“I wanted to go back in history and begin exploring a time when blackness was not the thing it is today.”
Jay Bernard is one of 10 writers returning to the US for part two of Breaking Ground. This year, the group is visiting the West Coast for a series of readings, workshops and university visits. Jay won the 2004 London Respect Slam and is the recipient of a Foyles Young Poet award (2005). She is from London and has been published in in numerous international journals and magazines. Her first pamphlet Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl was the Poetry Book Society’s pamphlet choice for summer that year. She was the inaugural 2012 writer-in-residence at the Arts House and National University of Singapore and 2013 City Read young writer in residence at London Metropolitan Archives. Her second book, English Breakfast, appeared in 2013, and her most recent book The Red and Yellow Nothing, has just been published by Ink, Sweat and Tears
Jay is also a programmer for BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival and, as a graphic artist, her work has appeared on the cover of Wasafiri and in Chroma, Diva and Litro. In her own words: ‘I am interested in graphic/public art, film, literature, technology, cyber-feminism, queerness and impending doom(s).’
We caught up with Jay Bernard just before her departure to the US.
Speaking Volumes: You were part of the Breaking Ground Tour in 2015. Were there any moments/events that particular stood out for you as highlights, and why?
Jay Bernard: I managed to get on the bus that was heading to Solomon Island and joined in the ceremony they held for the slaves there. Everyone walked out onto the jetty and dropped flowers, and there was a slow current, so as the sun was sinking, there was magenta, yellow and violet on the surface of the river. Beforehand, one of the women conducting the ceremony said that if you can’t remember a name from history, make one up – your imagination would almost certainly correspond with the destitution someone was experiencing as they stepped off the boat. So it was very poignant and I was holding it together, and afterwards they gave us little bottles of water that contained drying agent, which I found completely undrinkable.
SV: Your new collection The Red and Yellow Nothing has just been published by Ink Sweat and Tears, and it was joint winner of the Cafe Writers Pamphlet Commission. Can you tell us a little bit about the collection, and what led to you deciding to write about this particular subject?
JB: I came across the story a few years ago on medievalpoc.tumblr.com and decided it would be an interesting concept for a book. The original idea was to profile several black figures from European history, including Sir Morien, but as I was writing, I realised that I wanted to do something with more of a narrative drive. So I decided to write a prequel to the story of Sir Morien instead. The Red and Yellow Nothing is basically the figure of Morien in the twilit, pre-story universe before he enters the narrative that was eventually passed down. But I didn’t want it to be a strict historical project, so it’s very anachronistic, and there’s some gender bending in there, shape-shifting, Kendrick Lamar makes an appearance as does William Dunbar.
I wanted to write this pamphlet because I wanted to go backwards in history and begin exploring a time when blackness was not the thing it is today, when Moors culturally dominated the British, when race/racism had not yet been invented. There are some interesting scenes, such as when Morien rides to the beach and none of the sailors will take him because of his appearance. It’s very easy to read that as racism as we now understand it, but in the story its pitched as a kind of stupidity; the other figures, particularly Sir Agloval, who is Morien’s father, do not have an issue. So what is that? Also, Morien is described as literally black, yet his father is, presumably, a pale-skinned European. His mother is described as simply a Moorish princess. So this story has cultural / ethnic difference in it, but it’s being pitched in a way that you and I probably don’t understand and possibly contaminate. Or not, as the case may be.
SV: How much research did you do in order to write the collection, and how long did the entire project take?
JB: I wrote it over two years. It started out as portraits of different figures – some of whom are still in there, such as the black lady who is mocked by William Dunbar and Sir Maurice. Then I decided to make Morien the narrative thread, so I wrote out a prose version of the original tale, took some of the most interesting scenes and tried to thread it together that way. I was going to have different figures from history interrupt the tale at key moments, but that didn’t work out. I then wrote some really weird poems which later became the section about the five African soldiers whose bodies were found in Scotland, and finally I hit on the idea of making this a prequel. I think I was being too strict with myself in the beginning, whereas this is basically me doing the opposite of scholarship and the opposite of history. Sometimes I worry that someone is going to read it and haul me in front of an academic judge for not sticking to the details.
SV: In addition to writing, you’re also a graphic artist. Does your artistic practice influence your writing practice in any way?
JB: I’ve done quite a few projects that are part text, part graphic. Yemisi Blake and I collaborated on London-wide installation for TFL that was part poetry, part graphics. I like to draw comics. The Red and Yellow Nothing has images in it. I’ve done the covers for all my own books. So yeah, maybe the two things are entwined.
SV: What events are you doing as part of the Breaking Ground tour this year?
JB: Bernardine Evaristo and I are presenting together again at UC Davis, and everyone is reading at the Mondavi Centre and Green Apple Books in San Francisco.