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27 July 2022

From the NS archive: Labelled

15 March 1985: To be a writer and to be black in Britain is to be in a corner.

By Ben Okri

“No one is particularly interested in a black writer who wants to write as freely and as widely as possible,” wrote the novelist and poet Ben Okri in 1985. Ignorant white editors expect black authors to write only about race – and such authors may at first go along with it, until it begins to “bruise their creative fibre”. When Okri’s first novel, “Flowers and Shadows”, was published in 1980, someone he considered a friend, and who had themselves been trying to get a novel published, said that he was only able to get it into print because of his race. “It seems to me like there are a hell of a lot of walls to break down,” Okri wrote. More than three decades later conversations around “cancel culture”, diversity in the industry, and who is granted the privilege of publication persist.

I suspect that people invent categories in order not to take you seriously. To be a writer and to be black in Britain is to be in a corner. If you are not published because of colour, you are read because of it. The challenge and the freedom in the idea that a writer should be able to write about anything is true except for the writer who is black. And so starting from the place that most writers take for granted – the place inside where something burns, and yearns for expression – the black writer is already at a great disadvantage. For their imagination is circumscribed, and the range of their expression is restricted, for the simple reason that no one is particularly interested in a black writer who wants to write as freely and as widely as possible.

After my first novel was published I found like many others before me that in order to exist I had to write reviews, articles, essays. I found simultaneously that the avenues were as limited as colour is limiting. Editors generally take the notion that a black writer can only write about a subject that is black. At first you take the world as you find it; you nurse the knowledge of the insidious circumscription. And then it gradually begins to bruise your creative fibre.

[ See also: From morality clauses to sensitivity readers: inside UK publishing’s identity crisis ]

I remember that after several years of battering my head against the ignorance of editors I had one genuine surprise. I met a literary editor of a magazine I would not name for fear of seeming biased; I asked to review books for the magazine, adding in the stream of lost faith that I would not mind some black and African novels. The editor exclaimed to me that I was a writer and should be able to review anything. I chose four novels by writers from different parts of the world; I reviewed them without difficulty. It is always a surprise to meet someone in Britain who understands that a writer is a person who writes. It is always a gift of faith to meet people who know that colour, class and sex are capable of being transcended by the imagination. I do not believe that there are three or four such people in the whole country. And because the level of enlightenment is low, the level of faith paltry, the black writer is perpetually in danger of sheering into silence.

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There are other sides to the problem. I discovered also that fictionally the black writer finds it impossible to be published unless their works reek of colour. If a manuscript is about a subject that is not immediately black, headline black, then its relevance is dubious. Black writers tend to be published not because they write well, but because they say things that white publishers and a limited range of readers would like to hear. And if they are published then other things come instantly into play. When my first novel came out in the summer of 1980 I experienced a terrible series of insults from people whom I considered friends. I had one of them, who had been despairing to get a novel of theirs published, say that the only reason I was able to get into print was because I was black. And then there were others who maintained that an African writer could not hope for much in terms of achievement because the language was alien to them. On the one hand, there is this smug literary ghettoisation and on the other there is a curious form of competition, of resentment.

[see also: “We are pretty invisible in fiction”: Bernardine Evaristo on power, racism and her wild Eighties days]

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The awesome loneliness of writing is compounded both by misunderstanding and by rejection. Every writer who is black, whether they choose to acknowledge the fact or not, is fighting against a constantly descending wave of silence and erosion. The sadness of it is that reserves of creativity, which can raise the level of debate and energy in the environment, which can exhume the full stench of some psychic corpses, are lost to us all. It seems to me like there are a hell of a lot of walls to break down. Here is an example of one of them.

I had been working hard on a story set in Britain. The story was moving very slowly and I decided to go for a long walk. As I walked my anxiety lightened. I stopped under a street light to make a note for the story. When I had finished I noticed there were two policemen walking in my direction. As they drew closer to me two things warred in my mind: should I cross the road, avoid them; or should I carry on without noticing them? I had not had a chance to decide when they stopped in front of me. They asked my name. It took three times to get it across to them. They asked if they could search me, and said it would be much easier for me if I agreed. They searched me. They emptied my pockets, peered suspiciously at my papers. One of them found my little tin of Tiger Balm and open it. What could they hope to find in there? Then the worst happened when the shorter of them looked through my cards and came across the note I had previously made for the story I was writing; he read it without comprehension and returned it to me. The other came up with an identity card and announced my name. I answered. He asked what I did. I told him that I was a writer.

– YOU WRITE? he said, incredulously.
– Yes.
– YOU WRITE? he said, again.
– Yes.
– What do you write?
– Stories.
– Love and things like that?

I nodded, for reasons of simplicity. There was a long silence as both these perfectly literate specimens of the British police force stared at me.

– You must be the only one who reads them, said one of the policemen, who then burst out laughing. He thought it perfectly funny.
– Published anything? the other one said.
– Two books. Another long silence. I had really committed a crime. Their faces turned sour.
– Did you say TWO BOOKS?
– Yes.

They returned my things to me. They explained that I looked remarkably like someone else. They went on. How can one write without bitterness, without anger? It was a case of reality breaking in on fiction; many of us write from the nightmare; and we awake to find ourselves bruised with labels, hounded by hunger.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

[ See also: Why are so many literary prizes closing? ]

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