Friday, 31 October 2014

Colour Bind: Part 2

(c) Mark Tillie

What follows is a continuation of Claire Hyne's article which first appeared in September in Mslexia. Part 1 was posted here yesterday - see the previous entry - and the concluding part will be appear on this blog tomorrow evening.

“Matters of exclusion preoccupied black women immigrant writers of the twentieth century. For instance, Buchi Emecheta’s novel Second Class Citizen (1974) is the story of a resourceful Nigerian woman who endures countless setbacks in London, while  Joan Riley’s novel The Unbelonging (1985) tells of an 11 year old Jamaican girl’s sense of alienation in Britain. Decades later, the themes still resonate with me, although I am British born, and half of my family is white English and Irish.

However, no-one can deny the success of a few black British women novelists,
Malorie Blackman, Andrea Levy and Zadie Smith among them. The publishing industry was surely not then a wholly rotten place for women of colour? I wanted to talk to published black British women writers to find out about their experiences.

Six years ago, Irenosen Okojie, won a place on Flight, a Spread the World initiative, set up to support emerging London writers through mentoring.  Soon afterwards, she gave up her job as National Development Co-ordinator of performance poetry organisation, Apples and Snakes. Supported by her personal savings, she began to work full-time on her novel Butterfly Fish, set in modern London as well as Nigeria in both the 18th Century and 1950s.

Okojie, who was born in Nigeria and raised in Norfolk, tells me, “When you’ve finished the writing and think about the broader picture, you look at what’s on the bestseller list and what’s on the shelves and think: “That’s not my story”. There’s definitely a fear. Publishing feels like a colder land to enter. It feels so much more daunting and intimidating because so few black British women writers are part of it.

“I wondered whether there was space for my writing being a woman and a woman of colour. My writing is quite quirky and experimental and I worried that it wasn’t what was expected.”

Okojie was taken on by agent, Elise Dillsworth, one of the few black women working in UK publishing, and Butterfly Fish is to be published next June by Jacaranda, a small publishing company aimed at representing culturally diverse writing voices. But is it significant that this young British writing talent was not picked up by a major publishing house?

Perhaps so. Due to the lack of available statistics on the ethnic make up of published writers, I decided to carry out research of my own. I examined three of the biggest UK literary agencies: Curtis Brown, United Agents, and Peters, Fraser & Dunlop. I counted a grand total of 2,338 listed writers (it took a very long time). Around 55% of the writers were white men, 42% were white women and 3% were black or Asian. Black women comprised only 0.5% of the overall total. I was shocked.

According to Ellah Allfrey, one of the few senior black women working in the publishing industry and a former editor at Random House and Granta: “There’s no concerted effort to stop black British women getting published. However, there is a problem to do with how books are chosen and who chooses at the publishing stage.

“It’s simply easier to commission a story that you recognize. If everyone else in the acquisitions process is sitting around from a similar background, it’s more likely that certain stories will get through. If it’s a local, homegrown black British story which you, the publisher, aren’t familiar with, it’s more difficult.

“It’s also difficult for an acquiring editor who wants to be imaginative when they have to look at previous sales and look at what’s worked before. If you can’t answer the question: who is this writer like and who is the comparison, the selling of the book can be seen as more difficult, because the numbers aren’t there to prove that this particular book can work.

“But I actually believe that readers are more imaginative than the publishers, who are the gatekeepers, realise. We’ve all benefitted from the success of Zadie Smith and Bernardine Evaristo. Reading teaches us about ourselves and interesting stories are out there.” “

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Colour Bind

Words And Women member Claire Hynes has written the lead article in the current issue of Mslexia. Her article Colour Bind investigates the extent to which the publishing industry pigeonholes black women writers. It also uncovers shocking research, which shows that black women writers comprise only 0.5% of listed authors with 3 of Britain’s biggest literary agencies.

Claire and Mslexia have kindly given us permission to publish Colour Bind on our blog. It’s a great article but as it’s long  we’re dividing it into three. Part 1 appears below and parts 2 and 3 will appear on Friday and Saturday respectively.

Colour Bind: Part 1:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that until a novel manuscript is completed, the big old world of publishing should be ignored, or so I thought, when I showed up at a recent literary event attended by industry big wigs. Once the speeches and panel discussions were over, I had no inclination to engage in the business of schmoozing. My sole game-plan was to secure a glass of wine and a tasty looking canapĂ©, before braving the London Underground.

A literary agent, who had been part of the final panel discussion, had beaten me to the refreshments table and somehow, over a plate of smoked salmon blinis, we began to talk. I soon forgot that I was in the presence of a powerful member of the British publishing establishment. The agent was a friendly, likeable woman. She was a fellow mother. Our children were the same age. We had lived in the same area of south London. Like me, she struggled with bedtime routines. Like me, she was horrified by the unraveling Jimmy Savile scandal. Like me, she was passionate about women’s rights in the UK and elsewhere and the books that she talked about were books that I had read and loved.

