Brave New Words

THE POWER OF WRITING NOW
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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.

Aneeqa M. Wattoo, Dawn paper

31 March 2020

Memory is a fickle thing. Yet, sometimes it alights on an event and attaches itself firmly, so that a particular moment becomes conspicuous in our memory of a certain phase of our lives. It was March 2016. My friend — a Bengali Indian studying with me at the University of Oxford — recounted this. She was having lunch, eating a sandwich on a bench in the small park outside the office where she worked in the evenings during our student days. As she sat there, an old white woman came up to her out of nowhere. She looked at her pointedly and said, “Shut your brown mouth while you eat.” Then walked off.

I asked my friend how she responded to such an unexpected attack. She said the shock was so strong it took her a while to register what had happened. Soon, the June 2016 referendum for Brexit took place in the United Kingdom and this kind of racism erupted more widely in the country — this time with a certain impunity, a certain pervasive flair.

We live in a greatly altered world. The rise of right wing nationalisms and of political intolerance has manifested itself in the curtailing of human rights and the silencing of civil societies across the world. In such a politically bleak time, can wounded communities or individuals, who have been historically subjected to discrimination and systematic disempowerment, find any solace in literature? The “brave new words” in this anthology of the same name, edited by Susheila Nasta — the title an obvious play on Aldous Huxley’s historic 1932 novel — try to offer something of an answer to this overarching question, by drawing together essays by writers from a range of marginalised positions: black writers, black women writers, immigrant writers, gay writers and writers from the global South.

In the opening essay, ‘Call Yourself English’, British writer Blake Morrison vividly recounts his personal experience of a world changed starkly in the wake of Brexit as a biracial, middle-class, male writer. Describing post-Brexit England, he writes: “‘[g]o home’ the bigots cry. But home isn’t a place you come from. Home is a place you make. In the 1940s my mother came from Ireland to make hers in rural Yorkshire.” The disillusionment of this scenario is brought home when he describes the England he imagined as a teenager, a world in which “none of this was going to happen ... we would all be trans — transnational, that is: fluid, pluralistic, opposed to borders.” Morrison, however, is hopeful as he glimpses a liberating force in literature. At a time where borders, both territorial and imagined, are pervasively affecting the way people imagine and treat those distant and different from them, he suggests that “there remains a way to roam freely: in books.”

This is an invitation to the reader to reflect on reading as a practice. Reading this essay, I found myself wondering, in what ways can we as writers, readers and academics alter both the literature we choose to focus on and the way we read it, to read more inclusively and diversely? The necessity of this becomes alarmingly clear in another essay, ‘The Minds of Writers’, by Jamaican poet Kei Miller, which calls out the thinly veiled dehumanisation that gay and queer characters have been subjected to in Caribbean literature. Miller argues that there is a great responsibility for writers to fully explore communities and individuals as characters with real life and specificity, rather than depicting them as caricatures. He is one of the writers in this anthology who spells the task for writers quite clearly: “[t]hat is the high and holy order of writers — to tell people who they are, to offer them both the plodding banality and the incredible magic hood of their personhood.” And so he echoes other voices in the anthology when he issues a gentle plea to resist a cursory overview of any book or genre of literature. Instead, he advocates a conscious and full-bodied engagement with literature, reading deeply and with self-awareness, to combat biases both within ourselves and others. For Miller, this entails that we become conscious of how the literary canon has historically been complicit in processes of marginalisation and that we make efforts to resist, and renegotiate the terms of the dominant literary discourse itself, when we interact with it as readers or writers.

A new anthology of essays questions whether communities or individuals historically subjected to discrimination and systematic disempowerment can find solace in literature

In a cultural moment in which travel is glamorised and mass-marketed as a means of finding your ‘self’, a common thread in several essays is the discomfort of not fully embracing any one ‘home’ or place of belonging. By studying immigrants’ experiences, the disillusionment that lies behind many such aspirations is probed, leading Polish-born writer Eva Hoffman to declare that “most people still live local rather than global lives, and they derive their sense of attachment to such places — a need which has been ignored by the more globalised ‘liberal elites’.”

Brave New Words explores the theme of exclusion at various levels — it articulates not only the consequences of being expelled from countries and territorial affiliations, but from language itself. In her essay, ‘Seeking the Tree of Life’, Hoffman recounts her memories of migrating from Poland to England and trying to adopt English as a language. She writes: “for a while ... I was in effect without language, as Polish went deep underground ... and English remained a baffling terra incognita. But what I felt even more saliently was that I was without an internal language in which to talk to myself. This was a brief but very radical and informative state, for it made me realise to what extent language constructs us, shapes our interior lives.” Personal memoirs such as this where writers venture into terra incognita as they delve into the abyss of memory make these essays so rewarding for the reader as she finds experiences which are, perhaps, painfully shared.

Another essay that I found to be didactic in a soothing, and at the same time sharply illuminating, way was Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘What a Time to be a (Black), (British), (Womxn) Writer’. Evaristo, whose novel Girl, Woman, Other jointly won the Booker Prize last year, offers a detailed history of the black feminist movement in the UK during the last half of the century. Evaristo stringently beckons black writers and activists to learn from their predecessors by fully appreciating the rich history of black women writers in the age before social media, when activism was a more gradual and less marketable process.

Evaristo issues several important warnings that no one else is talking about in this moment of flamboyant, widely self-proclaimed progress with the rise of movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Her advice to young writers, especially, is to resist the enchantment and self-congratulatory impulse created by immediate recognition and fame through social media. As a young writer, I have personally struggled to carve out the intimate isolation that good writing grows out of, in an era in which we are constantly bombarded with images and news of other people’s lives. And so Evaristo’s words hit me quite hard as she bluntly writes: “we were doing it for ourselves rather than hoping to be cherry-picked by this country’s white cultural productions ... our journeys to sustaining a lifelong career comes from a deep place within us.”

Evaristo’s words led me to wonder, what is this “deep place within us” from which good writing comes? If I were to imagine this as a real space, what would it look like? Is it a space that allows human fragility and vulnerability? How do we navigate the often cold, hard fact of difference in this space? It also clears the space for more critical questions, such as how we should read literature in the ultra-digital age and what new responsibilities this volatile time brings on writers.

What’s great about this collection is that it does offer some degree of an answer to these overwhelming questions. However, it more importantly manages to fulfil its aim to include a wide range of diverse voices — geographically and culturally. I was, for instance, pleasantly surprised to find in the anthology Pakistani writer Bina Shah’s essay ‘The Life and Death of Pakistan’s Sabeen Mahmud’, about the human rights activist who was murdered in 2015. Reading Shah’s essay, I was utterly heartbroken as I revisited the pain and jolting sense of bewilderment that many Pakistanis felt in the wake of Mahmud’s death.

Which leads me to the point that this book is better enjoyed if it is treated as a starting point — an introduction to some fine, contemporary intellectuals and writers, and to the study of universally shared experiences such as marginalisation, exile, belonging and loneliness in the 21st century. I, for one, am excited to start reading — as the writers here suggest — more widely, deeply and holistically this year.

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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.
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 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.
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 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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