Writing the Everyday Stories of Diverse Britain – Colin Grant

Everyday Stories of a Diverse Britain – the project

Journalist, historian and award-winning author Colin Grant is inviting you to learn the techniques to identify a special real-life story, research and record it through interviews and talks, and to tell it through your own creative writing.

In 2017, West Yorkshire Playhouse commissioned Colin to write a play about the UK’s oldest street carnival in Leeds. Interviewing people from the era who had been involved in setting up and attending the carnival in its early days, Colin used techniques from his journalistic background to get to the heart of first-hand experiences of the event.

The result was Queen of Chapeltown, a critically acclaimed play that had real resonance with the audiences who saw it during the sold-out run, because it told real stories, constructed from the memories of the people who have made carnival for decades. Queen of Chapeltown documents the history and lives of the local black community, with amusing characters whose humorous anecdotes serve to highlight the everyday racism they faced in the 1960s.

Although the 70th anniversary of the arrival of SS Empire Windrush from the Caribbean is being celebrated in 2018, inequality and racism is still prevalent in the UK today. It makes it crucial to highlight how multiculturalism strengthens and enriches society. The Windrush scandal that coincided with the anniversary and threatened some of the subjects Colin interviewed highlights how vital it is that their stories are preserved. As one interviewee during the writing of ‘Queen of Chapeltown’ stated:

“Carnival is the only connection we have to our roots … It’s part of our life and if that dies, we die as a people.”

From autumn 2018, Colin will be sharing the knowledge and expertise that he has developed through writing Queen of Chapeltown by running creative life writing workshops in areas of the country with strong links to the Caribbean and with histories of multicultural migration to Britain. Working with Commonword in Manchester, Literature Works in Bristol and Writing West Midlands in Birmingham, Colin and a local author will teach aspiring writers some of the tricks of the trade – interviewing techniques, how to turn a real-life story into a gripping plot, creating memorable characters and more – so they can weave these into a piece of quality creative writing. The workshops will culminate in public readings in each city to celebrate the work produced.

Outcomes

“An amazing catalogue of ‘aha’ moments and insights that have not only fed my mind but inspired my soul.”

Deanne Heron, who led the Manchester workshops with Colin, wrote this piece in response to the experience.

Initially there were seventeen people on the list who wanted to attend the workshop but due to work and other commitments, some people weren’t able to attend all four workshops and some couldn’t manage any. Nine people attended two workshops; eleven attended one and ten another. The attendees ranged from a lady, originally from the island of Carriacou in the Caribbean, who drove all the way from Huddersfield to attend all four sessions. We had a seventeen year old young man originally from The Gambia, who attended two sessions and commented on how interesting and informative he found it. We also had an elder of The Windrush Generation, from the community who shared some stories with us of his child hood in Jamaica and coming to Britain in the early sixties, which had everyone captivated.

Everyone who attended was given a free copy of the book ‘KITCH – A Fictional Biography Of A Calypso Icon’, by Anthony Joseph, courtesy of Cultureword. They were also given a free copy of ‘Breaking Ground: Celebrating British Writers Of Colour’, and numerous notes to take away.

Presenter, author Colin Grant, had a friendly, approachable and relaxed manner from the start which provided the ideal setting for people to get to know each other. He was entertaining and engaging while sharing eye opening information of how to go about writing our stories.

We began with Colin asking us to introduce ourselves and say a little about the meanings and origin of our names, a very significant point of African and Caribbean culture which everyone really liked. Colin then went on to put people at ease by speaking about our uniqueness and the unique stories which we all have to share; memories, experiences, life, relationships, history etc.

Colin used his book about his father and his own childhood experiences, ‘Bageye At The Wheel’ to illustrate what he had to share. Sharing his own story was a good way of connecting with the students and encouraging empathy as well as sharing ideas. Colin also shared his experience of writing his book about the life of Jamaican national hero, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, entitled ‘Man In A Hat’. He also spoke about a writer’s workshop which he did at Folsom State Prison. This is the prison in California where country western singer, Johnny Cash gave a free concert to prisoners in 1968. This visit resulted in Colin writing about a prisoner making a phone call to his girlfriend. Colin used this to further show us the various techniques of good writing.

During each workshop we were given numerous examples of writing such as ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal’ by Jeannette Winterson and ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ by William Maxwell, to help us to understand different writing styles. ‘A Hanging’ by George Orwell, allowed us to look at and discuss the structure and framework of a story, allowing readers to experience a start, middle and end.

Students did a number of five minute writing exercises and shared what they had written with the group, on the difference between memory writing and an autobiography, the effective use of dialogue and writing an inverse story.

During Sessions Three and Four we had a number of new people who filled the places of those who were unable to attend. The new students were welcomed and quickly settled as Martin De Mello from Cultureword took our photographs.

