This new anthology by Speaking Volumes reflects where we are now, mid-pandemic and post-lockdown, and its poems, stories and essays appear to be galvanised by the past 18 months. Not just Coronavirus and the inequalities that it has revealed in Britain’s society, and further afield, but also the racism, homophobia and classism that permeate the 21st century. So many times the authors in this volume have been rejected with the words ‘you’re not quite right for us’. This collection examines what these words mean, and how to resist them.
It’s long been thought that Britain was a post-racial nation; that it was beyond the racism seen in other countries such as America. But in recent years Britain is finally waking up to reality, and some, at least, are demonstrating that Britain’s desire to see itself as colour blind is inherently racist. Johny Pitts wanted to believe in this fiction, but realised that systemic racism was to blame when he found no publisher wanted his book Afropean because another book had been written on the subject – 30 years before!
When Pitts went for a job as a Blue Peter presenter he was rejected, because, despite his experience, the show already had a black presenter. The two men may have shared the same colour skin, but Pitts differed in many other ways. Often white people see black lives as homogenous despite the differences in class, heritage, geography, gender and sexuality. Pitts applauds the ‘woke’ Twitter army which call out the problems in society, and while he doesn’t always agree with the ‘cancel culture’, he appreciates that social media has carved out a space where discussions can be had.
And this is also what Not Quite Right For Us is doing – creating a space for discussion – and not just for writers from ethnic minorities but from other writers – queer and/or working class – who have also found it hard to be offered a place at the literary table. We hear from writer Colin Grant who, while working at the BBC, was accused of being aggressive to his while female boss. The queer writer Paul Burston propositions that plain old literary snobbery is also to blame, and that people from minorities are expected to write in a particular style or in a specific genre if they are to recognised. Comedy and detective fiction won’t cut the mustard, he suggests.
Surrounding Burston’s essays are many different stories told in many different ways. There are coming-of-age narratives from two Muslim women trying to fit into youth subcultures that are almost uniformly white. afshan d’souza-lodhi is a rocker into bands like Blink-182 and Linkin Park, while Nazneen Khan-Østrem goes further back in time remembering her involvement with the Punk/Goth scenes of the 1970s. Both women struggle to find other people that look like them, either on the stage or in the mosh pits.
Leone Ross’s story ‘The Knot’, its toes dipped in magic realism, has to be one of the most haunting contributions. A woman jealous of her son’s fiancé is cruel and unforgiving, and yet she is trying to teach the younger woman a lesson. It’s never quite clear what is going on, and unresolved the story continues to intrigue. Another story existing in a parallel world is ‘Impulse’ by Aminatta Forna where the narrator of the story is a magnet for animals that turn up on her doorstep in a canny update of the Noah myth.
There’s poetry too and although some of it leans to the abstract, the best pieces are the most direct like John Hegley’s ‘The Wrong Clothing’ about borrowing his brother’s suit to go to his first disco, or E. Ethelbert Miller’s ‘A Cruel Nakedness’ about how we ignore each other ‘afraid of blood and bond.’ Other contributions are harder to define; Jamie Thrasivoulou’s searing ‘AND Keep that Lighter Burning…’ is somewhere between monologue and poetry while Fergal Harte’s series of emails and attachments warns the reader that he ‘ain’t a poet, so don’t expect this shit to rhyme.’
The sheer variety of the work by the 40 writers, both new and established, contained in Not Quite Right For Us is the book’s strength and although each entry is only a couple of pages long, each serves as springboard to discover the different voices that have often been muted through history. But in this volume, the voices, coming together, are loud and powerful.
Not Quite Right For Us: Forty Writers Speak Volumes is published by flipped eye publishing at £11.99