The pioneering BBC World Service programme Caribbean Voices, which ran from 1943 to 1958, enabled figures such as Derek Walcott, Sam Selvon and Sylvia Wynter to share early work. For the writer Colin Grant, the website WritersMosaic – of which he is the director – in some ways resembles a Caribbean Voices for a digital and multicultural age.
Launched last year, it describes itself as “an online platform for new writing from a mosaic of literary voices and cultures across the UK”. An initiative of the Royal Literary Fund (RLF), it publishes creative writing, nonfiction and cultural reviews, along with audio and video recordings of one-to-one and public conversations with selected contributors. In a filmed conversation with Grant, the website’s founding editor, Gabriel Gbadamosi, introduces the project as a “showcase” of new, generally short pieces of work by writers of colour, curated by writers of colour. Two key ambitions are to train new cohorts of editors and, in time, to “become an invaluable resource in education”, because “the way our society is developing needs to be reflected in the literature it’s producing”. All members of the editorial team are RLF fellows.
New work seems to be published at least weekly; there is a good mixture of urban and rural, north and south (although there is room for more collaborators from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland); and the contributors so far range widely in specialism and experience. There are fiction writers, poets, playwrights, critics, translators, artists, historians, academics, curators, journalists, film-makers and musicians, though many of them fruitfully defy the frontiers those nouns imply – responses in verse by the poet and scholar Rommi Smith to photographs of public yet intimate moments in British multicultural life are a stellar example. Some of the contributors, such as John Akomfrah and Bernardine Evaristo, are well known. Others are established but less well known, and others still, such as Moses McKenzie – whose first novel, An Olive Grove in Ends, came out in April – they are new to the scene. This twenty-four-year-old Bristolian has his own web of influences: he writes with “the dictionary, all of Maya Angelou’s literary autobiographies, and One Hundred Years of Solitude within arm’s reach, and always with ‘Voodoo’ or ‘Brown Sugar’ playing through [his] speakers.” That non-British voices such as the American novelist Colson Whitehead and the Nigerian-Irish writer Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi are increasingly being profiled bears out the website’s claim to inclusion and evolution.
Naturally, reflections on migration, identity, inheritance, belonging, race and racism recur. In a wry piece entitled “The Identity Parade”, which is one of the website’s sharpest, Johny Pitts evokes the sense of “fleeting community” engendered in the 1990s among a cast of Sheffield teenagers who were paid to visit the West Bar police station, regularly “lining up for an identity parade when someone else deemed ‘black other’, or ‘mixed race’ was suspected of committing a crime”. Yet one finds hardly any, or no, uses of such terms as “Black”, “ethnic minority”, “BAME” or “equality” to define contributors, their work or the mission of WritersMosaic. This is refreshing – not least in light of the torrent of institutional commentary that followed the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, but has in some quarters not amounted to much – and it sends a message: that to cast these writers in such terms would be not only to impose a particular (that is, limiting) view on our reading of them, but also to imply that they qualify as part of the story this country tells itself about its literature and literary heritage only for particular (that is, limiting) reasons.
In a virtual round table entitled “Find Your Own Voice”, Daljit Nagra, Hannah Lowe, Bonnie Greer and John Siddique consider the pros and cons of labels and categories; Greer warns aspiring writers against embracing titles such as “Black woman writer”. We learn in this conversation that while Lowe began writing partly out of grief for her father and to shine a light on the Chinese Caribbean experience, Greer traces her work back to writing stories on the paper bags in which her mother brought the groceries home. Motivation is a theme taken up elsewhere, in a section called “Reflections”, where many contributors respond to one or both of the following: “Why I write” and “My favorite book”. Whereas the poet Valerie Bloom likes to watch words “sing and dance across a previously blank page”, they help Ingrid Persaud “endure the chaos and commess of life”. “I might ‘fraid writing but I’m petrified of not writing'”, she concludes. Meanwhile the short-story writer Peter Kalu conjures his “battered, broken-spined, pages-adrift paperback copy of Audre Lorde’s Zami”, which “spilled rather than slid out of its delivery envelope”.
“Reflections” is one of the website’s best sections. Another is “In Conversation” (although, for reasons of accessibility, all of its recordings ought to be accompanied by a transcript). These interviews are coherent without being prescriptive, nuanced but not donnish, and cover everything from recollections of 1960s Soho and republishing CLR James (Margaret Busby) to carnival and the limits of academic writing (Emily Zobel Marshall) to building characters in fiction and masculinity ( Paul Mendez). In her interview with Gbadamosi, the playwright Linda Brogan recalls growing up in Manchester’s Moss Side, where “half-caste was the thing that everybody wanted to be”, and outlines her latest project – excavating the basement of one of the neighbor’s best-known nightclubs – which was sparked by the realization that
The whole world decides who I am. I can’t be who I am. I can’t decide who I am either. Immediately, the one place where I could be anything was the Reno. It popped in my head. It was absolutely a badge of honor.
WritersMosaic‘s richest offering is possibly its series of guest-edited numbers, which explore subjects as diverse as “Jewish multiculturalism”, “Race in the time of childhood” and “Sonic vibrations”. Pieces take prompts in unexpected and exciting directions, telling powerful, instructive and sometimes witty tales via word, image or both.
In “Find Your Voice”, published in Janette Parris’s excellent edition on “Arch comics and graphic tales”, Rudy Loewe cites Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it”. The same surely applies to enterprises such as WritersMosaic. It answers a need – and it does so in an insightful, generous and timely fashion.
Franklin Nelsonis an editor and writer at theFinancial Times
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