I began writing poetry to talk about my experiences of racism as a woman of mixed heritage who has lived in predominantly white areas. Poetry gave me a voice, the freedom to express my unusual experiences. Later, I began writing about other aspects of my identity. I understood what intersectionality was before I heard the word: I knew that overlapping forms of oppression had shaped me and that I had been marked out as ‘different’ in multifarious ways. It is widely acknowledged that black and minority ethnic (BAME) poets are massively underrepresented in UK poetry. But what happens when other marginalised identities intersect with ethnicity? Here, I want to explore intersectionality in relation to poetry from a personal perspective, and consider what we can all do to work towards a more inclusive poetry scene.
Intersectionality has become a buzz word recently. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, it stems from feminist theory, and is based on the idea that different forms of oppression overlap – people can experience double, triple or multiple discrimination. So for example, someone who is black, gay and disabled could experience racism, homophobia and ableism. And many minority communities have deeply rooted prejudice towards groups other than themselves. The way different forms of oppression interweave is complex.
I consider myself to be a black British writer, although other aspects of my identity have shaped my work. My dad came to the UK from Ghana in the early 1960s and married my white British mum. I have written extensively about my experience, and what life in 1970s and 1980s Britain was like for people of colour. We experienced overt racist abuse as well as more subtle forms of discrimination (micro-aggressions which continue today) which might not seem too bad but nevertheless eat away at your sense of self. Black and brown people were simply not accepted as British during this time. I struggled with my mixed identity, and internalised a lot of racism – it has taken a great deal of time, writing, reading and reflection to undo the beliefs which were inflicted upon me by a society built on white supremacist foundations.
Racism intersected with the domestic abuse I witnessed and experienced. I have recently learned that the brains of children who live with trauma in their early years develop differently to those of other children. We are literally ‘wired’ differently, and many of us experience problems with mental health in later life. Nowhere felt safe – the outside world ‘othered’ and abused me, and home was a frightening place. I escaped from my world through reading from a young age. I never saw people who looked like me in stories, but that didn’t put me off (although it can be a barrier). I began writing my own stories and poems, and words have remained an important part of my life.
It is widely acknowledged that many of the gatekeepers in literature are white, and male, and that it’s human nature to want to tell stories about people similar to yourself. When it comes to race, various reports over the years have identified that BAME writers are underrepresented. A report carried out in 2018 by poetry reviewer and blogger Dave Coates described British poetry as ‘failing to meet even the most basic measurements of inclusivity.’ The study identified the ‘systemic exclusion’ of critics and poets of colour from British and Irish poetry journals. This in spite of various previous reports and programmes set up to remedy the situation.
Some publishers have one or two black or Asian poets on their lists. Yet one person cannot tell all our stories – we have multiple identities and universal experiences. And, it is important to point out, even programmes aimed at supporting BAME writers can themselves be exclusive. There is a – virtual and real – community of BAME poets, mostly based in London and the North, which I don’t really feel part of. I have been the outsider, even inside spaces designed to be inclusive. Programmes aimed at supporting BAME writers would reach more people if they took an intersectional approach.
When race intersects with gender there are further layers of discrimination. Many forms of marginalisation are heavily gendered – women are more likely to be single parents, poor, experience domestic violence, and so on. As is often the case for people who grow up with domestic violence, I ended up in a violent relationship myself. I became a single mother aged 19, lived on benefits and struggled to work due to a lack of childcare and opportunities in my area. These different forms of marginalisation loop around – you’re more likely to end up in a difficult situation if you come from a marginalised background and then layer upon layer of other difficulties present themselves, trauma leading to yet more trauma. Life is not a level playing field, and it’s important to acknowledge this in the real, and literary world. For many BAME (and white) female writers it is a struggle to make a living, write and raise children. It’s harder for us to do the work in the first place, and then harder still to get published. Magazines such as Mslexia have done a brilliant job in supporting women writers and have touched on intersections such as race and disability. However, work which stems from a feminist perspective would be of greater benefit if it shifted the focus to celebrate the diversity within the group it aims to support.
Place can also act as a barrier to engaging with literature. In rural areas, such as the South West where I live, strong cultural infrastructures do not exist in the same way as in many cities. When events do take place they are spread over a vast region, and for those reliant on public transport, sometimes impossible to get to. Minorities in rural areas often experience a ‘hidden’ deprivation. Arguably, life is harder for people on low incomes in the countryside than for those in urban areas – it is harder to access the basics such as childcare and work. As for public transport, in some areas there are only one or two buses a day. It is hard to get to work/the doctors/the shops/basic appointments let alone to literary events. Recent programmes such as The Complete Works have attempted to reach BAME poets outside of London; it would be great to see many others following this example.
