‘I began to wonder who she was, if any of her work survives, and what it was like for a Black woman studying at a prestigious institute in London at that time.’
By Shola Von Reinhold
Published by Jacaranda Books
Congratulatons on the publication of your debut novel, LOTE. What can we expect within its pages?
Thank you! LOTE charts its narrator Mathilda’s rediscovery of the Afro-Scottish interwar modernist poet, Hermia Druitt. It is partly about the blanching of pre-Windrush Black artists and writers in Britain and Europe, and is partly about a contemporary pursuit of beauty, excess and the politics therein from a queer Black perspective. It also features hotels scams, champagne theft, puritanical art saboteurs and a modernist angel cult whose members believe the mythological lotus-eaters were a proto-luxury-communist society based in West Africa.
Can you remember when you realised you wanted to write?
No, but I remember posting a draft of a novel to Bloomsbury and some other publishers when I was eleven thinking, ‘What a shock they’re going to be in for when they discover I’m eleven!’ What a grim and mercenary approach to writing to have as a child. I suppose my generation were bombarded with rags to riches stories about books and writers and I scented a material escape alongside an immaterial one.
You also studied Fine Art in Central Saint Martins. How do the visual arts inspire your writings? How do you approach each discipline?
I don’t paint anymore but arguably a lot has crossed over – textually I’m just as interested in excess, stylisation and ornament. Either depicting these things or depicting with/through these things. My writing also often features fictional paintings, something I only noticed recently.
Your publisher, Jacaranda, are publishing LOTE as part of their Twentyin2020 initiative. Tell us more about that.
Last year it was announced that Jacaranda Books would be publishing twenty Black British writers in 2020. Jacaranda is a Black-founded, Black-owned publisher run by a small team of Black and Brown women. They have always focused on centring marginal writing. This initiative specifically focuses on Black British writing which I think is important. BAME initiatives can often be all AME and no B. There’s been a tendency in publishing when celebrating Black writing to bring in writers from outside of Britain which goes hand in hand with a denial that Black British writers even exist. In 2016, out of 165,000 new titles only 100 were by writers of colour (with 33 being self-published.) That same year only one Black man published a debut novel. 2019 figures showed that, in spite of a lot of talk, not enough had changed and all the worthwhile material improvement that was happening was coming largely from Black women like Sharmaine Lovegrove, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, and my own publisher Valerie Brandes. Jacaranda’s initiative rather than spending lots of time and money on panels and events that manifest very few actual publications is using their resources to simply just publish 20 Black British writers in a year. A number which is rare for a mainstream house let alone a small press.
Which writers do you look to for inspiration?
LOTE is the by-product of various books. Writing by the likes of Gemma Romaine and Caroline Bressey is always inspiring, particularly the meticulous research they conducted at the Slade and elsewhere which uncovered various figures who expand our knowledge regarding the presence of Black and Asian artists and students in Britain during the interwar period. I’m currently reading Romaine’s vital biography of Patrick Nelson. He’s not mentioned directly in LOTE but like the novel’s Hermia Druitt, Nelson was a Black queer person living in Britain between the wars and like Hermia he encountered the Bloomsbury Group and was an artists’ model.
I came across another sparking point for Hermia Druitt in Philip Hoare’s Serious Pleasures in which a certain anecdote is given. The books’ subject, the queer aesthete Stephen Tennant and his friend Rex Whistler were studying at the Slade in the early ’20s and one day burst into the Life Room to present a bouquet of white roses to another student. The woman was mixed race. I began to wonder who she was, if any of her work survives, and what it was like for a Black woman studying at a prestigious institute in London at that time.
Other writers I’ve recently read and found excitement in include Nisha Ramayya, Isabel Waidner. . . Oh, I’m currently two chapters into Irenosen’s Nudibranch and OMG how exciting to encounter such an example of Black experimental fiction in Britain actually being published and receiving recognition. I’m v thrilled for her next book with Dialogue. Irenosen’s debut was published by Jacaranda so it makes me quite delirious to be published within this vein. What else? There’s the Harlem Renaissance writers Richard Bruce Nugent and Jessie Redmon Fauset. There are also Leonora Carrington, Muriel Spark, Hope Mirrlees, Denton Welch, Darryl Pinckney and Andrea Lawlor.
If you have one piece of advice for new writers that you would’ve found useful to know at the start of your writing career, what would it be?
This advice would be primarily for those on the outskirts or entirely outwith things, and it is to keep in mind that the usual blueprints may simply not apply to you. We’re seeing a lot of ‘failure discourse’ in writing communities at the moment. Advice usually runs to the tune of counting each rejection as a success. This isn’t always that useful if you’re a writer from one or more statistically underrepresented backgrounds. What good is it to count each failure as part of some wonderful journey when you can never get any measure of your work because you don’t know whether it’s being rejected because x, y or z needs to improve or actually because it’s not palatable to gatekeepers because of race? Despite some changes, I’ve heard innumerable stories from writers of colour having received rejection after rejection only to learn later from someone that their work was rejected for reasons entirely racist, like a character’s choice of alcohol not being considered Black enough or the book being considered too Black and therefore alienating. A system which is not made for you isn’t going to change because you count your rejections like blessings and put each one on your fridge. Black writers might then turn towards more innovative/transgressive/dissenting zones only to learn the accompanying scenes too are blithely unaware of their own inaccessibility when it comes to class and race.
What are your next writing plans?
LOTE by Shola Von Reinhold is published by Jacaranda Books, priced £8.99