“I never call myself a black writer,” author Dreda Say Mitchell has said, as if you “stick black in front of the word writer...you’re defining very clearly what you write about.”
Mitchell, a crime writer, was interviewed at Spread the Word and Words of Colour’s “Writing the Future” event on 12th September.
Talking about how she was perceived, Mitchell said she did not let her ethnicity come first: “You’re talking about an industry that when they hear black or ethnic minority, they’re thinking race, oppression, colonial history, migrant. They’re not thinking about a woman who writes about murder and mayhem on the streets of London.
“I am a writer who happens to be black, I am a writer who happens to be a woman, I am a writer who happens to come from east London.”
Mitchell’s first book, Running Hot, was published by independent publisher Maia Books, and she is now published by Hodder.
“When I came to write Running Hot I thought I was writing a redemption piece,” she said. When I finished it one of the co-directors of my publishing company gave it to a crime novelist, who said it was a crime novel.
“That is the first time I had to think about how I was branding myself. I don’t like that [branding] but that is the kind of industry it is—[you have to think about] how you are going to present yourself.”
Mitchell, whose parents are originally from Grenada, grew up on a housing estate in the East End of London. She said the publishing industry was open to black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people from Oxbridge backgrounds: “If you speak the language, the publishing industry is quite happy to pull you in because you sound like them already. You might be a different colour, but essentially you kind of dress like them.”
But Mitchell said that those from less privileged backgrounds did not necessarily have the same opportunities, or were understood in the same way by the industry.
While she had no books at home growing up, Mitchell’s mother used to send her to the local library in Whitechapel to read.
“What worries me is that we are in a publishing industry that really just doesn’t understand how different communities work, how different communities access education and understanding for their young people,” she said.