In the Writing The Future Report, an analysis of Black and Asian writers and publishers in the UK market place commissioned by Spread The Word, it found that just 23 homegrown Black and Asian literary novelists (discounting celebrity, sports and cookery writers) were invited to the Big Three literary festivals (Cheltenham, Hay & Edinburgh) of 2014.
For the first time in my career, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Hay Festival this year and for that I have to thank my PR at Hatchette, Stephanie Melrose, and the rest of the team there who have championed my Y/A novel, Liccle Bit.
I was met at Hereford train station by a designated taxi that collected three other authors to take us to the site of the festival. I didn’t quite realise how remote Hay-On-Wye was! Down Dale and over yonder we drove.
Dropped off to off-load my luggage at a tiny hotel, the front door was open but the owners were nowhere to be found. I was thinking to myself that this scenario would never occur in South London! When the proprietors finally arrived they didn’t appear too alarmed to see a strapping black man waiting on their doorstep.
The Hay Festival is basically set in a field with tents, marquees and covered walkways. I was greeted warmly and directed to the green tent where endless cups of tea, coffee and water were served. Sufficiently refreshed I decided to take a stroll around the festival site. For a story geek like me it was soul-warming to be surrounded by people who obviously adored books and loved to talk and debate about them. When I took a second look at the people around me, I soon realised that as far as I could see, I was the only black person around. Doubts squatted in the corner of my mind – would I be accepted here? Will the audience lend me a fair ear? Would they buy copies of Liccle Bit?
My concerns floated away as I approached the venue with Steve Camden, my fellow writer of our event. Around seventy or eighty festival heads were queuing waiting to gain entry to the Starlight Stage’. Still I had doubts. ‘Are they for our event?’ I asked Steve.
‘Yes!’ Steve replied.
By the time we took our seats about 100 or so were in the audience – young, the curious and the old. The event itself was a great success – Steve was a great co-conspirator, energising the crowd with his impromptu writing workshop while I dropped a few lyrics of rhyme. It dawned on me that people come for the sheer thrill of storytelling, does it really matter the colour of the skin of the person who’s telling the story?
Again, I was pleasantly surprised to see the length of queue heading up to our signing table. Steve and I signed a lot of books that day.
Before I departed I was presented with a case of wine that I managed not to drop. On the journey home I was wondering why more black novelists aren’t invited to Hay. Is it because of the over-reliance on authors published by established and mainstream publishing houses? Not every small publisher can afford the talents of someone like Stephanie Melrose who can concentrate on building up contacts and champion one of her novelists. The audiences are incredibly supportive at Hay so why not invite more first-time novelists and writers who are published by independent presses? Come on, Hay! Stop being so risk averse! I see no reason why small publishers like Jacaranda Books for example, who publish talented, homegrown black authors, cannot host an event at Hay and introduce 3 or so of their writers. Because, as I discovered, the crowds who flock to Hay-On-Wye love a good story and there are good stories written everywhere and about everyone.
By Alex ‘brixtonbard’ Wheatle
Born in London of Jamaican parents, Alex’s first book, Brixton Rock(1999), tells the story of a 16-year old boy of mixed race, in 1980s Brixton. Brixton Rock was adapted for the stage and performed at the Young Vic in 2010. Its sequel, Brenton Brown, was published in 2011.
His second novel, East of Acre Lane (2001), has a similar setting, and won a London Arts Board New Writers Award. A prequel, Island Songs, set in Jamaica, was published in 2005, and a sequel, Dirty South, in 2008.
Other novels include In The Seven Sisters (2002), in which the scene moves to Surrey in 1976, where four boys escape from an abusive life in a children’s home; and Checkers (2003), written with Mark Parham, was published in 2003.
In 2010, he wrote the one-man autobiographical performance, Uprising.
Alex Wheatle lives in London. He was awarded an MBE for services to literature in 2008.
He can be found on Twitter @.