In the words of Steve Biko, “I write what I like” but I can’t pretend there’s not an expectation that one will write stories that represent people who look like me, and understandably so. With a deluge of criticisms that there has not been enough diverse storytelling and the portrayal of characters from marginalised groups being largely inauthentic, is it any wonder that diverse writers find themselves in positions of responsibility for the entire demographic to which we’re aligned with, to right the wrongs that proceeded our creative input and deliver a new perspective. But, is there a danger of being, quite literally ‘typecast’ writing about the ‘black experience’ Am I a black writer or a writer who happens to be black? We don’t refer to Caucasians as ‘white writers’ so why accept the label? Do writers from BAME backgrounds find it problematic extending into worlds beyond the African/ African- Caribbean experience?
No, of course not, the reality is, often we navigate numerous environments in which we are the actors, code-switching to adapt diffuse and dissolve the silent weapons of hostility when we enter unwelcoming spaces. We are integrated into worlds that find it hard to see us and hear our voices and have become human chameleons, adept at adapting to the situation presented before us, so yes, we are well versed in writing beyond the black experience, but it is, an integral part of our history, and there are many stories yet to be heard.
But do these labels help or hinder, fix us into a niche as opposed to normalcy, What, does ‘our stories’ mean? and does it matter who writes them? Well yes, to some extent it does. There’s an authority that jumps off the page when a writer has a deep and distinct understanding of the subject they’re writing. Of course an excellent writer can engage and enrapture and may have an understanding from an ethnorelative perspective, coupled with the ability to step into the experience of ‘othering’ depending on who they are. However, I would proffer, that this depends on the theme. But is this a slippery slope that will enable Thomasina Shackleton – Forbes to write an academic portrayal of the Windrush experience or the African holocaust, devoid of the passion and nuances that have been passed down through generations of storytelling and experiences.
Even John Ridley, an award-winning screenwriter hired to write and direct the Drama Series, Guerrilla, portraying the Black Power Movement in 1970s London, experienced the wrath of a disappointed audience. Given his achievements coupled with his cultural credentials there were high hopes that finally, the British audience would, at last, see an array of black women front and centre of the story but alas, due to his obsessive lens through which he was determined to make an Asian woman a heroine because they too, were part of the struggle, he managed to erase positive images of black women as a tribute to his Asian wife. So, perhaps culture transcends race in some circumstances. Mr Ridley is African – American and perhaps the weight of expectation was misplaced, after all, his portrayal was accurate in terms of the diverse members in the movement, but where were the BAME British writers who would have grasped the opportunity and understood the significance to showcase black women and therefore avoided this enormous faux pas?
I am not oblivious to the fact that at the moment we’re somewhat fashionable, we have cultural capital, well temporarily, but this is more of a fostering than adoption phase and seasoned professionals have seen this all before. However, new platforms and schemes are being created and a general understanding that diverse stories benefit from being told through a wider lens that can offer an alternative perspective, but this doesn’t mean we should welcome positions of cultural consultants and literary bodyguards to give an authentic stamp of approval, surely there’s no need for me to point out why that is problematic? Writers truly committed to developing and honouring diverse stories and characters without any personal agenda will no doubt write fantastic scripts and will pitch brilliantly to their colleagues and acquaintances but as a collaborative industry, let’s start doing just that.
Am I a black writer?… I guess that all depends on one’s perspective.