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This Is My Story – four Black-British authors on writing during a global pandemic

For many, 2020 was going to be 'their year'. Something about the dawning of a new decade gave birth to new levels of excitement and expectation. Then Covid-19 and lockdown arrived, forcing plans to be shelved as the global pandemic changed life as we knew it.

During an already unique time, a world-changing moment - the killing of George Floyd - that was horrifically captured on camera for all to see, heralded a seismic change in the way the West was forced to face up to the systemic racism and violence experienced by Black people.

How did these events affect the creative process of four Black-British writers - Candice Brathwaite, Bernardine Evaristo, Caleb Azumah Nelson and Benjamin Zephaniah - all at varying stages of their careers? And, what are their hopes for the future? Alongside specially commissioned new portraits, we find out how each of them is feeling as 2020 draws to a close.

The groundbreaking bestseller, Candice Brathwaite

South London originalist, Candice Brathwaite is the author of The Sunday Times' Bestseller, 'I Am Not Your Babymother', a timely and needed exploration into some of the experiences of Black British motherhood. Having built her brand and following via social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, Candice has fast become one of the seminal voices in exploring Black British identity and existence. Currently working on her second book, due for release in 2021, Candice gets candid on how 2020 has been for her...

We came back the day before lockdown officially started in March. We had gone on a family holiday to Barbados, which was planned in the middle of 2019 so we still went ahead. Upon reflection, I wish we hadn't as it was a horrendous holiday, filled with anxiety and fear and us, wondering if we would even get home. We got really lucky because we got the last flight to leave Barbados. I was just severely anxious because my dad died of the flu in 2009 - the common flu - which we have a vaccine for. And so in the back of my mind I was like, “Right, I didn't think I was going out like this but here we go, I'm gonna die”. I don't think it helped that our news feeds were just pumped with the death rate on a daily basis and you know it was really scary.

You know humanity thrives off of power. It thrives off hierarchy...

Then we settled into a routine. And it was hard because you're getting up every day and seeing the same faces, you're going out for your little bit of fresh air, my two-year-old son couldn't vocalise why he was angry and distressed, but you know it's because he's used to a routine of going to his child minder five times a week, that's been locked off. I’d take my six-year-old to walk around the block and her friends have their faces pushed up against their windows screaming “Hi!” It just felt like really heavy.

On George Floyd? I hate to sound doom and gloom, but…

My thoughts remain as they did before and I'm very clear about this; there will be no eradication of racism or racial inequality in my lifetime. Not in my children's lifetime, there might be a smidge of movement by my grandkids and great-grandkids' lifetimes. I am of the school of thought that this universe will never find balance when it comes to race and treating Black people fairly until we hit a comet, or God is like, I'm sick of your stuff and just blows us all to smithereens. I don't have any false hopes pinned on the idea of a post-racial society.

You know humanity thrives off of power. It thrives off hierarchy, off of who's on the top and who's on the bottom. And I don't think our society would be able to survive on a level playing field. It is our duty to keep the conversation going, to keep fighting if we only move the needle forward by a millimetre, because that's all it is, you know, Martin Luther King had a dream less than 100 years ago, and we are still here dreaming. So, in another 100 years what's really gonna change?

From a business standpoint it's been really wicked to see and be part of immediate change, even if it’s a knee jerk reaction to businesses and brands understanding that you can't have one token Black person, your workspace can not be unrepresentative; you cannot be willing to take a Black person's coin but not represent and stand by them.

You wouldn’t believe it but…

This next season for me it's just going to be so sweet!

I am absolutely the laziest person, I think I know! I'm dead lazy; like any chance to procrastinate and take a nap, I am down. So the fact that I even got one book beneath my belt is very funny to me! Because between me being a naturally lazy person and having two kids and trying to run a household and trying to maintain a business, I don't know how the rest of it gets done.

I will say that this: the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd's murder affected me creatively initially because these were not new things to me. If people go to my social media platforms or read my work, I have been discussing these things since I starting using social media. This was not a new conversation to me, so by like the second week after his murder, and the 19th million news company reaching out for a quote or an interview, I was extremely exhausted because I thought, ‘gosh, just scroll back to my Instagram feed to 2017 to me recounting my daughter having her first racist encounter when she was four’ - it's all there. Stop pulling on me for this, I felt very exhausted, and so it made me go inwards, I think.

