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Desiree Reynolds Writing From The Richest Of Places

Desiree Reynolds has curated the Black Women Write Now strand of this year’s Off The Shelf Festival of Words, which captures the essence of Toni Morrison’s proclamation that being a black woman writer is not a shallow place, but a rich place to write from.

Desiree Reynolds

Desiree Reynolds is a black writer and activist who is also a friend and mentor to me.

In recent months, Reynolds has curated the black Women Write Now strand of Off The Shelf Festival of Words, written a short story for the Book of Sheffield, penned her next book and visited Kenya with the Racial Justice Network. These were of interest to me, so ours was less of an interview and more of a chat between friends.

You have been very active with Off The Shelf Festival. Did you curate the festival this year?

I have guest curated the Black Women Write Now strand for Off The Shelf Festival. I approached them in February, asking to do something about local black women writers. It was a labour of love for sure, but at the same time, it was about time for it to happen.

Off The Shelf Festival has been great. I didn’t really know about curation and the things that get in the way, such as not having enough money, and of course, Covid has had a massive impact. We had to move the festival and a lot of it is online and pre-recorded, with a few live events.

What should people look forward to at Off The Shelf?

The Black Women Write Now strand! We are closing the festival [on 31 October] with Kit de Waal in conversation with Désirée Reynolds, which I am excited about. I will be talking about black motherhood with the author of I Am Not Your Baby Mother, Candice Brathwaite in a live event. We also have some prose and poetry by award-winning Irenosen Okojie, Selina Nwulu and Keisha Thompson.

There is so much more and this strand was a joy to do. I learned that my eye is too big for my belly. The budget and Covid scuppered some of our plans and I hope that people will come.

Desiree reynolds 2

What was your vision when you set out to curate Black Women Write Now?

My vision always surpasses my budget! What I really wanted to do is to take a moment to say, ‘Wow, look at where we are as black women writers.’ It doesn’t mean to say that everything is ok just because we are being published. The industry is still not representative of us in terms of publishing companies, agents, getting reviews. That’s still an issue. But still, we are reaching a point where so many black women are being published.

If I was younger and still in school, I would have been in heaven, wanting to study all these texts, but instead we got all these white men to read or some other texts like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Alice Walker. We never studied anybody black British at school.

This has given so much visibility to brilliant black women writers in a city that is notorious for a white saviorism reputation. During this process, have you been made to feel like you had to be ‘grateful’ for the opportunity to curate?

In terms of feeling ‘grateful’, not really. I think Covid has laid bare what we always knew as black, brown and marginalised people. None of this is a big shock and surprise; that somehow whiteness has to come to terms with what it hasn’t been doing, and liberalism has to come to terms with the effect of liberalism, and how we have let people and communities down, and how charities have let people down. And academia - academia has let communities down. So it’s a massive reckoning, but I don’t quite know where it's going yet.

Sheffield suffers from not acknowledging its local talent. The cultural industries are guilty of that in the same way that other parts of the country are happy to take a theatre production from London, for example. I am not sure which cultural industry is exempt from ignoring local talent, including festivals. It's something that happens and shouldn’t now, especially that we are living in a more expansive time.

There's that need for a ‘big name’ because you are drawing in people, so there's that tension between the big name and supporting local talent and people that aren’t as well-known but have been doing it for a long time.

There have been so many fluctuations in allies being there for a moment. We are all traumatised this year. Is this for the moment?

Black and brown communities have been traumatised. We have been suffering for years and years anyway. What I feel is extra is that there’s somehow a burden on us to deliver hope and help. It cannot be down to us anymore, which is why we saw the massive amounts of marches weren’t just with black people, it wasn’t just brown people - it was people from all walks of life marching. But if that’s the extent of your activism, then all we can do is see.

I’ve been privileged to be mentored and taught by you, and I consider you to be a big name who invests in upcoming black women writers. We have a responsibility as black creatives to pass on and cannot afford to wait for others to do it for us. How have you managed to do that?

I think what I have done is not think about it. There’s not a strategy, but what I have done, for example, when I first met you, we were doing the Writing As Resistance course. It didn’t feel like I was doing something on purpose. It felt to me like it’s a natural thing to do.

If I am in a position to help somebody, then I am going to try, and if I can’t then I can’t. If that helping means that I am saying to you that you can do this, it’s because I believe it.

We need a variety of voices. One person isn’t enough. Just as Chimamanda [Ngozi Adichie] says, a single voice is not enough. We need more perspectives because they are all important and necessary.

If we don’t think about that as an artist then what are we doing? I feel like my duty is to bring forward and stand alongside those who aren’t in the room and aren’t being seen.

You won an award to write your next book, since Seduce. What was the award and how is the new book going?

I was awarded the Arts Council’s Developing Your Own Practice award. I didn’t think I stood a chance. It was to write my next book, which I am pleased to say I have done and I am now looking for a publisher.

But there is never a finish though, because I don’t trust my own judgement and regularly go back to edit my work. Always edit your work and get an editor. Therein lies the craft. Look at your own work. You’ll always improve it and aren’t going to make it worse.

It's the same thing as looking at your body in the mirror. If you don’t look, you don’t know what you are putting on. I say it’s ‘kind of’ finished because I am sure that I have more work to do on it. I have sent it to a few agents but not sure what I’ll get back.

The Book of sheffield COVER

The Book of Sheffield, featuring 'Born on Sunday, Silent' by Desiree Reynolds.

What’s your most recent work in short stories?

I have been commissioned to write in an anthology called Test Signal. I am writing together with other established and emerging writers.

You recently wrote ‘Born on Sunday, Silent.’ What was that about?

I was approached to write a short story for the Book of Sheffield but, because I do not have childhood memories here, I thought to write about what it’s like to first land here, and also to think about Sheffield’s pre-war black and brown communities, as we know that they existed as many scholars have written.

Because Sheffield traded in steel, I was thinking about this period of great economic growth and wealth and how slavery and the African holocaust must have had an impact. I went looking in the archives and didn't find anything, and that’s why the ‘silent’. The absence is as important as the presence. We need to ask how this has not been investigated before. I went to the cemetery and went there looking. That's how I found Kai Akosua Mansah and wrote ‘Born on Sunday, Silent’.

Your journey with the Racial Justice Network, its growth and impact as well as your visit to Kenya have been on my radar. What has that been like for you?

It was good to find a home for my ‘artivism’ because living in the UK, I am not affected by some of the issues such as citizen privilege. But I am also marginalised in other ways, and also being a parent of children with learning differences and what that means for black people with disabilities. Racial Justice Network is the place where I can go and put perspective on things that matter, such as how we live and the global south and those kinds of things with race at the heart.

Going to Kenya was mind-blowing. I found it interesting having the experience of growing up in Clapham which was predominantly black. Kenya felt like home, but the amount of rich white people there surprised me. I hadn’t realised that there were generations of white tea planters and that they can still call them plantations.

That’s why I needed to go with RJN, because having the decolonial conversation here is different to having that conversation there. I am really pleased that we managed to talk to some people. The steepest learning curve was the white areas that were so wealthy and the black areas and the colonial legacy there was stark.

What are your thoughts around Black History Month in Sheffield in 2020?

It's been wrong for a long time and while I appreciate BHM, I still think there's a problem with there not being an agreement on what is being taught, and that it depends on a committed teacher to determine what they will teach that they haven’t taught all year round.

We are called in at the last minute, and sometimes for little or no money, or being told that a platform has been created for us. Equity, equality and justice takes money, but we get emails where no budget is mentioned.

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