Review by Mbeke Waseme
The 13th Southbank Literature Festival took place over eleven days. In attending the first weekend, like so much I have come to expect from the Southbank Centre, I knew that it was going to be very good.
Heaux Noire is a platform where Black and Brown women perform their stories, founded by Anita Barton Williams in 2014. Their Southbank event was an explosion of creativity from women of colour which ended with a powerful performance from songstress Teshay Makeda.
Watching and listening to Lemn Sissay MBE, I wanted to cry and laugh in equal measures as he read from My name is Why. The two stories of how Wigan council took him from his birth mother, renamed and placed him with white foster carers who racially abused and excluded him, runs parallel with the story of a bright and a funny child who loved to eat cake, play fight with his foster brother and visit their relatives.
Lemn’s healing experience is a very public affair. As he stated, this is not ‘historical abuse’, this is present in his everyday life. He spoke of the ‘nightmare’ assessment centre in 1984, making a clear analogy with Dickens writing of those in the poor house and of course, George Orwell’s 1984!
For every painful account that he shared, the evening was punctuated with an equally funny reflection through the lens of a ‘brown boy who had been given the name Norman’. He was labelled a thief by his foster family and accused of stealing cake. He is later excluded from a family trip and left alone in the house with what? A Jamaican ginger cake, which he ultimately devours one slice at a time!
I listen, curse and laugh at how often black boys, then and now, do not have the luxury to ‘steal cake’ as children or to say to their foster brother when fighting ‘I’ll kill you if you do that again’ without being labelled a killer and thief as Lemn was.
Lemn’s birth mother had written to Wigan council to ask for her son back. She had never signed the adoption papers. At 21, Lemn found her and in 2015 after a fight of 31 years, he received the file of his life in care.
His writing is the journey of ‘coming to light from darkness’. He gives to others in the care system and his annual Christmas dinner happens in many towns across England. He laughs at people who bemoan the challenges of Christmas and asks us to imagine having no family or friends around at that time of the year.
As he continues to heal from the trauma of his life, he also continues to share, to inspire and to empower others who have been or are in the care system.
Bernadine Evaristo and Jennifer Nansubuga Mankumbi were in conversation with the writer Irenosen Okojie. Bernadine had been awarded a joint place in the 2019 Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other alongside Margaret Atwood on October 14th. Jennifer had won the Commonwealth Short Story competition in 2014 and Windham Campbell Prizes by Yale University in 2018. Bernadine and Jennifer read from Girl, Woman, Other and Manchester Happened.
Bernadine’s story is real and funny. In one of them, we meet Hatte who is an ageing farmer. She has decided that Christmas should be called ‘Greedimas’ and has no intention of handing over the power of attorney to her farm, without a fight. She will ask for ‘one last crap’ before they take her to the old people’s home and ‘blow her brains out’ with her husband’s old gun whilst seated on the toilet. She is feisty and funny.
In Jennifer’s work, we are privy to humour taken from real questions of a Ugandan who has just arrived in Manchester. He asks:
“Who builds the houses for the people?” and is told that,
“the council builds many houses.”
“Is this a council of elders???” Is his response.
“Why do the houses have numbers on?” For this is not the case where he comes from.
“What do you mean?”
“Is it because they all look the same and people will not know which one is theirs!”
Both writers’ lived experiences form the building blocks of the characters and storylines of their work. Jennifer expounded on how her characters and stories are incubated in her thoughts for years so that when they emerge, she knows them all very well. Bernardine reminded us of her poetry and acting experience which all comes into place. She is able to dive in and become each and every one of her characters. The style in Girl, Woman, Other is described as ‘fusion fiction’. This is a free-flowing writing experience that took her years to edit and allowed her to flow with the women’s stories. It allows the reader to go from one woman’s sub consciousness to another woman’s.
Both woman are literary greats in their fields. They have been recognized and awarded by the establishments. Bernadine being the first black woman to win the Booker Prize. Yet the theatre was less than half full.
As I stood waiting to take my picture with both women, I overheard those standing in front of me say, ‘Margaret Atwood has won this before and could sell out this theatre.’ I hadn’t read either book but other women around me who had, all said that ‘Bernadine’s was the stronger book by a long way’. Finally, to add insult to injury, Bernadine’s book cover still had the words; ‘This book has been nominated for the Booker Prize,’ whilst Atwood’s book had been updated with ‘winner,’ on the book stands.
The memoir of Lemn Sissay, the winning novel of Bernadine Evaristo and Jennifer Nansubuga Mankumbi’s short stories remind me that, whatever happens, humour will always save the soul and keep us going.
For more info on Southbank events visit: https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/