When I was younger, I was led to believe that as a person of colour, everything I did had to be done better than the average white kid on our estate. I had to represent a continent. I had to prove that ‘we’ were worthy of being called British. That is a lot of pressure on a youngster who had no knowledge of how she arrived in Manchester in a family that didn’t look like her, attending a school that labelled her and a church that informed her of the stain on her soul due to her origins. So, when I’m asked what encouraged me to write, my answer is that in order to make sense of my world, I read. Everything I could put my hands on. Stories that transported me to a world where I could be the cool kid who went on adventures and helped solve mysteries. Reading led to daydreaming and from there a natural progression into story telling.
What I didn’t know then is that I lived at intersections of class, race and gender and my non-belonging was a natural product of the family and the society I had been born into. Forward several years, and an eventual higher education and I was finally able to voice myself. To write myself into understanding and being. The first novel I wrote, Bloody’s in the Bible, a bildungsroman that has yet to see the light of day but was longlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize in 2014, shied away from dealing with the untidiness of life and encouraged a rosy outlook for the reluctant heroine. My debut novel, A House With No Angels, published in May 2019 by Crocus, plunges into the messy innards of the lives of an immigrant mother, a mixed race daughter and a black British teen.
I like all the characters in their dysfunctional dealings. I like that I didn’t attempt to clean them up to make them acceptable and ‘better than’. I like that they each find a resolution in their own way by facing their truths. Written against a backdrop of the 5th Pan African Congress that took place in Manchester in 1945, the Black Power Movement of the 70s and the current immigration issues in the UK, each character explores their personal politics of being, longing and belonging.
I didn’t know this was the story I was going to tell. I first met my father in 1996 in Nigeria. He told me about arriving in Cardiff in 1950 and then moving to Manchester to complete his Masters in Civil Engineering. He said the communists sent him. I began my research looking for links between communism and Nigeria and Manchester and the story grew from there. I found information in the Labour Archives about the Pan African Congress in 1945 and many of the photographs had African/Caribbean men and white women. It made me curious as to why there were no African women in the pictures. I decided to insert them into the Congress and into life in Manchester from the 1940s onwards.
I wanted to tell a human story. A glimpse into ordinary lives of women who work, struggle, politicise, mother, love and lose. I decided that telling individual stories of connected women would provide a platform for exploring intergenerational conflict, the effects of politics on women particularly, black or mixed women, and the way second and third generations negotiate the space that they occupy in Britain, personally and politically. By telling the stories of their hopes and desires and presenting their flaws, I hope that these little stories are ways of giving the bigger picture to a wider audience.
Being of mixed race and being raised with the influence of just one of those cultural spaces and not having access to the other, is an all too familiar happening in Britain. In No Angels, I make reference to babies born during the second world war who were put into care, hidden away – think Delaney’s A Taste of Honey – and the problems attached to having a child of mixed heritage. My studies referenced the Tragic Mulatto, the mixed-race person who is sad or suicidal because they do not fit into either black or white society. I decided that Elizabeth, my mixed-race protagonist, was not going to entertain that trope, but would produce her own issues around mental health, sexuality, secrets and family. Issues that are endemic to a society that is segregated by class first and everything else afterwards and causes confusion.
This novel was made possible because of the writers who came before me. I remember reading Small Island by Andrea Levy and the impact it had on me, though originally not in a positive way. As an unwritten, unpublished, aspiring writer of no repute, I decided that this novel was lacking in so many ways. The voices. They didn’t seem quite right to me. I couldn’t quite place them or vouch for their authenticity. Not that anybody had asked my opinion, but studying literature gives you that all-consuming belief that you know so much more than the writer or the characters. And then I began to write No Angels for my PhD and I knew that I had been so wrong about Small Island. I wish I had had the opportunity to sit down with Levy and thank her.
Doris Lessing, Buchi Emecheta, Meera Syal, Arundhati Roy, Diana Evans, Zadie Smith. All of these women had an impact on me and my writing. There are so many more writers that have had an impact on me and to read writing coming out of Britain that defines our own lives and struggles led the way for my own explorations and was something that was missing as I grew up. To know that our young people today can find themselves in the pages of books in the mainstream is really encouraging. The days of us being misrepresented are not over, but they are being countered in positive, unapologetic ways. Which leads me to thinking about the publishing industry and its role in representation of Britain.
It is about time that the industry took a large step back from ‘racesplaining’ how people of colour should be presented in literature. It is 2019 and we are no longer an anomaly on the page, we have shown that we are people, too. We are capable of defining our own lives in our own ways – ways that do not have to include drugs, guns, gangs and killings. We no longer have to sit in the margins as though we are a bookend holding up the main story. We are our stories. We have the ability to tell a tale that is universal and that everyone can read and enjoy no matter their race, gender or any space they occupy in this world. The literature industry needs to stop trying to colonise our stories under the disguise of being inclusive and acknowledge that we have the right to tell our truths in our own ways.
Telling stories and writing our truths in any medium, are the most important things writers can offer the world. These words make sense of who and where we are, they log history in all its imperfections and provide a blueprint for the humanity within us all.
Muli Amaye is a novelist and short story writer and sometime poet. She teaches creative writing at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine where I am the coordinator of the MFA Creative Writing.
She gained a PhD at Lancaster University in creative writing and also taught in the department for over seven years. She moved on to Kurdistan, Northern Iraq and taught at Soran University for four years, developing the curriculum and heading the English department.
In addition to university teaching, she has ten years experience working in the community with writing projects. She was co-editor of The Suitcase Book of Love Poems and the anthology Migration Stories. Recent publications include a short story, Streamlining, in Closure Anthology, 2016. Her debut novel, A House With No Angels will be published by Crocus Press.