Brave New Words

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Benson Medal Award   —Royal Society of Literature2019

Honorary Fellow   —Royal Society of Literature2019

‘As long as we have literature as a bulwark against intolerance, and as a force for change, then we have a chance... Literature is plurality in action; it embraces and celebrates a place of no truths; it relishes ambiguity, and it deeply respects the place where everybody has the right to be understood.’—Caryl Phillips

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Fifteen specially commissioned essays from distinguished authors explore the value of critical thinking, the power of the written word, and the resonance of literature in the twenty-first century.

Each explores the crucial place of the writer, past and present. Their work articulates ‘brave new words’ at the heart of battles against limitations on fundamental rights of citizenship, the closure of national borders, fake news, and an increasing reluctance to engage with critical democratic debate.

Contributors: Bernardine Evaristo, Githa Hariharan, Eva Hoffman, Romesh Gunesekera, James Kelman, Tabish Khair, Kei Miller, Blake Morrison, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Hsiao-Hung Pai, Olumide Popoola, Shivanee Ramlochan, Bina Shah, Raja Shehadeh and Marina Warner.

Published to celebrate 35 years of Wasafiri, the leading magazine of international literature, Brave New Words imagines writing across shifting and troubled borders, and diverse possibilities for living, working, and belonging together.

Brave New Words is edited by Susheila Nasta.

Amy Baxter, Bad Form

20 January 2020

'I began writing poems not because I was inspired, but because I was compelled.' So begins Shivanee Ramlochan’s essay 'The Good Brown Girl: questioning obedience in Indo-Caribbean women'. As Ramlochan is compelled to write, I am to reading; I race through Brave New Words at breakneck speed, filling my commute with words and thoughts and quotes and knowledge. I am all at once amazed by its contents, and angered by it. The topics range from the familiar to entirely new, the writing stupendous throughout. This book is a celebration, and a list of disappointments. It’s bloody good.

I had really hoped it would be good. The cover reads like a dream list of interviewees for Bad Form, names that you know, and your mother would love. There are more awards in the 'About the authors' section at the back than I can fit into the word count for this review. Booker Prize awards, Costa Book awards, an endless spread of international literature prizes. Bernadine Evaristo, Blake Morrison, Romesh Gunesekera. All of these names make the book interesting; they do not, by themselves, make the book good. That’s the best bit. All of these essays are fascinating.

That, in a book of essays, is due in large part to the excellence of the editor. The editor of Brave New Words is Susheila Nasta, MBE, Professor of Contemporary and Modern Literatures at Queen Mary, University of London, and Professor Emeritus at the Open University. Not only that, but the Editor-in-Chief of Wasafiri, the magazine of international contemporary writing, founded in 1984, and which has just turned out its 100th edition. Brave New Words, in Nasta’s own words, 'celebrates 35 years of Wasafiri and continues its founding aims'. The cynical among you may deem the purpose of Brave New Words as 'diversity', I think it is more romantic than that. Its purpose is to bring you to worlds beyond the collective imagination of a world made stale by the monotony of contemporary literature. It’s a voyage into the world left purposefully unknown by the publishing industry. And it’s very, very interesting to read.

I am tempted in writing this review to summarise each essay and its authors, my thoughts on each, the internal debates it led me to. To encourage you to read their entirety, I will instead draw your attention to just three. The final essay in the collection by Maria Warner is 'Out Loud: the experience of literature in the digital space'. I am struggling to find words to describe, on an online blog, an essay discussing the impact of the internet on literature. Literature, she argues, has always been, and always will be, a transforming art form. Stories will always exist, but the mediums through which they are expressed are changing, and that is not just okay, but exciting. Her words fill me with curiosity; a newfound appreciation for the impact of the systems I take for granted to connect with you, our readership, our supporters. There is something just as exciting about reading Evaristo’s essay. Not only the essay itself, but the knowledge that we hold of her future success, reading her from 2019, reflecting on the creation of black womxn in the present day. 'What a Time to be a (Black) (British) (Womxn) Writer' declares the title. As I read the essay, I am filled with joy. She spouts off book after book, name after name of groundbreaking black writers who are breaking ground with their work in the 2010s. Though it is disheartening to realise that this work, that of The Slumflower, Otegha Uwagba, Gal-Dem, to name a few, is still ground-breaking in 2020, I am left with the resounding knowledge of Evaristo that 'the spirit of entrepreneurship, community and arts activism will us stain us long after it’s no longer woke to be “woke”'.

The last essay I will leave you with is the second in the collection, and the one that I began with. I may, perhaps, be biased towards it. Her 2017 poetry book Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting is visceral. It defies explanation, it is transformative and loud and quiet and beautiful. Her essay is the same. It describes her youth, how her poetry began, and I think, for you young readers, it would be of most immense importance. She articulates her personal struggles so deeply, I would defy any person, any creed, any gender, to read it and not be moved. I will not spoil it for you, but I would implore you to read it.

This review is not intended to be gushing, but it probably is. In mid-January, when my desire to create beyond my salaried hours is dwindling, and my knowledge of my purpose is shaking, I am revitalised by the words of these authors. Brave New Words is a celebration of Wasafiri, and a celebration of literature.