For the final session, students were asked to bring a meaningful photograph and share their memories. Photos were passed around and discussed before we all looked at a photograph of reggae singer, Bob Marley with former Jamaican Prime Ministers, Edward Seaga and Norman Manley and shared our thoughts on what was going on. Students did a writing exercise on what their photographs meant to them, shared with the group and gave and received feedback. For me and many others, hearing these stories was a very emotive walk down Memory Lane as we heard about each other’s cultures.

We had some very positive, heart warming feedback at the end of the course such as:

“Excellent, enjoyable, informative, supportive, safe space to share.”

“Great Facilitators. Inspiring, excellent tips for writing. Great interaction between writers.”

“I found a safe space that was open, welcoming, authentic, accepting, non-judgemental, reflective, encouraging, creative. I am very grateful to be given an opportunity to join such a positive group.”

“An amazing catalogue of ‘aha’ moments and insights that have not only fed my mind but inspired my soul.”

Breaking Ground USA

Following years of failed diversity initiatives in literature and publishing sectors, and after the publication of Spread the Word’s 2015 Writing the Future report, we decided that it was time to act, and at least make our own small contribution to raising awareness and visibility of the immense, hidden, diverse talent in the UK, and the Breaking Ground project was born.

Conceived, curated and organised by Speaking Volumes, Breaking Ground was a double tour to the East and West Coast’s of the USA, one in November 2015, the second in May 2016. It came from discussions with colleagues at the AfroEuropes conference, following a cultural evening programmed by Speaking Volumes, a number of visitors from the US expressed shock and surprise that Black British writers existed. We felt that raising awareness of this would privde a boost for our writers, providing opportunities in the US that UK publishers were not.

Left-right: Karen McCarthy Wolf; Nick Makoha; Jay Bernard; Gabriel Gbadamosi; Johny Pitts; Bernardine Evaristo; Diran Adebayo; Roger Robinson; Colin Grant

The Breaking Ground tour list consisted of five prose writers, five poets. All of the artists present a vast range of themes in their work and many are multi-genre writers, combining poetry and playwriting, for example. We paid particular attention to balancing gender and age and to present both new and established names to audiences.

The ten tour writers were Diran Adebayo, Jay Bernard, Bernardine Evaristo, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Colin Grant, Nick Makoha, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Johny Pitts, Roger Robinson and Warsan Shire.

Breaking Ground had a very successful start in 2015, with three events around England followed by the first part of the US programme. Ten of the best Black British writers gave lectures at Rutgers University, NY; conducted workshops with young poets in Chicago, IL; presented solo shows in Pittsburgh, PA; and visited classes at Emory,  the first black college in the US, in Atlanta, GA. This series ended with a full showcase of of all ten authors at the 2015 Association for the Study of Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD) conference in Charleston, SC.

As a result of ongoing demand from North American contacts, we planned a second ambitious tour of the USA, this time heading for the West Coast and Califonia. The writers read at San Francisco book shops, visited classes at the University of California at Davis, had a sold-out theatre showcase, and ran workshops at Sacramento Maximum Security Prison. At this moment in the twenty-first century, Breaking Ground represents a thoughtful and imaginative way of presenting a positive Black British experience based on a spirit of collaboration and exchange.

Roger Robinson reflects on visiting Sacramento Maximum Security Prison
Johny Pitts reflects on the Breaking Gorund US experience

The dates for the second part of the US tour in 2016

Thursday 28 April

Breaking Ground at Seton Hall, New Jersey with Bernardine Evaristo and Colin Grant

Free and open to the public | 6-8pm | Arts & Sciences Hall, room 107, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ

Friday 29 April

Breaking Ground at New York University with Bernardine Evaristo and Colin Grant

Monday 2 May

Creative writing workshops at California State Prison-Sacramento (formerly Folsom Prison)

Workshops for inmates will be conducted by Diran Adebayo, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Colin Grant, Nick Makoha, Johny Pitts and Roger Robinson | Closed event

Monday 2 May

Jay Bernard and Bernardine Evaristo – brown bag event at University of California at Davis

Tuesday 3 May

Breaking Ground Black British Writers Showcase featuring all ten tour writers – Mondavi Center 

Tickets $30 / $10 concessions | 8-10pm | Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center, University of California, Davis, CA

Wednesday 4 May

Breaking Ground Showcase at Green Apple Books, San Francisco

Featuring nine tour writers |  7.30-9.30pm | Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 9th Avenue, SF CA

Thursday 4 May

Breaking Ground Writers visiting classes at University of California, Davis

Closed event | various times | UC Davis

Thursday 4 May

Breaking Ground Readings at UC Davis