My hopes for this new season and 2021 are…

I think it depends on what season you're talking about. And I'm very aware and sure of my hopes becoming a reality in my life. This next season for me it's just going to be so sweet! So sweet that I'm just going to look up to God and be like, “I beg you some water because this juice really be different!” And I personally feel a very divine coming together of all the work I've done, almost like the reaping of the harvest. As a collective, I genuinely feel that for many Black creators, also for many Black authors, writers, content creators, directors and screenwriters there is going to be a moment of great harvest.

The doyenne of literature, Bernadine Evaristo

Esteemed novelist Bernadine has many accolades - and novels - to her name. Her eighth book, 'Girl, Woman, Other', won the Booker Prize in 2019. This pivotal win was groundbreaking as she was the first Black woman and first Black British person to win the award. Bernadine has been instrumental in creating spaces for writers of Black origin within the UK. Even though the year has been heavy, Bernadine feels optimistic as we move forward...

How has the lockdown been for you?

What I found really interesting about the Black Lives Matter protests was that they were very multiracial...

It's been incredibly busy! I’ve written a lot of journalistic pieces, essays, short stories and monologues, plus I've taken part in so many events and interviews. Other than that, I've also been looking after my mother for some of the time, and getting in as much exercise as I can. So it's just been a very, very intense but also a very productive period.

My thoughts on the reaction to the killing of George Floyd is that…

It was an incredibly positive thing that the world erupted because of the murder of George Floyd, which was a terrible thing. And we know that this is happening in America all the time, it's just that we had the video evidence of it. But what happened was that after the protests - in fact during the protests - there was a lot of, I would say ‘awakening’ about racism and a lot of soul searching by individuals and institutions – which is a good thing. What I found really interesting about the Black Lives Matter protests is that they are very multiracial. They aren't just Black. I've never seen these kinds of demonstrations as multiracial as they have been, and everybody seemed to be on board with it. And I think that is a huge development compared to the Black Lives Matter protests that happened some years ago.

What are your hopes in this new season?

I think the status quo doesn't really transform itself without a lot of pressure

You know I'm very positive person; I try not to be cynical. And I hope that some of the consciousness raised that happened around George Floyd, is sustained and that people actually start to change their practices. If that happens, then I think in two to three years time, you will start to see a very different society. But I think it's always incremental, and we'll just have to see what happens. But I think the status quo doesn't really transform itself without a lot of pressure and a lot of lobbying and I feel that we have to keep that up in order to see the deep structural changes that we need to see in our very discriminatory society.

Plans for 2021?

Working on a new book and trying to shut myself away as much as possible to get on with it!

The debut author, Caleb Azumah Nelson

The British-Ghanaian writer and photographer was shortlisted for this year’s BBC National Short Story Award for his story 'Pray'. He’s now on the cusp of releasing his debut novel, 'Open Water'. The youngest of our four writers, Nelson talks of the anxiety experienced as he embarked on the first lockdown of 2020...

On navigating the lockdown

It has been a journey! I think initially when lockdown started there was this very clear anxiety because life as we knew it had changed completely. And also we didn't know what life would look like on the other side of this – whenever the "other side" ever arrives.

...The lockdown kind of meant that there was a raising of public consciousness about what it means to be Black.

On the global reaction to the death of George Floyd

I think the death of George Floyd is like another death in what feels a long and almost endless period of systemic violence against Black people.

In a way, the lockdown kind of meant that there was a raising of public consciousness about what it means to be Black, but these were things that Black people had known for a long time and had already experienced.

There was a collective mourning for George Floyd, who had been killed in such a brutal way.There was also a private mourning going on [for me] because you were having your own existence being brought to the front and having to face that which was a really difficult experience. And I think it was really important that people were on the streets protesting, even in the face of a pandemic. I'm glad that people were like “Hey, we’re going out because this isn't something that we have to do, this is something we need to do!”

This year my creative and writing process was...

