Unheardwords of Writers of Colour

investigating crime fiction - Isabel Adonis

Featured: Writing Changes My Life

School...For one thing I found the place too big and scary.

I was intelligent, bookish and black; in what was, apart from my sisters, an all white school.
When it came to an essay on Shakespeare or studying English texts I was stumped. I just couldn't do it; I would sit at my desk doing nothing, with a complete block, as if I wasn't there at all.
If I found myself in a position where I had to write something, copying the work of the person next to me was always a safe option. Other than that I would take my work home and ask my mother, who was white, to help me. I hated having to do this because it took ages: it was frustrating and defeating. English lessons were a nightmare to me.
University...I struggled and I struggled. I worked out ways of copying and adjusting passages so that the lecturers wouldn't notice.
All the while I believed I couldn't write. I couldn't write for myself because there was no self there. I was in conflict and estranged from all that English meant to me in my imagination. It just didn't speak to me and that was the whole trouble.
Life...One day I remembered something from my past and it seemed terribly important to me. It was a memory of my father walking towards the dining room table. For a few seconds this image burnt brightly.
His black body is stiff and he is wearing a suit.
He sits down at the table as if he is dining
at a posh restaurant.
He is at the centre of activity.
I observe in minute detail the way he eats,
the way he moves his knife and fork.
His actions seem strangely forced.
This image burnt so fiercely in my imagination I wanted to record it. I described it the best I could on a piece of A4 paper. Then as if that image were the key to a house of memories, other doors opened and other potent images appeared in the rooms of my mind. I felt an urgent need to capture, or release, these images too. I would write furiously and a lot of what I wrote wasn't good writing. And much of the time I felt bad.
I used to write in two notebooks in parallel, recording the nice things in one of them and the truly horrible and painful things in the other. I didn't see that there was anything strange about that at the time. Later it was pointed out to me that the best writing was in my bad notebook and slowly I began to see the power of negative thinking and the ways in which I could integrate my expression.
Writing...I was beginning to come to terms with my relationship with this English thing. I must have written thousands of pages over the years, and filled many notebooks, with all my rage and sorrow and all the conflicts of my daily life. All the while I was feeling freer and more myself.
Many of the same ideas came back again and again for resolution and there were definite patterns to the way things were working out. Most notably I feared being a black woman, especially one that wasn't very nice! I felt ashamed to be black and ashamed to be different to other white English folk.
I seemed to know all kinds of things I did not know. In writing, I found I could free myself from all the influences and conditions that were bringing disappointment to my life. In writing I could create a new life.
Eventually I felt compelled to write up my own notes into a novel. It was called Black Girl and it was an account of a journey of change. It was a rich and fertile book, but few people understood it, and it remained unpublished. In some ways I didn't understand it myself.
Tranformative...I kept writing and wrote the notes for yet another book. But the subject matter was very difficult and I put that to one side. For a while I didn't write. I get like that quite often - as if I'm a boat becalmed on a long journey, doing nothing at all. Then, out of the blue I was advised to write a short story. My partner had been watching the Williams' sisters practising tennis. One of the things they did was hitting a tennis ball with a baseball bat. He advised me to make my literary game harder by writing short stories and this compelled me to be more exacting. As a result my writing improved.
Writing what is true is difficult, as we are not encouraged to do this in our lives. If you are black there may be all kinds of things in your life that seem wrong - things that you would rather forget and not explore. It may seem easier to say nothing and just try and fit in with white culture and not question your relationship to it. I was always alienated from my blackness, not just from my father's skin and culture but also more importantly from my inner blackness of feelings. I used to think that there were no real role models - where are the black women writers? I used to say. I had read James Baldwin, Richard Wright and many other inspirational writers. What I didn't realise then is that it was a question I was asking myself - I was the woman writer I was talking about. I was looking everywhere for this unattainable woman writer; but that person was me.
Langston Hughes, the African American writer and poet, in an essay entitled The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, counsels black people not to run away from their race, towards the urge to be white. He is talking about America in the 1920's but what he says is just as true in England today. The great hurdle standing in the way of the black writer is "the desire to pour racial individuality into the mould of American standardisation, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible."
He urges black writers to be honest and serious about their own life and encourages them to be racial and to draw from their own life and community. He answers the severe criticism coming from black people themselves after hearing his poems.
I love this essay written in 1926, it is both personal, universal and true. It is courageous and committed for it attempts to get right to the heart of the dilemma of being black in a white community.
"...to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering 'I want to be white,' hidden in the aspirations of his people, to 'Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro - and beautiful?'" (Langston Hughes)
Coming to writing...honest words from the heart are powerful and the full expression of feeling is both liberating and joyful. Black people who want to create something new must embrace their racial consciousness and express themselves without fear or shame. And even their fear and shame must be expressed. To be creative is to bring something new into being. Whether you write poetry, rap song lyrics, stories or novels it's not just about the pursuit of money or ambition. It's about reclaiming a quality of authenticity, of something real.

© Isabel Adonis, September 2005 (all rights reserved)

Isabel Adonis is the daughter of the late Caribbean artist and writer, Denis Williams. Her late mother, Catherine, was a Welsh woman. She has written for New Welsh Review, and is published in Urban Welsh, a an anthology of Welsh writing, and has written a book called "AND".