil things happen?  No one says and does anything until it’s too late” (380).

Laila’s protest brings together all the people she has met because they all can say and do something to help make things better.  One of the things Brahmachari does so well as a writer is to draw characters as whole people; Pari’s mother may be a refugee living in poverty whose English is imperfect, but she too has a voice and can take action.  She not only comes to Laila’s protest, she knits Laila a warm hat.  Everyone, Brahmachari argues, has something tangible that they can give to a community—no matter how liminal they may seem.

So in the spirit of the coming new year, and in the hope posited by events such as the Women’s March last January (an event mentioned in Tender Earth) and the “Diverse Voices?” symposium, I am going to think about ways to use my voice in 2018—and put my words into actions until they become habits.  Maybe you can do the same, and love’s bright syllable will help us all stride skyward.

A Change is Gonna Come: The Diverse Voices Symposium at Seven Stories

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The brilliant and optimistic collection from Stripes includes writing from Diverse Voices? participants Darren Chetty, Patrice Lawrence and Catherine Johnson.

In the foreword to the recently-published anthology of fiction and poetry for young adults, A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes, 2017), philosopher Darren Chetty writes, “We can think of change as the space between who we are and who we want to be—between being and becoming—as individuals and as communities” (7-8).  This sentiment entirely encapsulates the motivation behind the Diverse Voices? symposium I helped to organize with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and Newcastle University, a symposium where Chetty was a participant.  During my year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor (2015-16), I formed a relationship with the people at Seven Stories Archives—archivists, curators, and librarians—that was both personal and professional.  They were supportive of (and occasionally amused by my revolutionary passion for) my project to make Black British literature a more “normalized” part of British children’s literature.  As I put it in the book that resulted from that year at Seven Stories, “The face of Britain might have changed after World War II, but not necessarily the hearts and minds of white British people.  This is partly because the Blackness of Black Britons was made manifestly obvious and continually depicted as Other; but the whiteness of white British society has remained largely invisible” (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 5).  Friday’s Diverse Voices? symposium, held at Seven Stories, allowed some of the brightest thinkers in writing, publishing, librarianship and academia to come together and think about ways to ensure that real change would finally come to the UK’s children’s literature.  Today’s blog highlights some of the thoughts (both from Friday and from their more public commentary) of the main speakers of the day.

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Verna Wilkins discusses her life in publishing for a multiracial Britain at the Diverse Voices? symposium.

Catherine Johnson encapsulates the idea of Britishness/whiteness in her short story from A Change is Gonna Come, “Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!”  In this story, the young protagonist is told to, “Fight the world . . . You are a black man in a white world.  A foreigner” (69). When the main character protests that he was born in Norwich, the man responds, “I doubt if anyone else sees it that way” (70).  Although I was familiar with this attitude, that if you are Black, Britishness is out of reach, I knew that Seven Stories did not want to mirror this sentiment in their museum or archives.  Collections director Sarah Lawrance pointed out on Friday that, “We have a longstanding commitment to collecting diverse authors and materials” at Seven Stories, but it has not always been an easy task for them.  Part of my remit during my Leverhulme year was to provide some recommendations for expanding the collection, but I was very conscious of the fact that I—like most of the Seven Stories staff—was white and middle-class, and an American to boot: the very picture of privilege.  What is the point of a person who has always been privileged enough to raise her voice (in revolution or otherwise) speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been historically sidelined?  I did not want to replicate old histories.  I suggested we bring some intellectuals—writers, editors, librarians, publishers, academics, book people—from historically-marginalized groups to Seven Stories to hear from them directly.  Sarah agreed—as did so many of the great names that we invited.

Discussing Crongton, war, poverty and racism with Alex Wheatle.

We called the symposium “Diverse Voices?” because it left open the question of whose voices were heard and where those voices were welcome. It became part of Newcastle’s Freedom City project, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Newcastle University’s granting an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr.  The themes of Freedom City were those that King mentioned in his speech at the ceremony: the effects of war, poverty and racism on society.  King had come to Newcastle from my current hometown of Buffalo, where he argued that these problems affected young people the most because “the best in these minds cannot come out” when they have to worry about their education, their housing, their ability to make their voices count.  I was lucky enough to discuss these ideas with author Alex Wheatle, who said that the characters in his Crongton series were affected by all of these issues—from World War II, which brought so many of their parents and grandparents to Britain, to the day-to-day poverty that prevents them from reaching their goals, to the institutional racism that keeps them “in their place”.  All of Wheatle’s young adult characters in his Crongton series have creative and artistic dreams, but there remains a question over whether they will be able to achieve them.  As he said at the symposium when talking about how whiteness influences prize-giving, “Otherness wasn’t quite adjudicated for.”

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Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story is about being “other” for a lot of reasons–not about being white.

Otherness, or rather being othered, was something that had affected many of the speakers at the symposium.  Filipino writer Candy Gourlay mentioned that her work had been translated to television with her main characters depicted as white because there was always “the assumption that if I had a hero, my hero would be white”.  SF Said wondered if by only listing his initials on his books, he had created the same assumption: “The minute I took away the obvious ‘difference’ of my name, doors opened for me.”

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Does a diverse book have to be “about” diversity? Does a diverse author have to appear as “other”?

Some of the participants mentioned historical moments when those doors were opened because of cultural change; author Beverley Naidoo talked about how “There were really close connections between anti-apartheid movements and what was going on in the UK” in the 1970s and 1980s.  And librarian Jake Hope reminded the audience of the “radical roots” that led librarians (Black and white) to demand changes in publishing during that same time period.  This sense of history was underscored by author Patrice Lawrence, who highlighted the importance of the historical record: “The joy of looking at archives,” she said, is that “you come to understand how we got to where we are.”  And archivist and author S. I. Martin pointed out that archives could teach more than just adults: “Archives are a world that kids can write themselves into.”

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S. I. Martin (pictured), Patrice Lawrence and Sarah Lawrance all discussed the importance of archives to the promotion of diversity in society at the symposium.

There was at times a rumbling undercurrent of concern that the symposium was a good start whose promise might never be fulfilled.  Author Ifeoma Onyefulu spoke those concerns out loud when she said, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”

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Onyefulu’s A is for Africa is one way that she makes a difference–a difference she expects everyone to try to enact.

Many of the symposium participants found the pace of historical change too slow, and did not wait for a space to be made for them.  Verna Wilkins, the founder of Tamarind and then of Firetree Books, talked about how her life’s work was “an attempt to redress the balance” in the world of publishing.  The illustrator Yu Rong spoke about seeing a hole in the publishing world: “There is very little about China and Chinese people in UK children’s books” and so Rong has done her best to fill up that hole, at least a little bit. But for almost everyone at the symposium, action by one group of people was not enough to bring real change for everyone.  Instead, it will take hard work and difficult discussions to change children’s literature in the UK if we are going to make every child feel a sense of belonging in the world of books.  We must read differently—think differently—speak differently.  We must cross the barriers that keep us apart by any means necessary.

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We have to talk, and continue to talk, to each other–even when those conversations are difficult.

In Sita Brahmachari’s recent book for the publisher Barrington Stoke, Worry Angels (2017), she writes about the difficulty and necessity of communication:

“If someone doesn’t speak the same language as you . . . when you want them to understand not just the words that you say, but what you feel, then you try to speak in any way that you can . . . with your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand . . . You act things out . . . you let the feeling show in your whole body . . . whatever way you can to show them you want to be your friend” (71).

It is this kind of communication we need to keep up between us all, even when it is hard.  When it goes wrong—as it will—we must keep on trying.  This is the only way to ensure that the change we want will come in British children’s books—for all kids.