"I’ve always wanted to get young black boys reading. To find their entry point into literature. To see themselves and the world beyond them,” writes Derek Owusu, editor of Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space (Trapeze).
Literature inspires. Owusu inspired many at the launch of the anthology Safe. The book includes a variety of black British male writers from different walks of life and perspectives, holding up a mirror to the world we live in. One question always asked of writers, when they eventually publish, is “what inspired you to write?” For black men, the stories are widely varied.
In one conversation at the launch of Safe, Owusu spoke of how he was actively discouraged from writing, after a public embarrassment, aged nine, at the hands of a primary school teacher. Also on the panel at the event, journalists Nels Abbey and Jesse Bernard spoke about how they found literature through the stories in the diaspora: Abbey had a surreal moment on a New York sidewalk and picked up a book he might never have considered reading; and Bernard searched for meaning in the life of Muhammad Ali at the age of 12.
Safe has opened up the doors to a conversation many have been reluctant to hear—until now. So who is involved in the anthology?
Novelists Alex Wheatle, Courttia Newland, Robyn Travis and J J Bola are joined by journalists Joseph Harker, Symeon Brown, Abbey and Bernard. Also among the ensemble are fresh-faced writers such as Jude Yawson, editor and co-author of Rise Up: The Merky Story So Far, and Kenechukwu Obienu, who won the Safe! competition to find an unpublished writer to join the anthology. Actors, poets and podcasters also make a strong appearance in the collection, from Musa Okwonga and Suli Breaks, to Yomi Sode and Derek Oppong.
But if literature opens doors, what was it that the contributors read to get them there in the first place? Soon-to-be-published author, Manchester-born Okechukwu Nzelu, recalled the time he picked up the seminal text Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
Nzelu said: “When I was about nine or so, my dad said: ‘You want to be a writer? Read this.’ He put Things Fall Apart in front of me and explained that Achebe, like us, was an Igbo. So I tried reading it several times, but— again, aged nine—couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t find a sense of what I was supposed to get from it until many years later, when I was 21. I’d just finished my English [Literature] degree but I felt like there was still so much I hadn’t read. So I opened the book and devoured it; I felt as though I’d finally come of age and was now old enough to receive this part of my heritage. And there’s so much about the book that I love: the wisdom, the wry humour... But I think what I loved most was the even-mindedness.
“Achebe could write with a mix of contemplative calm and stirring passion that I found really compelling. I wanted to be able to do that—or at least to try.”
Nzelu’s essay in the anthology, “Troubles with God”, is a clever and decisive musing about faith and blackness; there might be some connection to Things Fall Apart after all.
In his essay “The Sticks” writer and journalist Aniefiok “Neef” Ekpoudom talks about his experience growing up in Orpington, Bromley, and the persistent racism he experienced as a black teen in school and the unending anxiety he felt in his surroundings. Ekpoudom said he found solace in Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy.
He said: “It didn’t so much inspire me as much, but more so played a part in normalising my reading of literature from black men.” He adds: ‘When I was younger [Refugee Boy], along with Chinua Achebe and others, were passed into my hands from my parents. I think it was a healthy way to balance out the lack of black authors on national curriculums when I was in school.’
Author Gbontwi Anyetei, who grew up in London, has been based in Ghana since 2013. He published his début novel Mensah in 2017. It follows an east London hero, Mensah, guiding the reader through the African community in London. Anyetei was shortlisted for the crime writing award at the 2017 Edinburgh International Book Festival.
His essay in Safe, “Writingfor Africa from Britain”, is an intriguing portrayal of what it takes to write about Africa from the UK and how important it is to create new stories. Anyetei says on his inspirations to write: “Ayi Kwei Armah is my favourite continental African writer—he is a magician with words, mixed with a traditional priest and griot and history teacher, all in one.
“Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series inspired me to write: with my Nathan Mensah series [Dedalus Books, 2017], I want to capture the Ghanaian-British experience the way Mosley archived the migration of African-Americans from the Deep South to California.”
As for Owusu, he holds close to his heart the tales of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the poetry of Kayo Chingonyi. In addition to working on two poetry collections and a non-fiction book, Owusu—former co-host of Mostly Lit—is also stepping back into the podcasting space with a new project with his little brother, called Teaching My Brother to Read.
Beginnings are as important as our middles and endings, and the experience Owusu had with his primary school teacher might just have been the best possible thing to happen for the future of young black British boys—finally being able to call out “Safe” and mean it.
Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space, edited by Derek Owusu, was published by Trapeze on 7th March (£16.99, 9781409182634)