Definitely knocked a little bit, in the sense that it was just a really difficult period. It hasn't changed my creative process per se, I'm still really interested in this idea of blackness and in the construct of blackness and how we can redefine that for more freedom for black people. If anything, it's pushed me because I understand and know how important it is to continue on in that vein.

‘Hope’ for me is an act of discipline and I think it's really important that we continue to be hopeful...

Aspirations going forward...

That we can continue to be hopeful. ‘Hope’ for me is an act of discipline and I think it's really important that we continue to be hopeful; that we allow ourselves the space to mourn, to grieve and to process these feelings and emotions that we sometimes can't even explain, but know it’s there. But for me, I would like to continue to process, a connected grief and to continue to find pockets of joy, where we can celebrate being alive.

2021, I will be...

Playing it by ear! My debut novel, 'Open Water' is out in February in the UK and that is something I am looking forward to.

The lyrical and literature don, Benjamin Zephaniah

Writer, actor, dub poet, playwright, activist. Just some of the many hats that Benjamin Zephaniah wears. With a career that has spanned over four decades, he has been prolific in fighting for racial equality through his work and beyond. More recently he’s become known for playing Jeremiah Joseph in the BBC drama Peaky Blinders, and this year released the children's book 'Windrush Child (Voices 5). 2020 was gearing up to be a busy year for the poet. Or so he thought...

Lockdown has…

Lockdown has actually been alright for me! I've been really creative.

Actually been alright for me! I've been really creative. I wasn't sure how I was going to get through this year because I had so many things to do and actually lockdown gave me the opportunity to do it! A couple of weeks ago, in one day I had a book come out, a play come out and a TV series started on the same day, an accumulation of a whole year’s work. Where it hasn’t been so good is when I think of my friends and family.

I know people who have suffered and I have lost friends, Ty the rapper, Delroy Washington the reggae singer, Toots from Toots and the Maytals. So that has been tough thinking about them and not being able to connect with their families. For me it’s been ok, but it’s not just about me is it?

On the reaction to George Floyd

I know people who have suffered and I have lost friends, Ty the rapper, Delroy Washington the reggae singer, Toots from Toots and the Maytals. So that has been tough thinking about them and not being able to connect with their families. For me it’s been ok, but it’s not just about me is it?

You could mention my cousin Mikey Powell. He died in exactly the same way George did. His last words were ‘I can't breathe’ and he cried for his mother. Christopher Alder, Sean Rigg and Ibrahama Sey – I’ve been watching these deaths since the 70s, so we don't have to default to George Floyd.

He shone a light to the rest of the world, but for me it just reminded us of the problems we have here and the problem Black people have all over the world. I mean everybody hates us, but yet everybody came from us, it's really weird. I say everybody hates us but I mean it's not exactly true. What I mean is we have a kind of political struggle everywhere. Even in Africa. We have a kind of political struggle because all our rulers and leaders have learned the kind of ways from the people that colonize them. A Black Man's burden.

Has your creative process change?

I'm really inspired by the younger generation. I think it’s a great thing.

No, my writing and the thing that I feel passionately about is having changed because I've been doing this for years! Actually, I mean there was a time, maybe about 10 years or so ago when I remember people of my generation having a conversation and saying, ‘What's happened to the youth now? They're not engaging in politics’. And now they are and it's like really good to see; I'm really inspired by the younger generation. I think it’s a great thing. I mean we used to just call it ‘conscious people’, now they call it ‘woke’. It's the same thing about people waking up and seeing what's going on around them and not saying, ‘I'm going to be an activist as a kind of intellectual exercise’, but saying ‘I care about my people, so I'm going to do something about it’.

Hopes for 2021

My hopes are that Aston Villa to win the Premiership! But the great thing about the Black Lives Matter movement recently is that it's not just about Black people. And I think that we in Britain, the thing we do well is multiculturalism. And so I just like to see this kind of movement, grow in young Black, Asian and White kids get together create music, create art and tell the older generation that the old ways are dead and we have to change things. They have to change things.

Me? I'm just gonna (sic) keep doing what I do. I have no great ambitions. Because, for like the last 40 years I think I've been doing exactly what I like doing! If I was a painter and decorator, I'd still go home and write poetry. And so I'm kind of really fortunate doing what I do. But all my hopes and dreams are about the country really, I just really want the country to come together.

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