Saturday 8 July 2017

Protest: Stories of Resistance edited by Ra Page

When does a riot become a revolution? When does a demonstration of dissent tip over into a moment of unstoppable political change?

Comma Press release their new anthology celebrating the often overlooked history of British protest; bringing together authors, academics, and witnesses to create fictional stories true to history.

Brexit, Trump, Black Lives Matter – political causes are once more stirring people across the UK to stand up and fight for what they believe in. But British people have been taking to the streets, the picket lines and the battlegrounds for centuries. In this timely and evocative collection, twenty authors have assembled to re-imagine key moments of British protest, from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the anti-Iraq War demo of 2003. It may not be a history taught in classrooms, but Britain has a great tradition of protesting; indeed, often only real political progress has come from people power movements. Some have succeeded, like the pubcrawl protesters of Smethwick which helped put an end to colour bars and enforce new equal rights laws; others have fought battles that have still to be won fully, like the Night Cleaners of the early 70s, fighting for their rights to fair and safe working conditions.

'When right-wing populism is seemingly sweeping the west this whistle-stop tour demonstrates the power of people and provides a glimmer of hope and inspiration.' - Big Issue North

Protest: Stories of Resistance asks 20 leading authors to bring crucial moments of British protest to life, through specially commissioned stories written in close consultation with experts on each protest - historians, sociologists and in some cases activists - who have also provided historical afterwords to each of the stories. Together, they provide fictional and non- fictional insights into defining moments in Britain's 'other' history, its people's history.

Alexei Sayle, Courttia Newland, David Constantine, Holly Pester, Juliet Jacques, Kit de Waal, Maggie Gee, Stuart Evers, Laura Hird, Sandra Alland, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Matthew Holness, Martyn Bedford, Joanna Quinn, Jacob Ross, Joanna Walsh, Kate Clanchy, Sara Maitland, and Francesca Rhydderch.

Greenacre Writers are very pleased to welcome two of the contributors to answer some questions. Kit de Waal who has written a short story in response to the visit to Smethwick in 1965 by Malcolm X. And Avtar Singh Jouhl, who accompanied Malcolm X, wrote the Afterword. Avtar is now 77, so we're extremely honoured to include his answers in this blog that is promoting a very important and much needed collection of stories and afterwords.

Kit de Waal writes about forgotten and overlooked places where the best stories are found. Her debut novel, My Name is Leon, a heart-breaking story of love and identity, is a Times and international bestseller, and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the British Book Awards Debut. Her prize-winning flash fiction and short stories appear in various anthologies. In 2016, she founded the Kit de Waal Scholarship at Birkbeck University.

She has written about the Smethwick Race Protests, 1965. Her short story is entitled: 'Exterior Paint'.

Questions for Kit de Waal:

Did you know about Smethwick 1965 pre Protest?

Before I wrote the story I had no idea that Malcolm X visited Smethwick, which is very strange as my family lived about twenty minutes away at the time and I would have been about five years old. My father was very interested in politics and probably would have talked about it but I obviously had more important things, like dolls, on my mind at the time.

How easy or difficult was it to come up with a fictional story for the collection? What thought processes did you go through? And how much collaboration was necessary?

I spoke to Avtar Jouhl who was one of the organisers of the visit, spending a couple of hours with him and recording what he said. I was very interested in what he said about the colour bar in local pubs and that was really the start of the story for me. My father was a West Indian at the time who went out with a white woman so obviously some of that history is very familiar to me.

Did you undertake any research for the article? Was it difficult to find resources and if so why do you think this was? 

I read articles on line and as I said I spoke to Avtar Jouhl. I also visited the area to get a look at the housing and the exact geography. There are also quite a few clips about the visit on You Tube and the BBC website.

What is at the heart of the short story?

The heart of the story is equality, I suppose, and that the exterior paint that we all have on the outside doesn’t matter. There are more important layers underneath. Malcolm X gave one man the courage to stand up for that.

By writing about Smethwick 1965, you've contributed to that time. Can fiction help to make history more accessible?

Of course, yes. I read very little non-fiction but lots of fiction set in the recent past. Fiction helps us to inhabit, imagine, live another life, walk a mile or a year in someone’s shoes. We might not read The History of the Suffragettes but we might read one woman’s story set at that time.

Avtar Singh Jouhl was Kit's expert and wrote the Afterword to her story. He was general secretary of the Indian Workers' Association at the time Malcolm X visited Smethwick. Jouhl was one of the men accompanying Malcolm X on 12 February 1965. United States black activist Malcolm X visited the region just nine days before his assassination. He told the press:

I have come here because I am disturbed by reports that coloured people in Smethwick are being treated badly. I have heard they are being treated as the Jews under Hitler. I would not wait for the fascist element in Smethwick to erect gas ovens.

Questions for Avtar Singh Jouhl:

What made you choose to live in Smethwick?

I chose Smethwick in 1958 because my elder brother was living in Smethwick. He owned a house on Oxford Road, Smethwick.

Did you undertake any research for the article? Was it difficult to find resources and if so why do you think this was? 

I wrote my afterward retrieving information from Indian Workers Association Great Britain (IWAGB) record archive deposited at Birmingham City Council reference liberary and my personal records.

How did you feel reading Kit's story?

Fiction written on real story.

Do you feel it was true to your testimony?


Did the story capture the essence of the time?


Protest: Stories of Resistance is published by Comma Press. We'd like to thank them for the review copy.

Follow Comma Press on Twitter: @

Follow Kit de Waal on Twitter: @KitdeWaal

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