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Jackie Kay, Guardian

22 November 2019

Jackie Kay selects Britain's 10 best BAME writers

The acclaimed poet and author introduces favourite authors who ‘open up the world to you and give you the world back’

(from left) Olumide Popoola, Jay Bernard, Jennifer Nansubuga.
 ‘Bold, brilliant and brave’ … (from left) Olumide Popoola, Jay Bernard, Jennifer Nansubuga. Composite: Alamy/Alicia Canter/Murdo MacLeod

When I was a teenager, the only black writer I came across was Wole Soyinka in his poem Telephone Conversation. When I was 17, I went to university and did a course on the Indian novel and discovered writers such as Anita Desai and Mulk Raj Anand. They were a revelation; through reading, I travelled halfway across the world. A little later, I found Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Gloria Naylor. I found that reading helped me understand myself, and my complex identity. It helped me piece myself back together again. Books kept me company in the dark. I suddenly found characters that looked like me and asked some of the same questions. I was not alone any more. I had the very finest of company.

It took me a long time, though, to find writers of colour from the UK. The first I came across was Buchi Emecheta back in the late 1970s; then I found a whole family of Caribbean poets – among them James Berry, Grace Nichols, Fred D’Aguiar, Jean Binta Breeze. It was like extending your family. Good writers offer the reader something so deeply affecting that the impact stays with you for a very long time. Books you love become part of you. You are partly formed by them.

These 10 writers open up the world to you and give you the world back. There’s a wisdom in their work, as well as an abundance of humour. They are bold. They often tackle difficult and dangerous themes with an extraordinary grace and lightness of touch. They are all writers who make the reader ask questions of themselves and their place in the world, and they are all writers that give us back the world in all its complex glory.

Many of these writers work across forms and times – using the past to hold up a mirror to our time. Many of these writers have experienced one or more forms of discrimination and have found a way of writing about it in original and authentic ways. I’m excited to introduce them not just because they challenge received wisdom, not just because they give us a new way of looking at the old, not just because they offer us insight and understanding, not just because they often make us laugh – but because they are good. Bold, brilliant and brave, they give us a real idea of the range of talent writing in the UK today. The future is complex; the future is hybrid. These 10 voices make me feel hopeful about our future and give me back some of my past.

Jay Bernard’s poems sing with outrage and indignation, with fury and passion. They tell the story, among other things, of the two of the terrible fires of our times: New Cross and Grenfell and, shockingly, show how the past holds up an uncomfortable mirror to the present. Bernard finds a delicate way of returning the lost to the world. They have brio, they have brilliance, they are breathtakingly brave.

Mary Jean Chan’s work opens the window, and the door. Her work has an astounding urgency to it. She captures the newness of everything, like stepping into a gay bar for the first time. Her poetry is psychologically astute and culturally complex.

Eric Ngalle Charles is a versatile writer who excels in various forms. His voice reaches out across the divides, across the lands, from Cameroon to Russia and the UK, taking it all in. His work examines the horrifying experience of detention, and of being the victim of human trafficking, with extraordinary grace and lightness of touch.

Imtiaz Dharker’s poetry shines a light in the dark. She is interested in how things work, in art, in history, in politics. There’s little that does not catch her attention. You cannot hear her perform without being somehow transformed by the experience. Witty, wise, profound and moving, her work crosses continents. Carol Ann Duffy once said if there was to be a world laureate, it would be Dharker. Agreed.

Michael Donkor, at his home in London.
 Michael Donkor. Photograph: Jake Naughton

Michael Donkor’s brilliance is in the way he captures voices; his work has an immediacy and a warmth to it and his is a world you want to enter, whose characters spring vividly to life. You read Hold and you say to yourself: “Hold on, I want to read more from this writer.”

Diana Evans’s fiction is emotionally intelligent, dark, funny, moving. The sheer energy in her novels is enthralling. A brilliant craftswoman, a master of the form, she makes the reader ask important questions of themselves and makes them laugh at the same time.

Nadine Aisha Jassat is a fearless poet who boldly takes on difficult themes, like gender-based violence, reasserting her right to speak out about those things that are often hidden from view. Hers is a powerful, unforgettable new voice.

Zaffar Kunial.
 Zaffar Kunial. Photograph: Alamy

Zaffar Kunial’s poems are precise, startling in their originality, full of grace. Kunial traces the roots in language to then track the roots in his mixed-race identity, effortlessly transporting the reader from one place to another.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi takes her readers from Manchester to Kampala, from the novel to the short story. Her stories illuminate not just the experiences of Ugandans in Manchester, but of all immigrants who face the unfamiliar, the unfriendly, the strange habits and customs of a new land. Witty as well as deeply affecting, Makumbi is as comfortable in the grand sweep of the epic novel as she is in the powerful shot of the short story.

Olumide Popoola’s elegant and lyrical prose is instantly engaging. Her complex work captures the atmosphere and the tempo of the racial tension in King’s Cross. She is fascinated with the spaces in between culture and form, and she is adept at moving between Nigeria, Germany and the UK.

 The International Literature Showcase, run by the British Council and National Centre for Writing, sees six guest curators focus on different aspects of writing from the UK. Jackie Kay’s event will be livestreamed at 12.45pm on Saturday 5 October.

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