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Writing In My Mother Tongue/s

On writing from two cultures

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Both my parents passed away few years ago, and in reflecting on how I became a writer, I sense that an era has passed. Mum and Dad came from St Vincent in 1959 and 1960 respectively, and were part of the postwar Caribbean migration to England, the so-called ‘Windrush’ generation. I was born in the UK like my three siblings. We lived in High Wycombe, where many Vincentians settled, and the smell and taste of pig tails, salt fish and rice and peas made me feel different from my white school friend, Steven, though his home had a stench of boiled cabbage, and they had chips, sausages and baked beans for ‘tea’.

Our family was probably working class, but I had no sense that we were poor, because the front room always looked respectable for the unexpected visitor. It was what might be called kitsch, with colourful carpet and wallpaper that never matched, colourful crochet covering every available surface, and the sounds of Elvis Presley, Mighty Sparrow, Millie Small playing on the radiogram, with Jim Reeves reserved for Sunday. My parents spoke in a thick Vincentian creole, what the Barbadian poet and cultural historian Kamau Edward Brathwaite calls ‘nation language’, with people they knew, but put on a ‘speaky spokey’ Queen’s English when speaking to white people in authority like my teachers.

Being a curious child, I would pester my parents about growing up ‘back home’ before coming to England: cutting grass to feed their cows, goats and donkey before walking barefoot to school, with shoes reserved for church on Sunday. Being able to pick a mango from a tree for lunch and inventing games with whatever they found seemed idyllic, in comparison with the school dinners and racial politics of playgrounds in England.

My Dad’s stories about people trying to invoke ‘jumbie’ spirits of the deceased for suspect motives, and the rituals used to send these troublesome spirits back to the other world, were more thrilling than any horror movie. This oral tradition would eventually find its way into my writing. I once made a feeble attempt at Vincentian creole, only to be reproached by my parents for speaking ‘bad English’. For them, me and my siblings were English, Britain was our country, and we were entitled to the same opportunities as any British citizen. Indirectly, they were trying to protect us from being told ‘go back to your own country’, because they knew deep down that being a different colour in Britain meant we were treated differently.

And in my politicised rite of passage towards becoming a black person living in Britain, I would get into arguments with my parents about race and racism insisting that I was black, rather than ‘coloured’ as they saw themselves. I embraced my Vincentian heritage at home, on the streets like my peers, I went along with the popular British stereotype that all black people were Jamaican, as it provided a certain cachet especially in potentially racist violent situations. Meanwhile at school, black young people were whatever teachers thought we were, which was never accurate anyway. It was at Daneford Secondary Boys School, a comprehensive in Bethnal Green that produced the Kray twins and numerous boxers who trained at the Repton Boxing Club amongst others, where the minority consisting of black and Asian boys experienced ‘paki bashing’ at lunch time, that I found encouragement from some leftwing teachers. Inspired by an art teacher, Chris Price, I began painting murals and illustrating magazines. An English teacher, Norman Goodman, aware that I was becoming politicised and craving black literature, told me about an essay competition advertised in the West Indian World newspaper.

I entered a Marxist-influenced essay entitled, ‘Power to the Black Youth’, and as we didn’t have a telephone at the time, I received a telegram telling me that I had won a three-week trip to attend FESTAC 77, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture that was held in Nigeria in early 1977. I was fifteen years old, had never left the UK before, never had a passport, never been on a plane, never been to Africa. Even though the Nigerian government had millions of petro-dollars as a premiere African nation on the festival, it had little coverage in the western, much less British media. Seventeen thousand artists, writers, intellectuals, musicians from across the African diaspora and continent attended; from Stevie Wonder to Miriam Makeba, from Sun Ra to Osibisa, from Gilberto Gil to Hugh Masekela. When I returned home, my parents sensed that I had changed.

Inspired by Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey that we were studying at school, I wrote my first play, The School Leaver. I entered it for the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers Festival, and it was selected and produced in 1978. The play’s story is about the different lives that two young black men experience after leaving school, and reflected the social alienation from parents who didn’t understand them, as they joined the dole queue or tried to find a job in a racist labour market. The characters lived in a double consciousness, feeling British, yet having to negotiate being treated as the Other. This became a recurring theme in many of the plays I wrote from this moment on about the struggle over the legacies of post-war Caribbean migration: the aspirations and deferred dreams of parents who came from British colonies, in conflict with children born in the ‘Mother Country’ who did not feel at home in the place of their birth. I was curious about how my generation in searching for their identities were also transforming British society through the creolised fusion of Jamaican and urban vernacular cultures to create a new dynamic hybridised language, music, and style.

Based on improvisations with members of a youth club in North Paddington I scripted a play, which became Hard Time Pressure and was produced at the Royal Court Youth Theatre in 1980. I was inspired by the collaborative nature of the devising process and using oral histories as the basis of stories and characters, which became an approach in developing subsequent plays that were often created and produced within a local community and community arts context. Like many artists, a diversity emerged in my practice out of having to pay the rent, with creative writing and drama workshops in formal and informal education settings, writers’ residencies in schools, villages, prisons and HIV/AIDS communities. Through this work I met other arts practitioners from a multiplicity of backgrounds, who were fellow travellers in the journey towards making work that could make a difference. This trajectory eventually led to working in and beyond theatre with an interdisciplinary approach that included making site-specific and site-responsive work, multimedia performance pieces and installation as public art, just as live art began to emerge as an area of practice in the early 1990s.

While conducting a series of oral history interviews in the homes of Caribbean elders as part of a writer’s residency back in my home town of High Wycombe, the aesthetics of their living rooms seemed to be uncannily similar. I had a moment of déjà vu remembering that this was the very front room that I grew up with and felt so ambivalent about. I realised that the front room had been part of my formation, because the things in that room, the way it was dressed and decorated, how it was used, and what it meant, symbolised the postcolonial hybridity I was always exploring artistically in writing. This eventually led me to curate The West Indian Front Room as an installation-based exhibition, which echoes Toni Morrison’s idea of ‘rememory’: the ways artists use their creative imagination to make work that tell some kind of truth in excavating the archive of memory. And in sourcing objects for the installation I began to understand through oral histories how the material culture of the everyday lived experience of being black is richly complex. The objects in the front room are embodied in that they tell stories about the cultural translations of colonial values, such as respectability, hygiene and discipline, and postcolonial modernities, such as migrant aspirations, growing up black in Britain, and an emergent consumer culture. I have been blessed with The Front Room becoming my breakthrough project, with ongoing iterations, the most in Johannesburg. It has returned me to the visual arts, as I was a painter before I became a writer.

In clearing the house that had been my home, after my parents passed, I sensed that an era had also passed, and yet the ongoing ‘Windrush’ scandal of deportations, incarcerations and exclusions of British citizens reminds us that the past is very much in the present.

The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home (2009) was written after the critically acclaimed exhibition The West Indian Front Room at the Geffrye Museum, 2005–06.

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