• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024
Tendai Huchu sat at a table

Rating: 4 out of 5.

BPOC’s panel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival attracted a younger and more diverse crowd than other events.

Before the chair could introduce this event’s speakers, however, an event coordinator appeared with a makeshift speech “in response to recent issues” (walk-outs relating to EIBF’s climate record, initiated by Greta Thunberg). The spokesperson said the Festival “stands in solidarity with people in the Global South hit by the climate crisis.” However, they would not be delivering a formal statement “at the moment” due to it being a “complex and nuanced” issue. 

Immediately after, the host, Scottish-Caribbean poet Courtney Stoddart, began with a piece of free verse she’d written for the 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships in Glasgow. Recalling Major Taylor and the dreamlike “river journey” of black people through heritage, genetics, and history, Stoddart performed with an even rhythm in her soft Edinburgh accent; a bold prophetic voice.

After another round of applause, Stoddart introduced herself as “a mystic”, as well as the theme for today’s discussion: “our commonality is that we all have ancestry”. Her speaking voice had the same beat rhythm and assonance as her poetry. 

While the event focused on the non-white heritages of its panellists, perhaps as she was speaking to a primarily white Scottish crowd Stoddart acknowledged Scotland’s Celtic indigenous roots and ancestral practices eradicated by the British Empire. “There is dark and there is light in everything,” she said, “Everybody has a deep ancestral story that deserves to be acknowledged: a golden thread that runs through us all.”

She then introduced her fellow speakers: Lorraine Wilson, Rachelle Atalla, Nadine Aisha Jassat, and Tendai Huchu. All are members of the Scottish BPOC (Black & People of Colour) Writers Network.

The first question from Stoddart: “what was the catalyst for your current projects?”

Jassat, an Edwin Morgan Prize shortlisted poet, said her work in progress revolves around a young girl in Northern England trying to understand her identity from a grandmother with Alzheimer’s. A semi-biographical piece of fiction, she’s writing it to “honour her grandmother”.

Atalla, a former writer for BBC Radio 4, is writing on drought: inspired by visits to her grandparents in Cairo, where she realised the stark difference between Scottish attitudes to water (of abundance) and other cultures.

Wilson, a Fife-based folklorist, is writing an eco-dystopian novel set on a Pacific Island. While set amidst the current climate crisis, Wilson said it was reading about St. Kilda and the infamous evacuation of its inhabitants that inspired her. As a mother, she asked herself what it would feel like to be in that situation with her child.

Huchu, a critically acclaimed fantasy writer from Zimbabwe, says his upcoming novel asks the question of whether, as a 2nd or 3rd generation immigrant, “you move away from your grandparents’ traditions?”

Stoddart continued, “what does your connection to your ancestors look like?”

Jassat answered first, saying she was raised on oral storytelling, with stories passed down from her grandparents in Zimbabwe. To her, stories are a “way to keep them present—an antidote to grief”.

Wilson, for whom ancestry is a strong theme in her WIP, said she doesn’t have the same connection herself. Her family tree dies at her grandparents, as part of a migratory family. As a migrant, she “navigates a landscape unique to me”, often defined by what she lacks, not what she has.

Huchu, who spent the first part of his life in Zimbabwe, says he took ancestry for granted in a place where everyone looked like him, only taking interest when he moved to Scotland.

Finally, Atalla said her Egyptian father never taught her Arabic, meaning she was unable to communicate with her grandmother except through a translator. Constantly present in her mind is the disparity in meaning between whatever her grandmother said to her, in Arabic, and the English translation.

Stoddart’s next question: “do you have a ritual to connect you with your heritage?”

Wilson, who trained as a scientist, felt the act of writing fiction was a ritual itself going back to her grandparents’ storytelling. Huchu said he gets a sense of heritage by talking to his friends who are alive in the present and hearing their stories while highlighting a YouTube channel called The Closure DNA Show. 

Nadine Aisha Jassat, named for her aunt, said proudly that from birth she could feel ancestry in the everyday. In particular, she mentioned the way she cooks rotis by instinct, as women of her family have done for generations. Atalla finished by saying she loves totems, highlighting an old film projector passed down from her father’s family in Egypt.

Stoddart’s final question to the panellists was perhaps her most arresting: “is there a legacy you wish to leave behind?”   

The responses were similar. Wilson wasn’t fond of the idea, as she didn’t like the idea of imposing a “responsibility” of legacy on her daughter. Atalla said people who focus on their legacy have “missed the point”, while Huchu said it’s “not a conscious thing” but rather a case of doing small acts of kindness in the present to make the world a better place when he leaves.   

Contrary to her colleagues, Jassat mentioned an audiobook she recorded, which she saw as an immortalisation of her words for generations to come.

Pressed for time, the panel only took a few questions in the Q&A. I managed to ask whether, like US Americans visiting Scotland with an image of Braveheart and Outlander in their heads, the panellists ever feel a disconnect visiting their places of heritage. Wilson answered that due to her mixed-up heritage, she’s been unable to return to find a particular place of heritage. Meanwhile, Jassat said she visited Zimbabwe every year as a child, and thus never felt a lack of connection.

Smiling, Stoddart apologised for her “somewhat chaotic” chairing before the panel took a bow and left to a loud round of applause from the audience.

Image “Tendai Huchu, Caine Prize 2014 shortlister, at Africa Writes” by RAS News & Events is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.