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Choosing the name for this month’s Profile was always going to be just as tasking as deciding who among the many possible entries to leave out or include. In just two issues literary profiling has already become one of African Writing’s most praised contributions to contemporary arts journalism. It isn’t a new thing to make an annotated media list of the significant writers in a national literature, or in a subject area. What may be remarkable are the trans-boundary interests and sense of scale, which inform the editorial choices and themes of profiling in African Writing. There are bold, considered choices made in determining our themes and tone, and in setting an agenda which can win the enduring attention and respect of our readers. We are engaging canonical and related discourses with our choices, making our entries without fear or favour, sometimes marrying the unlikely, discovering the new even as we affirm the familiar, introducing further possibilities for dialogue and criticism.

The List


 Black British Writing and its Discontents
Our title for this profile is African Writing in Britain. We think the title does our business, engaging our theme directly. We relish the challenge of interrogating the theme through this profile. It could never have been sufficient to do a grand ‘Who is Who’ of literary Black Britain, a ‘Roll of Honour’ kind of profile. Titles matter. They suggest theme and position choices. They can include or exclude lives or the works of a lifetime. And they can mislead a reader, go horribly wrong. We wanted the title for this month’s list to reflect the size and seriousness of our profiling intention or ambition. This wasn’t going to be just a media game of name-dropping to sell our pages. Beyond its possible mundane value in status confirmation or conferment, a profile is a work tool, an easy or ready reference resource for personal information or institutional instruction.

This issue African Writing has chosen to locate itself within the complexities of Black British Writing. But how do you represent that challenging theme in profile? In images? What is Black British Writing? Is Black British Writing really exclusively black, and so racially defined. Is it simply a question of colour? If it is, why is it? Who is in it – or out of it? Are we thinking here simply of writing from, or the writers of, Black Britain, that is non-white immigrant Britain, or can we imagine a more inclusive list underscoring the involvement of significant others in that body of work? Who are these significant others – the ones who, in some cases, not even being black or African, or creative writers, have also been significant literary contributors to Black British Writing, as its literary sponsors, explainers, promoters and historians? In identifying the texts of Black British Literature, why may we not consider Letter to Patience, the 2006 British Costa Poetry Award winner by John Haynes, though it is a remarkable rendering of the life, names and thoughts of his many years in Nigeria, but then choose to include all novels by Ben Okri, some of which like his recent Starbook, or even the previous In Arcadia, foreground transitional and transcultural hybridities, pointedly de-emphasising or only peripherally engaging specifically black or African content and types – names, locations, ideas, contexts and identities? What is the use anyway of pushing such literary identities as ‘Black’, ‘Caribbean’ and ‘African’, such nationalist concepts, at a theoretical moment informed by the hybrid constructs of globalised space and time?

Our current Profile is not unaware of these unresolved difficulties with the definition of our subject. Literary Britain is long familiar with the term ‘Black British Writing/Literature’. But Literary Britain is also still much divided about how it may respond to, perhaps, an outside enquiry on what constitutes that body of work, or even on whether it now recognises and engages it as canonical literature of national importance like English Literature, or Welsh Literature in English, fully recommended and universally accepted for reference and study as such, especially in tertiary education. And there are so many named identities to choose from: Black British, Black and African, Black and Asian, Afro-Asian, Afro-Caribbean, Diasporic African, Exiled African, and more, including that old politically challenged identity, British West Indian. All these identities have at various times, to different degrees, been associated with the body of national writings known as Black British Literature. Each identity is also self-complicating. Some African writers in British permanent residency locate themselves and their work in some African national literatures instead of Black British Literature. Others are quite delighted, or at least find it expedient or profitable, to be distanced from or officially disrobed of their African past though it may still inspire their work in Britain.

So who may be included – or excluded – in this necessarily tentative profile of Black and African writing in Britain? And why? As a literary paper interested in determining the international connections and cross-boundary relations between the writings of African origin, our definition of and approach to Black British literature dispenses with the political interests of official Britain in racially engineering its cultural populations. We find cultural virtue and political correction in emphasising the links between the writings of continental and diasporic Africa in Britain, and differentiating these writings of the African peoples from the writings of other cultural origins and political bearings or leanings so-called ‘Black’ by official Britain. We are less concerned with colour. Our interest is in a correct historical representation of national literary relations and their informing cultural and political identifications. We are reaching beyond the sense of shared aspirational and postal nationhood by all the world’s minorities to engage the undying or underlying familial and signifying memory or sense of home, which determine the writings of these minority peoples and differentiating them. We are aware and take into account the fact that not all writers of recent Caribbean origin in Britain, officially designated ‘Black,’ (always with a capital ‘B’) have an African ancestry, or the desire to be linked to one, some being in the main ethnic ‘Indians’ or Europeans. And there are also the wonderfully mixed from all these ethnic ancestries.

It is the case that some British-born writers of recent Caribbean origin and their contemporaries with an immediate African parental past, evidence the same uncertainties and ambiguities regarding the triplet of linkages to Britain, Africa and the Caribbean. We also know that there are Other British Diasporic Africans who have contributed to the making of Black British Literature, being neither of a recent continental African or Caribbean origin. An example is the African-American playwright and critic, Bonnie Greer, who is also now a naturalised British citizen. We have profiled her in that representative position but not many others who we could have included, for example Black British Europeans, Arabians and Jews. This is because of the wealth of British material already available to us from Africa and the Caribbean. This emphasis on connection with either Africa and the Caribbean, or both, is what the authors, publishers, scholars and other writers in our list have in common. We give all a unifying African identity because Africa – its history, culture and future – is invested in their lives and/or work. This is how we have arrived at a definition of Black British Writing that includes but also interrogates and transcends its official racial definition as a Literature of non-white immigrant Britain.