Another important layer of intersectionality is class, which in itself can be a barrier to literature, and when compounded with other layers of marginalisation becomes even more problematic. Like other minorities, working class writers do not see themselves represented in literature, and we cannot get away from the fact that income is an enormous barrier. How can you afford to do the writing courses, the retreats in wild and wind-swept places, the MAs or PhDs, get to networking events, perform your work, enter competitions, (which can cost up to 25 quid a pop) or have access to a computer and printer if you’re struggling to put food on the table? These things are luxuries for people on low incomes. A writer friend recently blogged about a writing retreat she had attended, with good food, wine, a log fire, and great hospitality. ‘What’s not to like,’ she wrote. I checked out the website and it cost £600 for three nights. That was what I didn’t like about it.
As we all know writing is about getting yourself out there, as well as actually producing the work. I admit I have felt envious of others because their writing journey has seemed comparatively easy. I was given a place on the creative writing MA at Exeter University, and tried to raise the money by writing to charities. I deferred my place for a year, and tried again, but… nothing. So I had to let my dream go. Recently, postgraduate loans have become available, but now I find myself in a position where I don’t have the physical capacity to earn enough to pay the bills as well as study. Being able to participate in poetry and literature at any level is a huge privilege, perhaps one that the gatekeepers don’t fully appreciate.
It’s a fact of life that discrimination and trauma impact people’s health. I, like many others, have invisible disabilities. I live with poor mental health and chronic fatigue. As I write this, I am recently bereaved, and grieving. Traumatised people often find everyday situations and stress, let alone highly stressful life events, harder to cope with than others. I look well and I am high functioning. But I struggle, to work, to attend events, to sleep. These are real barriers, and have impacted my career. There’s also a societal barrier and continuing stigma around invisible disabilities, which are not taken seriously enough. We need to be having conversations as a writing community about how we can best support each other and make space for those who are struggling.
Of course this is just one poet’s experience, and I have led an unconventional life! But many others will have experienced overlapping, marginalised identities which have impacted their career. I try not to see myself as a victim, and I have been lucky in many ways. But it is important to acknowledge the simple truth: many of us have had a lot more hurdles to jump over than others. Intersectionality needs to be understood, by publishers, editors, event organisers, and poets who themselves are relatively privileged.
So how can poets overcome intersectional barriers to engagement? Of course, as minority poets we can do our best – seek out opportunities, funding, keep going in spite of the challenges, talk about our specific needs, and so on. But the onus really needs to be on the industry as a whole – and the gatekeepers in particular – to work towards creating a truly inclusive poetry scene. Meeting people’s multiple needs doesn’t need to be complicated – understanding they exist in the first place is a start. Acknowledging our personal levels of privilege, and using this as a platform to call out discrimination towards those different to ourselves is also important. If you are genuinely committed to equality and inclusion, you can act as an ally to others. You can seek out others’ stories, and learn.
Reaching out to underrepresented groups needs to be done in a way that is authentic. It needs to be at the heart of your work; diversity is more than a hashtag trending on Twitter. Some publishers and editors have begun stating that they are keen to hear from underrepresented voices. New prizes such as the Jhalak Prize, set up to celebrate British writers of colour, are emerging. The industry is beginning to open doors that have been shut for too long. But work remains to be done. For me, it is key for the programmes of work already available to a particular group, to consider the diversity within diversity, and aim to support poets who belong to more than one underrepresented group.
When it comes to performance, as well as considering physical access needs, organisers can ask performers and audience members what their needs are. This can be very powerful. We all have multiple identities and needs, which may shift over time. It’s not always possible to meet everyone’s needs, but by being conscious of the fact they exist, and by listening, we can overcome some of the barriers to engagement to literature. I believe that to become a ‘successful’ poet takes a combination of talent, work, a degree of luck, who you know, and a bit of right- place-right-time. British poetry remains an elitist space. Understanding intersectionality and actively making space for non-traditional voices will benefit us all.
On a personal level, there have been positives too. Although I might not be as successful as I’d like, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve received grants which have enabled me time to write. I’ve worked with some fantastic mentors, and I have a lot of material to draw upon! In spite of the barriers and challenges, I have continued to believe that although I might not be the world’s best poet, or produce great reams of poetry because I’ve been busy writing other stuff or raising children or working to earn a living, or simply not well, I nevertheless have important things to say. Poetry needs diverse voices – they help us make sense of the human condition and the richness diversity brings. Poetry needs people who know what it is to struggle – after all, emotion and the generation of empathy for others is what it’s all about. Humans are beautiful whether whole or broken, in all our varied forms.
Louisa Adjoa Parker is a poet, writer/researcher and diversity consultant based in South West England. She is passionate about telling the stories of marginalised voices in multifarious ways. Her poetry collection, Salt-sweat and Tears, and pamphlet, Blinking in the Light, are published by Cinnamon Press. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Bare Fiction, Envoi and Wasafiri.
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