Peter Kalu is a poet, novelist, playwright and script writer. He started writing as a member of the Moss Side Write black writers workshop and has had five novels, two film scripts and three theatre plays produced to date, winning a number of prizes in the process. I interviewed him ahead of his upcoming appearance at Bare Lit Festival (with Megaphone tutor Catherine Johnson), about, among other things, his Young Adult books, both of which are published by HopeRoad, and the Commonword Diversity Writing for Children prize – recently re-launched and open to submissions on the website: http://www.ihaveadream.org.uk/ . Peter’s depth of experience as a writer and with Commonword-Cultureword meant I was especially keen to find out his thoughts on the barriers BAME writers of children’s fiction face and how they can overcome them.
Leila: I’ve really enjoyed reading both The Silent Striker and Being Me. Marcus and Adele have such different voices; their characters really come through. It might be down to the use of first person, but Adele’s life seems more chaotic than Marcus’, I think because she has a more extroverted personality.
Peter: Thanks for those generous comments. I didn’t set out to create a sense of chaos, that’s simply how the Being Me novel evolved. In some way it’s a bluff – an embracing of unexpected turns the novel took as I was developing it. It does reflect Adele’s personality well, so maybe it was inevitable. I did the same thing in the short story I had published recently in the Closure anthology, but for different reasons.
Adele is definitely more extrovert than Marcus. Maybe the other difference between the two characters identity-wise is that Marcus begins with a sense of a stable core identity and HAS this sense Piccasso’d/destabilised by the onset of his deafness. Whereas Adele does not start with such a composed identity. From the get-go Adele has competing stories being told about herself – at school, by each parent, by her friends. She’s a girl. She’s a boy. She’s black, she’s white. She’s a caring person, she’s a villain. She’s unlovable, she’s adored. She’s a loyal best friend. She’s a let-down and an impostor. And Adele’s work is to figure out how to reconcile all these competing stories of herself. So Marcus and Adele have very different work to do. One is trying to rebuild his understanding of himself as having a stable core identity, the other is trying to work out what is the story or set of stories I want to tell about myself. Does any of that make sense?! It’s not something I set out to do as I was writing them, but looking at the two characters now, that’s how I feel about them.
Leila: That does make a lot of sense. Marcus is centred in a way that Adele isn’t. I wondered which voice you enjoyed writing most.
Peter: They were both a challenge. I enjoyed writing particular scenes. The scene where Adele spends the night in the Adenuga family’s spare room listening to all these strange noises and movements, that was fun to write. The Marcus moment where he objects to his uncle being buried with Marcus’ favourite football and his mum faints as he scrambles after it was a highlight for me. There’s usually also some key emotional scene or moment in each book that I wouldn’t say I enjoyed writing, but which mattered a lot to me.
More generally, I had such a great bunch of writers around me giving me feedback for both books and I enjoyed meeting up with them and bouncing ideas back and forth. I’ve not answered the question have I? I can’t choose!
Leila: Was there a particular reason to write Silent Striker in third person and Being Me in first?
Peter: I was aware that Marcus’ story was in parts autobiographical so I wanted to ensure I didn’t under-distance the space between author and character. To fend that off, I placed the Marcus story in the third person and used the past tense for it. Those choices flip for the Adele story – she’s in the present and in first person. I wanted Adele to be the unreliable narrator of her own story. The spaces between what she thinks is going on and what others – including readers – think might be going on interested me. I decided that was best done in first person. Then for speed and immediacy the present tense. Again, I might be rationalising. I probably make these choices intuitively.
Leila: The voices in both novels are different, but feel really realistic. I feel as if I could hear them on the back of the No 50 bus any day after school lets out! I wonder why there aren’t that many voices like this in children’s literature.
Peter: Not enough published writers are catching those No 50 buses! In my area it’s the No 192 that’s legendary. Dropping the metaphor, I guess few working class writers break through. Mainstream publishing is run by the middle classes and they choose books for their imagined readership which of course means a reflection of themselves. At least that’s my impression.
I recently opened up some YA books in a Manchester Waterstones (so serving a population of high cultural diversity). And randomly chose some books that looked as if they were set in the ‘now’. Overwhelmingly, they featured middle class protagonists.
Leila: What was your own journey to publication like? Did you try many publishers before finding the right one?
Peter: The book was part of a project with my writing buddy, Tariq Mehmood who wrote You’re Not Proper at the same time that I was writing The Silent Striker and Being Me (I write faster than him!) We would meet up several times a week and swap notes. The journey to his kitchen and back those mornings was invigorating. While writing, I’d heard some of what Malorie Blackman said at a writing conference about how black writers break through. So rather than approach a mainstream publisher, I went straight to Hope Road: I knew they had a commitment to diverse writers.
