The Black and Asian British Women’s Writing conference hosted by the University of Brighton and in partnership with New Writing South promised to bring together all of my interests in one weekend. Speculative fiction, unbelonging and identity politics, publishing and its various controversies… the list goes on. I was really excited. It was my first conference, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. All I knew was that it was going to help me a lot with generating new ideas for my thesis and spur on some of my personal projects, too.
Upon arrival, I knew I had made the right choice in attending. Everyone was friendly and welcoming and there was a buzz in the air as people networked and acquainted themselves with each other. I saw people familiar and unfamiliar as I moved through the space, pretending that I felt as if I belonged there, that I wasn’t incredibly uncomfortable and nervous. Once settled, the conference kicked off with an introduction from the vice chancellor Debra Humphries who thanked everyone for their attendance. It was fascinating listening; the keynote speech from Sharon Duggal really hit home with me, especially as over the weekend, I was told no fewer than three times that my imposter syndrome was alive and very much kicking. Roughly paraphrased she said, “imposter syndrome is not just something that comes from within, but from worrying that our stories won’t be considered as important, but from our stories being considered to be invisible.” And she’s so right. It’s always such a worry that my writing won’t be understood, or the point will be missed, or something else will go wrong… not that it has, but it might!
Learning that the small interventions that we make in our lives have power guided me through the rest of the evening. The readings from Katy Massey, Gemma Weekes and Judith Bryan for their stories in Glimpse, which is a collection of speculative short stories edited by Leone Ross and written by a cohort of amazing black British writers, (which is also available for pre-order!!) sparked so much in my imagination, particularly Katy Massey’s post-apocalyptic tale which I can’t wait to read in its entirety.
If you know me, you know that I absolutely love books, love to read, to write, to talk about books, you could say it’s a little obsessive, and so when I came across Afrori books on Kensington Street at the end of the first day, I just knew I had to go in. It’s got such a welcoming vibe, small and compact shelves full to the brim with books you just can’t help but pick up and immediately start reading. I had heard of the Nigerian author Eloghosa Osunde and her brilliant literary successes, and so as soon as I saw the cover of Vagabonds! it ended up in my hands. Published in March 2022 by Riverhead Books, Vagabonds! explores the patriarchy, LGBTQ+ and the insidious nature of corruption in Nigeria. I got stuck in immediately, but haven’t yet finished it, so no spoilers!
As the conference drew on, I began to make new contacts and develop deeper relationships with myself and with the people I had met there. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to go there and to have met so many wonderful people, but I came away from the conference with more questions than I had going into it. Maybe that’s the point and while, yes, my academic brain was firing away with inspiration, I was also annoyed and confused by a lot of things. I grew up in an area in the midlands where I learnt how to ‘negotiate’ my identity, make myself more palatable to the rest of the demographic, reduce and shrink myself to be accepted. I didn’t expect that at a conference for black and Asian women’s writing I’d be doing the same. Perhaps that’s a fault of my own, that I shouldn’t think of myself in terms of not belonging, but that I should be in those spaces because I have the interest and the research behind me to prove it. Yet I couldn’t help but feel out of place. I couldn’t position myself and even as I write this now, I have spent a lot of time thinking about my own positionality in academic spaces. Am I meant to be there? Of course, the immediate answer is yes. Should be yes. So then why do I not see myself reflected in these spaces? Why at a conference for black and Asian writing are there all white panels? Why do black academics find themselves coming up against far more challenges than their white peers ever had to? There are lots of reasons and answers, and we could argue ‘til the cows come home, but this is entirely my point. Positioning myself in that space in Brighton was such a difficult task that even as the 2nd and 3rd days drew on, I found myself wearing heavier and heavier masks.
I did speak about my discomfort while I was there with some people, and we shared our opinions and experiences which helped a lot, but unfortunately for me, the conference became overshadowed by my now overwhelming anxiety and sense that I should be better than what I am. However, as I write this now, two months later, I recognise that it was an experience I had to go through. I spent most of my time there mulling over these questions and I still do not have any answers, but perhaps these questions are not supposed to be answered. Perhaps they are supposed to be felt, and things are supposed to change. I would like to be one of the people responsible for that change. It will be slow, but good things don’t come easily.
Ellis Walker is a PhD English Literature candidate at the University of Sheffield. Her research excavates the digital and material spaces and places where black British authors and their books are discussed. As a member of the Black Writers’ Guild she is invested in raising awareness of racial inequalities in the publishing industry, which forms a large part of the thesis.
Ellis was one of our student recipents of the JC Niala Bursary which funded their attendance at the conference and was kindly donated by the writer and poet JC Niala.