Monday 25 June 2018

A Conversation With Katy Massey

Katy Massey grew up in Leeds in the 1970s and early 1980s before attending boarding school in North Yorkshire. After university, she moved to London and eventually worked as a freelance financial journalist, writing short fiction and memoir in her spare time. In her late 30s she returned to education, a journey which culminated in a self-funded PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Newcastle in 2010. The PhD allowed her write her own family’s complicated story, while researching memoir and discovering why the lives of some groups of people are much less likely to be recorded, and lauded, than others.

So now, alongside her own writing, she organises and raises funding for writing workshops and publishing projects which aim to give marginalised or ignored people a voice. These have included Tangled Roots – a unique anthology of memoir by more than 30 members of mixed race families, which also included a live literature tour and portraiture exhibition. ‘Who are we now? is a collection of memoir responses to the Brexit referendum and a post-European future a free download is available on the website. Recently, a piece of Katy’s autobiographical work has was accepted by Unbound publishers for the Kit De Waal’s edited collection Common People. She is also working on The Cleansing, a novel imagining post-Grenfell London after a large-scale attack.

The phenomenal growth of the the UK’s mixed population is one of the most significant social trends of the 21st century. Yet precisely how this social revolution has occurred remains something of a mystery. So Tangled Roots asked five leading writers – Diana Evans, Bernardine Evaristo MBE, Sarfraz Manzoor, Hannah Lowe and Charlotte Williams -  along with 25 writers from UK mixed families to write about their lives. The result is a shockingly honest, funny and heart-breaking collection of memoirs which reveal the human stories behind the massive success of ‘mixed Britannia’.

Greenacre Writers is very pleased to welcome Jayne Saul Paterson and Katy Massey in converstion. Jayne devised the questions for Katy to answer. We wish Katy every success with this very important and needed text.

What was your primary motive for bringing the stories of mixed raced writers together into the book Tangled Roots?

I had the idea from talking to friends that mixed people (as well as those who grow up in mixed families or have parented one) had many experiences in common, but I couldn’t find a book that described these shared experiences. I then went back to university to study for a PhD in memoir and autobiography, and I found that this is because there are very few accounts of mixed lives published within these genres. So, I decided to bring as many real-life stories together as I could in a single anthology, so that current and future generations can better understand, and gain an historical perspective of, their experiences. The result is Tangled Roots. It is an unusual anthology with its historical pictures and mix of work by both renown authors and amateur writers. This is because I wanted the book to reflect the resilience and diversity of the UK’s mixed population as closely as possible.

The book was published in 2015, what sort of reactions and responses have you had to the book ?

The response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, with many readers telling me that though they found all the stories interesting, there are one or two that resonated particularly deeply for them. I am always happy to hear this!

One of the mixed race writers, struggles outside of writing to describe herself in racial terms, and this is a theme for many of us, including the need to authenticate or align ourselves with our ‘blackness’; - do you think it is important for mixed race individuals to choose their own ways of describing themselves, rather than accept typical labels given to them and to embrace their individuality and why do you think writing is an important medium for this?

I think it is important for mixed people to do what they want to, and to resist pressure to do, or say, or identify with anything which does not feel authentic to them. One important factor informing Tangled Rootsis the sheer range and diversity of mixed people and how people choose to self-define. For some this is a racial description – they are Nigerian-British, or Anglo-Indian for others it is a metaphor, like Robert Ippolito’s piece where he sees himself as a ‘bridge’ between his various racial, geographical and cultural influences. I think writing could be important because it allows exactly this sort of imaginative leap – but there are visual artists producing mixed race art too. In fact, across the arts there are many writers, performers, and makers who ponder the limits of assigned identity and the possibilities of creating new ones. I see Tangled Rootsas contributing to that stream of thought.  
In your introduction to the book, subtitled ‘Tinting the gene pool’ you talk about how the writers of the book, ‘insist on their notion of here-ness, the situated-ness of their lives’ – why do you think this is important in the current social and political climate of modern day Britain? 

Part of the point of Tangled Roots is to record how well-established mixed people and mixed relationships are within British society. Areas of the UK such as Tiger Bay in Cardiff, or parts of Liverpool and Bristol have been mixed for hundreds of years. We are not a sudden phenomenon. Though we are now the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, this has come from a long history: of resilience on the part of minority populations, and increasing tolerance in the majority population, a combination of factors which have developed over centuries, and demonstrated in political and legal human rights legislation over the past 50 years. This is a proud history that current populist and right-wing strands of political thought seek to erase or ignore. Instead, they favour peddling an anti-immigrant, anti-other narratives of ‘arrival’ and ‘take over’ which is designed to stoke fear and resentment, and is in danger of damaging the carefully woven fabric of British society.

In a previous interview you mention how you are ‘tired of all the angst and stress coming from editors and publishers in the industry as well as the characters in … books. We have a sense of humour too!’ Can you mention a few of the writers in the book who really bring out this sense of humour in writing their own stories.

All of the pieces in Tangled Rootstreat the idea of different races inter-marrying and having intimate relationships as a completely normal, everyday experience, even when the community surrounding the couple or the mixed person disapproves. This is important, as anxieties about racial mixing are still bubbling away under the surface of our society, and mixed characters in fiction are still often portrayed as confused outcasts, leading to the ‘angst’ I refer to above. A sense of humour is a personal, subject thing, but for me, I am always looking for a sideways, ironic way of looking at the world in the writing I enjoy. I would refer readers to Robert’s piece mentioned above, but also ‘American Coat’ and ‘Auntie’. with a lightness of touch which is rare in mainstream publishing. 

Apart from the writers who feature in the book, which other writers from a mixed race background, would you recommend either in the UK or from outside the UK? 

I can only comment on the UK literary scene, I’m afraid, and the renown authors in Tangled Rootswere chosen precisely because there are so few writers of mixed heritage covering this ground. In fact writers of non-mixed heritage writing about mixture would be fantastic too! It is important not to confuse a writer’s biographical information with their work – which may take on quite different subject matter. The story of mixture belongs not only to mixed people but their parents and friends and family too – who may be ‘mono-cultural’.
Outside of the writers featured in Tangled Roots, there is of course, Andrea Levy, much of whose oeuvre explores the experience of Caribbean settlement and integration in the UK. And Dorothy Koomson, another of the few regularly published female novelists of colour in the UK, writes popular novels which feature multi-racial casts of characters (The Ice Cream Girlswas adapted into a TV drama) though she is not mixed-race herself as far as I know. And I am sure your readers know the work of Zadie Smith – and if you have previously stuck to her novels, I recommend her essays, which are particularly acute. 

So, although they are featured in Tangled Roots, I would say the best place for readers to start would be the work of Hannah Lowe (particularly her poetry collections and Long Time No See, her memoir) and Diana Evans’ 26a– a masterful study of a mixed family in London in the 1970s and 1980s. Similarly, if readers are unfamiliar with the books written by Bernardine Evaristo, her novel Blonde Rootshas exactly the quirky sense of humour I refer to in the quote above and which is so rare in this field. 

Thanks to Katy for the review copy.

You can follow Katy on Twitter: @TangledRoots1

You can follow Jayne on Twitter: @doorswillopen

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