Finally, wine glasses empty, my woman buddy asked me the big question: what was I working on? When I told her that I was writing a coming-of-age story set in urban south London, she became thoughtful. “The problem is,” she said. “Black British fiction had its day in the 1990s.” I was stunned. By virtue of my skin complexion I was passĂ©. “Besides, the black British readership is very small,” the agent added.

So, whether I was in or out of vogue at any given time, the job of writing was limited to my own “community.” Surely someone should have warned me that I was the wrong colour for this game: the University of East Anglia where I studied creative writing, my writer friends, anyone? At least now I knew that black women write local, unimportant stuff for a minority group, whereas, as we all know white men write the big universal stories for a worldwide readership…right?  In less than one minute, I had transformed from fellow woman to outsider.

“It sounds pretty depressing,” I said. “Perhaps I shouldn’t bother with writing?” The agent tried to reassure me, and failed: “Perhaps you’ll be the lucky person to break through.”

Finding time to write, in between parenting and paying bills, was difficult enough, and I had never envisaged myself having to take on an entire establishment.

The agent’s words felt all the more disturbing since only one other person of colour was present at this large literary gathering, located in multi-cultural central London. I’d become accustomed to a distinct lack of diversity at events such as this. I’d felt disorientated sometimes as a result, but I’d never felt unwelcome. I’d never believed that discrimination was ever intended, but if people of colour are notably absent from certain spaces, it begs the question why?”

Claire was one of the 12 writers commended in our 'About' competition. Her short story 'In Her Hair' has been published in the Bath Short Story Award anthology 2014 this month. Claire has a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from UEA, where she teaches creative writing to undergraduates. She is also a director and editor at Gatehouse Press. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Thea Smiley on her first mentoring session for About

Last Saturday, a mild and bright October day, six women met in a subterranean chamber in the heart of Norwich. The purpose of the meeting? To learn what ‘About’ was about. 
The competition had appealed to me because of its playful approach to form, and its focus on one woman’s relationship with a place in the East of England. So, I had written my proposal and sent it off. I had not anticipated winning. Indeed, I was so convinced of my failure that I immediately began to work on a submission for Words And Women’s prose competition. I was also unprepared for the mixture of astonishment, delight, and excitement that I felt on hearing the news and, as I descended the stairs to the meeting last Saturday, I felt as though the whole city could hear my nerves jingling.
I arrived in the depths of the building and was greeted warmly by our mentors, Lynne, Bel, and Hannah, and my fellow mentees. Photographs were taken, then we settled into the session, introducing ourselves, talking about our expectations, and discussing our proposals.
It was an illuminating and constructive three hours, during which we considered a range of possibilities for the development of our characters and themes, and thought about how we could make these work both in performance and on the page. 
By the time I climbed back up into the sunlight, the jingling of my nerves had changed to the more positive and pleasurable buzz of creative thought, and I had an improved understanding of ‘About’ and what it will involve. It is, beyond doubt, a creative challenge which will test, invigorate, and inspire us all and, with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, we will produce four good pieces of writing for International Women’s Day.

Thea Smiley was one of About’s Category 2 winners. A recent UEA graduate, she writes prose fiction, and plays for radio and the stage. For find out more info about About and Thea see our dedicated blog page 'About comp'.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014


Jane Harris (c) James Lipman
What are Words And Women upto at the moment? Well…

We have just launched our Friends’ scheme and our special event – Meet the author Jane Harris - which will take place in Norwich on the 29th November. Jane has written two celebrated novels: Observations and Gillespie And I. In the USA, The Observations won the First Fiction Prize for The Book of the Month Club. This ‘ebullient antidote to all those po-faced historical sagas' (Observer) was short-listed for the UK National Book Awards, The Orange Prize for Fiction and The South Bank Show/Times Breakthrough Award. Gillespie and I was short-listed for the UK National Book Awards and long-listed for The Orange Prize. Daisy Goodwin of the Sunday Times described the book as ‘ a Booker-worthy novel that I want to read again.' See our dedicated blog page ‘Friends’ for details about the scheme, how to join and how to secure your ticket for this fantastic event.

On Monday we began our series of writing workshops for young women at The Hewitt School in Norwich. The workshops follow on from a masterclass in writing which was given by Meg Rosoff at the school in May this year. A lovely, enthusiastic group of girls from Year 7 up to Year 11 met with Words And Women organiser Bel Greenwood to explore the story form, and will continue to meet for another five workshops after half-term. The workshops are supported by a grant from the Co-Op Community Fund.

The mentoring sessions for our winners of About, our commissioning competition supported by Arts Council England, begin on Saturday and our Tough Room Workshop for the commended writers will take place on Monday. We’re all very excited about this project and are looking forward to producing some great writing for performance and the page. Regular updates about About will be posted on this blog.

