Wednesday 19 June 2013

Echoes: a Post for Refugee Week

Too often, lately, when I listen to the news, I hear echoes from 1981.

I was living in Coventry back then, and the year didn’t start well.  A lot of violence was being stirred up against the then relatively new Asian community - many of whom were refugees from East Africa.  That spring, a Hindu temple was firebombed.  A school girl was attacked with a machete.  And two people – a student and a young doctor – were murdered in broad daylight.

The murder of the student provoked a huge protest movement.  On the May Bank Holiday, hundreds of people marched through Coventry, along the route the young man had fled for his life. When they reached Broadgate, in the city centre, they had to walk between massed ranks of skinheads giving Nazi salutes. As the front of the march entered a square near the cathedral, the tail became embroiled in a pitched battle with the skinheads. Mounted police were used to charge the crowd and break them up.

A few weeks later, riots erupted in a string of British cities.  These were not race riots.  Then, as now, a Recession Generation was being left behind.  They had no jobs, no expectations, and their way of life was being demonised in the media and by the police.  They turned their anger on the authority figures they saw as reinforcing those messages.

God knows what might have happened if that violent overspill of emotion had reached Coventry while feelings were still running so high.  But for some reason, it never did.  Coventry remained one of the few English cities untouched by the riots. 

Some of the credit for that must go to The Specials, the Coventry band whose single, Ghost Town, became the anthem of that summer.  Already known for their message of racial harmony, The Specials organised a free music festival that palpably diffused tensions.  But much of the credit goes to the ordinary decent people of Coventry, who looked into the abyss and chose to take a step back.

I have a copy of the Coventry Evening Telegraph from the day after the battle between the skinheads and the protest marchers. It shows a group of men in suits, standing on some steps overlooking the procession.  The Telegraph identifies them as senior members of various Far Right groups. As so often, in so many places, the fears and frustrations of a disadvantaged generation were being fed and manipulated by those who had their own twisted reasons to provide them with a scapegoat. 

Some time that summer, people stopped listening to them, and they lost their power.

Scapegoats come in all shapes and sizes. But what we should fear is not race, or religion or immigration or asylum seekers.  What we should fear, what we should always fear, is fanaticism, whatever ideology it chooses to cloak itself in.

And the best antidote to fanaticism is the hand of friendship, holding out the sincere desire to understand.

In the course of this year’s Refugee Week, I attended the launch of a book by Jade Amoli-Jackson, a refugee from different generation of East African turmoil.  You can read about her book, Moving a Country, and about Jade’s extraordinary story, on the Words with Jam blog.

My novel, Ghost Town, set against the background of these events in Coventry, will be published later this year.

Sunday 2 June 2013

Turning the Tables

I just wrote a rejection letter to a publisher.

I have to admit it was kind of satisfying. Through a long chain of events that was probably nobody’s fault, I had been kept dangling for two years.  Passed from pillar to post, promised that this time it would be different, told that I was going to hear soon.  This time.  Definitely.

Earlier this year, I gave them a deadline.  (You can take that as the first real stirrings of the Indie Author within me.) 

“Given how protracted this process has already been,” I wrote, “would it be reasonable to request that you get back to me not later than 1st June?”

1st June, as it happens, was the day that my novella, Gift of the Raven, was published as part of Triskele Books summer launch.  We had a party in Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Road. (What better venue could there be for a book launch?)  

Standing there, looking at the display of Triskele books, hearing people’s comments, I knew – if there had been any doubt in my mind before – this was the way I wanted to publish my novel too.

So today I wrote a rejection letter.

“Dear X ... I asked if I might receive a response from you, one way or another, no later than 1st June. As this date has now passed, I would like to thank you for your interest in my work, but withdraw it with immediate effect, in order to pursue other options.”

I won’t tell you who the publisher was, because I don’t bear them any rancour.  I have some idea of the kind of pressures that editors and agents are under from the big global mega-corps that either own their businesses already or are trying to gobble them up.  Publishing is no longer first and foremost about finding and nurturing talent, about allowing readers time to discover new voices, about supporting authors’ careers.  I’m not saying those things don’t still happen – they do, of course they do.  But they happen in smaller and smaller pockets because too many in those big global mega corps think of books as commodities and authors as production lines.  They don’t open up new production lines unless they’re sure that they’re going be profitable, and they shut down those that turn out not to be. It’s just business.

Maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot.  Maybe I’m cutting myself off from a level of marketing and distribution I can’t hope to emulate as an indie author.  Maybe.  But I will choose when I publish my book.  I will decide what it’s called and what is on the cover.  I will determine how long it remains on sale to readers.  I won’t have the help and advice of a traditional literary editor, but neither will my ideas be overruled by some anonymous marketing professional from a supermarket chain.

I feel liberated.