Leila: And what are your writing goals for the future?
Peter: Apart from another CYA novel (featuring zombies!), I’m working on a crime novel. And completely unrelatedly, I want to write a novel in the way that visual artists produce collages, but I’ve not figured out the techniques needed yet.
Leila: Can you tell me a bit about Commonword and Cultureword – how did you come to be part of these organisations, and where did the idea for the Diversity Writing For Children prize come from? It’s great to see it relaunched, by the way!
Peter: I got the writing bug after reading Alice Walker and Maya Angelou in the 80’s. I went to the Moss Side Write workshops that had been set up by Commonword-Cultureword, where I met the legendary, Lemn Sissay. My involvement kicked off from there.
The Diversity Writing For Children prize came about through schools telling us there were no books with BAME characters in them, no books that reflected their classrooms. The more we looked into it, the more startlingly apparent this absence. The prize does something to tackle that.
Leila: What barriers do you think that UK BAME children’s/ YA authors face in particular? And how do you think they can best approach them, get over them, go round them…
Peter: Two arguments tend to surface. First, white children don’t feel comfortable having to read about the UK through the eyes of black characters. I simply disagree with that – it’s not what I’ve found. Second, parents – who buy the books – don’t feel comfortable buying such a book (approx 40% of buyers of YA fiction are actually older adults who simply enjoy the genre). There’s some truth in that. It’s well known for instance that mainstream publishers for a very long time avoided putting a black kid’s face on the cover of a YA book as their marketing departments told them it would inhibit sales.
As writers in command of our craft there are solutions to that white ‘we don’t feel comfortable’ problem: exotifciation, omission, ellipsis, inversion, exfoliation. In non-technical terms, add a major, heroic white character, reduce cultural friction, downplay division, celebrate collaboration, fly into fantasy, erase the blackness, write under the radar, at least make your book a black-white two-hander. These solutions can work but at times can feel soul destroying for a BAME writer. I prefer not to craft something that is guaranteed to make white people comfortable, but instead to allow they themselves address that issue of why they are uncomfortable (or, to simply not be published). The world’s changing. Heterogeneity is growing. Those who ignore it or oppose it are like King Canute trying to turn back the tide. Publishing, including YA publishing, in the end will embrace it, probably when it hits their cash tills.
Leila: I’m interested in how the conversation around diversity in children’s literature plays out in the USA as well as in the UK (for example, A Birthday Cake for George Washington). What do you think the differences and similarities are between the USA and UK children’s publishing industries and how they include (or don’t) BAME writers?
Peter: The commentator, Paul Gilroy described Britain as suffering from colonial amnesia. The most barbaric events of the British colonial era didn’t happen on the landmass of Britain so that amnesia is easier to sustain. The USA has no such distancing. Plantation slavery is a fraught part of USA history and happened on American soil. Yet the Washington book news story showed the USA was giving amnesia a good go.
The demographics in UK are different: a higher South East Asian population and, I believe, a greater ‘mixed heritage’ population.
The Oscars controversy suggests USA is only slowly waking up to its privilege and prejudices, and still does not like to look at them straight in the eye. That uncomfortable thing again. The statistics for USA and UK on percentage of BAME characters in published CYA books sing the same song. The USA statistics on under-representation are here: http://blog.leeandlow.com/2015/03/05/the-diversity-gap-in-childrens-publishing-2015/
As far as I can tell there has been no hard, statistically significant research done in the UK but the anecdotal evidence is similar to that of the USA.
Yet it’s not all bleak. As in the USA, there are signs of improvement. My impression is that the general population is way ahead of the publishing industry. If I crystal ball gaze, then my guess is that ventriloquism –getting white writers to depict black lives – will be the prominent in the first wave of change, to deal with that ‘comfortableness’ issue. Simultaneously more BAME writers will get taken up, though not at a speed to frighten the horses. Finding publishers who will break cover and take a risk is the game. Of course, once that risk makes some publisher big money, suddenly every mainstream publisher in the land will follow suit, perhaps as a new fad.
The publishing industry is not an island. It sits within society itself and so there are limits to how fast things can progress in publishing while the (older) UK white population keeps up its postcolonial melancholia, its longing for a mythical white Britain.
Many thanks to Peter Kalu for this great interview, which I think is full of insights the mainstream publishing industry should benefit from – and do read his excellent books!