Being black in Britain can sometimes be confusing. When asked about the ‘black community’, the question that usually springs to my mind is, “Well, which black community exactly?” Caribbean? West African? East African? South African? Exploring this complex community highlights divides such as African vs Caribbean, British born vs immigrant and even Nigerian vs Ghanaian. Discussing the British black community (a VERY loose knit demographic group of mostly people of Caribbean or African descent), I often get the impression that the community lacks a cohesive identity and that the idea of integration between its various constituents remains a farfetched proposition. This is why literary events such as the bi-annual, London based, reader-led Black Book Swap (BBS) are such an important opportunity for the London black community to ‘desegregate’ and celebrate our diversity, shared culture, strengths and most importantly, our stories.

Eulanda and I first heard about London BBS events through a mutual friend back in 2014. Our first event was the autumn 2014 BBS #6 edition which took place at the new St. Pancras Library, near Kings Cross, London. Originally based around Brixton, and organised by the sociable Tricia Wombell, BBS takes place twice a year and brings together a curious mix of ‘black inspired’ authors, publishers, craftspeople, speakers, book sellers and lovers of the written word. Although BBS #7, which took place this past weekend, was only our second event, we never fail to be inspired and amazed by the talent and quality of work on display. BBS is the sort of place where both accomplished writers (such as Alex Wheattle, Llyod Bradley and Noo Saro-Wiwa to name a few) and relative new comers share a platform and are able to bring their work to life through book readings and interviews which explore their literary journeys; almost always interwoven with their life stories.

HDYTI Tip: The crux of the event is about swapping books. If you have any books that fit the ‘black literature’ description, you can bring them to the event and exchange them for free. Otherwise, all swap books cost only £3.

 

‘Fly Girl’ and forget Dora the Explorer

BBS #7 featured some interesting speakers. There was the lovely Amanda Epe, who discussed her debut book, A Fly Girlwhich presents juicy stories and anecdotes about life as a black British Airways flight attendant. This is one travel book which HDYTI can’t wait to read this summer. We also interacted with two children’s book authors. First we spoke to the cerebral Chimaechi Allan who successfully funded her first book, ‘The Wedding Week‘ (now available on Amazon and iTunes) through KickStarter. This beautifully illustrated book takes children on a 7 day journey across the world to 7 weddings. Next, we chatted to the energetic Oyehmi and Abi Begho who recently launched their children’s adventure book series, ‘The Adventures of Obi and Titi‘. This exciting husband and wife team is exploring an interesting niche area by bringing African adventure stories to children in an interactive, fun and educational format. With titles like ‘The Hidden Temple of Ogiso’ (Ogiso refers to the ancient Benin Kingdom’s mythological ‘Kings of the Sky’) and backed with some eye popping animation, we can’t wait to see where next Oyehmi and his wife take their characters. Parents, forget Dora the Explorer! Obi and Titi have arrived and you kids won’t want to miss this. We unfortunately missed the session by Michelle Yaa Asantewa (author of ‘Elijah’) but we were just in time to listen to the soulful Frances Mensah Williams introduce her latest work, ‘From Pasta to Pig foot‘ which attempts to present a different picture of Africa (one removed from the images of hunger, poverty and disease) by profiling the search for identity by a young, professional lady of Ghanaian origin living in the diaspora.

 

BBS7-Alex Wheattle

 The search for identity

It is this search for identity which formed the theme of the last session for the day which was a BBS interview with Alex Wheattle, MBE and author of his latest work, ‘Liccle Bit‘. BBS events have an interesting segment called ‘Desert Island Books’. The question is put to the author to select 5 books which have influenced their lives the most and shaped them as writers; the assumption being that if they were marooned on a desert island, these would be the books they would most want to have with them.

