After the first Breaking Ground excursion to the USA in November 2015 we asked the Black British writers who were part of the tour to write a short piece about their experience of being part of it. Here are Bernardine Evaristo’s thoughts:
I’ve been touring internationally as a writer for twenty years now, but rarely do I get a chance to tour with a large contingent of British writers, as was the case with the Speaking Volumes USA Tour in November. I’m used to travelling on my own, and usually presenting my work on my own. Not that touring abroad is a lonely experience. Solitary sometimes, yes, but I usually have the most amazing hosts and meet many wonderful people who take me out and show me around their city or town or country. I feel privileged to have insider perspectives on countries I’m perhaps only visiting for a few days. Reading my work to foreign audiences in foreign countries is, however, very different to doing events in the UK where there is a shared first language and cultural familiarities. Abroad, I am prepared to expect the unexpected and know that audiences are often hearing my words from a different context and cultural understanding – often giving new meaning to it.
There were nine of us attending the ASWAD Conference in South Carolina and I knew most of the writers on tour with me from the UK literature circuit. Sitting on stage and awaiting my turn, I was acutely aware that we were introducing unknown literature and voices to most of the audience. With one or two exceptions, Britain’s black writers are not known in America. I listened carefully as each writer took the podium and read from their work. Each one, in their own unique way, is both a powerful writer and a powerful reader, and I felt proud to be part of this touring community. We were a kind of literary delegation, if you like, already having toured to other American states on this visit, singly or in pairs, representing a British culture and history that is too often marginalised and overlooked, even in our own country.
Our roots were in many countries including Britain: Somalia, Uganda, Trinidad, Jamaica, Nigeria, Ireland, America. My family roots are in Nigeria, Ireland, Germany and Brazil. Some of our writing is informed by our family geographies but it is also shaped by our British and multiple other identities. We read about mischievous fathers and misspent youths; the loss or birth of a child; of exile and war or travelling in Europe with an outsider’s photographic eye on its immigrant communities; we spoke of police brutality through sophisticated poetic imagery, and of how the British isles have always been settled by immigrants going back to pre-history, so that we are all part of a continuum. We brought our cultures and concerns, our interests and passions, to this American audience. New words, new ideas, new literature.
Later, in the hotel bar, we, the writers and organisers, chilled with each other and the audience – the academics who attend conferences to explore and share their own ideas and to get intellectual sustenance from the ideas of others. We drank into the night in the bowl of the lobby, open corridors encircling the floors above and rising up through the atrium. It was time to decompress, to catch up and to talk about the world we inhabit and the people we know within it. Away from home, we often have more time to talk – at length and in more depth. As writers we tend to spend a lot of time inside our heads and imaginations, and we often relish the opportunity to mix with others in our profession who understand what it means to be a writer.
Touring with others can be a bonding experience and this trip was one where we did bond. I will always remember it fondly and look forward to our next event in California later this year.
Bernardine Evaristo, 22 January 2016