As already noted our preferred choice of Profile title. ‘African-Caribbean’ dispenses with the racial (but not necessarily racist) undertones we insist are the informing values for the name choice, ‘Black British’, by which the writings of all the non-white immigrant peoples and their descendants in Britain are defined (and some would also say confined). It is the case indeed that though a writer like Doris Lessing was considered sufficiently African (Rhodesian/Zimbabwean) to have her novel, The Grass Is Singing (1973), published in a famous imprint for African Literature and included for many years as a school text for students of African Literature, she has not normally been listed as a ‘Black British’ writer all these years of her relocation to Britain. Why? She is white, or so identified. A similar question can also be asked of Other European Immigrant Writing in Britain. Why is it not part of that catchall label known as ‘Black British’ by which the writings of British Asians were for so long wrongly identified?

Nationality and cultural difference were not the reasons centred British literary opinion defined all Others as ‘Black’ for so long. Race was. All ‘writers of colour’ (to remind us of that quaint, incorrect phrase) were defined as one national and ethnic other in Britain. A list of Black British writers racially defined becomes a (black)list that does none of its entries any favour. It fails also to take into account the fact that so many diverse peoples are communally engaged and nationally as well as historically related in the so-called Black British Literature – Africans (both black and white), Asians, Americans, Europeans, and all the combinations between. We have chosen a title for our Profile that hopefully challenges (black)listing in literary Britain by differentiating the material of the writings, establishing literary homelands for their subjects and character, and we hope our list does the same too.

Some of the questions in Black British Literature are already the concern of useful essays found elsewhere in this issue of . We are concerned here with providing a brief explanation of how and why we have made the choices we made. As already noted we wanted a functional title, and were also determined that inclusion or exclusion in our final list would not be unduly afflicted by such injustices in choice as can rise from pressure to conclude with some neat, fixed number of entries such as 50 or 100. What we have as a result is an untidy and inconclusive number of entries, a number that says there are thousands more out there. This inconclusivity or tentativeness also notes that, like some others before them, there are those at the beginning of their careers now included in the list who, several months or years from now, may relocate to other lands where their literary lives may flourish so much that their mere presence today in Black British Writing might become a disposable footnote. This month’s Profile includes all the culturally significant names we found and chose to include. It goes beyond a mere rehash of canonical names, but is still far from taking in all-comers, knowing there are more fairly accomplished Black and African performance poets than we could possibly hope to fit in, all working their beats from stage to stage all over Britain. It does also strategically exclude others we did not feel pressed to use within the set parameters informing our enquiry. But if there are names you think we should (not) have included, please write your displeasure to the editor usefully indicating those names. We will publish all appropriate letters. For our own operational reasons, we have some images and bibliographical information but not in all cases. This is not an affirmation of any imagined hierarchy or statement of rank, as we value all the profiled equally as important cultural contributors to Africa, or the Literatures of Africa, especially in Britain.

Now how do we respond to some of the queries raised earlier? Are any non-African English or Scottish writers, who happen to use African material, or are inspired by personal African experiences, included in our list based exclusively on their writings? No. A writer who is not of African origin by birth, ancestry or emphatic personal and lawful choice cannot ordinarily be included in a list of continental and diasporic African writings. Similarly, the textual or creative referencing of Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare and others, in some important works of African Literature, or their recording of African travel experiences in Europe, may make for interesting intertextual and postcolonial studies, but they could never be tendered exclusively in evidence as supporting the inclusion of these African imaginaries within European classical, modern or contemporary literature. Non-African or ‘non-black’ contributors to the continental and diasporic African Literatures of Britain are included in our list, not merely because some of their novels or other writings use African material, in some cases evidencing literary tourism, but because of their history of informed and concerned involvement and service as critics, promoters and resource providers for the Literatures of the African experience in Britain.

This then is a list of the constituent community of African continental and diasporic writing in Britain, and not merely a parade of its writers. It is a representative list, by which we seek to usefully identify, focus and inform enquiry on the significant human players in the body of work known as Black British Literature, as it has been defined by us. And it is not only about living writers. In some cases, it is just as much about names and enduring reputations, especially as they play in the media and in tertiary education. Especially in this bicentenary year of the Slavery Abolition Act, 1807, the name of Olaudah Equiano remains prominent in Black British Literature though his Interesting Narratives was published in 1789. But this is only a representative list, not a census of every ‘Black’ or African person who ever published work in Britain, so the names of other former slave writers are not included. We wanted a representative list and have made difficult choices. While an early Caribbean notable in Britain such as Sam Selvon is in our list, the significant name of Derek Walcott, for example, is excluded though he is still listed and recognised for study by some as belonging to Black British Literature. But we believe Walcott is properly either in Caribbean or World Literature, and he has actually been more present in and engaged with writing in the US than in the UK. It would also seem incorrect to feature Sir Vidal S. Naipaul in an affirmative literary list engaged with Africa and its diaspora, focusing on Black Britain, because of the expressed personal aspirations and enduring political vision which seek to locate him exclusively in English letters, perhaps alienating his work even from his Caribbean-Asian roots.

Finally, it is our view that the judicious gendered, political or cultural privileging or foregrounding of marginal, minority or underprivileged peoples and their activities, including literary activities, is a progressive way to address questions of privilege, balance and the organised historical advantages of centred cultures, their master narratives and institutionally preferred texts and people-types. However, as with all the choices we make in African Writing, it was always our intention in this Profile to provide our readers with a literary list and not an ethnic or racial identity parade. We think we have indeed made that list of some of the culturally significant people and names, visitors, including online visitors, to the UK are likely to encounter as the writers and makers of Black British Literature, as it has been defined by us.

    The List  
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