Where Are All the Black British Writers? Black Readers Respond...

The Guardian recently asked, 'Where are Britain's black writers?'

Catherine Johnson writes:

It seems like a boom time for black literature and drama. Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, which focuses on the life of a young girl in Nigeria, is shortlisted for the Costa first novel award next month. Pigeon English, the story of a Ghanaian boy living in Peckham, made the Booker shortlist. And Channel 4's Top Boy, depicting black gangster life in Hackney, east London, has just been commissioned for a second series. A reason to be cheerful in shiny, diverse, Britain surely? 

Well, maybe not. These three works are all the creations of white authors. 

She then goes on to list some great black British writers: 'Courttia Newland, Malorie Blackman and Andrea Levy, to name a few'. She goes on to write:

The problem isn't that white people are writing stories about people who aren't white - it's that these stories are being treated as more worthy and exceptional than similar ones by black authors.

It seems that readers of The Guardian largely missed the point. So we thought we'd open up the discussion a little bit for all the readers of the Caribbean Literary Salon, to see if putting this question to a largely black readership offers a different consensus to those at The Guardian.

Why do you think the stories of black British writers are underrepresented in literature? Is it the fault of readers? Is it the fault of publishers who assume readers prefer stories from white British writers instead? Or is Catherine Johnson just imagining things?

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Comment by peepaltreepress on March 6, 2012 at 10:52am

Also, there's the 6th National Black Writers Conference this month in Manchester!

Comment by maggie harris on January 27, 2012 at 5:13am

There's a conference 'Narrating the Caribbean Nation' at Leeds Metropolitan April 13th weekend. A good opportunity to raise some of these issues, so for those of you who live in the UK check it out. I'm going to be talking about Kiskadee Girl, and considering the importance of life writing and by being defined by where we come from.


Comment by Antony James on January 26, 2012 at 7:11pm


Nice to hear from you, it's never too late!

I had heard from Ben Okri as well, but he does make a good point albeit succinctly, but at the same time forgetting how hard it is to get published especially being Black and writing about the Caribbean or African experience. Maybe he should try harder, but then he has a good readership ready to buy and read his words, but it is unlikely that many would be Black, which is probably why he can be so glib?!

The other point well put is who is reading our work? who or what is our market?

Answers on a postit??

Comment by Emma Allen on January 26, 2012 at 10:28am

 Am a little late to the party but thought I'd put my 2 cents in. I agree as others have noted that the  Guardian article was wrong on its focus: the issue isn't so much to blame readers but to look at who is publishing and marketing books by Black writers.  (though I do think there is a trend of art   being appropriated or what some would call "colourblinding ". What I mean is that white consumers tend to lap  it up  when white girls or boys  perform the kind of music Black people have been singing  for years ( Joss Stone, Amy Whitehouse, etc But that's another story for another day).

There are fewer  Black publishers now- X press no longer around, Ayebia ( I think) has lost its funding.And the mainstream press is more profit-driven and averse to taking risks.

Went to a talk by  the brilliant Ben Okri a couple of months ago and his response to the dearth of Black writers was essentially "write better". Which I felt was disappointing. I think we know that good writing is of course important but then again good writing and being published do not always equate.

Interestingly, I came across a writer  Dorothy Koomson  who writes chick lit  and is  a b est selling author. She's of Ghanaian origin.  Whilst  the  main character in her novel is alway Black, she isn't essentially concerned with issues that are particular to Black people. Raising the interesting question of: Are we talking about Black  writers or Black writers who write  about Black issues?

Comment by Adam Lowe on January 4, 2012 at 11:02am

Maggie, I've heard of your book, and it is also on my TBR pile. Although at the moment my house is taken over by books!

Comment by Anne Lyken-Garner on January 4, 2012 at 8:27am

I'm in talks at the moment, Maggie. I don't know what will become of them, but I can only hope. This book was written about 8 years ago and since then I've been trying to get it published. I've already written part 2. I even sent it to Peepal Tree Press because my husband (a published academic and writer) met with the manager once and knows they publish Guyanese writers. 

We'll see what happens. I'll let you know. It's a small world, isn't it?

Comment by maggie harris on January 2, 2012 at 1:44pm

Hi Anne and Anise,

thanks for your comments. Didn't know my book was in Trini! I had a friend take a couple over just this Christmas. Anne, did your book get published? I'd love to read it! I live in West Wales and sometimes go through Bristol to visit my daughter who lives in Somerset.


Comment by Antony James on December 27, 2011 at 6:36pm

I do not have any reviews to hand, I can describe the book;

It is, I suppose urban fiction about 3 friends who grow increasingly frustrated with gang crime and the affect it is having on their community. They see and feel it first hand, one is a Prosecutor for the CPS, the other areformed crminal turned community worker and the third a Managing agent. Their frustration boils over and they become vigilantes sworn to rid the streets of the criminals affecting their community. They utilise Ezekiel 25:17 as their mantra and set out to 'persuade' these young men to mend their ways through varying degrees of violence. They make a pact with the local gangland leader and this leads to a disatrous and deadly end game after his young brother is murdered.

It isn't the usual type of urban fiction and could be seen as an allegory for our times. I want it to give a voice to how frustrated we all are with what is going on.

Comment by Anne Lyken-Garner on December 27, 2011 at 12:43pm

Wow, Maggie. I've also written a memoir of growing up in Guyana (in the 70s/80s). I live in Bristol. Where in Wales do you live? I work in Cardiff a lot for my TV work, and go there almost on a weekly basis. 

Comment by Anise Ward on December 27, 2011 at 11:32am

I think that concentrating on being a good writer is the best thing- and by the way-@ maggie- I've seen/heard about your book-and its definitely on my list of books to read.

I  guess you are rite about the literary festivals- I was fortunate to be in Trinidad for the Bocas lit festival this year (I think that it iwas in Trini that I saw your book), and the attendance there was (in my opinion) minimum to say the least- and it also seemed like it was catered more to the authors themselves and not really to an ordinary reader like me.  The night time activities seemed very intimate- and everyone seemed to know each other; it was more like an authors "soiree".  But that said I was introduced to a few writers that I had not been exposed to before and have since read and/or purchased their works (Lorna Goodison, Marlon James, Mark McWatt, Tiphanie Yanique)- and have not been disappointed- nor would I have been exposed to their works otherwise.  So you all keep at it- great works never go un noticed for long.   


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