Previewing Black History Month with Judy Hepburn – Author of ‘My Story’ on the Life of Ignatius Sancho.

Judy Hepburn – Author, Actor, Director. Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Creativity, inventiveness and longevity are just some of the nouns that describe Judy Hepburn’s career. Having started as an actor, working in the West End and on international and national tours, Judy kept pushing the boundaries to include directing, writing for theatre and radio. Now an established author, Judy lets us peek at her latest book projects, starting with her publication on the life of the historical figure, Ignatius Sancho.

I  was asked to write about the life of Ignatius Sancho for Scholastic’s series called ‘My Story.’ Instead of just writing about his story I had to write from his own point of view, which threw up a few challenges!

For those who are not familiar with Sancho’s story, why was he such an important figure? What challenges did you face writing from his perspective?

Ignatius Sancho left us something rare and precious – his voice. As a Black man living in England nearly three hundred years ago, he wrote to newspapers about things he cared about, such as ending the slave trade. He also wrote personal letters to his friends, meant just for them, so we know the letters are a true reflection of how he really felt. When some of these letters were collected and published after his death, the book sold out immediately. He became the first Black man to vote in parliamentary elections. 

Book Cover illustrated by Euan Cook

Writing from his perspective was definitely challenging – because it is such an assumption to think that I can. I just had to acknowledge that this is my version of him. I wrote the book during covid lockdowns and he was a great companion. I read his letters and what we know about his life. The other consideration was that this is a children’s book. I so want them to know and admire the man, Ignatius Sancho; how he overcame the obstacles in his life and made a good life for himself and his family.

Who are the other authors in the ‘My Story’ series?  Which figures will they shed light on?

Another author in the My Story series is Sufiya Ahmed who wrote about the Second World War spy Noor-un-Nissa Inayat Khan. 

What about your other project on the Windrush generation? Is there a particular figure from the Windrush era you wish to write about or admire?

I’d love to write about another character. There must be quite a few heroes from the Windrush generation, such as Kathleen Warsame. She was taken from Ethiopia as a child, to work in Yorkshire as a labourer. She later moved to London and worked as an extra in film studios, and ran a Black seaman’s mission in Stepney. I heard her testimony from the Black Cultural Archives and was very moved.

Who else collaborated on the Windrush anthology?

Other authors in ‘The Place For Me, Stories about the Windrush’ are Quincy the Comedian, Salena Godden and Jermain Jackman to name a few.

 

Are the series of books for schools a part of a wider call to expand the curriculum on British history? Who will have access to the publications?

I wish I knew the answer to that! Your suggestion is a great idea. The books are available to the general public to buy, and Scholastic has a good relationship with schools.

You have a varied career and have worked in so many different fields from theatre, writing, directing and so much more. Tell us briefly about your career journey to this point and how you got involved in the project. What have been the highlights?

It feels weird to write about myself! I began as an actor because that’s one of the more visible roles in the arts world I suppose. While working in the West End, touring internationally and nationally, I put my hand to whatever was required in the small, but revolutionary, Carib Theatre Company. This led me to writing theatre-in-education plays. A highlight was being invited to Dar-es-Salaam to work with Tanzanian theatre practitioners to develop theatre-in-education there. Co-writing Sitting in Limbo, which has seen productions in London, Jamaica and Toronto as well as the BBC World Service, has led to writing children’s books. (I’m still open to playing ‘third bunny on the right’ though!)

The last 18 months have been difficult, particularly those in the performance arts. With your experience what useful information would you pass onto young people at the start of their careers?

Collaborate with your peers. Be curious about many things. Try not to worry about where you’re going. Practise your craft so you are as good as you can be.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline you can share with us? 

I am very excited to be in the middle of redrafting my first novel, working title ‘The Dripstone.’ 

Please let us know how we can purchase your publication ‘I Was There’ and other books.

The quickest way to get ‘I Was There Ira Aldridge’, ‘My Story Ignatius Sancho’ and ‘The Place For Me, Stories about the Windrush Generation’ books is through Amazon. AmazonSmile gives some of the book price to a charity on their list.‘This is Book Love’ is run by Samantha Williams: https://www.thisisbooklove.com/ and you can order on her website and also Waterstones online ; https://www.waterstones.com/

Book Cover Illustration by Ben Whitehouse
Illustration by Joelle Avelino

 

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