We’ve never read any of Alex’s previous novels. However, after listening to this man speak and share his story through his Desert Island selection, we will surely be checking them out. Alex (also known as ‘The Brixton Bard) was born to Jamaican parents in the early 60s but was (in his own words) abandoned and raised through the British care system. In the wake of recent investigations into decades of scandals and systemic abuse in the care system, Alex has boldly spoken out about the abuses he himself suffered as a young boy being raised in care homes. Now an accomplished British novelist, social worker and awarded an MBE by the Queen in 2008, it was Alex’s story about his search for an identity which resonated with us the most.

Each book he chose had a life story attached to it. He chose ‘Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson as his first book. Growing up in a care home, he found himself constantly in trouble. On one of his many visits to detention, he picked up this classic adventure book and according to him, reading this book transported the young Alex out of his situation to another place and time. His young mind imagined the obviously white characters as strong, swashbuckling black men. At a time in his life when he desperately needed and lacked positive black role models, he created them himself. The next book he chose was ‘An Inspector Calls, a play written by J. B. Priestley which to him highlighted societal injustices and the plight of the downtrodden, a position he unfortunately found himself in at a young age. This book made him feel that someone understood what he was going through. Other books he chose were, Catch a Fire – The Life of Bob Marley which taught him more about his Jamaican heritage and the famous Alice Walker book ‘The Color Purple‘ which resonated with a life event when he found out that he actually had relatives living in the same country; they were listed on the last page of his care home file which he hadn’t seen until then. He had an identity and no one had ever thought to mention it to him.

 

BBS7-closing

HDYTI at BBS7

BBS7 Books

 

Old Rastaman*

After the infamous Brixton Riots in the early 1980s, Alex found himself on the wrong side of the law as a young adult. He was sent to prison to serve time for his involvement. He found himself sharing a cell with an old, toothless, one-eyed Rastafarian with ‘dreadlocks reaching his ankles’. On his first night in prison, he found out that old Rastaman had diarrhoea and had filled up a bucket (what passed for a prison toilet in those days) with layers of faeces. To add to the overwhelming stink, old Rastaman woke up every day between 3 and 4 am, switched on his torch to read his bible and chant ‘By da rivers of Babylon’ in his old creaky voice. After 7 days of torture, the never ending stink and the early morning chanting infuriated young Alex. He decided he’d had enough! He was going to take action and put a stop to old Rastaman’s early morning singing once and for all. He dragged old Rastaman down from the top bunk where old dude was minding his own business and attempted to ‘rough him up’. Unknown to Alex, old Rastaman ‘knew some type of Karate’ and proceeded to beat ‘da bizniz’ out of Alex. The prison guard, attracted by the shouting and screaming took a look at what was going on and said nonchalantly, “Don’t mess with da ol Rasta” and walked away laughing.

After the dust had settled, old Rastaman proceeded to engage the bruised Alex in conversation and asked him, “Why are you so angry?” In his vulnerable state, Alex’s anger settled and he narrated to old Rastaman about his past, how he was raised and how lost he felt. Guess what old Rastaman did the next day? He took Alex to the prison library and introduced him to the book that has perhaps influenced him the most as a person and a writer, The Black Jacobins’ by C.L.R. James. This book taught Alex about his proud Caribbean ancestry and tells the story of how the black slaves in Haiti rose up in revolt and defended themselves against their French abusers and established a viable econony. Alex found his identity…one book at a time (he later met his birth parents as well). I want to read this C.L.R James book. I want to read all of Alex Wheattle’s books. I also look forward to reading his auto-biography when he eventually writes this. It is sure to be a cracker!

* These are anecdotes from Alex’s BBS interview and in no way attempt to reproduce actual events. We’ll leave that to Mr. Wheattle’s future auto-biography.

HDYTI Tip: The next London BBS event is likely to take place later in 2015. HDYTI will be sure to make some noise about this. If you’re in London and looking for something new and exciting to do on a Saturday afternoon, be sure to put this bespoke experience in your diary.

You can follow Alex Wheatle on Twiiter at @BrixtonBard and follow BBS at @Blackbookswap

 

HDYTI Toe Rating: 5/5