Ahead of Black History Month in October, Natasha Onwuemezi speaks to Melissa Cummings-Quarry, the co-founder of Black Girls Book Club, about the club's plans for the future and thoughts on diversity in the publishing industry.
Could you tell me a bit about yourselves and why you set up Black Girls Book Club?
We are Melissa Cummings-Quarry, a civil servant, and Natalie Carter, a real estate lawyer – two best friends from London and the co-founders of Black Girls Book Club (BGBC), a collective of Black women attempting to break barriers in literature and publishing.
BGBC was created after a few two many bottles of prosecco and some oysters in our favourite restaurant where we were talking about boys, our careers and the latest life-changing book we had read. In that moment we decided that we wanted to create something together – something that not only defined our relationship but that enabled us to give other Black women the opportunity to be a part of something special – a place where we could grow a sisterhood, enjoy new experiences and bring about different opportunities. What better way to do that than over a love of booze, books and brunch!
BGBC is not just a book club it’s a manifestation of our friendship and a way of giving other Black women a safe space where they can be themselves, wholly and unapologetically. We saw that there was a real lack of opportunity for Black women in publishing and literature so we decided very early on that we would make it our mission to promote and champion Black women and provide opportunities to them as we are severely underrepresented.
How long has it been going?
October will be our second birthday and in that time we have hosted 25 events – including a book club trip and workshop in Tobago, debates at the Houses of Parliament and events with Angie Thomas, June Sarpong, Afua Hirsch, Sharmaine Lovegrove and Gabourey Sidibie to name a few.
What have been some of your most successful events?
All our events have opened doors to bigger projects – such as being able to host the only event in the UK for Gabourey Sidibe whilst she was on her book tour, or hosting an intimate dinner with Angie Thomas for our members. It's lovely to be recognised for the work we put in.
I wouldn’t be able to pick – each BGBC event is successful to us – mainly because Natalie and I have been able to create something so special in this platform, our book club is something that we can see that there is a real need for. It’s one of the reasons #INEEDBGBC was created – a way of showing people why platforms such as BGBC are needed and why the movement was so important to us. The biggest success is the amazing responses we have gotten – knowing we are helping to bring about real change is the biggest accomplishment of all.
It’s probably one of the reasons why we have and have had publishing houses and authors approach us to curate events – we think outside the box and able to engage a demographic of people who sometimes feel underrepresented.
What were the challenges in setting up?
We were very lucky – there were very few challenges when setting up BGBC. There was so much support not only in London and across the UK but even as far afield as the Caribbean and the US. It seemed like people wouldn’t allow us to fail. People have been incredibly supportive of us and this journey we have embarked on.
What opportunities do you see for the BGBC in the future?
The amazing thing about BGBC is that we can and have done a number of things. We can go from a debate at the Houses of Parliament, to a Q&A with your favourite author, to a rave in Dalston – we say that BGBC is more than a book club, it’s a lifestyle. We make it our mission to ensure that each and every one of our members "lives their best life".
We try not to restrict ourselves and the vision that we have – BGBC was only ever really meant to be me and Natalie in our favourite restaurant discussing books over a glass of Merlot and it’s become this entire network of amazing women. Seeing just how far we have come in such a short space of time and the varied opportunities we have had makes us open to doing different things.
It's Black History Month in October. What are your plans for it?
We are very excited, the Queen – Malorie Blackman – will be joining us for an event that we call ‘A Seat at the Table’ – it’s our way of saying thank you to the Black women that have come before us and paved the way by asking them to take a seat at our table as we say thank you for being so inspirational to us. We have been dreaming about this before BGBC was really a thing so it’s incredible to see it come into fruition.
We also have Munroe Bergdorf for another edition of ‘A Seat at the Table’ – she’s incredibly outspoken and unapologetic and really embodies just what BGBC is about so we are very happy to have her.
We will also be hosting our favourite event – the 'Black Girls Are Magic Brunch'. This is our main book club and it sees 100 Black women in a gorgeous restaurant discussing our chosen book, enjoying a fab brunch and of course lots of booze. It’s our most important event as it’s an opportunity for us to celebrate each other.
What are your thoughts on diversity in the industry?
Unfortunately, there is a real lack of diversity in the industry, which is incredibly disappointing and can often be disheartening.
There is an entire demographic of people who feel like they are barely catered to – from marketing, promotion, availability of books and the stories that they want to read – so with BGBC we have tried to make a space that works to change that.
We like to say that when a door opens for us we kick it down and bring everyone else through – it’s one of the reasons we set up BGBC – we wanted to create a small space for Black Women in order for them to be seen and heard. We wanted to ensure that we shine a light and champion the works of those who are often marginalised in favour of a more ‘mainstream’ choice.
This is why the work that Penguin is doing with Stormzy and their BAME projects are amazing, but so much more needs to be done to ensure that the industry because a lot more inclusive and representative.