Finally, a reminder. If you want to win £600 and publication in our second anthology Words and Women: Two then enter our prose competition. Twenty shortlisted entries will also be published in the anthology. It’s a great way to get your writing noticed. A London agent has already signed up last year’s winner Dani Redd. For more details on the competition see our dedicated blog page ‘Prose comp’. The deadline for entries is 15th November, 2014. 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

More news about 'About'

The names of the 12 commended writers who have each won a place on Hannah Jane Walker's workshop The Tough Room are listed on our dedicated blog page 'About comp'. Congratulations to all! You'll also find a breakdown of the judging process on  this page too.

At the end of October our four overall winners - Jenny Ayres, Lilie Ferrari, Tess Little, Thea Smiley - will start their mentoring. We will post regular updates on the blog on their progress.

Meanwhile if you are a prose writer then why not enter our prose competition? £600 first prize and publication in our second anthology Words And Women: Two. Twenty runners-up will also be published in the anthology. See the blog page 'Prose comp' for details. 

Friday, 10 October 2014

We have our winners!

Congratulations to Jenny Ayres, Lilie Ferrari, Tess Little and Thea Smiley, the winners of About, our commissioning competition, supported by Arts Council England.

We received 50 brilliant entries for the competition and after much deliberation chose the following writers and their projects….

Jenny Ayres:

Jenny is a north Hertfordshire based writer, actress and mum. After studying at The Central School of Speech and Drama, Jenny was invited onto the Royal Court Young Writers Programme and in 2005 won the London Lost Theatre Festival with her one woman show ‘The Fourth Photo’. Jenny then travelled to Milan and Budapest, where she was commissioned to write two short films, before her first short story, ‘…but that’s who you are’, was published in 2007. Jenny continues to write for the stage and screen today, most recently working as Writing Director for a community based theatre project entitled ‘Through a Child’s Eyes’ in conjunction with Letchworth Arts Centre.

Jenny’s piece, ‘Trouble and Strife’, will explore the vital, but often unknown, work of the Hertfordshire railway women of World War Two. In the face of grueling manual work, frequent prejudice and nightly bombing attacks women worked to maintain our railway lines, not only keeping the country moving but changing the world of women’s work forever. From train sets to train drivers - the railway is a man’s world…until war comes.

Lilie Ferrari:

Lilie Ferrari worked in the South of France and California before gaining a Master’s degree in French Literature. She then went to work at the British Film Institute in the Television Unit, taking a particular interest in popular drama and soap opera. From there she went to the BBC as a Script Editor and subsequently began her career as a full time writer.
She was co-creator and writer for the long running medical drama series The Clinic for RTE, and has written episodes of Peak Practice (Carlton), Dangerfield (BBC),Casualty (BBC), Berkeley Square (BBC), Holby (BBC) and numerous episodes of EastEnders (BBC). She co-created storylines for 60 episodes of the returning series of Crossroads, winning the ITV commission for Carlton Productions. She has also storylined for Family Affairs (Channel 5), and Playing the Field for Tiger Aspect/BBC.  Lilie has worked as a soap consultant in Finland and France as well as advising on a proposed new soap opera for Saudi Arabia. She has also had four novels published, and is currently working on her fifth.

Her proposal is based on a real woman called Jane Sellars, who was sentenced to hang in Norwich in 1631.  Looking at research around issues of vagrancy at the time, she would like to give Jane a voice, and tell her story.

Tess Little:

Born in Norwich, Tess  studied history at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Her research focused on les femmes tondues – French women punished after the Liberation for collaborating with Germans in the Second World War. During her studies, Tess wrote non-fiction articles for student publications, and her short story ‘The Stitches’ was published in a student anthology. She has worked as a freelance journalist and previously gained experience at the New York Times in Paris, Ralph Appelbaum Associates in New York and Thomson Reuters in London.

Tess’s proposal, ‘Beyond the Britannia Barracks’, will explore the story of Anguish, a nineteen-year-old prostitute repeatedly detained at the Norwich prison on Plumstead Road in the 1880s. Based on archival research, the life of Anguish will be written into a fictional monologue. Voices of her cellmates – arsonists, thieves, drunkards and child abusers – will permeate the script, weaving together prison storylines. From pavements to courts and cells, the plethora of characters at Plumstead Road epitomised lives of countless impoverished women living in the East of Victoria’s Britain.

Thea Smiley:

Thea lives in Suffolk with her husband and three sons. A recent UEA graduate, she writes prose fiction, and plays for radio and the stage. Her first play was performed in 2012, and in 2013 she was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. In Boudicca of the Bungay Straight a ceaseless wanderer, and ‘lady of the road’, delivers a monologue in which she becomes increasingly convinced that she is the re-incarnation of the warrior queen Boudicca.

On Sunday 12th October we will post the judging report and also the names of our 12 commended writers who have won a place on The Tough Room workshop run by poet Hannah Jane Walker.

Many many thanks to everybody who entered.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Thanks for coming to The Book Hive last night...

And thanks to our readers and to The Book Hive! We had a lovely time launching our prose competition. Here are a few photos:

Dani Redd
Belona Greenwood & Anni Domingo

Sarah Ridgard
Rowan Whiteside